In reply to “You Reap What You Sow”

A well-intentioned relative recently forwarded me an email commenting on a school shooting in the United States. The sadly misguided piece of religious propaganda reproduced in the email has been circulated on the Internet since at least the summer of 1999, at times attributed to – a probably fictitious – retired Navy chaplain, Clarence Schultz.

In a postscript, the original email author asked: “Are you thinking?” As the father of a two-year old, the email did have me thinking. Not just about the causes of the almost uniquely American concept of endemic school violence involving firearms, but about the make-up of the society in which it occurs. I soon discovered that the actual rate of school violence and school shootings has in fact remained static over the past years, while the amount of media hype surrounding the issue has sky-rocketed (see the Justice Policy Institute’s report School House Hype: School Shootings and the Real Risks Kids Face in America” But inspired by the email I spent some time sifting through the barrage of profoundly uninformed and factually erroneous Christian fundamentalist “reasoning” presented as “the only solutions” to school violence – but in reality thinly veiled attempts at promoting an agenda that has little to do with the safety of our children.

In May of 2001 I wrote this massive rebuttal…

> Food for Thought

> In light of the recent shooting in Santee, California

> let’s see…

> …I think it started when Madeline Murray O’Hare complained she > didn’t want any prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

> Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school…

> the Bible that says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal,

> and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said, OK.

> Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when

> they misbehave because their little personalities would be

> warped and we might damage their self-esteem. And we said,

> an expert should know what he’s talking about so we said OK,

> we won’t spank them anymore.

> Then someone said teachers and principals better not discipline > our children when they misbehave. And the school administrators > said no faculty member in this school better touch a student

> when they misbehave because we don’t want any bad publicity,

> and we surely don’t want to be sued. (There’s a big difference

> between disciplining and touching, beating, smacking,

> humiliating, kicking, etc. And we accepted their reasoning.

> Then someone said, let’s let our daughters have abortions

> if they want, and they won’t even have to tell their parents.

> And we said, that’s a grand idea.

> Then some wise school board member said, since boys will be

> Boys and they’re going to do it anyway, let’s give our sons

> all the condoms they want, so they can have all the fun

> they desire, and we won’t have to tell their parents they

> got them at school. And we said, that’s another great idea.


> Then some of our top elected officials said it doesn’t

> matter what we do in private as long as we do our jobs.

> And agreeing with them, we said it doesn’t matter to me

> what anyone, including the President, does in private as

> long as I have a job and the economy is good.


> And then someone said let’s print magazines with pictures of

> nude women and call it wholesome, down-to-earth appreciation

> for the beauty of the female body. And we said we have no

> problem with that.

> And someone else took that appreciation a step further

> and published pictures of nude children and then stepped

> further still by making them available on the internet.

> And we said they’re entitled to there [sic] free speech.


> And the entertainment industry said, let’s make TV shows

> And movies that promote profanity, violence, and illicit sex.

> And let’s record music that encourages rape, drugs, murder,

> suicide, and satanic themes. And we said it’s just

> entertainment, it has no adverse effect, and nobody takes

> it seriously anyway, so go right ahead.


> Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no

> conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and

> why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their

> classmates, and themselves. Probably, if we think about

> it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it

> has a great deal to do with “WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.”


I fear that unquestioning acceptance of ignorant, religious nonsense at face value by politicians, journalists, school administrators, and other parents may have dire consequences for my child. As George W. Bush and his compassionate conservatives promote school vouchers and religious charities as “solutions” to this country’s dire educational and social needs there is all the more reason to question the negative influence of Bible-based hypocrisy in society today.


So with many thanks to Bill Schultz of Internet Infidels for his thoughtful contributions ( as well as the people behind,, and the other excellent resources quoted or referenced below, here is a response to the request for thought.


1. The “Prayers not Allowed in School” Argument


> …I think it started when Madeline Murray O’Hare complained she > didn’t want any prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

> Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school…

> the Bible that says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal,

> and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said, OK.


Church-state separation stands as one of the foundations of our nation. Because of it, Americans enjoy unparalleled religious liberty and nurture one of the most vital religious communities in the world. Separation guarantees you the freedom to worship or not to worship as you choose. The rights of groups of students to gather in their own time for prayer at a public school has never been questioned, nor has the individual student’s freedom to pray at any given time during the school day.


First, The Law

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States clearly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court has been asked repeatedly to revisit this, and has consistently spoken clearly in support of this part of the First Amendment. It has raised and reaffirmed time and again an objection to the idea that the government can pick a particular religious text to read and then f
orce all students to read from that text and no other.

