My Daughter Was Bullied for Being an Atheist

My daughter’s fourth-grade year bought a slew of firsts. There was her first trip to the orthodontist and her first miserable meal of soup after the braces went on. She got her first pimple, went on her first solo bike trip to a friend’s house and fell hard for her first crush (a boy with a British accent — can you blame her?). She was a preadolescent pioneer, hacking her way through the thick underbrush of awkward changes to discover the really cool stuff: tight friendships and a knack for the guitar. She also figured out the hard way that not every “first” is one you’ll want to tuck into a scrapbook. Her other big first, for instance: her first real experience with an unrelenting bully.

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I knew exactly what my child would catch hell for, if you’ll excuse the terrible pun. Yet anticipating what was coming didn’t make it any easier to overhear her conversation with a soccer teammate after practice one day when my 10-year-old locked her eyes with her cleats and mumbled about a little girl in class who hated her. “It’s ’cause we don’t go to church,” my daughter admitted. “Her mom says she’s not allowed to talk to me, but she does anyway when the teacher isn’t looking.”

Later I got the whole story. The bully was a friend. Or she was once, which is why my kid felt comfortable enough to tell her what she usually keeps to herself: We’re atheists.

First, the girl stopped talking to her. Then she wouldn’t leave her alone, and her taunts escalated. It came to a head that day before soccer practice when my daughter was unceremoniously outed to her entire class when the teacher stepped out. Now everyone knew what my daughter disclosed only cautiously to trusted friends. Even the cute boy with the accent.

What bothered my daughter the most was how trust could be weaponized. How could someone you like promise to keep a secret and then tell everyone? She was having nightmares about being burned alive. She just wanted to be left alone.

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For a kid being raised without religion, my daughter has been exposed to an awful lot of it. We don’t see the need to surround ourselves with people who think and feel just like we do, and it’s made our lives pretty awesome. She’s been to the Holi festival, midnight mass, a Seder… we go where we’re welcome. The last thing we want is an “us vs. them” dynamic.

None of this made her feel better on the playground. Being cornered in the twirly-slide and told that your entirely family is going to be tortured forever in a pit of fire is a far cry from live and let live.

The first thing she had to do was tell her teacher, her dad told her. She thought it would make it worse, and we told her there was a chance it would. But he still needed to know. After that, we would make a plan.

When I picked her up from school the next day, she was eager to talk. She had been so embarrassed the day before that it came as a surprise to find that not much had changed after her outing. Her friends still wanted to plan sleepovers and play at recess. There were a few curious classmates who asked perfunctory questions and shrugged off her answers. One or two kids told her that they didn’t go to church either. The really cool thing, my daughter said, was that some of the other religious kids went out of their way to reassure her. “Have you ever heard of ‘love your neighbor?'” She asked me. I told her I had, and she chattered on about the concept. I urged her to tell me more about her former friend.

My daughter laid it out: the girl was creative and could be funny, but she ran pretty hot and cold. You were either in her good graces or way, way out of them. “She can’t focus sometimes, like me,” she told me. “She gets mad when that happens, but she yells and hits instead of crying. She gets in trouble.” I told her that her friend sounded like a cool kid even though the bullying was profoundly uncool. If religion was important to this little girl, maybe that was the way to reach out to her.

So when we got home, we looked it up, and I had her read the Bible verse out loud. In the verse, a scholar asks Jesus what the most important religious commandment is, and he answers that it is to love and obey God. Then he goes on. “And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” My daughter liked the sound of that and conceded that she could still be friends with the girl if she would just stop being mean to her.

I proposed an experiment. We were going to go biblical on this little girl. But you know — New Testament biblical. None of this Leviticus stuff. It was one part Sun Tzu, one part Sunday school. You don’t need a holy book to get the message that we should all be awesome to each other, but if you personally consider one sacred, maybe it will convince you.

My daughter knew that being atheist didn’t make her bad. But maybe this little girl genuinely didn’t. I found the verse I was looking for and read it to my daughter: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

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Instead of “resisting” her bully, maybe it was time to welcome her in. The next time my daughter’s bully caught up with her on the twirly-slide, the plan was to hear her out, ask her to stop and then invite her to play.

It didn’t work. At least, not on the first day. Or the second. Or even the third despite a conference with the teacher where we were assured that they wouldn’t tolerate bullying of any kind. They would keep an eye on the situation, they said, but our daughter seemed to have bounced back OK. If the bullying was still happening, she appeared to be handling it with about as much aplomb as a 10-year-old reasonably could.

By the fourth day, my daughter’s bully seemed exhausted, and gradually, she started to lay off. One day, it was just over. My kid was glad for that, but she wasn’t sure they’d ever be friends again. She’d had a bad experience with a religious person, but I urged her not to let that color her experience with other religious people. After all, I reminded her, she now had firsthand experience with that kind of prejudice.

She took that in, looking deeply thoughtful, and I congratulated myself for nailing this parenting thing so hard. Finally, she asked if it would be OK if she checked a Bible out at the library, and I told her that of course she could. My little budding biblical scholar.

“Good,” she said, settling back in her seat. “Emily said that the word ‘jackass’ is in there a bunch of times, and we’re going to find all of them.”

Oh, Lord.

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