August 26, 2006

Academic Freedom: The Plight of Atheist Professors

A recent post at Deep Thoughts reminded me of a Dear Amy column I read with great interest.

A self-identified atheist going under the name Offended Professor wrote in to Dear Amy about his unfortunate experience at work. He indicates that he was recently hired as a professor at a public university, where he now faces a constant barrage of Christian e-mail, notes, and even prayer from his co-workers.
"I would respect this practice if I were in someone's home. However, in a workplace -- especially an academic institution that is supposed to broaden minds -- I felt that it was inappropriate, presumptuous and intolerant -- and maybe even illegal at a federally funded institution. (If this were a private college funded and associated with religion, it would be understandable.)"
I read this with great interest because I'm in a similar situation as an atheist working at a public university who is surrounded by Christian co-workers (and students). How would he handle the situation, and what advice would be offered from Dear Amy?

Offended Professor said that he does not plan to complain because doing so would likely affect his relationships at work. From my experience, I can say that complaining would almost certainly hurt his relationships with co-workers. He's right about this. However, I wonder if he also realizes that complaining might also jeopardize his continued employment?

Dear Amy's response was somewhat naive but generally pretty good.
"I'm with you on this, but I can't figure out why you wouldn't give your colleagues the benefit of knowing your point of view."
He already said that he was worried about the impact of complaining on his relationships with co-workers. To deny that this is likely is overly naive. True, one could adopt the stance that one would not want to be friends with those who have a problem with one's atheism. However, this is easier said than done. Amy's statement that he has "a right to let your colleagues know where you stand" is certainly true, however, this is only relevant if the professor decides he can live with the consequences.

The interesting part of her response was when Amy shared the situation with Paul Miller, previously of the EEOC and now on faculty at the University of Washington. This was some truly useful information.
"At a federally funded government institution, this runs counter to the 1st Amendment. The law is structured to protect employees from mandated religious practice. There should be boundaries around religion in the workplace and at a workplace function. Religion doesn't belong in the workplace, in terms of creating an overt or covert pressure to participate."
This suggests that Offended has at least some law on his side. However, all this really means is that if he was fired explicitly for refusing to participate in religious activities in the workplace, he could probably bring a successful suit. Of course, this assumes that he had the money, time, and energy to do so.

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