In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary massacre, extreme elements in religious circles have commandeered the values discussion in America by arguing that God free school zones are to blame for school shootings. Some on the far right have asserted that taking God out of the public school curriculum is responsible for mass shootings -- despite the fact that God is not imposed in schools in many European countries which incidentally have far less school violence.
Allowing religious extremists to hijack the values discussion in our public schools does a disservice to our children and society. It is time to allow a values discussion that gives room to everyones' values and is not necessarily predicated on any particular religion.
There is no one-stop panacea to addressing our culture of violence. Sensible gun legislation and addressing mental health issues are all part of the equation. Instilling humanistic values in our society is also part of the equation. Valuing life. Valuing others needs. Valuing friendship. Valuing family. Valuing civility over violence. Valuing dialogue.
Some states have allowed for a nonsectarian moment of silence where the beginning of the school day is designated for children to contemplate whatever values they choose. A moment of reflection will help children recognize and care for other ideals and values beyond their own needs.
Various meditative practices have been correlated with decreased stress and even a decrease in crime. It stands to reason that a moment of silence and meditation in public schools may help reduce school violence and raise the consciousness of the student body.
Providing an opportunity for public school children to reflect on their unique values through a moment of silence does not need to violate the first amendment's prohibition on establishing a religion because those values don't need to be strictly based in religion and don't need to be guided by school officials. The values are based on the students' initiation, whether they be secular based or religious based.
The Talmud itself recognizes that moral values would be learned from animal behavior had the Bible not been given: "We might have learned modesty from the cat, honest labor and industriousness from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and consideration of one's mate from the rooster" (Eruvin 100b).
As a society religion certainly provide a framework and motivation for some to be good, but there are also ethical and moral atheists which get their values elsewhere.
Society can best promote these universal values by providing a framework for children to reflect on their values -- without of course being guided by teachers with a religious agenda. A moment of silence in public school has unfortunately been used as a pretext for imposing religion on children, but the concept of a moment of reflection does not necessitate anything uniquely religious. It will provide an opportunity for children to reflect on the values they hold dear. It will send the message that values matter, whether those values are religious or secular.