In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex


There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)


3 thoughts on “In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

  1. Some readers may appreciate this comment by a friend, left on my Facebook: yes could describe my life as a member of a fundamentalist church, school, youth group, family- whole life encompassed. I obeyed everyone because they were put in charge by God and how could you question that! I had a secure upbringing and a good education but I don’t think I will ever really outgrow the complete indoctrination I grew up with and I only saw it as that once I became a divorced, single mum of a special needs child who lives on welfare- and the mix of exclusion, pity and judgement which resulted from this has resulted in a personal faith and I only attend church for my son- on the days he can cope with it and I can brace myself for the tuts, comments, glares and people physically moving away because of his, usually his attempt at best, behaviour. I do not judge these people as I was one, and still would be if life hadn’t changed for me. People are genuinely trying to follow God and His Word while protecting themselves and their children from ‘negative’ influences. Just as my parents, teachers and church child and youth leaders did when I was growing up by excluding any difference if those who were different could not confirm to the set guidelines. Judging others for becoming the very people the church I attended trained them to be is hypocritical and as exclusionary at the other extreme. We are all on a faith journey and grace and acceptance is provided for all people- whether they were those who were judged in the past for non – confirmation, or judged now for the opposite non – conformance.

  2. Nicole, great article, let me say just a few things, as this topic is an important one.
    Coming from an environment as mentioned, from the 80’s and 90’s, where churches (especially ‘charismatic’ churches’) was the place to be to have any significant spiritual or ordained journey, let me say this from experience. We can say amen to this article BUT let’s be aware of the subtle bullying we see every day by people who for the most part, have sincere intentions, but are unaware of their actions or behaviours.

    I very rarely hear this now, as I see it as an opportunity to chat about my spiritual journey with confidence, but a lot of my friends who have been out of church for a while and who are still working to identify their journey, see it as a form of intimidation and bullying. What am I referring to?
    “Great to see you again, what church are you going to now?”, “Do you go to Church”, “Why don’t you go to church?”, “Really you believe that?”, “Maybe we’ll see you at our church one day”, “It’s ok as long as you believe in the lord”, “Sad about XX, doesn’t go to church anymore”, “Are you are Christian still?” on and on and on. I do believe some people maybe sincerely curious, or even trying to gauge where people are at…..which is a statement that always intrigues me “where people are at” (What’s that about?), but this type of conversation can be received by people as subtle bullying.

    I recently was in discussion with someone on Facebook who asked me the questions above in that order, and my response was “Really you still go”, as quickly as I said it, the silence was deafening and from that time on the conversation from their side ceased (even unfriended), dare we challenge the subtle bullying. They weren’t interested in me, they suddenly saw me as a threat, or a lost cause, who knows. In saying that, it takes a lot to stand up to these type of questions from church goers, as it possibly opens up an avenue to discuss your journey, and you may not be at a place where you can articulate it well enough to explain why or to discuss it with any sort of confidence, I do understand the questions can be sincere but does it matter enough to ask.

    I have work colleagues who attend Prince’s Church in Singapore, and I would be quickly “written off” as soon as they found out I haven’t been to church in over 20 years (Oh wait, I think they just found out), but little comfort to them to know that my spiritual journey had continued, evolved and enabled growth which I believe I wouldn’t have received in the confines of the 4 walls of church. It’s not me or my family or my friends their interested in but a position and trophy aligned to their doctrines. I am not saying my journey is the journey for all but it’s the right one for me.
    Take an interest in people, friends, family and ‘god forbid what they believe’ instead of your perceived interpretation of truths, doctrine and the American way, to the point where it overrides your compassion for people and the opportunity to possibly be challenged and grow.

    Nicole, great article, hope I was able to contribute to the discussion.

  3. Very important discussion, Nicole. I think your last paragraph is especially challenging, because we have all been bullied and bullies at one time or another. And it’s not easy to know the line between engaging firmly alternate views and intellectual bullying. And then there is the question of whether the silence that you suggest is always the best idea – because sometimes the bullies do need to be challenged and exposed. Complex area for sure, I thank God for grace when we stuff things up, and to teach us how to behave.

Leave a Reply