/ ask / How should I respond to religious harassment at school?

Dr. Darrel Ray is an atheist, humanist, and psychologist. He is the author of The God Virus, and specializes in issues relating to religious deconversion. [ more ]
If you have an issue relating to religion but no one to talk to, ask Dr. Ray. He doesn’t promise that he has all the answers, but hopefully he will be able to provide insight and experience that will be beneficial for both you and for the many other young people in similar situations.
Stand up to bullies

Dear Darrel,

How do I avoid religious arguments at my school? People are always coming up to me and being hateful towards my lack of beliefs. I don’t believe responding in an equally hateful manner will do any good, how should I react and what should I say to them?

From Dr. Ray

You are totally correct that responding in a hateful manner only makes things worse. One of the best things is just to be polite, listen and not respond. Just nod your head and say “Thank you.” It kind of takes the fun out of it for them when they can’t make you upset. Being the coolest, calmest person in the room is a powerful thing and gives you a big advantage.

Most people in your situation want to argue and get into debates, but you can almost never win a debate with a religious person because they don’t base their beliefs on actual facts. Their whole argument boils down to “My religious text or leader said this, therefore it is true.”

If you are able to engage in a respectful dialogue about theism vs. nontheism, you can start by brushing up on your arguments here.

You can also show them that you are open to their ideas by suggesting a trade. If they come to your atheist, freethinker or Secular Student Alliance meeting this week, you will go to their bible study next week. What I have learned is that some people will take you up on that offer and the result can be some great discussions and growing respect for one another. Let me warn you though, make sure they come to your meeting before you go to theirs. Too many times have I have seen religionists promise to go to the atheist meeting second, only to then back out; often with the excuse “My parents won’t let me.”

If they object to going to your meeting first, tell them “I have been to dozens of bible studies and prayer meetings, you may have never attended a freethinker meeting, so it is only fair that we start with my meeting first.” If they will not do that much then they probably aren’t very serious anyway. Just keep listening and not responding. Sooner or later, they will give up trying to criticize or convert you.

Also, please remember that junior high and high school is often an unpleasant time in a person’s life, and that it does genuinely get better after that. You may eventually choose to move someplace less bigoted than where you grew up, or you may choose to stay and improve your community from the inside; but the bottom line is that after graduating you will have much more freedom to associate with people who treat you well and dismiss those who don’t. Whatever you do, don’t give up!

Finally, if you feel their behavior constitutes harassment, go to the school counselor or principal and talk with them. You should never allow religious people to bully you. Many schools have rules against bullying; the problem is that many religious people don’t see what they are doing as harassment. Learn more about your legal rights against bullies here.

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