Posted by: nimbu | February 1, 2007

Religion in the workplace

I’m a big supporter of a number of charitable organizations including many cancer orgs, March of Dimes, Cystic Fibrosis and others. I hate…really hate it when I’m politely “asked” to contribute to some walk, or marathon, or march for some charitable organization, while I’m at work.

I’m sitting at my cube and some co-worker that I don’t even know walks over and asks me to sponsor their walk. Now, I don’t have a problem with the march, it’s just that I don’t like being put in this situation. I don’t want to come across as an asshole who doesn’t support cancer research. I do support cancer research. But I’ve had enough. I don’t like it when people pressure me, even though that’s not their intention. Their intention is to support such a cause and get as much money as possible from their coworkers. Well, don’t ask me. I donate plenty.

Similarly, I don’t want religious talk at work. I hate it when people bring up church functions, or what their kids did at bible camp, or what they learned in Sunday school, etc. I know they don’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable, but they do. Now I’m an atheist…but I can’t help but feel like an outsider. Yup, by exercising your “right” to practice any religion you want, you alienate everybody around you that doesn’t feel the same. And maybe that’s OK for you. Maybe you’re trying to convert people by standing close to them while you talk about bible camp.

Being of Pakistani origin, I certainly don’t look like your average Christian; so people find it perfectly normal to assume that I’m not Christian, which prompts silly questions like this: Do you celebrate Christmas? So when I answer “No”, they immediately follow up with “What do you celebrate?”. OK. Now, at the workplace, we’re entering into a religious discussion.

By going forward, I may just cause trouble for myself. But what option do I have? Should I say “No I don’t feel comfortable talking about my religion at work.” But that sounds like I may belong to a cult; I’m too ashamed to talk about my beliefs. Or should I “out” myself as an atheist? Now I’ve become one of “those people”.

So when people argue live and let live in this world with regard to religion, I find it’s easier said than done. My family, along with millions of others love this country (U.S.) because of religious freedom. And by religious freedom I’m not talking about worshiping whatever god you want, I’m talking about freedom from religion.



  1. I’m really sorry you are having such a rough time here in America with religion. Did you not know that 86% of Americans claim to be religious? How did you develop your moral/caring barometer? Why do you give to cancer research? What drives your passions? Some where in all those answers you will find who and what you worship. Because you do worship something. One last question. If you were living in Pakistan, would it be easier to be an atheist?

  2. Well, I never claimed to be having a rough time here in America. I’m simply pointing out one thing that bugs me. Many things bug me.

    I’ve been all over the world and I find that America is the nicest place to live and raise a family. People are warm and caring. So when I complain about a select few, I certainly don’t paint everybody with that same brush.

    To answer your questions:

    Yes I know most people here claim to be religious. But one would conclude that considering the crime rate, teenage pregnancy rates, poverty rates, the 86% that claim to be religious are not doing what their religion teaches. Religion simply doesn’t work. It’s not as simple as “believing” and then suddenly everything works out. And it’s easy to blame the person for not truly believing.

    Your next question: I developed my moral character despite any religious doctrine. I was raised as a Muslim and had many Christian friends. As a young adult, I explored many religions and found that they all had the same message: If you’re not one of us, then you’re going to hell. Christians and Muslims all believe that if you’re not one of them, you’re damned. Instead of teaching to be good for the sake of being good, religion teaches to be good to avoid punishment. Not a good stance. Imposing morality by threatening punishment is not a good way to teach morality. A better way would be to use the golden rule: Do to others, what you’d want done to/for you.

    I give to cancer research because my mom was very religious and got cancer. All the praying she did had no effect. The only thing that “fixed” her was a scientist who made decisions based upon scientific research. Therefore, it’s my position that instead of donating money to her mosque, I should donate money to cancer research.

    Finally, you’re right, I do worship something: This life. Not the afterlife, but this short one I have. It’s my duty to make the most of it to better humanity now. Not so that some god will give me admission into “his” kingdom, but because it’s the right thing to do. And certainly god didn’t give me that, since I don’t believe in any god. I’m good because I’m educated and I have empathy.

