The Ethical Dilemma: Invisible Atheist at Work

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Invisible Atheist at Work: I have a two-part dilemma. First, I’m wondering how people manage to integrate into the workplace as nonbelievers without facing rampant discrimination. I believe silence can be the best policy when it comes to religion at work. Talking about religion gets hairy, and if I speak my mind, I feel it will only offend others. After all, no one really likes their passionate religious views challenged, and they are programmed to try to convert or shun nonbelievers. On my personal time, openness is no skin off my back, but at work it’s another story.

I’ve always tried to indirectly brush off questions like “What church do you go to?” When coworkers gather in corners to pray for colleagues, I stay busy focused on work. If push comes to shove, I say, “I do my own thing.” I shouldn’t have to hide, but I also know that at work, it’s probably in my best interest to not declare non-Christianity. After all, it affects my livelihood. I’ve literally had a boss ask me my religious beliefs, listing off things like “Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran,” and my response was “none of the above.” In turn, I received a lot of “advice” and was even told that those who are non-Christian have fewer morals because “they don’t have Jesus Christ as a role model.” I want to avoid a recurrence of these “helpful talks” in my next job. I don’t want to step on any toes, and I live in a particularly religious state.

I’ve come to a sad acceptance that I just can’t be so open—and it does hurt my ability to socialize with peers. Lunchroom conversation always turns to church topics. I’ve worked in a place that literally had a preacher on staff. This definitely isolated me from my peers when people would read his excerpts (posted on our employee web) and discuss their views at work meetings. The company culture, religion included, was one of the major reasons I left that place. I can’t just run from place to place. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to avoid religion at work. How do people manage to not hurt themselves professionally without “faking religion,” especially in the Bible Belt areas?

My second problem is with a teacher in the school. I don’t want to rock any boats because I’m trying to get a permanent position at this school. This teacher decorated her classroom very beautifully, but in a frame on her shelf, she has definitive Christian quotes like “He has risen; Love God.” I’m offended that this is in a classroom, and while I don’t want to self-identify, I really think she needs to take this down. In a public school, there should be no religious anything posted. In fact, teachers should really avoid the topic of their personal beliefs when around students. I’m concerned that bringing it up would negatively impact me in the workplace (or prevent me from getting a permanent position), so any suggestion might be helpful.

—Hiding at School

Dear Hiding,

Other than moving away from the Bible Belt (which you must have good reasons not to do, or you would have done it already), I have no easy solutions for you. When you are in a place where pretty much everyone else thinks their religion rules, it’s hard to buck that without repercussions, even if the law is on your side. I would not recommend deviating from your low profile at least until you’ve landed that job you want, and maybe not after that either.

What I recommend is keeping a file of the violations—pictures of your colleague’s inappropriate classroom décor, comments people make about religion, prayers and other religious observance on public school property and during school hours, and of course any coercion you may personally experience. Also document any glowing performance reviews, since you may one day need to prove you were passed over or let go without appropriate cause. You could contact the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center ( for guidance, particularly about the religious quotes in the classroom. It’s possible an anonymous complaint could be lodged and a letter sent to the school. But be aware that your identity could still become known or at least deduced, especially if you are indeed the only one in the school not on board with the promotion of religion.

Which leads to another approach: Are you sure no one else in the school shares your worldview? Others may be ducking attention just as you are. Keep an eye out for anyone else who doesn’t want to talk about church or participate in prayer circles. Such people could become your allies or at least make you feel less alone. One of these days there might be enough others who are sufficiently secure in their jobs and convictions to speak up about the misplaced religious undercurrent in your school, and together you can work to correct it.

Until then, keep doing what you’ve been doing, while arming yourself for the possibility that one day you may no longer avoid expressing your views and dealing with the anticipated backlash. Even if there are no other nonbelievers where you work, there are many all around. Look for humanist, atheist, Unitarian Universalist, and other secular groups—local and online—where you can feel free to be yourself. Being part of such groups might help release some of the pressure you’re bottling up, and they could provide crucial support if you eventually have to confront your workplace issues.