Ethics & Religion

The day I stood up to bullshit

The first time I was suspended from school came in Year 8. To some, that might seem a little early to receive a penalty as serious as a suspension. In this case, however, that would be an incorrect assumption.

Happening in Year 8, it actually established my bona fides as a ‘late bloomer’. You see, the school in question was no amateur when it came to producing a fine range of proper rascals and soon-to-be scoundrels of note. Many alumni went on to achieve distinguished tenure in some of the finest penal institutions throughout the land.

The reason for the suspension: well, we will get to that soon enough. And, without spoiling the punchline, it was not for what you might typically expect – a violent assault, vandalism or petty larceny. It was for something that, to this day, I wear as a badge of honour.

Before we begin, a few details for context – about the school, my fellow inmates and myself at the time. The school would be considered quite standard for the area and the time. The school was firmly working class, with many single-income families. It was a little rough around the edges, but I’m sure there were worse out there.

The problem was I was the curious bookish type with an appetite to read and try my best in the classroom. I also possessed a physique about as intimidating as a handful of cooked pasta, complete with the shoulders of a brown snake.

Upon starting at this high school, the bullying was swift and was – to borrow a slice of modern corporate bullshit – delivered in an optimised omni-channel methodology. Violence, theft, breakage and intimidation flowed as standard.

So picture, if you will, a run-of-the-mill nerd/dweeb who found himself in an environment that was not at all suited to nerd/dweebs.

The flavour of first-year curriculum was of course public school pedestrian with a hint of mediocrity. On the plus side, being a public school meant no shadowy wait-list procedures, no anxiety-inducing mortgage-rivalling fees, and, certainly, no nuns or priests. 

In the second year of high school, students could select their ‘electives’. Maths and English were mandatory, but the others we could select. Oh joy of joys for the bookish, snake-shouldered nerd-dweeb!

But here comes the ‘yang’ to the previous paragraph’s ‘yin’: the trade-off of choosing one’s elective subjects was that all year 8, 9 and 10 students were mixed into one cohort. 

I now had the privilege of being directly bullied by an even larger, more thoroughly diverse range of intimidating characters. Whilst I could see that two more years of ‘education’ had accomplished little in terms of intellectual development, their powers of villainy certainly suffered no such retardation. 

This is not to elicit pity. And I certainly don’t say this to diminish the very real and painful effects of bullying in schools – I still bear my fair share of scar tissue. I say this purely to illustrate that, in a perverse way, all of this was being setup rather beautifully to help me. The catalyst? None other than Jesus H Christ from Nazareth. 

Now would be a good time to let you know that I am not a believer in any of the many hundreds of claimed invisible sky-wizard ‘gods’. Fortunately, that all started quite young for me.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Raised in a house with no regard for religion, my parents were no vocal atheists, more the indifferent type. As far as I have been able to tell, religion just didn’t enter their lives. They were raised in very hard-working, practical households, with solid values, an impeccable sense of right and wrong, and a sense of duty to help others.

The reason for the suspension…was not for what you might typically expect – a violent assault, vandalism or petty larceny. It was for something that, to this day, I wear as a badge of honour.

At seven or eight, I was sent to a version of ‘Sunday School’ at a church just metres from my house. I vividly remember it: the dimly-lit room, the musty smell and, of course, the grating tones of clearly forced enthusiasm produced through faces crippled with perma-smiles.

Most striking were the ‘materials’ presented – pamphlets, posters and books with brightly coloured illustrations of goliaths, lions, floods and talking snakes. Each was stamped with headlines making outlandish claims – claims that would moisten the eye of even the hardest communist propagandist.

Whilst I didn’t know the correct word back then, my mind and body were flooded with sensations I now recognise – the sensations you feel right before letting out the word ‘bullshit’ on a chuckling breeze of laughter.

Thankfully, the Sunday School experiment lasted only a few weeks. I didn’t know it at the time, but my bullshit detector had been installed.

Now, in addition to being forced into Year 8 classes with some of the elders of the assorted bullying clans, I then discovered that we also had to receive religious instruction once a fortnight – not to be confused with ‘religious education’, where you might study and compare a range of the world’s passionately-held religions. My heart sank.

The time arrived for the first week of religious instruction. The cast of Christopher Nolan’s gritty reboot of Lord of the Flies gathered in one of those classic, wooden, demountable sweat boxes called a classroom.

The seating arrangements were as stereotypical as they were Darwinian. At the back of the room, the larger brute force alpha males arranged in packs, encircled by the remora-like, open-mouth, gum-chewing young ladies seeking their attention. The mid-range featured the endearing species of delinquent tweens – bold enough to attack the younglings but not yet bold enough to challenge the rule of the silverbacks. At the front, where every minute seemed covered in treacle, were nature’s rounding errors – the meek, the fearful and, of course, the nerd/dweeb.

Well, we didn’t have to wait too long that day before ‘Mr Giles’ (not his real name) came bounding in, with guitar slung across his back, proudly clutching what could only be described as a novelty-sized Bible in one hand and clear bag of ‘all-day suckers’ candy in the other. I also recognised immediately the cheery enthusiasm and perma-smile. Even at that age, I could sense the counterfeit confidence.

