My Kid’s New (And Adorably Diplomatic) Theory of Evolution

Friends
Friends

My daughter has this tendency to go all existentialist on me while riding in the car. I’m not sure what it is about this particular setting that motivates these sorts of talks. Is it sitting still with nothing else to do? Is it gazing up at the sky? Do all kids do this? Anyway, the other day, while driving Maxine and one of her friends to the pool, I listened as the two struck up a conversation about God. I can’t remember how it started (I didn’t turn on the voice recorder until later), but at some point they exchanged belief systems: The friend — a girl from a vaguely Christian, though not outwardly religious, family — said she believed in God. Maxine said she went back and forth on the matter.

When I’m adult, she told her friend, I probably won’t believe in God.

Really?, her friend asked, with equal parts surprise and confusion.

Here’s where the conversation went from there.

FRIEND: Well then how did we get here?

MAXINE: Oh I know how we got here. Long story.

FRIEND: Then I want to hear it. Tell me.

MAXINE: Okay. Well, there was this really little animal and that became a bigger animal and that became a bigger animal, then it grew to be a person. And the first person in the universe was that. Probably a cave person.

FRIEND: No, I know who the first person on Earth was: Adam.

MAXINE: Yeah.

FRIEND: And I know who the second person in the universe was. It was a girl. Eve. Adam gave birth to Eve…

MAXINE: No, I don’t think Adam gave birth to Eve.

FRIEND: No. I know that’s not true.

MAXINE: Adam and Eve had children and then they had children and then there was a bunch of universe of children. Ta-dah! Like my explanation?

FRIEND: Yes.

[Long pause]

FRIEND: But did…? How…? Wait. Okay, I don’t get this… If our families are different, who started our family? Like because there’s a big, huge generation — but how did it start?

MAXINE: Well, I think it started with cavemen before Adam. Because he’s probably the first person—like human being— and it probably started with cavemen. And then there was a weird caveman who probably gave birth to a person. Adam.

FRIEND: Adam.

MAXINE: Adam.

[Brief pause]

MAXINE: Hey, do you want to play Adam and Eve?

FRIEND: No.

MAXINE: Yeah, me neither.

I've always found it curious, as I'm sure you have, as to how some devoutly religious people can find factual truth in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve within the context of evolution.

Leave to second-graders to reconcile the irreconcilable.

10 Simple Ways to Mark Darwin's Birthday

Featured on BlogHer.comEvolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.

By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin's 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it's still banned today in some schools.

Tomorrow — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin's 204th birthday. And it's practically the only secular holiday we've got. So let's celebrate!

 

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1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.

2. Make a toast. Darwin's name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they're too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.

3. Drop the "theory." As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase "theory of evolution" so often is because, during Darwin's day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading.

4. Check out this little guy. The LA Times had a great little story that ran yesterday on a creature known as the "hypothetical placental mammal ancestor." It's a small, furry-tailed creature believed to be the common ancestor of more than 5,000 living species — including whales, elephants, bats, rodents and humans. Check it out. They even have a full-color rendering of the darn thing.

5. Watch this six-minute clip of Richard Attenborough explaining the Tree of Life. It's a quick but extremely effective snapshot of how humans and every other life form on Earth evolved from the same pool of bacteria some 300 million years ago. And note how the rodent they feature, as the first mammal, looks pretty much exactly like the one in the LA Times article above. The clip was taken from "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life," a BBC Production made to mark Darwin's 200th birthday.

6. Check out Leonard Eisenberg's website evogeneao.com — a shortened version of evolutionary genealogy. It's a great site for parents and teachers, and has a link to this amazing Tree of Life graphic that is awfully fun to contemplate. (Click on the site to get a bigger version.)

 

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7. Visit a natural history museum.

8. Find a Darwin Day event going on in your region.

9. Go on a nature hike. Everything you see, whether it's a slug, cat or a bird, do what Eisenberg would do and talk about how that creature is literally, our cousin — 275th million cousin, perhaps, but a cousin nonetheless.

