Intervention Through Religious Literacy
Religious Bullying: Perspectives from Canada
by W. Y. Alice Chan
In early 2011, two startling events happened in my life. Personally, my father unexpectedly passed away at the age of 59. Professionally as a middle school teacher, I encountered religious bullying for the first time.
The first event left me speechless. The second left me confused, as I grew up in the Greater Toronto neighborhood where I taught and had never heard of or witnessed this form of bullying before. My Christian faith provided me a remarkable sense of peace as I grappled with my father’s passing. The role my faith played in coping with one of the greatest fears in my personal life was invaluable, and it also opened my eyes to the severity of the bullying incident where students were degraded because of their actual or perceived religious identity. All this made me restless for finding a way to address religious bullying in public schools, for supporting students’ self-understanding and worldview, and responding to teachers’ needs, which led me to my doctoral research on this topic.
In the schools where I taught, my colleagues addressed instances of bullying as quickly as they could. However, this often required one-on-one or group discussions during or between class times. Honestly speaking, it was demanding mentally, emotionally, and physically to observe these conversations among others and conduct some myself, and I am confident that teachers across Canada have similar experiences. As a result, my research explored the potential connection between religious bullying and religious literacy in public North American schools. I was looking for a practical solution for teachers to address religious bullying during their school day, without adding more work outside of class hours.
My research found that religious bullying, sometimes referred to as religious-based bullying or faith-based bullying, occurs based on someone’s actual or perceived religious or non-religious identity (that can be based on dress, race, symbols, and jewelry), or the beliefs or practices related to that identity.
Religiously related bullying can occur between people of the same religious belief, different religions, and between religious and non-religious individuals. Like all forms of bullying, the interaction occurs between parties physically, verbally, psychologically and socially, or online via social media. As all forms of bullying create a power imbalance, bullying can negatively affect one’s self-understanding, behavior, and attitude. Specifically, it can lead to lower self-esteem, poor mental health, depression, social anxiety, sluggishness, difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, increased chance of suffering self-injury or injury by others, inattentiveness, poor academic performance and skipping class/school among students, alcohol and/or drug use, ideas of suicide, and suicide itself.
Although most Canadians recognize the problematic nature of bullying, they are not aware of the host of negative effects it can manifest. Therefore, it is important for peers and adults to familiarize themselves with the plethora of effects so that they can support youth and adults.
The Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) based at Queen’s and York University offers numerous free research-based resources online to support youth.
There is also growing research on workplace bullying. Awareness among both youth and adults is critical as all bullying poses short and long-term concerns such as intra- and intergenerational bullying for those who experience an incident first-hand and those who witness it. Long-term studies have shown that adults who were bullied as youth struggle with the effects of bullying later in life and may even facilitate aspects of bullying among their children.
To my knowledge, the only report in Canada that documented a local rate of religious bullying was the World Sikh Organization of Canada in their 2016 report on the experience of Sikh students in the Peel Region of Ontario and those in surrounding areas. From speaking with 332 students, 27 percent shared that they were bullied for their Sikh identity. This of course does not mean religious bullying is not occurring to other religious groups or in other places in Canada.
