Ask Richard: Is He a Hypocrite to Keep Working at a Church? August 10, 2009

Ask Richard: Is He a Hypocrite to Keep Working at a Church?

Dear Richard,

I am an atheist who became an atheist after getting a job working for a church. I enjoy my work and it is well paying with good benefits (something I need as my wife has had many health problems). My job is not really religious in a major way. I do mostly clerical work. Yet, I still feel like a hypocrite. I do look for other jobs, but have not been successful so far. Should I come out even if it would cost me my job? Do you have any advice on not feeling like a hypocrite every day? Thanks for your help.


P.S. My wife knows about my atheism. She was happy when I ‘came out’ to her as she only went to church on my account. She considers herself a deist.

Dear Chris,

There are two issues to sort out here which may overlap: Hypocrisy about your beliefs, and deceiving your employers in order to safeguard your job.

First of all, it’s a credit to your character that the mere possibility of your being a hypocrite concerns you. Sadly, many people don’t give such things a second thought. However, simply being concerned is not enough to be assured that your character is strong and intact. I follow the maxim, “You are what you do,” meaning that a person’s character is indicated by the persistent patterns of their actions, rather than by their thoughts or words.

So let’s first look at the possibility of hypocrisy and see how much, if any, fits what you persistently do: The simplest description of hypocrisy is not practicing what you preach, or asking others to do something that you are not willing to do. You say that your job is not really religious in a major way, that you mostly do clerical work. It would seem to me that when you are doing clerical work, you’re not “preaching” or directly promoting a belief in others that you do not share. So when you are doing those clerical things, you are not being a hypocrite.

However, it’s not clear from your letter what the “religious” part of your job entails, if anything. If in that part you directly promote in others belief in God and that church’s religion while you do not personally have that belief, then to that extent you are being a hypocrite.

Secondly, there’s the issue of deceiving your employers to safeguard your job. You are at least passively deceiving them and your co-workers who are probably assuming that you still share their beliefs. If in conversations you pretend to still be a believer, then your deception is also active, and involves lying. Unfortunately, many people have to keep secrets or even lie to their employers because of prejudice against things that have nothing to do with their work. So an electrical engineer or an insurance salesman might keep their atheism a secret from their prejudiced boss. I don’t see an ethical conflict in that because they are simply avoiding trouble that is not related to their work duties, and they’re working within a system that would penalize them unfairly if they were open about their beliefs. As long as they have been honest about their qualifications to do their work, and are honest about the actual execution of that work, then they are acting in an ethically sound manner, and other issues are nobody else’s business.

On the other hand, if you were originally hired on the condition that you are a believer in God and that particular religion, then having lost that belief, you do have an ethical conflict because you now no longer fulfill that condition. It can be argued that a church clerical worker should not have to be a believer, but in the strictest sense, in the pickiest sense, I think it’s an ethical conflict. I’m only being this picky to clarify the ethical issues. You seem to be a good, decent man, and yet in this particular area, it’s possible that you’re also being somewhat deceitful and dishonest.

What you do about that, if anything, probably will depend on how much it bothers you, if at all. Life puts us into many ethical dilemmas. Sometimes we have to make tough choices, and at other times we have to make compromises. We make those compromises as small as possible, trying to avoid building up large collections of rationalizations, which are good-sounding reasons for doing bad things. In the three-dimensional world, we have to find a workable balance between scrupulous honesty and self-forgiveness. We have to make judgment calls and accept responsibility for the consequences.

Chris, my impression of you is that the small amount of hypocrisy inherent in whatever are your specifically religious duties at the church, (if any) and the mild to moderate ethical problem of deception for the sake of keeping your job may be minor dilemmas, but they are probably going to pester your conscience just enough to keep you less than happy while working there. That is an effective way to never be very successful in your work. The pay is good, and the benefits are important for your wife’s health needs, but that unhappiness may prevent you from excelling at your job, and you’ll get stuck at close to your present level. I can’t tell from your letter how old you are, so I don’t know if this job is one of your first or perhaps one of your last, so the success issue may be irrelevant. But either way, being constantly uncomfortable and having to be secretive and pretending for so many hours a day sounds like a pain in the neck.

I’ve offered a couple of rationalizations that might “get you off the hook” with the hypocrisy and deception questions, but for a man with a strong and watchful conscience like yours, they’ll only work if you actually think they are valid rationalizations. If you do, great. Glad I could help. But only you know the decisive details.