The beginning of the end for state-enforced school prayer was in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943 (, where Justice Jackson, with the concurrence of Chief Justice Harlan Stone and Justices Black, Douglas, Murphy, and Rutledge wrote this benchmark of First Amendment jurisprudence for the 6-3 majority. It ought to be placed on a poster next to any display of the Ten Commandments, “In God We Trust,” or similar dogma:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

In a subsequent 1947 Supreme Court decision on the separation of state and religion (Everson vs. Board of Education, see ), the majority wrote: “[The purpose of the 1st amendment] was to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion.” Public schools are just that, public, and bible study cannot be made mandatory in such tax-payer funded schools. Private parochial schools are, of course, a different matter.


In 1962, a case was brought before the Supreme Court by “the parents of ten pupils in New York schools.” (Engel v. Vitale, see, the Warren Court struck down an official government prayer for school children to recite each day, holding “that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.” In its decision on the case, the Supreme Court majority further writes:


“It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. The Book of Common Prayer, which was created under governmental direction and which was approved by Acts of Parliament in 1548 and 1549, set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax-supported Church of England. […] Powerful groups representing some of the varying religious views of the people struggled among themselves to impress their particular views upon the Government and obtain amendments of the Book more suitable to their respective notions of how religious services should be conducted in order that the official religious establishment would advance their particular religious beliefs. Other groups, lacking the necessary political power to influence the Government on the matter, decided to leave England and its established church and seek freedom in America from England’s governmentally ordained and supported religion.”


To those who might argue that the Regents’ official prayer is so brief and general that it poses no danger to religious freedom in its governmental establishment, it may be appropriate to quote James Madison, the author of the First Amendment:


“[I]t is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. […] Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”


Madalyn O’Hair had nothing to do with the Engel v. Vitale decision mentioned above, which led to the elimination of teacher-led prayers in public schools based on the first amendment. In late 1959, she entered her son in the public schools of Baltimore, Maryland, only to discover that he would be forced to participate in reverential Bible reading and unison prayers. The only “relief” that the public school system would offer to an Atheist child was that he could sit in the hallway while his peers prayed, and she chose to take the matter to court. Her case (Murray v. Curlett, see was tried in 1963, along with Abington v. Schempp (see

&invol=203). The joint decision for the two cases struck down laws and practices allowing or requiring Bible readings, prayers, and other religious exercises during the official opening ceremonies for each school day, holding that “as the state cannot forbid, neither can it perform or aid in performing the religious function.” The Christian Fundamentalists conveniently forget the first five key words from the above sentence: “as the state cannot forbid…” (For a detailed chronology of Church-State separation landmarks, see

Incidentally, the spelling of her name in the quote would suggest that the mistaken reference to “Madalyn O’hare” stems from the false accusations first made against her and the American Atheists in 1975 of trying to ban religious radio broadcasting through a petition to the FCC. and have the facts.


But perhaps all these legal details are for naught; as that pinnacle of compassion and comprehension, “Oral” Pat Robertson, pointed out: “The courts are merely a ruse, if you will, for humanist, atheistic educators to beat up on Christians.” (The 700 Club, Oct. 2, 1990). Nor has the fact that the Supreme Court has spoken time and again consistently and clearly in favor of the separation of church and state based on the First Amendment has not put an end to the attempts of the Christian Right to reverse this fundamental principle of the US constitution. See and for information on three constitutional amendments proposed in 1998 aiming to reverse the religious freedom provided by the First Amendment.


The Facts Today

In 1995, the Department of Education (a federal cabinet-level institution) issued a set of guidelines for the performance of religious functions on school property. They were updated and changed in minor ways three years later. Here are a couple of key quotes:

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment do
es not prohibit purely private religious speech by students. Students therefore have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activity.

Generally, students may pray in a non-disruptive manner when not engaged in school activities or instruction, and subject to the rules that normally pertain in the applicable setting.

Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture) as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries all are permissible public school subjects. Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies.

Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.

Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities.


(See for the full text of the guidelines.) Any school, which denies any child his or her rights under the above guidelines, has violated the civil rights of that child. We should all be upset when civil rights are violated, no matter the identity of or religious beliefs held by the victim. But is it too much to ask that the prohibitions contained in the above-mentioned guidelines receive equal attention to the permissions?


