Atheists in Business: The Price of Prejudice

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I received a great question from a reader on the subject of atheists in business and the prejudice they often face. I used to discuss issues related to atheism in the workplace quite often, but it occurs to me that it has been a while since I posted on this important subject. I also imagine that this is something many of you have had more experience with and might like to chime in too.

I'd like to approach this subject from two directions, different but equally interesting. First, there is the scenario where we have a small atheist-owned business and must contend with the owner potentially losing customers when his or her atheism becomes known. And second, there is the case of an atheist being employed in a company where most of the prejudice encountered would be expected to come from co-workers and bosses. I've had more experience with the second situation, so I'll start there.

The Atheist Employee

I'll speculate that most atheists employed in the U.S. either have faced some sort of prejudice in their place of employment or remain closeted at work in order to avoid this outcome. I've encountered prejudice of all kinds at the state university where I am employed (e.g., race, age, sexual orientation, gender, and atheism). What stands out to me is that most people seem to know that it is inappropriate and try to conceal it, except when it comes to atheists. In fact, I've heard more than my share of anti-atheist bigotry right out in the open (e.g., atheists are immoral, can't be trusted, evil people, etc.). People do not seem to put anti-atheist bigotry in the same category as the other forms, and many are not reluctant about expressing it openly.

I have also heard from friends and family of far more serious examples of prejudice and discrimination against atheists in the workplace. These include repeated, unwanted invitations to attend church with the boss, mandatory attendance at sectarian prayer meetings during work, open hostility from co-workers including threats of hell, and even termination.

Particularly here in the South, being an open atheist can be an excruciatingly difficult experience in many places of employment. At the same time, being an openly evangelical fundamentalist Christian is often encouraged, sometimes explicitly so.

Atheist-Owned Businesses

This section is much more speculative since I haven't had much direct experience with atheist-owned businesses. Based on what I know of atheist professionals (i.e., accountants, attorneys, psychologists, etc.), I'd guess that it would be virtually impossible to run a small business in a small and rabidly Christian community as an open atheist. I've heard many stories of professionals in such settings losing clients after answering questions honestly about their views on religion.

I would expect the experience of atheist business owners to be highly variable by region. In a large city located in a more educated part of the country, I suspect one could do okay even while being reasonably open about one's atheism. Customer word-of-mouth and the involvement of churches might be less important in such settings.

What Do You Think?

If you've had direct experience with atheism in the workplace or running a small business as an atheist, we'd love to hear from you. What are your biggest challenges in such a setting, and how have you navigated the potential minefield of prejudice?