My twelve year old boy is an atheist.
He’s been a self-proclaimed atheist since he was about seven.
The kid believed in Santa Clause, but I guess God was just too unrealistic. I’m assuming his faith in Santa stemmed from the fact that he received presents from a fat guy with a white beard — and not from a guy with a white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds.
And that’s always been okay with me. I’m an agnostic and we’ve never (as a family) followed a particular religion (although I did grow up in the evangelical church — but that’s a story for another time.) Not having any type of belief system — in my eyes — makes it easier for the kids to be free thinkers. And while I’m not fond of religion, I’ve always taught my kids to respect other beliefs.
Religious tolerance had to be learned pretty early in my home. While my son is a staunch atheist, my eight year old daughter believes “in God and Jesus,” so they’ve already had a few heated discussions about the existence of God.
So my son.
He was sitting in his school cafeteria last week, when a kid (let’s call him Sam) came up to him and asked him if he believed in God.
My son, Ryan, was taken aback by the question — but answered with a “no.”.
To which the kid totally freaked out.
“You don’t believe in God? You don’t believe in God?!” he screamed. Sam started telling everybody in the cafeteria that Ryan didn’t believe in God. Soon other kids were looking at Ryan and telling him he would go to hell for not believing in God and Jesus.
Mind you, this is a public school. A public school in a very liberal community.
Sam then tried to get Ryan to touch his crucifix and “repent.” I don’t know if this kid just carries around a crucifix or maybe had one on a necklace — either way, I found his behavior just a bit disturbing. This kid succeeded in getting the other kids riled up, and soon a group of girls and boys were asking my son why he didn’t believe in God. To which my son replied, “Believing in God is like believing in Santa. He just doesn’t exist!”
Oh. My. God. Well, Sam started yelling obscenities at Ryan. Then another kid (these are sixth graders, mind you) was upset because he still believed in Santa Clause and Ryan had just proclaimed that Santa doesn’t exist. Sam then goes up to a cafeteria employee and says, “This kid doesn’t believe in God!!” as if tattling would make Ryan see the error of his ways. The employee shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s normal!” and went back to her work.
Anyway, so the situation died down and my son continued on with his day. When he came home, he was brimming with excitement and amusement telling us this story.
I was glad that he was amused. It showed that he was confident in his beliefs. I asked him if he felt bullied and he said, “No. I just feel annoyed.”
But it bugged me. I wrote an email to his Math teacher (because most of these kids were in his math class) to give her a heads up on the situation, and I told Ryan that if it continued again tomorrow, I would be calling the school. The only thing that kept me from calling the school that night was the fact that Ryan didn’t seem upset. At all. He was laughing about it and rolling his eyes. And this is a sensitive kid — I would definitely know if he were upset because he cries at the drop of a hat.
But it DID happen again.
The next day, Ryan was waiting outside his math class when a group of three boys started taunting him for being an atheist. One kid had a picture of Jesus on his shirt and tried to get Ryan to touch it. Sam yelled at Ryan and claimed that he lost his crucifix and it was Ryan’s fault. Soon a group of ten or so kids were crowded around Ryan asking him why he didn’t read the Bible or believe in God, and doesn’t he know that he’s gonna go to hell if he doesn’t believe? Ryan said, “I just don’t believe in God!” He asked them why they believed in God and they replied, “Because our parents do!” The kids tried to tell him that God wrote the Bible — a comment that made Ryan very exasperated. Ryan replied, “What?! PEOPLE wrote the Bible, not some man in the sky!” The heated discussion continued in the school hallway until they were let into the classroom. When Ryan found his seat in math class, he said that Sam was staring at him from across the room.
So I picked up the phone and called the school. I spoke with the Vice-Principal and told her that Ryan was being targeted because of his beliefs. She took my concerns seriously, and I gave her a list of students who had been involved. I told the VP that I think it would be great if the kids could have discussions on the mysteries of the universe — as long as there was some simple respect.
The following day, I got a follow-up phone call from the VP who stated that she had a meeting with Sam. She said that she spoke with him about respecting other’s beliefs — no matter how different. She said that Sam was very earnest in his beliefs and had an authentic concern for Ryan’s soul. The kid was literally trying to prevent Ryan from enduring an eternity of fire and brimstone. Which is sweet and all — but a bit — uh — nutty.
I know, I know… religious tolerance and all, but damn. This kids parent’s aren’t teaching him simple etiquette? Simple thoughtfulness of others? Cursing an atheist is Christian love? This child learned this behavior from somewhere — perhaps it wasn’t his parents — but I highly doubt that.
After playing around on the internets, I have found that I’m not alone — obvs. I came across blogs such as Raising Freethinkers which brought some comfort — and I can definitely share in some of her frustrations. On a side-note I noticed that she hasn’t posted since December — and she needs to post again soon — cuz her blog is awesome.
On the other hand, I’ve had to reign Ryan in from his judgement’s as well — his eye rolling at religion — his comments on how stupid people are for believing in God.
I told him that most of the world’s population believes in something — a higher power of some sort. I also told him that not all people who believe in God think that God is a man or think God is a separate entity sitting in the sky answering prayers. I told Ryan that believing in God is a complicated thing and people have so many different ideas of who or what God is.
I just want to make sure Ryan respects all the different spiritual traditions and religions. Having a religious discussion is fun and interesting as long as all parties are respectful of their religious differences. No name calling. No eye rolling. He needs to be aware of that.
But he also needs to know that the way he was being treated is wrong. It was harassment — even though the children had good intentions. And that’s the thing — religious intolerance always seems to stem from “good intentions.” These types of “good intentions” are just bad. And history has shown that.
This whole situation has me wondering what else is in store for us as we navigate the social tightrope of teen-dom. But with Ryan’s ability to chuckle and shake his head at the situation — I think he’ll make it through just fine.
May your week be filled with religious freedom and acceptance!