The Fundamentalists are so sure their particular sect has an exclusive handle on the truth, they want the State to enforce it on everyone else. They want their prayers said in schools. They want their religious rules posted in public buildings. They claim to have the one true religion and the only path to God. This may seem like innocuous boosterism, but it is a dangerous attitude. When someone is utterly convinced that God sanctions all their actions, no matter how much they fly in the face of common sense, they will do some pretty horrendous things, believing the end justifies the means. To this day, some devout Christians feel perfectly justified in persecuting members of “pagan” religions, because in their eyes they are blasphemous (see Christians have no compunctions about forcing children of other faiths to participate in Christian festivals at public schools, yet they are quite unwilling to let their children experience the festivals and rituals of other faiths.

But Do We Need Any Particular Guidebook?

Religion admittedly has no rational basis, meaning: no basis at all. “Faith” is merely someone’s assertion (without evidence) that something is true. As an institutionalized “guide” to life it couldn’t be more dangerous. Since prayer is first and foremost an expression of the individual’s religious belief, it makes no sense to impose it collectively on every child in every school for his or her own good. Where is the hard evidence that mandatory Christian prayer and Bible study by all students – faithful Christians, orthodox Jews, non-secular Muslims, declared agnostics alike – in all public schools would reduce the level of school violence, directly, indirectly, or otherwise?


I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that he is even infinitely above it.” – Ben Franklin. Like several other Declaration signers, Benjamin Franklin was a Deist. Deism is a philosophy that bases its belief in a God on rational observation. Deism doesn’t accept scriptural “truth” at all. In fact, to a deist, religion, scripture, and dogma merely hide the truth from us. So if it is possible to be a “good” man without the Bible, without prayer, then why is there such a focus on “the book” and “the act” in and of themselves, rather than the mindset they represent?


It is intellectually dishonest to pretend you know more than you really do, and until empirically proven otherwise, the Bible remains merely the accumulated wisdom of 1000 years of one agrarian culture. But Christians put forward idle speculation as if it were fact. If their speculations were indeed truth, those facts would be considered science. There is no evidence for any of this speculation. All that exists is a single uncorroborated book asserting a number of implausible, contradictory fairy tales without giving any evidence or reasons why we should take them literally. Being wrong is forgivable, and no matter what the law says, people are certainly entitled to their opinions and their beliefs. But claiming exclusive access to absolute truth and forcing it down the throat of others accompanied by a particular set of scriptures is delusional and rude. If the claims made by Christianity cannot be substantiated, then they remain simply opinions and beliefs.


For a detailed and extensively researched essay on the Supreme Court and its rulings on religious matters, see


For an excellent bibliography on Freedom of Religion and the First Amendment, visit the Freedom Forum (

Further details on what the current rules do and don’t allow can be found at

See also Americans United for Separation of Church and State (, and the Critical Thought and Religious Liberty (


Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.

(Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933, from a speech made during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordant of 1933.)


2. The “Spank Some Sense Into Them” Argument


> Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when

> they misbehave because their little personalities would be

> warped and we might damage their self-esteem. And we said,

> an expert should know what he’s talking about so we said OK,

> we won’t spank them anymore.

> Then someone said teachers and principals better not discipline

> our children when they misbehave. And the school administrators

> said no faculty member in this school better touch a student

> when they misbehave because we don’t want any bad publicity,

> and we surely don’t want to be sued. (There’s a big difference

> between disciplining and touching, beating, smacking,

> humiliating, kicking, etc. And we accepted their reasoning.


Another classic example of this pro-co
rporal punishment argument can be found on Captain Dave’s Survival Center (, where “Captain Dave” writes: “by the time kids reach middle shcool, they have learned that they can get away with almost anything and not be punished. This lack of discipline is casued also by soft parents who do not want their children spanked or physicaly disciplined. Yet does it come as any surprise that catholic schools with ruler-wielding nuns have not been stuck by this plague of gunfire? It is our public highschools that allow these problems to grow uncontrolled, not the private or parochial schools.” (all typos courtesy of Captain Dave, who obviously got away without learning much in the way of spelling). But here’s the catch: no proof is offered that it is in fact the ruler-wielding nuns or their handiwork that make the parochial schools safer (incidentally, there have been shootings in parochial schools, too – see

. The vast majority of school shootings have occurred in states that allow corporal punishment in schools, but I would not dare to make the tempting argument that the corporal punishment was the cause of those shootings unless I could back it up with facts.