  3. Personally, I respect everything you had to say.

    One bit of hopefully bit of information that will help you too understand Christians. They are taught that they have an obligation to save the world. Since its part of their belief I’m afraid there is not much one can do to change that.

    I appreciate hearing from you.

  4. Cool.

  5. Incidentally, Jesus sums up the entirety of the Jewish scriptures with a familiar
    refrain: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”* I don’t really understand why non-religious folks have such difficulty acknowledging that this bit of wisdom came into their cultural index by way of Christianity.

    Since the gospel writers are far more qualified to speak about the sine non qua of their religious faith than you or I, it’s best to take them at their word that such a moral sentiment is the culmination of their tradition.

    Come on, you have to laugh at the irony – the “better way of teaching morality” you’ve indicated is the very essence of Christian faith.

    * Matthew 7:12

  6. Well, if you want to get technical, Jesus didn’t invent the “Golden Rule”, it existed hundreds of years before. Take a look at the Wikipedia article:

  7. True, but if you look at the wikipedia list that you provided you’ll see that the oldest source listed for the ethic of reciprocity is the Hebrew bible (the tradition which shaped and informed Jesus). In the gospel narratives Jesus does not claim to invent the ethic – on the contrary he offers it as an adumbration of his tradition’s moral ethos.

    Even if the ethic was developed independently elsewhere, your reader’s argument is simply that the ethic is the “essential” component of Christian moral teaching. To claim otherwise is to misread or misunderstand the tradition and so a responsible reading of the Bible requires the entirety to be read in light of the kernal.

    Furthermore, since western civ. was profoundly influenced by Christianity – it’s unreasonable to claim that the ethic of reciprocity arose in the popular consciousness through a means other than that Christian influence. That, I think, is the essence of his argument. You can have the last word, unless I’ve misunderstood and he cares to clarify…

  8. Another thought – unrelated to my previous post. I think you raise a critically important point about the question of the free exchange of ideas in the work place – and I appreciate your efforts to do so. Let me explain why I disagree.

    Rather than advocating a restricted public environment, I think it is critical (now more than ever) to continue the push for a naked public square. It’s certainly the case that disagreement exists over many aspects of (religious) life. But I wonder if this is an adequate reason to demand a God-free public society or “water-cooler”. After all, the Confessing German church was the only thing that stood in the tracks of the secular Nazi regime – silence that voice and who knows how history may have read.

    On the other side of the debate, I wonder if you can see that what you are advocating is restricted speech (as opposed to free speech)? You are probably entirely aware of that fact – if so, here’s why that seems problematic. In respect to the work-place, those who would silence any “God-talk” or “faith-talk” are (contrary to their statements) not seeking a fair, neutral environment where all views can be expressed and all voices heard; they’re asking for an explicitly a-theistic public square. This fails to recognize a few key things: first, that on many counts, there is broad agreement among citizens of diverse faith traditions (and no faith traditions) about the central issues of civic life. There is no reason why this broad agreement should be trumped by a relatively small, if vocal and elite, minority. Second, the idea of disassociating people from expressions of faith is not, nor has ever been within the parameters of democracy or a free society.
    So long as atheists and other secularists seek to impose a religion-free public square, most Americans will react negatively (and perhaps be mistrustful) – surely you can see why. You’re effectively asking people of faith to get in the closet while complaining about not being able to come out. As you said – treat others as you’d want to be treated. Perhaps balance and sensitivity are more appropriate than restriction. If someone has deep concerns or insecurities about faith issues, one should not be forced to confront those at work – but neither should someone be denied the chance to engage in discussion.

    More to the point: I have no doubt that many atheists feel discrimination. As you’ve indicated, they are excluded from some of our most cherished social practices, unable to fully share in many people’s deepest joys and sorrows. The reason is pretty clear: more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Many of us (myself included) shape our lives around a belief that you simply don’t share. On the one hand, this has some practical consequences – how else is community forged except on common thought and experience?

