On School Shootings and School Prayer

School Shootings and School Prayer feature image

“In matters of religion it is very easy to deceive a man, and very hard to undeceive him.” —Pierre Bayle


Details on the recent massacre in Oregon have barely begun to trickle in, but that hasn’t stopped incurious Christians from connecting mass gun violence to school prayer. This rationale (if one can call it that) of using national tragedy to bewail the aging Supreme Court decision which banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools sees regular rotation, likely because right-wing puppetmasters have yet to locate a negative societal trend they can’t pin it on. One could make no weaker a case by pointing to the recent sales swell of hybrid cars, but hyping the onslaught of low-emission technologies doesn’t play as well to the conservative masses.

True to form, every time a school shooting occurs in this country, some variation of the following lights its way across social networks like flame to paper.


School Shootings and School Prayer

That time critical thinking was taken out back.


Number of times this meme has been shared?

A: 900,000 and climbing.

Number of people who exercised the slightest bit of skepticism before sharing it?

A: 0.

And given that there have been no fewer than 76 school shootings since this meme was first uploaded (and hundreds of shootings independent of venue), it’s safe to say this one’s soaked up heavy bandwidth. After engaging with multiple people who’ve expressed this general sentiment, I decided to craft an organized response for future reference. So here I present a few items of interest which may help sharpen the reality for us.

No Correlation = No Causation

The creator of this meme either a) forgot about school shootings across the last half-century, or (more likely) b) is feigning ignorance in an attempt to dupe a naive and credulous segment of the population preconditioned to accept the conclusions he wants to draw. In fact, the U.S. has had at least one school shooting every 1-2 years since the 1940s.

More important is the observed trend following the 1962 court decision. When isolating assault crime and its change over time, we find the per capita death rate has actually seen a steady decline in the U.S. since the 1970s (though we remain ever the outlier relative to the developed world as a whole).


Assault Death Rates Since 1960

Courtesy of Kieran Healy. Click to enlarge.


The FBI’s UCS Annual Crime Reports concur, with murder rates per capita in decline since the 1960s. Their data show 19,684 persons per murder in 1960 compared with 22,378 persons per murder in 2014, or 5.1 murders per 100,000 in 1960 compared with 4.5 per 100,000 as of 2014. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has further corroborated the per capita drop in violent crime since the 1970s.

If we want to play fast-and-loose with causation, as the above meme’s creator has clearly done, we could turn the logic on its face by concluding that it was the removal of state-sanctioned prayer in schools that has led to the decline in assault death rates. Of course, as you learn in introductory statistics courses, correlation without evidence of causation does not a logical argument make; a spate of other variables has likely played a role in these figures.

It is also important to keep in mind that regional death rates often differ, sometimes demonstrably, from national death rates. For example, states with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence. Of the various studies that have been conducted, it wasn’t higher populations, more stress, more immigrants or more mental illness that correlated with gun violence; it was gun control legislation that had the largest effect on the data.

Regionally speaking, southern states have far and away the highest incidence of assault deaths, and as it turns out, those states are generally the softest on gun control. Once again, correlation does not equal causation, but the preponderance of studies to date suggest this is a strong contender.

Finally, the obvious. Uncritical meme-sharers have a difficult time explaining the many awkward counterexamples that put the lie to their reductive narratives. Take Japan, a country that is as close to America’s antonym in terms of the distribution of religion to no religion as any country out there, where only ~30% identify as belonging to a religion of any kind (fewer than 1% identify as Christian). There is no school prayer in Japan, yet they have one of the lowest crime rates of any developed nation [1][2][3]. The yarn really begins to unravel when you look at Scandinavia, where religion is almost nonexistent: Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland all have about as much crime as they have religion.

Pledge of Allegiance

There are four, and only four as of this writing, states which do not have mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance during the public school day: Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont and Wyoming. In all other states, time is set aside for the pledge to be recited by students on a voluntary basis. Students may opt to recite the passage in full, stay silent during the recitation, or stay selectively silent (as in omitting the “under God” language of the pledge).

It may also be worth noting that the phrase “under God” did not appear in Francis Bellamy’s original poem from 1892. Nor was it included in the revised pledge adopted by Congress in 1942. In fact, this phrase did not show up until 1954, when President Eisenhower pushed it through Congress as part of National Flag Day. Far from dating back to the time of the founders, the staple slogan “one nation under God”—an antisecular phrase if there ever was one—is a relatively recent adaptation of nationalist rhetoric.

Most parents can rest easy knowing that their child has every opportunity to show off their patriotism at morning assembly.

The Constitutionality of Prayer

As with the pledge of allegiance, we as a nation didn’t “get rid” of prayer. One cannot restore something that was never taken away in the first place. Petitioning to bring prayer back in schools is like petitioning to bring diesel cars back on the road. Kids, teachers and everyone else can still pray in school, just as a step-up in regulations for diesel fuel didn’t prohibit the sale of diesel-propelled vehicles. What the 1962 SCOTUS decision (Engel v. Vitale) deemed unconstitutional was coercive (i.e., teacher-led) prayer. Teacher-led prayer stands in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it privileges one religion (e.g., the teacher’s or state’s) over that of the students—who may observe any number of religions, or no religion at all. The state, which in this case applies to the staff of the school, can neither promote nor inhibit religious belief.

The only alternative would be to lead separate prayers in accordance with the 4,200+ other religions that man has imagined over the last few thousand years, or address the prayer seriatim to all 3,700+ other gods man has invented and invoked over the eons. This obviously is just shy of practical and thus the SCOTUS rendered a 6-1 decision to ban state-sponsored prayer. Students, regardless of which school they happen to attend, are still free to pray on their own and to organize faith-based groups on their own.

Public schools house many cultures and many religions, and it is our moral duty to show sensitivity toward those differences. Parents who wish for a daily emphasis of a particular religion for their child are free to enroll in private schools which affirm their particular set of beliefs. What parents should not do is presume that every other student shares the same religious commitments they have passed on to their own child. Unless these same parents are willing to consent that their child be led in observing Salāt five times a day or in directing the morning prayer to Vishnu, they should steer clear of hypocrisy and recognize that secularism is the best way forward, both at macro levels of government and in the classroom. Freedom of religion is one of the guiding principles that has made our nation great and has and continues to be a major reason why foreigners wish to come here. The “Jeffersonian Experiment” must not be abrogated.

An alternative—which is to say, secular—view held by many Christians, Jews, etc. is that the school shouldn’t be responsible for teaching our kids to pray anyway. Rather, it is the school’s responsibility to educate, the parent’s to teach morals, and the pastor’s to teach scripture. Last I checked, we are not living in medieval Europe, nor in Iran; it is not the government’s place to catechize. (Ironically enough, even Jesus himself counseled against public displays of prayer.) Morals, behavior and prayer praxis are family-constructed issues. If you teach your child that prayer is an important part of individual and spiritual growth, they may choose to do so on their own. Yes, even at school, which, again, students have always had the right to do.

For the tl;dr folks: Don’t blame the Constitution, blame the household and the lax gun control laws.

Feature image courtesy of John Tully/Concord Monitor

  • The Excelsior

    200 years later and still people can’t seem to grasp basic secular ideals. A public school is not a place of no religion, it’s a place for all religion.