It is quite striking (pun intended) that the same religious zealots who point to the mandatory use of the Bible in schools to teach children how to resolve their conflicts without resorting to senseless violence, point to the same Bible to justify the use of senseless violence against the very same children as a means of discipline. In that cherished guidebook of theirs they find these words of supposed wisdom:


Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shall beat him with the rod and shall deliver his soul from hell.” (Prov 23:13), “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.” (Prov 13:24), and “Chasten thy son while there is hope and let not thy soul spare for his crying.” (Prov 19:18). But note that from Ecclesiasticus (“Whoever loves his son will beat him frequently, so that in after years his son will be his comfort“) and Proverbs: (“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother”) we learn that this is not at all about the well-being or objective morality of the child, but rather about submission to the will and needs of the all-powerful parent – a bit like the average Christian’s relationship with God.


Finally, in Deut. 21:18 we learn that the truly Biblical way to deal with the really awkward kid is to stone him to death. And according to the very same Bible, King Solomon’s harsh methods of discipline led his own son, Rehoboam, to become a tyrannical and oppressive dictator who only narrowly escaped being stoned to death for his cruelty. So the very Bible that is claimed to cure all ills in fact recommends cures that cause those same ills, and it even takes the trouble to point out this problem itself.

Based on this Biblical lore, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family ( wrote in his 1970 best-seller, “Dare to Discipline” ( “When spanking doesn’t work, the spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn’t hurt it isn’t worth avoiding next time.” Dobson recommends, “a firm thump on the head or a rap on the fingers.” In a Q&A section of Dr. Dobson’s book, a parent asks if spanking will teach her child to hit other people or make him a violent person. In his response, Dobson compares spanking to the pain a child suffers in accidents such as touching something hot or being bitten by a dog. These acts teach a child to “avoid those mistakes again,” and, according to Dobson, “doesn’t make him a violent person.

Opinion polls continue to show that an, albeit shrinking, majority of Americans are in favor of, and expect to use, spanking to discipline their children (see and And yet, though a majority of Americans evidently trust the words of the Dr. Dobsons of the world over those of the Spocks, and elect to spank their children into submission, we continue to see a rising incidence of youth violence in the United States. Which might give a sensible person reason to pause and speculate that the majority of American parents, the Dr. Dobsons, and the Bible they base their child rearing tactics on, are either not hitting hard enough or are plain and simply wrong…


But First, the Law

The law says that you cannot beat your children. In the United States, however, it still does not say you cannot spank your children. Unfortunately, far too many parents do not seem to know the difference between a “spanking” and a “beating.” A study by the Canadian Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse is quoted as finding “85% of all cases of physical abuse result from some form of over-discipline through the use of corporal punishment” (see And if parents are misled to believe that “a little spanking” is good, then what is to stop them from assuming that “a lot of spanking” will do a lot of good. After all, isn’t that the case with Bible study, prayer, homework, etc.?

In other parts of the world, things are a little different. A Danish opinion poll (1996) showed that 58 percent of parents are against spanking, up from 26 pct in 1980. The European Human Rights Declaration states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment;” a clause that has been used repeatedly to convict parents of overstepping the boundaries of discipline. An increasing number of countries are moving towards a complete ban on punishment of children (see In most cases, this is achieved by simply extending to children the rights already offered adults – finally considering them “real people.” “There’s no other place in society where someone can … smack another person. So why should we be able to do this to children?” asked Psychologist Irwin Hyman in an interview with CNN. (see also Hyman’s book “the Case Against Spanking, Thus, in 1996, Italy became the ninth European country to completely ban all corporal punishment of children. The Court relied on the Italian Constitution, statutory law, and on international law to enunciate as a juridical principle that parents are absolutely forbidden from using any violence or physical punishment to educate their children (see

Why? Because It Simply Doesn’t Work

It turns out that Dr. Spock knew what he was talking about when he admonished parents not to spank their children. Even today experts agree, and the statistics continue to show, that when parents use corporal punishment – for whatever reason – to reduce anti-social behavior, the long-term effect tends to be the opposite, and lead to more aggressive and socially dysfunctional children.

In a prospective study spanning nineteen years, researchers found that children who were raised in homes with a lot of corporal punishment, turned out to be more antisocial and egocentric,
and that physical violence became the accepted norm for these children when they became teenagers and adults. (See “Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behavior of Children”, covered by CNN, see Most exhaustive and conclusive is “The benefits of avoiding corporal punishment: new and more definitive evidence” and “The