The Ethical Dilemma: It’s Fun to Stay at the YMCA—Unless You’re an Atheist

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Different Village People: I consider myself to be an atheist and humanist. I have been working at a YMCA for a couple of years now. Obviously, it’s a very religious place (it’s also in the South). I have a great job and don’t want to leave. I wouldn’t get the opportunities I get there anywhere else around here.

But I feel uncomfortable with certain people there on almost a daily basis. Coworkers will ask my opinion on topics such as religion, gay marriage, abortion, secular state, etc., and I always say that I don’t discuss religion or politics at work as I don’t think it’s appropriate. They don’t hold back on letting me know what they think. I know that by not answering and not instantly agreeing with them, they probably have a good idea about my lack of belief and liberalism. Some clients there shove their religion in your face constantly and even do it to the children. This really upsets me sometimes, but I also know that it’s a YMCA and I knew it would be somewhat like this before I started work there. I suppose they have a right to do so.

Do you think I could be considered a hypocrite for working there? I tell myself I’m not, because even though I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Young Man either! If they found out I was an atheist/humanist, could they fire me? I don’t think they could but I wanted to make sure.

—Fun To Stay But Not To Pray

Dear Fun,

Now I won’t be able to get the YMCA song out of my head! But I can’t type and do the hand gestures at the same time, so I must get a grip.

I suspect you are attributing the religiosity of your local community to your employer. Throughout most if not all of its history, the Young Men’s Christian Association has been open to everyone, and I believe that openness has included the staff. As a non-Christian female who hasn’t been young in a while, I’ve had many wonderful experiences throughout my life as a client at various YMCAs in several states (none of them red, however). Even when I attended a Y sleepaway camp as a ten-year-old, I was graciously excused from Sunday chapel (as was my friend, who was Christian but would rather hang out with me than sit in a stuffy room and sing hymns, and we made the case that I would be lonely as the only camper not in chapel).

Do you recall the words and meanings behind A&P or AT&T or GE or GM or BMW or CBS? Like those and many other companies that have evolved over the decades, the Y downplays its full handle in favor of the familiar but largely deactivated letters YMCA, or just plain Y. This seems to be part of a strategy to attract those who are not young, male or Christian.

I checked out the YMCA website and saw lots about diversity. I even sent an email to YMCA headquarters in Chicago asking your questions and got a prompt reply:

“Thank you for contacting YMCA of the USA. At the Y, we are very proud of our Christian heritage, which is expressed through our mission statement—to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all—and our core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility, among other ways. This has not changed and will not change. You do not have to be a Christian to work for the YMCA.”

And it was signed, “Have a nice day,” not “Have a blessed day.”

So if your Y seems oppressively Christian, it’s probably more because of where it is and less because of the C in YMCA. I’ll bet most workplaces in your area, whether they’re restaurants or banks or hair salons, are also overtly Christian because that’s the nature of the community, not the business model.

If that’s the case, the religiosity of your workplace is just something you have to work with if you want to work there. You’re not hypocritical—you’re simply adapting for survival (probably another loaded subject). The way you’re currently handling it is spot on—just keep repeating that it’s inappropriate to discuss religion at work and refusing to engage.

You would know better than I how your particular Y organization operates and what the human resources people are like, but if they are not themselves faith-mongers, you may be able to enlist your local (or if necessary, headquarters) HR to ask your colleagues to tone down the C talk (clients are another matter—the customer is always right). It might also be informative to take a look at any contract or papers you signed when you became an employee. Does it say anything about religion, or does it say “equal opportunity employer”?

In any case, if you should ever find yourself being discriminated against or fired because you don’t C things the way your fellows do, document it and enlist the aid of a church/state separation watchdog such as the AHA legal arm. You could then introduce a new character to the Village People: a judge, complete with robe and gavel.