Bullying: For They Know Not What They Do

by Larry Mathys

[part 2 of a 2-part series on bullying]

I mentioned in my previous post that it seems highly suspect to me that children and teens who bully others in the name of religion would have had the idea originate from within. Again, it is far more likely that religious kids are being manipulated into the belief that as a follower of Jesus Christ, they get a free pass to be a brute.

Take, for example, the Center for Arizona Policy, an organization that killed anti-bullying legislation by arguing that preventing Christians from bullying a gay or lesbian child was actually promoting homosexuality. Then there’s Focus on the Family’s Orwellian, “Day of Dialog”, which promotes accusation rather than conversation by encouraging kids to declare openly which of the other students are going to Hell for being homosexual.

The adults in both of these religious groups are opposed to anti-bullying rules and laws because they believe that their religious text gives them the right to shun those that do not follow their dogma. So it’s no wonder that some kids raised in religion go on to verbally and sometimes physically abuse other children. These kids have been taught that they have the luxury of literally running back to the primitive and cozy comfort of the anti-gay passages in their Bible.

Why does it seem easier for religious kids to rationalize this kind of atrocious behavior? Who is responsible for this idea that being obnoxious toward other human beings is all for the greater good? How can we explain the odd dichotomy between people who appear kindhearted and charitable in one setting, but then suddenly become so insanely cruel and viciously intolerant in another? And finally, where does the loathing of atheists and the hostility toward anyone who questions the existence of god originate?

From the parochial pastors of South Carolina to the high profile Evangelicals of Colorado Springs, I think the answer to all of these questions is obvious: religious leaders.

The atheist, agnostic and humanist community is currently caught up in the inevitable outcome of years of religious leaders pleading for their congregation to, “spread the word of God,” and, “be soldiers for Christ.” This message has been perverted to such extreme proportions that the United States now has a sizable majority of children and teens that either do not realize, or can’t understand, that what they’re doing to other kids is wrong. Their perspective on humanity has been so skewed by the religious leaders of their community that they fervently believe it is perfectly justifiable to be barbaric – so long as it’s done with a Bible in their pocket.

Even Hollywood has noticed this phenomenon. All anyone has to do is watch an episode of the very popular show, “GCB” to see what I mean. (The social interaction and covert peer pressure between the women of that show honestly deserves a full blog post by itself.) The characters, as exaggerated and superficial as they are, serve as a satirical lens into the twisted psyche of modern Southern Baptists.

Don’t get me wrong, the show is very funny, but I think the lessons of the emotional damage caused by bullying in the name of religion sometimes gets lost in the mockery. Insults, stereotypes, and teasing are a way of life for the characters in this show. Take the main character, for example. She was once the “Queen Bee” in high school, who had the power to decide which of the other girls in the school were “foxes” or “javelinas”. I will admit that this episode was really clever, but my worry is that most people do not realize that the indirect bullying and intimidation shown in this episode is not that far-fetched for some high school students.

For instance, here is a list of insults that have been provided to me or said to me personally, in order from youngest bully to oldest:

“You’re just mean!”
“You’re a bad person!”
“You’re going to Hell!”
“I hate you!”
“You’re a devil worshiper!”
“You’re just angry.”
“You’re a slut.”
“You’re shallow.”
“You’ve disappointed me.”
“You’re immoral!”
“You just lack character.”
“You’re depraved!”
“You’re a criminal!”
“You deserve to die.”

As you can see, the list progresses from fairly bland accusations to very hurtful and destructive statements. Yet each and every day there are children and teens in our country that are forced to endure this kind of religiously motivated verbal attack.

The really unfortunate thing is that perverse people like this are not that uncommon. If you are an atheist or agnostic, you can bet that these are the words that you and your children are likely to hear from some religious people. That includes religious family members. As a matter of fact, I have seen it in my own family.