10. Read one of these books:

Charles Darwin by Diane Cook

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steven Jenkins

Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino

Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Lawrence Pringle

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

9781590841457

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The Game-Changer: 'I Have a Dream'

I saw Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" for the first time earlier this month. I'd seen and read bits and pieces of it before, but watching it in its entirety was something quite different. I had always thought of King as a courageous man, but the Dream speech, given during the March on Washington August 28, 1963, reminded me of his extraordinary confidence and grace, as well.

It was his unshakable confidence that struck me the most. The way he spoke to all those supporters lining the National Mall, it was as though he was guaranteed to succeed where others had failed, as though his dream were guaranteed to come true.

Of course, King couldn't have known what changes would come. And he certainly couldn't have known that 46 years later — the day before the country celebrated his birthday — a black man would be sworn in as president of United States. King couldn't have known that nearly 4 million people would flood the National Mall, the way his supporters had, to witness the event.

No, he couldn't have known. But as forward-thinking as he was, I get this sense he wouldn't have been surprised, either.

I don't think I'll ever forget casting my ballot for Barack Obama on Nov. 4, 2008, or seeing those election returns roll in. I don't think I'll ever forget how emotional I was to see the newspaper the next day, or to watch the new First Family greet supporters after the inauguration. Although Obama was the one doing most the waving and smiling during those first few days, the victory didn't belong only to him. It belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr., too. And, in a way, it belonged to us all.

Sometimes it still seems like a dream.

http://youtu.be/smEqnnklfYs

This post originally appeared on Jan. 16, 2012

Learning to Ignore Religious Reactions to School Shootings

Photo by RexI'm on the freeway, heading back home from a doctor's appointment, and feeling morose. For the last five minutes, I've been contemplating the Connecticut shootings, just as I have done about a billion other times since last Friday. Right now, I'm thinking: Life is unfathomably cruel. The human experience is an experiment in limitless love and staggering loss. To be blessed by one is to be cursed by the other. It's not fair — it's not anything, really. It just is. And it feels terrible.

These thoughts are not helping my mood.

I take a deep breath. I want to feel better. I need to feel better. I challenge myself to find some silver linings in the tragedy. I think:

Only 20 kids were killed when it easily could have been been more. Because the victims were shot multiple times, they probably didn't suffer much, if at all, before they died. The victim's family members will be able to band together and support each other through the difficult months ahead. Foundations will be established in the children's honor, which will help the living in countless ways. Legislators may finally be motivated to implement real, honest change in this country's gun laws.

They are flimsy consolations, I realize, but they do console me. A little at least. And for the first time since I got in the car, I feel my body lighten, my muscles unclench, my spirits begin to lift.

But the gun-law thought has opened up another neural pathway. Now I start thinking about all the recent articles and Facebook posts I've seen about how school prayer would prevent school shootings. I start to mentally formulate my response to this, which, in very short order involves words like idiotic and garbage, along with a whole lot of profanity.

I check in with my body: It's heavy again, muscles clenched, spirits fallen. Instead of being sad, I am now angry. I think:

If I wrote a blog post about this, what would I say about this push to put God back in schools? How would I respond to people who say that praying would prevent the violence caused by mentally disturbed individuals, and that secularism is to blame for what happened in Connecticut? Could I get through such a post without using the f word? 

I'm still driving, mind you, and am about to turn onto the freeway exit near my home, when the answer occurs to me — as if by divine intervention.

There is no reason to respond at all. 

We, on the "state" side of the church-and-state issue, know instructing children to pray in school is wrong, but school-prayer proponents are never going to agree with us on that. Therefore, i.e., ergo... there is no reason to respond because there is nothing to say.