If not, then I suggest that instead of “coming out,” you quietly increase your efforts to find similar clerical work in a secular setting, or get some training or education to open up a wider range of work opportunities. Take your time, but not too much time, and find a well-paying, good benefits-giving job elsewhere that allows you to be more relaxed and open about being you. In the long run, you’ll be more successful and more satisfied, a happier worker and a happier husband.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Excellent advice, as usual, Richard. I would also echo, that unless your job requires you to proselytize or organize Bible Camps or otherwise do things to lead people towards the religion then you are not a hypocrite.

    It’s a situation that people often face in the work place. I work at a bank, and am encouraged to offer customers products that I don’t think are good for their long-term financial health (additional equiy lines of credit, etc.) It becomes an issue for me, but what I do is to suggest instead savings accounts or something else that will end up promoting their health in the long run.

    I think that you can stay within your job in a tenuous job market until you find an opportunity that doesn’t cause you concern. I would also avoid subtle subterfuge against the church, as that would definitely be unethical.

  • If you believe in the idea that faith should be personal and private and really no concern of anyone except the believer and whatever they believe in then Chris shouldn’t be concerned about advertising his lack of faith. Also, as someone in a management role in a company, there are three key issues that are the concern of an employer.

    1. Can the employee do the job.
    Chris has done the job for some time, is presumably competent and well trained in his role. Tick this box.

    2. Is the employee willing to do the job.
    Someone may well be very competent but spend all their work time on Facebook or on the phone to their girlfriend. I assume that this isn’t the issue as no mention is made of any kind of friction.

    3. Is the employee manageable?
    This part is often trickiest to determine. Someone may be a good and efficient worker but may irritate the hell out of their fellow employees and be unwilling to accommodate others. In this example does the employer (the church) insist on a morning prayer or other religious observances? If so is Chris going to make a fuss and upset others because he’s not religious? If he just goes along and keeps his mouth shut then there is no problem. If he’s going to make snide comments about god botherers or have desecrated crackers for lunch every day then this is a problem.

    That’s the “ideal” employer’s stance on things but the revelation of atheism might be enough to upset the manager so that they don’t want to work with you. I imagine that revealing that you are gay might be the same. While it would be wrong to treat someone differently because they came out it is not always seen as a choice between right or wrong.

    Now, as an employee, what is it that you want from your employer? Most people have a list of basic needs that need to be met. They need to earn enough to put food on the table, keep themselves and their family healthy, etc.

    On top of this are a whole range of “nice to haves”. Material benefits like a pension, company car, subsidised restaurant, overtime, etc are one aspect of this. Another includes working with friendly people, working for something that you believe makes a difference, air conditioning, etc. It is this aspect that is causing the stress because of the dissonance between working in an ideal environment and working in an environment where Chris feels that he can’t be completely honest.

    My advice? Step up the job hunting because the stress won’t disappear and coming out will change the dynamic of the office and the way Chris is treated. Even if nothing bad happens he will be labelled as “other” and will experience stress because of it.

  • Rhi

    I agree with hoverFrog that we shouldn’t assume the church-as-employer will mind that Chris is not Christian. I know someone who is musical director at a high-profile church in a large city. She is Baha’i and doesn’t hide that fact. She’s also classically trained in organ, harpsichord, piano and voice, so everyone at the church respects her in her job and doesn’t see it as inappropriate to have her there. Of course, Baha’is are still monotheistic so maybe that is her saving grace.

    The hypocrisy I would be concerned about if I had a job at a church, is that I’m indirectly taking money (salary) from churchgoers who donate to the organization out of brainwashing.

  • I don’t think Chris is doing anything unethical. (Unless as has been said he has to perform religious functions) However I do think that the concerns hoverFrog listed above are valid outside of a church. By my experience, you could work at a church and be vital for 20 years and come out as an athesit or gay or anything that doesn’t fit their mindset and you are gone. It is afterall the coin of trade in religion to be deeply worried about what others think in their private thoughts and to punish them for it.

  • Miedvied

    I usually endorse Richard’s advice wholeheartedly, but in this one instance I found a glaring issue that made the entire discussion absurd.

