Recently, my 9-year-old son, who attends public school, became a victim of proselytizing. He was approached by a fellow student in his class, in the classroom no less, and asked if he attended church. My son answered, quite honestly, that no, he did not, and he did this without volunteering what his own religion was. The boy then told him, “You should.”
Another boy, not from his class, approached him in the lunchroom and asked him if he went to church. My son said, no, that because he is a Heathen, he does not go to church. That boy’s response was, “Heathens go to hell.” My son came home and informed me that Heathens go to hell, necessitating a discussion about various religious beliefs and about conceptions of “hell/hel” in particular.
Children are easily manipulated through peer pressure. Nobody wants to be the odd-kid out. Children can be incredibly cruel. We have all, as children, experienced that. My son has already been made to feel like the “unwanted step-child” at his previous school due to his medical condition (and that by teachers and the school administration!). I am certain this makes it even more difficult for him now to feel this sort of pressure from students, that he is somehow different, and therefore “less”, than them.
I, of course, contacted his teacher and she wrote back, promising to address the issue, though she did not say specifically how she would go about it. I realize that we live in white-bread central Illinois, and though it is a college town, it is also very conservative. Most everybody is white and most of them are Christian. I suppose I should be happy that it was not the teacher herself who was proselytizing. As was noted at Patheos a couple of years ago, proselytizing at public schools has become an epidemic.
My son was later approached again (on the playground this time), by a boy he thinks had talked to one or both of the previous boys. This boy also harassed him about his need to be a Christian and the need to go to church. My son informed him that he is not a Christian and that he did not want to talk about it. I told him this was the correct response, that he had done very well and that I was proud of him. This must be a necessary first step in any such case of harassment, to tell the other person, “No.”
I stressed the need to stand up for his beliefs but to do so by not attacking the other child’s beliefs. My son knows we think many Christian beliefs (especially conservative Christian beliefs) are silly but my son also has an Evangelical grandmother he loves very much. He has learned to separate the two in his mind: you can love somebody, or be friends with somebody, without agreeing to their religion. His grandmother, who was slow in accepting me into the family, has apparently learned this as well. My son doesn’t much care what religion people might follow, no more than I do or his mother does. It isn’t important. What is important is how those other people conduct themselves.
I wonder what will be next. Will somebody try to shove a Bible in his hands? If so, he knows how to respond. It is my task as a parent to prepare him for further harassment and I have done that. I only wish I had foreseen the potential for problems before they arose.
For the past week he has been free of harassment and I hope this will continue. The problem for religious minorities like Heathens, is that children often ape their parents. The children who are harassing my son about his religious beliefs have learned this behavior from their parents. There is no more insecure a person than a conservative Christian. People are only fanatical about things they doubt. They are in constant need of validation, often by external means. The thought at the back of their minds is always one of doubt and thanks to ideas of demons, Satan, and hell, of fear. That doubt can be erased if everyone around them believes like they do. People who do not share their beliefs (i.e. my son) are a threat. If we can be something other than Christian, and prosper, what does that say about their notions of hellfire and damnation? Why isn’t God punishing us?
We Heathens must protect our children, and not simply to protect our own beliefs. I think for most Heathens doubt is not likely the issue it is for Christians. We have already examined our beliefs, faced them head-on, met them, fought with them, and come to some conclusions about the divine. That self-examination is, after all, what led us all to be Heathens. I had that struggle in the mid-70s and I haven’t had to revisit it. Rather, it has been constantly honed by experience and education (for example, I have more books on my shelves about Christianity and Judaism than I do about Paganism and Heathenry). Many conservative Christians have not engaged in this struggle and they do not want to engage in this struggle. Indeed, they shy away from it, retreating further into extreme views. They want affirmation. In contrast, we want to be left alone to enjoy our First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Leave us alone and we will leave you alone. Simple as that.
My plan of action, should my son be further harassed, is to approach the administration of the school. I will have tried his classroom teacher and she will have failed. It is never fun to lock horns with school officials, and having done it before, I do not look forward to the possibility. I had other problems with the school in Maryland but at least diversity was not an issue. It can be a very stressful experience, and very time-consuming as well. But if our ancestors have taught us anything, it is that we trú folk must persevere and that we must never shy from a fight that has been brought to our doorstep.