Don't get me wrong, if my kid's school was contemplating reversing its policy on school prayer, I would absolutely speak to the school board. But it's not. And I would bet that very few schools across the country are. So what's there to talk about? Who cares if people who are wrong say things that are wrong? It happens all the time. Does it matter? Are we so insecure in our own knowledge that we must try to convince the unconvince-able of the truth?

No. No, we're not.

I am off the freeway. I've turned onto my block. I relax again. I think:

School prayer, like so many things, is a nonissue for me. From now on, I'll ignore the articles and Facebook postsI'll tune out radio and  TV commentary. And if anyone tells me to my face that schools should bring back prayer, I will simply say, 'okay.' And I'll probably even smile.

Because my spirits have been lifted again. And I am home.

Yoga Class Indoctrinates Kids! (Um, Yeah, No)

Last week, some Christian parents in the Encinitas Union School District threatened to sue the district in an attempt to disband a twice-a-week yoga class offered to elementary school children. The yoga class, which has been touted as an excellent addition to the district's physical education curriculum, as well as drawing down the number of conflicts on the playground, is being viewed as a way to indoctrinate kids into the Hindu faith. The whole thing is both silly and sad, honestly, given the great success the district is having with the yoga program — but it's also based on a disingenuous premise.

These parents don't object to the district because yoga will indoctrinate their kids into Hinduism. They object because the district refuses to aid parents as they indoctrinate their children into Christianity.

By opening up children to a meditation-stretching practice with roots in another religion, the district is doing nothing more sinister than embracing multiculturalism. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is the enemy of indoctrination.

The way I see it, religious (or non-religious) indoctrination requires that we teach children two things:

1. There is only one right way to believe. 

2. People who disagree with that way are less moral, intelligent or worthy of our respect. 

Now, please note the use of the word right. In this context, right means "good, proper or just," rather than "accurate" or "free from error." It's virtually impossible to find a person on this planet who doesn't think her belief system is the correct one — the one that is factual and true. But there is a difference between "wrong" and "bad." As long as we acknowledge that there are other ways to believe that work well for other people, the first obligation is met.

Secondly, to avoid indoctrination, we must avoid negatively labeling people who disagree with our beliefs. Again, I'm not suggesting parents give equal weight to all belief systems, or back away from stating and/or celebrating their own beliefs. But if parents do not wish to indoctrinate, they must be willing to acknowledge that there are many ways to believe, and that the people who believe differently deserve just as much respect as anybody.

The problem in Encinitas isn't that the school is indoctrinating kids — not by a long shot. The "problem" is that by sharing a traditional Hindu practice in a positive way, the district might (but, sadly, probably won't!) undermine the indoctrination these kids are getting at home.

A Political Side Note: Relax, Democrats, It's Just 'God'

LA mayor and DNC chair

Have y'all been following the buzz over the decision to drop the word "God" from the Democratic Party's 2012 platform? The drop caused a minor uproar a the convention this week, mostly among non-Democrats, who also objected to the platform's failure to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both positions were reversed yesterday by a much-disputed two-thirds vote by convention delegates. Watch how things went down:

DNC officials have tried to pass off the God thing as a mistake more than a decision, but that's hard to buy — especially when you see this Fox News interview with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who went defensive in the extreme when asked about the change. He kept saying the word change was a minor issue and distracting from the real issues. That may be true, but I still don't understand why he didn't just answer the damn question.

Durbin was right about one thing, though: The Democrats are far from being a godless party. In a survey conducted last year, not one single member of the 112th Congress of the United States self-identified as nonreligious (at least not publicly). And the majority of registered Democrats still believe in God, studies show.

Despite all this, though, secularism is clearly gaining a foothold in this country. Almost 20 percent of us are unaffiliated with religious groups, according to recent studies. And that ratio — one-fifth of all Americans! — is impossible to ignore. So would it be out of character for the Democratic party, which touts itself as valuing inclusivity, to leave religion out of its platform? After all, leaving the word "God" out of this one document doesn't make religion less important or valuable to certain Democratic voters — just as leaving the word "fellatio" out of the document doesn't make sex any less important or valuable to certain Democratic voters. As I see it, it wouldn't be outrageous for DNC officials to simply acknowledge that these things are personal matters, not public requirements.

