I’ll never forget the year my eight-year-old daughter came home from school saying she got in trouble for going to the bathroom.
“I was afraid,” she said, “that the devil was coming out of the mirror to get me.... I wanted Aya to stay with me until I was done.”
Like any parent, I sat her down and asked her to tell me why she would ever think a mirror could spawn something as terrifying as that.
“Susie told me because I didn’t believe in god, the devil was coming to take my soul.”
“Susie” as we’ll call her, was a fellow eight-year-old student at my daughter’s school. Susie attended church every Sunday with her family—the same church that many of her classmates to this day all go to.
Was my daughter being bullied for being an atheist? I quickly dismissed it. After all, these were only eight-year-old girls, and it wasn’t like we talked about god hating with our morning cereal.
I soon noticed a new pattern of my daughter: She wouldn’t enter a bathroom without a friend or parent and began wetting the bed at night for fear of our extensive collection of bathroom mirrors pulling her into almighty hell at 2 a.m.
Sure enough, the religious eight-year-old was still pressuring my daughter to consider her morality, spirituality and reason for living daily in the school bathroom.
“When the child goes to school, and encounters for the first time other kids who don’t believe the same thing, whether it’s no belief or a different belief system, that can rock a kid’s world.”
I got on the phone and made sure the principal was aware of the bullying, that the child was reported and that my daughter would hopefully make the choice not to play with her anymore. The school thought I was a little crazy. Bullying was getting punched in the stomach in a dark place behind the school, not a little girl being taunted for not believing she was going to have life eternal. This was a new place they were afraid to gain control of. The principal, a former nun, kept a tight lip.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, every day “an estimated 160,000 students in the U.S. refuse to go to school because they dread the physical and verbal aggression of their peers. Many more attend school in a chronic state of anxiety and depression.”
Courtney Campbell, Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, says he encountered the same case with his own children who were told at a very early age by some of their “friends” that they were “going to hell.” Though there were no physical beatings, the “psychic bullying” may have been worse.
“There is a phenomenon of religious-bullying at an early age, though in my own view/experience with raising my kids, it’s less of an issue than lookism [obese kids], size [‘big’ bullies], or gender, or clothes, or any of a number of things that kids do to manifest power over others,” says Campbell.
He points out that in most conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Christian traditions, kids are taught at a very early age in their Sunday schools or summer bible camps that there’s only one path to happiness and salvation. That teaching, absorbed at a young age, is on its own rather threatening to the child.
“When the child goes to school, and encounters for the first time other kids who don’t believe the same thing, whether it’s no belief or a different belief system, that can rock a kid’s world,” Campbell adds.
Blame it on fear, maybe a calling out of one’s most sacred and learned family beleifs, but this form of push and shove is only getting more sophisticated.
Rachel Wagner, Associate Professor for the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College and author of Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality, says we are overlooking a major player of the religious bullying model—video games.
“If we compare video games to rituals as similar kinds of interactive experiences that are meant to shape how we see ourselves and others in the world, then we can argue something more basic—that video games (like rituals) can teach people habits of encounter—and offer youth deeply problematic models of encounter with difference,” says Wagner, who adds that in her next book, she’ll argue that religion has always had the ability to be “played” like a game, a religious encounter she coins “shooter religion.”
While Wagner admits it’s very important to remember that all world religions also have “deep and abiding practices urging compassion, understanding, tolerance, and social justice,” in today’s media-soaked society, feeling the need to retreat into a simpler world where people can be reduced to camps can be terribly tempting.
Stacy Pershall, author of Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl, says that growing up in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, in an athletics-focused, Christian bible belt, she was used to being surrounded by “Jesus talk.”
Pershall, who was bullied for being a “strange girl,” when young, unathletic and atheist to boot, now works and empowers high school and college students as a writing teacher and mental health speaker.
“Although it still makes my heart pound a little to stand in front of a crowd and admit that I don’t believe in god (as I recently did at Catholic University in D.C.), somebody needs to do it. I get to be the adult who says to kids, ‘I’m an atheist, I have morals, I have friends, I’m happy, and I care about how you feel.’ That’s a wonderful, powerful thing. I get to tell bullied kids who might be considering suicide that they’re not alone, and that they have kindred spirits. It’s what the Flying Spaghetti Monster put me on Earth to do.”
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