On the other hand, you will find that insults do not have to be as pointed as the ones I’ve included in the list. Most religious people – especially family members – will wrap their insults in phony concern, such as, “I’ll pray for you,” or, “I just worry about the souls of your kids.” But as we all know, this is simply a backhanded comment fashioned in an accusatory way. They’ll pray for you because obviously you’re a heathen, and of course they worry about the souls of your kids because you have doomed them all to Hell. If you have heard something similar from a family member in the past and that person was able to make you feel guilty for your lack of belief, then you have just fallen victim to indirect bullying.

It is in our best interest to understand that this is how an overtly religious person has been taught to handle non-believers. Religious leaders have convinced vast numbers of people, including children, that they have the right to reduce atheists and agnostics to immoral animals, and intimidate and bully them into submission. And because of this, atheists and agnostics should not simply stand idly by as religious bullies try to put them or their family members into a position of submissiveness. In fact, when it comes to our kids, it is our duty as parents to make certain that our children receive the support they need when it comes to dealing with a religious bully.

Take the initiative! If you feel your child is being bullied at school, contact the teacher immediately. Be prepared to escalate the situation to the school administration when necessary. Write everything down; every name, every phone conversation, every meeting. Show everyone that you will not stop until the bullying stops. You cannot allow a playground bully to go unchecked at your child’s school just because he or she happens to mention the Bible.

Keep in mind that as much as religious people demand it, their dogma does not automatically deserve respect. You are allowed to speak up, so long as you know that the situation will not escalate to the point where your life, or the life of a loved one, is in danger. Direct confrontation of a bully does have its merits, so long as you stay focused on your safety.

* * * * *

For their daughter’s sake, my brother and his wife did the best they could to stay calm. They hugged my niece, reassured her that everything was going to be fine, and told her that mommy and daddy were going to take care of everything. Comforting her seemed to put her at ease, which subsequently made her outlook on the upcoming school day much more manageable.

My brother’s day, on the other hand, had just taken a turn for the worse. He was furious, and he’d had enough. As much as he hated the idea of causing a rift between himself and the faculty of the school, he knew that his daughter’s emotional state was far more important to him than worrying about making educators uncomfortable.

Growing anxious over the thought of an impending confrontation with the teacher over religion, my brother approached me for some advice. I agreed that what these kids were doing to his daughter was wrong, and that he should contact her teacher immediately to schedule a parent-teacher conference. I told him to tell the teacher everything that his daughter told him. If he can’t make any progress with the teacher, then do not let it end there. “Go straight to the Principal if you have to,” I said. “But make absolutely sure you have a pencil and paper when you talk to any of the faculty so you can write down everything that everyone says.”

Obviously, I wanted him to be prepared for the worst.

As it turns out, my assumptions about the school, as well as my brother’s, were completely mistaken. We were both pleasantly surprised by the heartfelt reaction from his daughter’s teacher, and stunned at how quickly she responded to his initial email.

“I am so sorry,” she replied. “This is unacceptable! I spoke to the entire class about this kind of behavior at the beginning of the school year and I can assure you that this will not go unpunished.”

My brother and I were so grateful for the attention that this teacher was willing to demonstrate to us – mainly because we both had sorely misjudged the reaction we would receive from her. Our preconceived notions born out of past confrontations with other religious people had led us to believe that no matter what these boys had said or done to my niece, their religious bullying would be overlooked simply because they weren’t saying anything outside of messages that they had most likely heard during a Sunday sermon.

Though we had prepared for the worst, the entire plan that my brother and I had concocted was nullified by one, three word sentence: “This is unacceptable.” Sure, it is but one elementary school teacher… but that is progress!

Considering how many religious people view the atheist and agnostic community, the outcome of this situation keeps me optimistic for the future. I will continue to advise everyone that it is always in their best interest to prepare themselves if they expect a confrontation over religion. But who knows? People oftentimes surprise you with their rationality – particularly when dealing with the emotional environment of a child. Not everyone who considers themselves religious will be ready to stand behind kids that display this kind of aggressive and abusive behavior. Indeed, I’m beginning to believe that most people in my community will stand with me rather than against me, firmly opposed to all groups of students who exhibit any kind of malicious behavior toward another student.

So, keep your wits and keep your cool. Because through your example, your child will learn strength and determination; so long as you make sure you’re on the side of rationality, acceptance, kindness, and love.

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