Is that a starkly different position than the Republican party? Well, yes! But that's okay. The fact is, lots of evangelical/fundamentalist Christians have welded together their religion and politics (politigion? religitics?), and the Republican party happens to be home to most of them. The way I see it, the presence of God as a major player in the Republican platform doesn't make the Republicans bad, or the evangelicals bad (not necessarily at least!). Leaving "God" out of the Democratic platform would simply have highlighted one of the many, many differences between the two parties.

In July, Pew Research for People and the Press conducted a survey that showed, at that time, Gov. Mitt Romney trailing President Barack Obama by a 10-point margin. Broken down by religion, though, the numbers were quite different. Protestants preferred Romney 48 percent to 45 percent; Catholics preferred Obama 53 percent to 40 percent. And those unaffiliated with any religion preferred Obama 65 percent to 27 percent.

The interesting thing about that last number is that it mirrors, in reverse, the poll results for Caucasian evangelical protestants. Among these evangelicals, 69 percent said they'd vote for Romney, and 27 percent said they'd vote for Obama. Guess it all balances out in the end, right?

I learned from this morning's paper (yes, I still get some of my news from the paper) that "God" was reinserted into the platform, and I was disappointed — but not because of the reinsertion (The whole issue really was becoming an unnecessary distraction). No, I was far more disappointed that DNC officials never took the time to formulate a clear-headed answer to why it was left out in the first place.

Creationism vs. Evolution: Bill Nye Gets Folks Talking

Bill Nye

Several months ago, my husband and I took our daughter to the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles to see its new Dinosaur Hall. The trip didn't disappoint. Not only was the dinosaur exhibit mind-bogglingly cool, right next door was an exhibit called the Age of Mammals, which led us through 65 million years of continental movement, climate change and mammal evolution. One of the neatest things, to me, was the row of skulls documenting the changes in human face and brain size over the last 2.5 million years. Taken as a whole, the museum was one big, stunning homage to evolution. And, later, when talking about the experience, my husband said: "I felt like I'd found a church."

Last week, Bill Nye (of Science Guy fame) made headlines when his youtube video, titled "Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children," went viral. Recorded for bigthink.com, Nye urged parents to teach their children evolution — even if they, themselves, believed in the literal translation of the Bible's Gensis. Here's the video:

Since then, many have thanked Nye for using his unique position to educate parents on the need for science-oriented young people. Others have erupted in anger and called his video an attack on religion. Still others have found both good and bad things to say.

Valerie Strauss, who writes The Answer Sheet for the Washington Post, for example, applauded Nye's message, but added:

"Unfortunately, Nye muddies his video by saying that one reason people shouldn’t force their kids to believe in creationism is that 'we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.' Why couldn’t a creationist be an engineer?"

She's certainly right about that.

Responding to his critics, Nye appeared on CBS a couple of days ago.

"I'm not attacking anyone's religion," Nye said. "But if you go to a museum, and you see fossil dinosaur bones, they came from somewhere. And we, by diligent investigation, have determined that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, and the sun is a star like all the other stars you see in the sky, and we are made of the same stuff. This is wonderful. [These are] fantastic discoveries that fill me with reverence."

Here's the full interview:

Promoting evolution — or even attacking creationism — is not the same thing as attacking religion. Creationism does not equal religion, and religion does not equal creationism. Plenty of people — more and more every day — reject the literal truth of Genesis, and even those who don't may still be open to discussing all possibililties. There are even some Americans who believe, somehow, both theories are true. "The Lord works in mysterious ways" and all that.

I don't think it's realistic to think that parents who believe in creationism will teach their kids anything but creationism. But maybe they will at least leave the door cracked open to other possibilities. And even if they don't, I'm glad Nye said his piece.

