Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My husband and I have recently moved from a small town in the bible belt famous for its wholesome, christian values to probably the most liberal college town in the state, which isn’t saying much. Before we moved I made sure I had a job lined up because we could not afford to be jobless. During orientation, I learned that my new job was a Christian based company, which I found a little odd because I am a CNA working for home health care. Even though I am an atheist increasingly losing patience with most religious people, I thought I could get over the occasional bible verses left for me on the phone system which I have to clock in and out on, until now.
I was just mailed a letter explaining that I was to attend a mandatory event that will be full of “fun, fellowship, and education!!” Any time I have been introduced to the word fellowship it has either been linked to Lord of the Rings or something religious. I am not up for spending a few hours being preached to and them telling me it’s apart of my education; however, I’m not looking forward to announcing to an auditorium full of Christians, my boss, and the company’s vice president that I do not want to take part in their religious fun. I stopped going to church when I was 14 with grand intentions of never going back and now being 21 years old I do not need to pray to some imaginary being to make sure I do my job right, just like I was taught in a secular class three years ago.
Now I know that the best action for me to take is just to remove myself from the situation all together, but that can’t happen until I find a new job, I can not go jobless. I have applied for everything including many, many jobs that don’t involve my certified nurses assistant experience but I have yet to hear anything back and I don’t know what to do in the mean time. I’m not aware of the laws in the US about religious discrimination or what an atheist is to do when working for a christian company and I just need to know what I should do or could do in this situation. I fear I can not just participate and keep my mouth shut.
Thank you so much for your advice and your time!
I’ve received many letters like this, more often at the stage where the employee’s atheism has already been discovered, and he or she is dealing with the consequences. In your case we can work on prevention instead of cure.
A “Christian based company” can mean many things. The management might be comfortable with some variety of religious adherence, but expecting atheists to be accepted with warmth and ease is probably expecting far too much.
If, as you suspect, “fellowship” at this mandatory event is code for some kind of religious activity, I wonder if one of its purposes is to discover any unbelievers among the newcomers. It’s easier to get rid of newly-hired people before probation periods are up, before clients become attached to them, before the company becomes dependent on their good work, and before the other candidates whom they turned down find other jobs.
There are laws against religious discrimination in hiring, firing and promotion, but it is very hard to prosecute such complaints, especially in private companies, and it involves long, drawn-out lawsuits. If you are the plaintiff, the effort and expense is entirely on your shoulders unless a group like the ACLU comes to your aid. Legal costs are only recouped if the plaintiff wins, and even then that’s still a maybe. During that litigation, if you’re fortunate or unfortunate enough to still be working there, you will probably not be feeling the love of Jesus coming from your bosses or co-workers. If you do win, and do get the option to recover or keep your job, you will probably not be very comfortable there.
If it is revealed that a new employee does not conform to the hive mind, instead of outright firing them, more often these companies try to get them to quit. The person will be given the worst tasks, often things that are not appropriate for their education and training, so they will not be able to perform well. This lackluster proficiency will be used to justify passing them over for promotion. There are glass ceilings for anyone who doesn’t sing along with the rest of the choir. Often the administrators are very savvy about staying just within the law. They are quite aware that it is unethical, but they feel completely justified. Yet they will never admit to what they’re doing.
Then there’s the social aspect. Most workplaces are not just places where workers work. They’re complex social forums with intricate interpersonal and emotional dynamics. Making friends, being treated with warmth and good will, and being accepted on a social level is very important to most people’s ability to keep up an adequate level of work output.
Co-workers can be a much more lethal weapon than the boss. Sometimes they’ll take the atheist on as a challenge for conversion, with all sorts of unwelcome proselytizing. When that fails, it shifts to taunting, by emphasizing their religious chatter when they know it will be the most annoying. Finally it will turn to shunning. If everyone is cold and aloof, the target person probably won’t be able to last long. The atheist will either quit or be fired for actual poor job performance. Most people are not able to become emotional islands, living in solitary confinement while surrounded by people. Even if they are able to do that, it’s actually sad to see it happen. Their detachment can become habitual. It’s not healthy.
So what to do? First, you’re already doing the wisest thing. Keep looking for a better place to work. Eventually you’ll find one. Find out ahead of time if any job prospects are at other “Christian based” companies. You don’t want to discover that again on orientation day. Doing this will make the rest of my suggestions temporary measures.
Now to the big event of “fun, fellowship and education.” I have no hesitation to suggest that you deceive them either passively or actively. Avoid letting them know the truth about your atheism at this time. You should reveal that only when it is in your own self interest to do so. Unless you were doing specific religious activities as part of your job as you might in a church, the true nature of your religious views is nobody’s damn business, and letting them know the truth could be very detrimental to your self interests. You have the right to protect yourself from both administrative and social harassment while you look for a better job.
Avoid religious conversations at this event and afterward as much as you can, but you’ll certainly not be able to dodge them all. Play along by using as vague or non-committal responses as you can. Have rehearsed answers ready for questions you anticipate you might be asked, such as to what church you belong. Answer everything in a way that gives them the impression that you are at least nominally in their camp, but be dull. Give them just enough response for them to relax their scrutiny, but not enough to get them interested. If you must actually lie, keep the lies small, brief, uninteresting, and as close to the truth as possible. Don’t use lies that involve having a problem, such as you haven’t been able to find a church to your liking in this town yet. They’ll want to help you solve your problem by inviting you to attend theirs.
This will definitely limit your social experience at your workplace. Your friendships will necessarily be somewhat superficial. So for your emotional health, you should develop friendships that are completely separate from work.
While you’re under cover, document everything. If by CNA you mean that you are a Certified Nursing Assistant, then you already have training in documentation. Develop the habit of writing down every single instance of “religious stuff” that happens in your work day every day, little things and big things. Include the dates, times, names, places, and how it affected both your work and your emotions. Keep this in a very secure place. You will only be using this material if you are discovered, the “treatment” begins, and you have to resort to filing a complaint either to a government agency or to a lawyer.
Hopefully, you won’t need to use your documentation, but even if you don’t, one immediate benefit is it might help you to feel less helpless. Taking assertive steps to protect yourself just in case of need can help you feel more in control in a challenging situation. You actually are fighting back even if nobody knows about it.
I’ve sometimes suggested the “secret anthropologist” approach for people who are stuck in a heavily religious environment, and they have to remain secretive about their atheism. Dispassionately observe the religious culture at work the way an anthropologist would while living among aborigines. This might help you to relax your impatience and frustration because you will be considering it in intellectual terms more than in emotional terms. Write down your thoughts and impressions at home. It might make a good article or book some day.
Ruth, it’s awful and it’s outrageous that I have to suggest these devious and cautious tactics to you, rather than telling you to just proudly be yourself, but this is the reality that many people have presented to me in their letters about self-described “Christian companies.” You’re in survival mode. You’re a secret agent in a hostile country. Take deep, slow breaths whenever your tension builds. It really helps. Stay cool, play their silly games just enough to placate them, and find a better place to work without losing income.
As George Herbert, poet and, ironically, an Anglican priest famously said, “Living well is the best revenge.”