Online Religious Harassment: What I Learned From Summer Camp and 3 Wise Monkeys

When I was a kid, I went to summer camp. And I came from a nonreligious household. Disconnected facts? Six days a week, yes. But on the seventh day came harassment. That’s another word for bullying.

The camp had mandatory religious services. The Catholics went to Mass in a local church in the morning. The rest of the camp went to a nondenominational service in The Lodge in the afternoon. Everyone, that is, but me. Not knowing where to go, I went to neither.

That was my first mistake.

Hammock and house
Photo by S_Photo/

I caught fury from some very self-righteous campers. How many? About 20%. That works out to about 40 campers letting me know in no uncertain terms and with as many people listening as possible that I was going to Hell, and in some cases backing it up with physical abuse to hasten the trip. I was working for the devil. Or more likely I was the devil.

In my 10-year-old mind, devoid of any actual knowledge of any religion, I was terrified. That terror was my second mistake, although it would take me years to fully realize it.

When I finally did realize it, I saw that none of my tormenters had clue number one about the actual tenets of any form of Christianity. None. The only difference between them and me was that they thought they knew something. I knew I didn’t.

That works out to about 40 campers letting me know in no uncertain terms and with as many people listening as possible that I was going to Hell.

The information they did have—I won’t call it knowledge—didn’t come from anything that Christ taught. These kids didn’t understand the Bible. At their ages they’d never read it. They probably understood about every fifth word they heard in church: the alarming ones. What stuck was the really scary stuff that came out of the loudest mouths, and probably not even in church.

I’ve long since made sense of all this and have thus made peace with it, but these thoughts did waft through my mind as I read a recent report from the Pew Research Center.

According to a survey conducted last fall and a report published this month, 41% of adults interviewed have been harassed online and, of them, 19% have been harassed because of their religion or lack of religion. That works out to about 8% of the entire population. Assuming the survey is representative of the population of the United States—and with 10,093 responses from randomly chosen adults it probably is pretty close—more than 26 million Americans have been harassed online about religion.

Boy on stairs with laptop
Image by Popel Arseniy/

That’s 26 million people receiving online what I got in person. The survey defines harassment as any of the following: offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, and sexual harassment. (I got all but the last category.)

My immediate takeaway is that the source of the harassment is the same as what I experienced face-to-face: ignorance and false information. The simple truth is that we didn’t understand each other. It was mutual. And I’ll just say in passing that I believe it’s the source of harassment on any other subject as well.

41% of adults interviewed have been harassed online and, of them, 19% have been harassed because of their religion.

The word “ignorance” itself comes from a root meaning “not knowing.” A lack of knowing—lack of understanding—is a vacuum into which can fall all manner of false information. The internet trolls who harass people because of their religion are utterly devoid of any real knowledge of the religion and the individuals they are harassing. Ask the tormenters what they actually know about any given religion and they’ll spew and foment and bloviate but they won’t be able to say anything true. They can’t. They don’t know. And I strongly suspect they don’t want to know. People like this revel in ignorance and make it a mission to spread lies. They don’t “mean well.”

I’ve gotten my share of this as a Scientologist. But offer them some actual information and the jerks just spew and foment. Or run away. The facts might confuse them, apparently.

I’ve seen this all my life and I know that similar bullying has gone on throughout recorded history. It has started wars. It has destroyed civilizations. But in the past, an individual rant would only make it over the back fence or the town square and it took time to propagate through bars, barbershops and beauty shops. Now anyone, anywhere can blast a barb by tapping SEND and in fractions of a second, it’s all over the world.

It could be a new measure of internet speed: hate barbs per second.

Three monkeys
The Three Wise Monkeys (Photo by Ray in Manila/ CC 2.0)

There isn’t some mass solution to this. It takes individual action. Or inaction: the simplest thing to do when some bit of hate comes your way is to kill it by not passing it on. Not even a little bit. Not even to your friends with a “Look at this. Isn’t this disgusting?” Just drop it. A phenomenon that exists only because of attention cannot continue without attention.

If someone you know is spreading this stuff, you can pass on the wisdom of something else I learned as a kid from three wise monkeys: See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. This pictorial maxim comes from ancient China by way of Japan. From Confucius, the full message is, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety….” Wise words indeed, expanded upon by L. Ron Hubbard in The Way to Happiness. And they suggest a method of approach in talking to such people.

The kindest thing you can do is to communicate directly to such a person and, without falling into the trap of ranting yourself, guide them onto a kinder path: stop spreading hate and stop reading it. Remind them of the monkeys. Show them The Way to Happiness.

Monkeys can’t go online. They have an advantage there. But we can still aspire to be wise like them.

Michael Scandling
Fine-art photographer, writer, counselor-at-large, chef, dog lover, nature lover. Not particularly reverent.