At least it has gotten people talking.

10 Commandments for Talking to Kids About Religion

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I've said it before and I'll say it again: When you're not religious, talking about religion with kids can be a serious challenge. The words don't come naturally. Little things can freak you out. And, about the time your kids learn to ask questions, you begin to notice how much of our society is informed by religious faith, and how many people around us believe things we don't. Panic has a way of setting in.

Hopefully, you aren't like me. Hopefully you're less anxiety-prone, more level-headed. Good for you. But, for the rest of you: It’s going to be fine. Stay focused. As the Brits say, "Keep Calm and Carry On." Kids will remember your attitude more than your words. Act like talking about religion is no big deal, and very soon talking about religion will be no big deal.

Here are my 10 Commandments:

1. Expose your kids to many religions

Have you ever noticed how religion can get in the way of a religious education? Either children are schooled in one particular belief system, or they’re not being taught a damn thing. But a good religious education is one that covers the basics of many religions from a cultural and historical perspective, without a whole lot of emotional investment. What is religion? Why did it come about? And why is it so important to people? Pick up some books and educate yourself about various religions; tell your kids what you're learning. Put major religious holidays (such as Rosh Hashanah, Diwali and Eid al-Ahda) on your calendar, and use them as opportunities to talk about history and tradition. Point out signs and symbols, religious clothing. Seize opportunities to visit places of worship. Religious literacy is a gift; give it.

2. Embrace the 'graven image' of science

A "graven image" is described as anything worshipped in place of God — whether it be other gods or demons, power, pleasure or money. Because science is something that can be valued in place of God, it’s possible to consider science a graven image. So be it.  For every religious book you read, tell you kids one cool thing about the real world. Evolution, the stars and planets, you name it. Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins' book, "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True," is a great new resource. But, remember, you need not set up religion and science as opposing forces — the way religious people often do. Present the facts. Your kids likely will figure the rest out on their own, and it will mean more when they do.

3. Don't saddle your kids with your anxiety over the word 'God'

The Pledge of Allegiance. The Girl Scout Promise. The motto written on American money. There is religion all around us, even in school. But it need not be a crisis. Let your kid know that God is a part of our culture's language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everything needs to be loaded with meaning. Kids may pledge their allegiance “under God” not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. If your kids prefer to a draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, great! Just be sure you’re not nudging them toward the battle.

4. Keep in mind: There's nothing wrong with believing in a higher power

Faith in a higher power is only as good or bad as the people who possess it. Most of the people your kids will meet during their lifetimes will have something wonderful to offer the world; that “something” may be accomplished despite belief in a higher power, or it may be accomplished because of it. "Religion" has become a loaded word — referring more to dogma than the simple underlying belief in God — and that's unfortunate, in a way. Because religion is like a fingerprint; everyone's is slightly different. Consider the chances, for instance, that any two people envision heaven in exactly the same way?  Or interpret all the major Biblical passages in the same way? Or inject religion into their politics and social mores in the same way?  Not bloody likely. In the end, then, to say someone is "Christian" or "Jewish" or "Muslim" means very little. Knowing someone's religion is a far cry from knowing her beliefs; knowing her label is a far cry from knowing her heart. So when you speak of "religion" around children, try to be as neutral as possible. And if you do choose to speak of religion in negative terms, be sure to explain exactly what you oppose, and why. Rarely do people oppose faith itself, but rather the actions that can arise out of faith. It's important that kids understand the difference.