    The ethical dilemma is not just one of “do I lie?” It’s one of “do I lie to preserve my wife’s health?” Even your “rationalizations” failed to go ahead and note that, sometimes, we do commit lesser ethical transgressions in order to accomplish a greater good: concealing one’s faith in order to safeguard a loved one is just so starkly assymetric that there’s no real dilemma remaining there.

    In my opinion, Chris is acting impeccably. He is seeking a new line of work in which he does not have to misrepresent himself, while in the meantime keeping his head down and doing what he has to to protect his loved ones. There is no failure of ethic, here, not even a slight one: I commend Chris for having even residual doubts. If my honesty were weighed against the health of my loved ones, I would sacrifice my honesty without blinking: better to detest myself than to harm them!

  • Country Crock

    They hired you to do a job…nothing more. I am in the same situation. My first church job came about when I became a paid church organist in high school. Since then, I have been youth director, minister of music, every job except senior pastor.

    My serious deconversion has happened since taking my current job as organist five or six years ago after avoiding taking another “organ job” for over a year (Im a director and do not want to be an organist again). But the music director was a very persistent friend who was in despirate need of an organ player.

    When discussing another church issue one day, my friend said to me “It’s just a job” He has worked there over thiry years but is not even a member.

    You are doing a job. They paid you to do a job, not evangelize and build a spiritual community based upon their dogma. “It’s just a job.”

    So do like my other friend tells me, keep your mouth shut and just do your job well. They can’t fire you for that. After all, it’s just a job.

  • cat

    Consider your partners health issues first. As long as you aren’t doing direct harm, if quitting would risk her life/severely hurt her, keep the job, even if you don’t like working for a church. I wish we had universal health care so people did not have to decide between health and a job they don’t want.

  • mikespeir

    It’s a problem I have to deal with a lot. I have a very, very part-time job cleaning my parents’ church. My belief or disbelief was not even suggested as requisite for the job. The pastor and I have never discussed it; although, my parents, I’m sure, have talked to him about it. They would have told him I was once an avid student of the Bible and used to teach it. My guess is that he realizes he wouldn’t be able to make a good case against my reasoning and probably believes the Holy Spirit is dealing with me at some level. He’d be willing to leave it at that.

    But it sometimes bothers me that I work there. Last week they had a children’s crusade, and cleaning up afterward it really got to my conscience. It’s hard not to gag when I see some of the way they’re indoctrinating these kids. The thought that occurred to me was that during the American Revolutionary War the Hessians were purely mercenary, too. Still, they fought to advance the British cause. (No offense meant to any Brits who might be looking in. It was an awfully long time ago.) I need the job for the extra cash, but I don’t like that I’m, nevertheless, helping to further the religion.

  • I really don’t think hypocrisy is a problem in this situation. Unless you are the preacher or a congregant, I don’t think you really have any responsibility for any objectionable beliefs they might have. And just because it’s a church doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing anything horribly wrong.

    However, I would personally feel very uncomfortable if I felt I had to lie to keep my job.

  • Jason

    Dear Chris,

    I think that everyone is overanalyzing this as noted by the long-winded comments. I say screw it, take their money and ask for a raise!

  • @Chris:

    If it does not bother YOU to be working for a church… why worry? If it does not bug you NOT to mention you’re an atheist, just don’t.

    As an atheist you’re the master of your morality. You have to make it up as you go along. Good luck!

  • Fellow hypocrite here. Working at a church was supposed to be temporary, and I’ve now been in it about six months more than I wanted to. My work is considered a form of evangelism, and it tortures me daily. Before I became an atheist, I was a very honest person. I still am, which makes having to keep secrets very difficult on an emotional and authentic level. I hate it, and I have come to hate my job. I’m not out to my parents, and I’m only out to one person at work who couldn’t care less.

    And to clarify to those who aren’t working at a church, being a believer is part of doing your job (after all, you don’t want a wolf in the flock). Sometimes churches hire non-Christians as employees, but they are generally in the tiny minority, and I imagine an atheist would be out of the question.

    I’m actively looking for a new job, but I’m growing discouraged and don’t know what to do. I can’t quit without telling my parents why, and if I tell my parents why, it’s possible that I would end up without a job and without a home.

    It’s a tangled web we weave. I hate it, and I hate myself, but I value security right now.