I was certainly no Bart Ehrman-esque biblical scholar at the time. But I had, at some point in the past, acquired a small ‘pocket’ Bible – likely stolen from a hotel room somewhere because, hey, that’s what you do when you’re in a hotel in the 1980s and things weren’t nailed down. No pun intended.

I would occasionally leaf through it and read random passages. A few things struck me, as they do most people the first time you actually read some of this thing for yourself: the structural difficulty; the contradictions; the numbering of sentences; and, of course, just how preposterous most parts of it are.

I had fiction books at the time that were just no match for the cavalier attitude to believability and childlike creativity that the Bible possessed. So, I was no scholar, but I knew a few things.

Whilst I didn’t know the correct word back then, my mind and body were flooded with sensations I now recognise – the sensations you feel right before letting out the word ‘bullshit’ on a chuckling breeze of laughter.

Mr Giles proceeded to speak passionately for 30 minutes – an arc of words that seemed to have no point other than to afford him the chance to rattle off his own personal ‘classic hits’ of Christianity. 

I did notice that for those 30 minutes, whilst gesturing towards and referencing his novelty-sized Bible, he never actually picked it up and read from it. Why did he bring it if he wasn’t going to use it? The needle on my bullshit detector was moving.

He then grabbed the guitar and sang some ditty about walking in deserts and worshiping kingdoms in the clouds. It was as cringeworthy as David Brent delivering a motivational TED-Talk.

Mr Giles then de-slung the guitar, stood by the door and offered us each an all-day sucker from his lolly bag as we left the room. Oh, the sweet release of recess. The thought of any further classes like this immediately felt unbearable.

Fast forward two weeks. We again found ourselves in the unventilated sweatbox of a classroom, and the Darwinian seating arrangements were promptly adhered to. The treacle-covered minutes dragged on even longer this week as Mr Giles was a few minutes late.

Just enough time for a 10-inch Phillips-head screwdriver to come slamming into my back. The silverback responsible smirked, chuckled and went back to regaling his fawning maidens with tales of his exploits on the footy field. The blow was painful. It punctured my shirt and cut my back – but, as an experienced bully-ee, I was well trained in kicking the weapon aside and pretending that nothing happened.

“Hellooo kids”, beamed Mr Giles, striding into the room. The sheer drudgery of the previous sermon, the cloistering heat and humidity of the room, coupled with the mix of emotions of having just been attacked yet again had me bubbling in my seat.

It didn’t take long before one of his nonsensical statements saw me snap. I stood and challenged the claim. To this day, I’m not sure where the urge to stand up came from. A half-baked retort came my way, delivered in a tone of arrogant surprise, typical of someone unaccustomed to defending such statements.

I pushed back again. This time, the defence, along with the voice, was shaky. I thought, “Hang on, the cupboard is bare here.”

I pushed some more, challenging him to articulate the process he used to discount other religions as fake, yet not apply that same process to his own. He became visibly agitated. The man who had been espousing love, calmness and brotherhood was none too pleased with the nerd/dweeb. 

It was about then that I noticed the other inmates were now engaged. And on my side! Mr Giles was now a rather angry chap. Spit flew from his mouth, as did a lot of “how dare you!” retorts and aggressive finger pointing. None of his responses made sense. And, I suspect, deep down he knew it.

I was now having fun and decided to press on. The straw that broke him was a simple statement from me. At the time, I thought I was the first to have ever come up with this one, such is the brash foolishness of youth. “Why would an all-powerful God give us free choice and then punish us for using it?”

He detonated. Rage. Words. Tears. He grabbed the novelty-sized Bible, guitar and bag of sugary child-bribes and stormed out of the room.

The inmates cheered, mocked and laughed as he left. Whilst they didn’t hoist me onto their shoulders like the slayer of some dragon, I sure felt like they had. I had just vanquished a fully grown man, who was driven to tears merely by words and argument from a 14-year-old. It felt pretty special.

The glory didn’t last long. The summons to visit with the headmaster followed immediately. The trial was swift and one-sided.

I was informed that my ‘behaviour’ would bring the school into disrepute. It was a severe dressing-down with blistering vitriol. Found guilty by the one-man judge and jury, I was swiftly sentenced to a three-day suspension. Me! The one who had remained calm and merely used words and argument, not the emotionally uncontrolled ‘adult’.

Despite that small crease of injustice, I allowed myself to feel a sense of pride. I had finally stood up for myself. And I did it in the face of bullshit – perhaps the biggest and oldest bully of all.

Now, I’d love to tell you that all bullying magically disappeared from my life after this. It didn’t. However, those that were in the room that day never again carried on the way they had previously. And I was never again confused for a screwdriver rack.

This entire episode, to borrow a phrase, turned out to be quite the revelation. 

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Photo by Yustinus Tjiuwanda on Usplash.


About M. Robert Campbell

M. Robert Campbell is the author of ‘The Art & Science of Bullshit’ (visit He is a commentator who enjoys poking fun at the current state and forms of bullshit in our society. He remains optimistic that we can re-learn how to disagree with each other and do so with good humour and civility.

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