5. Honor your mother's faith

Just because you're a nonreligious parent doesn't mean you have to shield your child from religious family members. If you give your child a context in which to hear about Grandma’s religion — or Cousin Suzie's, or Neighbor Bob's — you won't mind so much when those conversations arise. It may benefit Grandma to be able to talk with your child about her faith, and it may benefit your child to hear about faith from someone he knows and loves. And, as long as you've set the scene up front in a gentle, nonjudgemental way, there should be very little worry. For example, you might say: "Some people believe that a magic power, often called God, created the universe and is watching over us. And many people say that if you believe in God, you will go to live with God in a place called heaven after you die. That's why it's so important to Grandma that you believe what she does." (This is a great tip for parents in mixed-religion marriages, as well.) One caveat: If there’s a risk a family member will say something harmful or hateful to your child, the faith-sharing privilege is off the table. Luckily, I think most religious folks are capable of having conversations with children without invoking images of hell or condemning anal sex.

6. Don't kill your kid's good time

One of the many problems with ardently opposing religion is that it's so damn boring. If you’re preoccupied, for example, with explaining to your kids that Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans and that those who believe such things are irrational, you’re probably not telling the Adam-and-Eve story very well. And that’s a shame. Because it's a really great story! A child’s age, certainly, will dictate the tenor of your conversations about God, and which stories are appropriate to share. But don’t forget to have some fun. Go to the library and dig up as many interesting-looking books as you can. The more pictures, the better. And don't just offer flat readings of the stories; inject the stories about Jesus with all the drama and excitement with which they were probably intended. The same goes for tales of Abraham and Shiva and Mohammed and Zeus and all the other religious figures, both past and present. The more fun the stories are, the more your kids will want to hear them, and the more likely they'll be to remember them. And that's good. What kids don't know can hurt them — and that's especially true when it comes to religion.

7. Don't be a dick

Putting the word "dick" into the adultery commandment is probably not the most PC thing ever — which is ironic because this commandment sort of embraces political correctness. Here's the thing: When it comes to religion, most humans believe their way is the best way, the right way. And for non-theists, who have science on their side, their conviction may be all the stronger. But conviction need not translate into being snarky, arrogant or mean. There is nothing at all wrong with criticizing people for saying hateful things or doing harmful things. But let's cut the vitriol. You may discuss, oppose, even argue. But try to do it without name-calling, generalizing, or degradation — even when you see theists name-calling, generalizing and degrading nonbelievers. Yes, it’s possible to fight fire with fire. But, in the end, it’s all just fire.

8. Don't steal your child's ability to choose

If you're going to teach children that it's okay for people to hold religious beliefs, you must be willing to let your children hold religious beliefs as well. Otherwise, the words sound hollow — and they are. There's no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them everything you know about religion. And then let them take it from there. Let them know they are free to choose what they want to believe, and encourage them to change their minds as often as they like. If they want to experiment with religion, support them. They'll probably come around to your way of thinking eventually anyway. And if they don't, it doesn't matter. What does matter to you is that they grow up to be good and happy adults. Or is it?

9. Don't lie about your own beliefs

Everyone has the right to to their own thoughts and beliefs, and that includes you. Don’t hide them! Not only would you be sending a message that religion is an uncomfortable/scary/intimidating subject, but you’d be making it clear that it’s okay to be ashamed of your beliefs. You can put off the conversation for a while, but eventually your kid will ask. Admit when you are confused or don't have all the answers. Tell them that the existence of God, in any shape or form, is something no one can prove or disprove, which is what makes it so easy to debate. Let kids know that yours is a household that talks openly and respectfully about tough subjects — including religion.

10. Respect the religious without tolerating intolerance 

Teaching your kids to respect religious people is important. But that doesn't mean they must respect religious intolerance. It doesn't mean they must respect immoral, unethical or hateful words and actions simply because they come under the heading of religious righteousness. Will kids say mean things on the playground? Yes. Do all those mean things need to be treated seriously? No. Fights will break out; feelings will be hurt. It's a part of growing up. But hurting or terrorizing another child — or anyone — in the name of religion is no different than terrorizing a child for any other reason. Bullying is bullying, and should be treated as such. The bottom line: Don't hold religious beliefs against people who are being nice. And don't hold it in favor of people who are being mean.