    If a communal life is centered on a service of worship, the weeknight Bible study, morning prayers, and the Hebrew school camp, then of course those whose lives do not center upon those things will feel excluded. They don’t participate in many of the traditional and natural aspects of human life: corporate prayer, worship and fellowship. But this is not because they’re discriminated against – it is because they choose not to associate. It is simply not the fault of religious persons. Don’t misunderstand, as a whole, I think that religious people would do well to welcome non-believers more fully into aspects of their lives – I have found that it is a double-edged sword. My friend (I’ll call him Bob) got nothing but prayers and hugs when he “came out” as a gay man to his Christian friends, and nothing but mockery and scorn from his non-theist friends when he “came out” as a Christian. My own best friend disassociated himself from me when, at University I became a Christian.

    To a great extent, one’s feeling of alienation stems from one’s exclusion from participating in that which forms the foundation of community life. Historically, religion has been a major factor. In many places in America today it still is. While it’s not particularly true of Princeton, New Jersey (where I went to graduate school), it still applies to most places throughout America.

    On the other hand, your discontent points to the fundamental human longing for community, shared values, and shared lives.

    I won’t presume you feel that this need goes unfulfilled, but I wouldn’t be surprised, since that is a large component of religious practice. Atheism (I imagine), like religious faith, requires communal reinforcement – the sheer number of blogs and the swathes of books published recently are a meager attempt to provide that. It’s deeply unfortunate that so much of that reinforcement has focussed its energy and vitriol on demonizing religious believers (classifying them as second class humans who are, basically, incapable of rational thought), and constructing a polemic of fear about a possible future world if religion is not eliminated rather than forging appropriate and positive forms of communal experience. I can’t help but wonder if this practice of demonizing and raging against persons of faith will only result in further feelings of alienation and helplessness.

    Far from unjustly discriminating, I think that believers ought to water the seeds of hope in the future by their charity and their prayers – that is something that I learned from my faith.

    Just some thoughts.

  9. Thanks for your thoughts! I like your argument. I would never suggest that we stop talking about religion and stuff of that nature; I would simply suggest that I need not hear or discuss it at “work”!

    I don’t know about your job, but at my job, we have deadlines and things to do. I find my workplace should be clutter free from regular society. I certainly do not want to “belong” to any community at work. I want to be successful.

    Almost all of my friends both in and outside work are Atheists. I’m sorry that some non theists treated your gay friend with such hatred. I’m sure that an enlightened, well educated person that has come to the conclusion that there is no god would never treat a person poorly because of their sexuality. Hatred for anybody because of their sexuality is far more prevalent in religious circles than in Atheist circles. The people that you mention being non theists certainly could not be atheists because of educated enlightenment; perhaps they’re non theists because of other reasons.

    Thanks again for your comments; it certainly appears that you’re an open minded theist. I just don’t like the theists that believe that they belong to the “in” crowd and that god is on their side!

  10. I should clarify: my friend’s non-theist pals didn’t shun him because he was gay. They didn’t care about that any more or any less than his Christian friends. They turned on him because he had become a Christian. He “came out” as a Christian.

    My point is that non-theists can be just as unwelcoming and closed to diversity as theists are often accused of being. I can’t tell you how many times I overheard a conversation in Princeton that went something like: “yeah that girl might be intelligent, attractive, whatever…but she’s religious”. Or, “How can someone as smart as _______ be so Christian?” I for one find talk like that remarkably backward coming from such “open, tolerant, and enlightened” folks. Many of the brightest people I’ve met have been passionate about their faith.

    You may be right to posit that people who hold disdain for homosexuals “could not be atheists because of educated enlightenment.” I only want to point out that atheism does not hold the intellectual flag on “education” or the moral flag on “enlightenment” To believe that it does would make you would be guilty of the arrogance that grips so many atheists who believe that reason and science are on their side. That would be tragic and ironic since that same assurance is what you despise in some religious believers.

    Thanks for the discussion. All the best mate.

  11. Woohoo. Your comments make sense now. I thought he was coming out as a homosexual.

    Regardless, I totally agree with you that both theists and atheists can be equally crappy, when they exclude others. My dad has 4 degrees (2 doctorates), and he’s religious. So I think that you and I are on the same page, even though we’re not alike!

    If that makes sense – I’ve had a couple of beers!

  12. Makes perfect sense. I hope (and believe) there’s enough room in the world for theists and non-theists to engage in meaningful and intelligent conversation without resorting to name calling and without one side claiming that science, reason, or morality are exclusive territory.

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