Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I live in the heart of the Bible belt and have recently come out about my lack of beliefs. It has been quite the shock for my Christian family, friends and co-workers. Thankfully my co-workers have been the least judgmental of all. My question is how to handle the religious talk that still permeates my office. My boss and co-workers have daily office devotionals which thankfully I am no longer pressured to attend.
However, they still wish to discuss Christian Theology with me as if I were still “a part of the fold.” It’s an awkward situation for me. I obviously have differing opinions and views. I don’t want to hurt their feelings yet I feel compelled to stand up for my own beliefs or should I say lack thereof. How does one discuss the “merits” of the Bible when they no longer believe? Help!
I think you should make three assessments.
The first is to carefully and realistically assess the security of your employment in this company. Unless you are essential and irreplaceable, you might eventually be at risk for being socially or professionally pressured to leave.
I have received many dozens of letters from people in the Bible belt who have faced systematic ostracization at work because it became known that they are the religious outsider. Granted, that is not a scientific survey of the work environment in that region, but it certainly is an extensive collection of cautionary tales.
In your case, when the novelty of repartee with the resident atheist wears off, when you have with utmost politeness poked holes in all of their fallacious arguments, when they have retreated to their last refuge of “Well, you just have to have faith,” and they know exactly why that sounds lame to you, when it has become clear that you will never be seduced back into the flock, then they might start to get petulant, peevish, and pugnacious.
So far, your boss and co-workers seem to be handling your atheism maturely and fairly. For a company that has as much formalized religiosity as you have described, I find that quite remarkable.
I hope it lasts, but be prepared if it doesn’t.
The second thing to assess is what is their purpose for continuing to include you in these theological discussions when you no longer participate in the “daily devotionals.” You can do this by quietly observing, or by subtly probing, or by frankly asking. It all depends on what approaches you have found work in that environment.
Is their purpose to stimulate more incisive and interesting dialogue because of your contrary viewpoint? Is it an attempt to bring you back into the fold? Is it to taunt or goad you? Is it simply because you are there in the room when they talk? Or what?
The third thing to assess is what is your purpose for doing this. Do you simply enjoy practicing the art of argumentation? Is your goal to promote clear mutual understanding of your views and their views? Are you representing atheists and atheism as a movement beyond yourself as an individual? Perhaps you’re hoping to persuade them to adopt your views? Could it involve defending your position in the social structure of the office? Do you want to make it clear that although you are the outsider in this issue, you have value to offer socially in other ways? Are you letting them know you won’t be cowed or bullied? Or what?
To be clear, I am not implying that there are any “shoulds” in these questions, as if you should have this motive and should not have that motive. You have the right to follow whatever reasons are yours. You “owe” it to no one else to have any of these purposes. The point is to be very clear to yourself what you want from this situation.
From those three assessments I think you’ll have a better idea of what path to take, and how lightly or boldly to tread on that path. Keep reviewing your three appraisals, because they can change over time.
If you actively get into these discussions, be watchful for signs of common snags. They can include:
- Equating one’s beliefs with one’s self. When a person’s belief is well challenged or refuted, they will sometimes feel personally threatened. Try to explain the difference between the two. You can completely disagree with their belief, but still hold them in high regard as persons. If someone overtly refuses to differentiate the two, essentially saying, “I am my beliefs, so attacking my beliefs is attacking me,” then there’s not much point in continuing the dialogue, and it’s probably best to avoid more with that person.
- Characterizing the other person’s viewpoint in an overly simplified manner even after the facets and nuances have been explained. “Oh, that’s right, you don’t believe in anything,” is a caricature of atheists I’ve often heard. It’s an attempt at dismissive superiority. Patiently re-clarify the complexities of your views. Don’t get suckered into losing your temper. That will be used to dismiss you further.
- Going for “winning” rather than understanding; going for conquest rather than conversation. These are not wrestling matches where one opponent must acknowledge complete defeat right there in front of everyone. You could watch or partake in hundreds of discussions about religion, and you’d probably never witness that. You might be able to plant seeds of doubt and seeds of careful thinking, but if they sprout, it will most likely be much later, in private, when people are not in their “combat mode.”
- Talking too long. Try to keep these conversations brief. It’s a workplace, after all. Fatigue and frustration from a long dispute can begin to strain the genial feelings, and the primary purpose for everyone being in that building is to get the work done, whatever it is. To do that successfully, you all have to get along. Try to get that awareness overtly agreed upon.
If you see such snags being done by others, first be certain you’re not also doing them yourself. Then you can step out of the content, the subject of the conversation, and make a brief comment in a patient, respectful tone about the underlying dynamic that you think you’re seeing. Then return to talking about the subject, trying to steer it out of that snag.
Strategically, they have an advantage and you have an advantage. Their advantage is that they outnumber you. One of them can be thinking up a challenge while you’re fielding another’s. As good as you might be at argumentation, you have limits to your endurance. It’s perfectly okay to make a frank comment about that, and call a recess. Nobody expects you to be a 10th dan Aikido master who can take on fifteen opponents at once.
Your advantage is that they are most likely going to be the ones making the assertions and claims about the Bible and their beliefs. So the burden for supporting their claims is on them. They have to do the work. You are simply unconvinced because you need evidence, and you politely ask for it. Sit comfortably and enjoy watching them work, but don’t smirk. Adopt a stance of good-natured and sincere curiosity in their ideas. Stay relaxed, cheerful, jovial, and congenial.
The risk for you will come if you are good at this. Any hint of smugness or conceit on your part will turn the whole thing sour. That would not be good. If this were a chat between strangers in a coffee house, one could simply get up and leave. You don’t have that option here.
You have an unusual opportunity to at least dispel myths and misconceptions about atheists, and possibly introduce elements of critical thinking to a few people. Keep your wits about you, and make your moves carefully. I hope it goes well for you.