January 25, 2019

Promoting Atheism in the Workplace

office door

Those of you who have been around the atheist blogosphere long enough might still remember the "OUT Campaign" once championed by Richard Dawkins. The idea was simple: encourage atheists to "come out" and sell lots of merchandise aimed at helping them do so. If that description sounds a bit cynical, that's because it is. At the same time, this should not be taken to mean I did not approve of the campaign or its aims. I supported it, and I continue to think it was a good idea. The OUT Campaign introduced us to the scarlet A as a symbol for atheism, a variant of which can still be found in the banner at the top of Atheist Revolution.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post which I decided to rewrite here, addressing something with which I was struggling at the time: a desire to show support for atheism in my workplace. The title of the post may not be the best reflection of its content, as it wasn't so much that I wanted to promote atheism. I had little interest in that. I just wanted to show other atheists that my tiny office would be a space free from judgment. I explained that I work at a state university located in an environment which is extremely oppressive to anyone who is not an evangelical fundamentalist Christian, and I wanted to provide a safe haven for the few students who might actually be oriented to reality (i.e., atheists).

There are plenty of students around here who struggle with the oppressively Christian environment. Some of my colleagues and many of their peers are quick to tell such students that they are going to hell unless they have some sort of relationship with a certain mythical figure. I wanted to be able to communicate subtly that there is reason to be found here. Much like we communicate tolerance to GLBT students, I wanted to be able to do this with atheist students.

And so, I wrote about how I had been thinking of putting one of the scarlet A symbols on my office door. I never did this or anything like it, though, at least not with respect to atheism. Why? Here's how I explained it in 2008:

Imagine that you are an atheist college student and you see a pro-Christian symbol (e.g., a Jesus fish) on the door of a professor with whom you need to interact. The inner reaction you are having right now is precisely why I am hesitant to put an atheist symbol on my door - I don't want to make students feel that way. All other reasons not to apply the sticker pale in comparison to this one.
In the end, the decision came down to a desire to balance the good I could do by communicating that I was a safe place for atheist students to be themselves against the harm this could cause by making Christian students uncomfortable around me. In 2008, I concluded that the balance favors wanting to avoid the potential harm. While I cannot claim to have never had second thoughts, my door has remained free from any such symbols.

I sometimes think about how nice it would be if more Christians considered the effects of their behavior on others. Then again, I suppose Christian privilege has meant that they haven't needed to do so.