June 13, 2008

Bullying in the Schools: Lessons for Atheists and Christians

With many high-profile school shootings occurring throughout the United States and many other countries, considerable attention has been focused on bullying. Research from psychology, criminal justice, and other fields has demonstrated that bullying is a complex behavior with myriad causes. Just how are we to assign blame in cases of school bullying, and what implications does this have for educators, administrators, parents, and the rest of us? If we are willing to approach this with an open mind, we just might find valuable lessons for atheists and Christians alike.

Bullying is unfortunately common among school children. Some of you were undoubtedly bullied, others were themselves bullies, and almost everyone was a witness to some form of bullying. Bullying occurs within a system, including children, parents, teachers, and school administrators, all of whom often feel powerless to stop it.

Misconceptions about the reasons for bullying abound, many of which have been shattered by scientific research but continue to be believed nevertheless. For example, it is widely assumed that bullies suffer from low self-esteem and bully to make themselves feel better. However, considerable research has demonstrated that the opposite is often true (i.e., bullies are far more likely to have inflated self-esteem and be convinced of their own superiority).

Imagine a scenario where a child attending a predominately white school was being bullied for being African American. Parents, community leaders, and even politicians would be outraged and rightly so. Their message to the school would likely be that this had to stop and stop immediately. They might blame the bully's parents, but they would almost assuredly expect the school to resolve the situation.

Now consider a situation where the victim was being bullied not for race but for being "the wrong kind of Christian." Again, we'd expect widespread outrage and consider it justified. I imagine that atheists would agree without hesitation that a child should not be bullied on the basis of believing a different brand of Christianity than the majority. I could see atheist parents joining with Christian parents to demand a resolution in such a case.

So why then does my scenario fall apart so thoroughly when we change the details yet again and make the victim atheist and the bully or bullies Christian? The atheist child experiences the same pain and has the same right to an education. There should be equal outrage, and Christian parents should be as invested in stopping this scenario as the atheist parents were in the previous one. So why does this not seem to happen in case after case?

If we are to assign blame in such a case, we must cast the net wider than usual. What have the Christian parents learned during their lives about atheist, and what have they taught their children? Why are teachers and administrators more likely to look the other way in such a case? Why are they atheist parents often reluctant to challenge such a system until the bullying becomes increasingly serious?

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