Ask Richard: Surrounded by Evangelists at Work


Dec. 9, 2009

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(Note: To add another layer of anonymity for the letter's author, I have changed his name–as I do for all the writers who sign their letters with their name. I have also altered a few incidental details of his story to make him less identifiable.)

Dear Richard,  

I consider myself a radical atheist. Unfortunately, I am also pretty much in the closet about my lack of belief at work.

My co-worker in the next cube over is always ranting and raving about God and country. He thinks atheists are the root of all evil and that our country's problems are caused by our abandonment of God.

I think he suspects I am an atheist, perhaps because of the Flying Spaghetti Monster logo on the back of my car. He recently put up a sign on his cabinet that reads "God Bless America" with a flag background. I suspect he is trying to provoke me into a discussion, but I have zero interest in having one with him. 

It makes for an uncomfortable workplace. I work on computer software so I can do my job with headphones on, and I find myself turning the music up lately to drown my co-worker out.

My question is, should I say something to him? I feel like he is trying to lure me into a discussion of religion just so he can try to evangelize and push his agenda. He has already had a run in with HR when he was trying to raise money for his anti-abortion group at work. I personally feel such talk at the office is inappropriate–but I suspect if I said something he'd claim I am somehow oppressing him.

Another wrench in the works is my manager, who can't go two sentences without affirming his own religiosity. My manager is also a cost cutter who has laid people off to save money. I wouldn't want him to have any reason to fire me. If my manager were to find out I was an atheist he would probably take an interest in converting me and it would probably change his opinion of me for the worse.

I work at a pretty large company with an HR department. Do you think I should go to HR about my co-worker? Am I wrong for wanting him to keep his ill-informed opinions to himself? Should I just suck it up? I have a wife, kids and a mortgage to worry about.



Dear Brett,

To sum up the situation, your co-worker is a childish, boorish, paranoid, evangelizing activist who is annoying you with his loud and distracting blather. Your manager is a devout evangelical Christian who uses an axe to protect the company profit margin. You have a mortgage and a family to support.

I don't think sucking it up or turning the music up even louder will be a lasting solution. It's just going to wear you down. You need and deserve a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere to do your work.

As irksome as you may find Mr. Religious Right's opinions, that is not the issue. He certainly has the right to express his views, but he does not have the right to disturb his neighbors at work. It would be completely legitimate for you to try to quiet the irritating chatter from the next cubicle, but exactly how you do that is very important. Revealing that you are an atheist would not be a good idea at this time and place.

I suggest that you make polite requests to your co-worker to quiet down always for work-related reasons. Say with a calm, flat tone, "Excuse me, I need to concentrate on my work." Or, "Can you please keep it down?" This will probably have to be repeated many times. Don't touch the subject of his rants with a 10-foot pole.

If he or your boss asks you if the specifics of your co-worker's opinions are what you object to, don't answer that directly–you just want him to stop his distracting prattling, period. Always attaching the need to do your work with your requests for him to be quiet makes your requests unassailable. You're there to work, not to discuss religion or politics.

Going to HR should be the last resort, but it's wise to prepare for it. Keep a written record of the dates and times that he was disturbing your work and the exact wording of the polite requests for quiet that you made each time. If you do decide to go to HR, you'll have documentation that you have tried your best in a reasonable manner to get him to stop. Again, emphasize the disruption of your work, not the content of his tiresome twaddle. 

If you go to HR, be ready for the poop to hit the propeller. If he wants to play the oppressed martyr, he will. His remarks may become more passive-aggressive, with sneaky barbs and sideways insults in your direction, or he may defiantly escalate his political-religious rants. But don't get suckered into reacting to that. Just stick to your original strategy and, when it seems like the right time, take it back to HR. 

Now, as to the tension you feel because of having to keep your own atheistic views carefully concealed, I think that people with jobs should be constantly doing two things: doing their very best at their job and looking for a better job.

Given that you're not working in a comfortable place–even if the guy shuts up–you should quietly start looking for a better place to work where you can be freer to be yourself. It may take a long time, but just the act of taking steps for your own benefit, rather than just defending yourself, will help you to feel more empowered and in control of your life.



(Richard Wade is both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)