January 24, 2013

Do Your Co-Workers Know You Are an Atheist?

modern architecture

It has been a while since I addressed the subject of atheism in the workplace, but I continue to be interested in this topic. For those of you who are atheists and who are employed, do your co-workers know of your atheism? If so, has this created any problems for you at work? It occurs to me that people doing different jobs may have very different experiences, ranging from atheism being the norm among their co-workers to being fired because of it. I thought it might be interesting to hear how atheists in different jobs have handled their atheism and what, if any, impact they have experienced in the workplace.

How Would They Know?

How might one's co-workers ever learn of one's atheism in the first place? From my experience, that depends largely on what sort of job we're talking about and where one lives. In some areas, one's co-workers would never know because the question would never be raised. This was certainly true for me when I first entered the workforce. I'm thinking all the way back to jobs I had during high school. I was living on the West Coast at the time, and I do not recall anyone at work ever asking anything that would have led me to say anything about my religious beliefs or lack thereof. Politics came up from time-to-time, and I am sure others occasionally mentioned aspects of their own religion, but I don't ever recall feeling pressure to disclose my thoughts on religion.

I can draw a stark contrast between my early work experience on the West Coast and my present experience in Mississippi. Here, complete strangers regularly approach me to ask where I attend church and invite me to theirs. I have directly observed people being asked about their religious beliefs and church attendance during job interviews in spite of this violating federal law. I know the religious beliefs, down to the specific denomination of nearly all of my co-workers, and I could even tell you the specific churches most attend. This is not because I have inquired; it is because talking about religion here is like talking about one's children elsewhere (i.e., everybody does it, and they do it often). There is virtually no separation between religion and the rest of someone's life.

I'm not sure that I've ever used the word "atheist" to describe myself around my co-workers, but I have told them that I am "not religious," that I do not attend church, and that I have no desire to attend their churches with them. I believe I've described myself as a "skeptic" to a couple of them. I suspect that the smarter ones have been able to get from here to "atheist" without too much difficulty.

Potential Consequences of Atheism in the Workplace

I suspect the potential consequences of disclosing one's atheism to one's co-workers would also be diverse based on the type of job and where one lived. For some, the risk of being fired is probably quite real. I have worked for people in the past who almost certainly would have let me go had they known what I thought of their religion. My current situation is not quite so dire. Although I work with some people who would certainly fire atheists if they had the chance, I think they realize that doing so would be challenging and that they would probably come off looking like bigots.

Of course, there are many potential consequences that do not involve losing one's job. One may be shunned, have one's contributions devalued, deprived of the support and assistance needed to perform one's job effectively, suffer damage to one's reputation, or even be subjected to hostility. In many areas of the U.S., I imagine the co-workers of a self-described Nazi would have more favorable attitudes toward their co-worker than those of an atheist.

The Dilemma

Since we know that increased exposure to atheists in one's daily life would almost certainly help to improve negative attitudes toward atheists, we are faced with something of a dilemma. A powerful argument can be made that we should all come out to our co-workers, challenging their assumptions and hopefully reducing prejudice against atheists. Of course, this remains risky for those doing so.

I'm fairly confident that a couple of my co-workers would not care whether I was an atheist and respond with, "Yeah, so?" if I were to label myself as an atheist. I'm equally confident that others would be horrified and have as little to do with me as possible. I suspect I'd be able to keep my job, but I think it would probably become far more challenging, less supportive, and a lonelier experience than it is now. So for the time being, I'm not terribly eager to call myself an atheist at work even though I recognize that doing so might have some long-term benefits for others.