In Montreal, high school and post-secondary students I spoke with expressed various perspectives on religious bullying, including the following:
I think that there should not be religious bullying, because everybody [is] equal and I also think that everybody should have the same rights. (Indian, male, Sikh, SEC III/Gr 9)
It is totally unnecessary and ones beliefs shouldn't be judged from another who thinks different or isn't understanding of the other. Their mindsets aren't the same and neither the experiences so they could never understand the others feelings/emotions. (Mixed descent, male, Mormon, SEC V/Gr 11)
I find it really disturbing that we are based from stereotypes. (Pakistani, female, Muslim, SEC II/Gr 8)
I think it is wrong to target a specific person based on his religious identity. Unfortunately, some religions [are] prone [to] this behaviour more than others. (Mixed descent, male, Evangelical Christian, SEC III/Gr 9)
I believe that it is disgusting. Any form of bullying is but religious bullying is particularly horrible. (Italian, female, Evangelical Christian, CEGEP student)
I hate it. Religion should be personal unless someone chooses to speak of it just like anything else, and bullying someone because of their belief is stupid and counterproductive in every way. (Arab, female, Muslim, undergraduate student)
It is sad and unfortunate that it is still happening. I went to an English public elementary and high school so since most students shared the same religious values, it was not very common. On the contrary, French public schools have a greater variety of religious identities and as a result, there is more bullying that occurs for these reasons. I knew a boy in a public French elementary school who got punched in the face just because he was Catholic... (White Canadian, female, Catholic, undergraduate student)
It happens rarely and it starts because of cultural differences and not religious. (Romanian, male, Orthodox Christian, undergraduate student)
These students shared thoughts from personal and abstract perspectives. Many believed religion is personal and thus deserves respect like other rights. A few students felt it was worse than other forms of bullying, but most thought it was equally wrong as other forms of bullying, such as that based on sexual orientation.
Only a handful of students mentioned there might be a difference between the cultural teachings that promote religious bullying and the teachings of the target religion or their own religion itself. Overall, those experienced or witnessed religious bullying described its manifestation as physical through pushing and attacks, verbal via slurs, and psycho-social by segregation. Among both youth and adults, religious bullying is rarely reported due to fear, a belief that reporting will not lead to a solution, or a lack of resources, as noted by female Muslims in Edmonton.
To address the specific content-basis of religious bullying and offer practical and efficient solutions for public school teachers, I explored the transformative potential of religious literacy in two particular North American cities. This exploration led me to numerous conversations with students, parents, teachers, and community leaders and the realization that there is a relationship between religious literacy and religious bullying, one that can be positive or negative depending on curriculum, teacher attitude, and training. As such, religious literacy offers a supplemental approach to address religious bullying alongside the valuable approaches of social-emotional learning and healthy relationship building.
My personal experiences and research have led me to conclude that we as Canadians need to increase our awareness of religious bullying and examine it further. How are those who are spiritual but not religious or those who affiliate with Indigenous spirituality experiencing it? How do employers perceive it? Since bullying of all forms is informed by ones social environment, How is religious bullying manifested in different parts of Canada?
As a result, Dr. Sabrina Jafralie, Erin Reid, and I have co-founded the Centre for Civic Religious Literacy. With esteemed colleagues across Canada and internationally from various traditions, we are working across the multi-levels of society to offer a community-wide approach to encourage civic religious literacy so that religious, non-religious, and Indigenous identities are better understood and respected.
My work, especially on religious bullying, has highlighted the need for religious literacy promotion in all parts of society so that its development can be welcomed in one. This relates specifically to teachers’ and school administrations’ fear to discuss religion in public schools due to potential of sharp criticism from parents, society, or media. Such environments of fear percolate across society. As a result, the Centre for Civic Religious Literacy (CCRL) offers programming to schools, public sector workers, and private industry staff to inform and engage with various stakeholders in society.
Our community-wide approach promotes religious literacy through educational programming and professional development that is specific to the needs of each group based on their regional and provincial location, their topical area of need or interest, and their profession.
This three-pronged approach to our program development is especially important as we recognize the unique history and social dynamics of each Canadian province and locale, and the individual narratives and experiences of each religious, Indigenous, and non-religious group in these settings. As a result, we work with local representatives of many traditions so that their voices and local experiences are shared with each group we work with. This presents a foundational understanding of religious literacy that emphasizes the diversity within traditions and encourages relationship building and dialogue between groups even after our programming is delivered.
As a group of educators with local, national, and international teaching experience across K-12 grade levels, university, and college students, and in adult professional development, all our programming is specific to the needs of each group. Our three-step process of assessing, designing, and informing or resolving concerns ensures this catered approach. As a team of researchers, our work and approaches evolve alongside the Canadian society. In the meantime, my journey and experiences have led me to understand the personal journeys of many, and CCRL is one avenue to share this with others.
Header Photo: Pixabay