Religion in the Workplace: An American Problem?

conference room

Long before I started Atheist Revolution in 2005, I had my RSS reader set up to bring me posts from several excellent atheist blogs and websites, as well as many news sources related to atheism, church and state issues, etc. Sifting through this information every week provided me with a fairly broad perspective since I was careful to include several sources from outside the United States. It did not take me long to notice that people living outside the U.S. often expressed surprise that so many of us are frequently exposed to religion in the workplace. They had a hard time believing that such a thing could happen in an otherwise civilized country, and who could blame them?

My experiences are certainly skewed by living in one of the most religious and politically conservative states, but I do not seem to be alone in having frequent experiences with religion in the workplace. Besides, I encountered milder forms of this problem in two other regions of the country before moving to Mississippi. I have come to view the phenomenon of religion in the workplace mostly as a reflection of the fact that religion in general and Christianity, in particular, are an important part of public life in America. Far from being persecuted, Christians enjoy a great deal of privilege when it comes to their religion being regarded as the norm.

For those of you living outside the United States who have a hard time imagining what religion in the workplace might look like, I have provided some examples I have personally experienced (and continue to experience regularly) below. Before reading these, please keep in mind that I am employed at a public (i.e., state) university. I mention that because some of this would probably be even worse at a private religious institution.

  • Employees wearing blatantly religious clothing and jewelry
  • Religious calendars, posters, and other decorative material adorning offices
  • Regularly receiving email containing bible quotes, references to Jesus, "you're in my prayers," etc.
  • Discussing events that took place at one's church
  • Asking others, including local applicants being interviewed for jobs, where they attend church
  • Inviting others to attend one's own church
  • Openly criticizing others for not being "good Christians"
  • Making disparaging comments about non-Christians
  • Making comments like, "I guess my faith led me to that decision" or "I better pray on it"
  • Beginning events (graduation, certain meetings, etc.) with prayer

Is any of this the end of the world? Nope. With the exception of asking blatantly illegal questions during job interviews and expressing bigotry aimed at non-Christians, much of this is not hard to overlook. It can usually be attributed to the lack of concern for others that seems to accompany Christian privilege. They don't pause to consider how any of this might affect non-Christians because they have not needed to do so. That is beginning to change.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised and expanded in 2019.