  • Naani Amma

    I have to wonder, (as nobody yet has commented on this aspect), what it was that caused you to think of yourself as an atheist? I believe strongly as a Baha’i that we all have to sincerely investigate truth for oneself. Often people close their mind to God and things Godly, because of the actions of others and we can always say it was by the action of the followers of a particular religion or church. However, if the truth be known, that excuse is an unacceptable outcome and we can only truly blame ourselves for chucking away our belief. Our faith, or non-faith as the case may be, is between us and God. We ourselves are responsible for our own decisions, and no other persons actions, or inaction is our business in the end. My question to you Chris is this: Are you willing to investigate truth for yourself, and if so, might i suggest a good book to read. The book is called The Kitab’iqan written by Baha’u’llah and it is an answer to the Holy Bible’s many unanswered questions. You obviously used to have faith, but something caused you to deny it. Might i suggest an honest look at what as well as why you lost your faith, and how important is it to get it back again? You may find an answer in this challenging book.

  • Richard Wade

    Naani Amma,
    Chris does not seem to be answering your question, so I will respond because you are struggling with a few very commonly held misconceptions about atheists in general.

    I have listened to the stories of many hundreds of atheists who came from religious backgrounds. I haven’t found a single one who “chucked away” their belief casually or impulsively. It is an extremely difficult and often painful process, an act of courageous self-responsibility.

    Many believers who don’t bother to get to personally know non-believers perpetuate the myth that an abusive believer must have caused the person to leave their faith. Sometimes they have suffered abuse, but I haven’t found one person for whom that was a sufficient factor. To “blame” someone else for that decision would contradict the self-responsibility that brought them to it.

    You say that you “believe strongly as a Baha’i that we all have to sincerely investigate truth for oneself.” Well, you and atheists completely agree on that. That is precisely what they have done. They have investigated the truth for themselves very conscientiously, painstakingly and earnestly, and they have come to a different conclusion than you have. They completely take ownership of that conclusion, and they accept the emotional, interpersonal and social consequences in a society rife with stereotypes and misconceptions such as those you have expressed.

    Rather than recommending a book in response to the one you offer, I suggest that you take the time to get to know several atheists in the flesh. You’ll find that most of them are serious, earnest, and sincerely open in their continual search for the truth. Many of them have investigated religions other than their original, but the one thing that they need is lacking: convincing evidence.

    Naani Amma, this is not to bring you to see things as the atheists see things. This is to bring you to see atheists as they really are. To know other people as they really are, you have to stop spinning theories about others that are based only on yourself, and actually go out and meet, befriend and share life with them. Whether you and others agree is not important. Only understanding each other is important.

  • Even though I’ve been a life-long atheist, I used to attend a church with my wife. They were desperate for a person to help run the key-note presentation during the sermons and worship songs so I volunteered. The church I went to had two large screens up front with all the words of the songs and the key points that the pastor said during the sermon. I advanced the slides as the lyrics changed and during the sermon itself. Even though I was doing them a big service by performing this task, it did bother me that they would probably be upset if they knew that an atheist was performing this important role during worship. I eventually phased myself out of that role since I did consider it a bit dishonest. I later even had a long talk with the pastor himself when I decided to stop going to the church altogether. Mine wasn’t a paid position, but I can understand not preferring to be in a situation where you know that if others knew you were an atheist, it would bother them. If it bothers you, I would advise to actively look for another job someplace else but keep quiet until you find another job.

  • Susan

    I work as a Music Director in a church. I was an atheist when hired, although when asked in my interview about my beliefs, I simply replied that I had a lot of questions and they were fine with me not taking communion. However, there have been several ministers since then and I feel that the chilly relations with the current one is partly because of that.

    I’m interviewing for another position and I’m afraid the question will come up. The problem is that religious institutions are exempt from discriminating on the basis of religion. It is not just a matter of being able to do the job.

    I would prefer not to work in a church, but as a musician it is a large part of my income. And it’s not like I can be an organist/choir director at a publishing firm. I have no intention of leaving myself open to disqualification based on a statement of my beliefs. I’m planning on saying that I don’t discuss religion or politics at the workplace.

    Hope it works!

  • Richard Wade

    Good luck, Susan. Your talent, experience and hard work should be the only criteria for hiring you. When someone treats you coldly or excludes you just because you’re not convinced of their belief, it reveals their deep insecurity.

    I hope it works too. Saying you don’t discuss it is an honest response. Please post the outcome here.

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