Ask Richard: Atheist Being Included in Religious Discussions at Work December 26, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Being Included in Religious Discussions at Work

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

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!


Dear Robin,

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.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Bananafaced

    I agree with Richard’s advice and assessment for you. I live in the deep south in a state which has the most churches per capita than any state in the US. I worked for a firm that prayed before staff meetings, passed around devotional literature, and issued a newsletter for their charitable work in Central America from their business offices. I joked that I was a “recovering Catholic” but never let on that I didn’t “believe”, because to do so would have meant that my job would have been eliminated. The economy took care of the elimination of my job anyway. But I am afraid to “come out” (even to my neighbors) because I might find my tires slashed, my property vandalized, and I might never be able to sell my home. I intend to move away from this state once I have secured my health, retire with my SS & Medicare, and sell my home. Richard gave me some sage advice a few years ago after I had breast cancer and was visited by “well meaning” but insistent religious patient advocates in the hospital. I respect the thoughtfulness of his comments and feel less alone now.

  • Bevidence

    Non-believers are the most discrimated of all ‘sects’ in Amerikkka.  Esp. in the bible belt (they believe we infidels are devil worshipers, hedonists, or just plain wicked.

  • Silo Mowbray

    Richard, thanks for the (as usual) thoughtful response. I hope it brings some clarity to our fellow atheist who is in the fix he is…

    I’d like to mention something related. Richard wrote that some number of theists might adopt the stance of: “I am my beliefs, so attacking my beliefs is attacking me”. I’d argue that this is the case for the vast majority of theists. I have no data to support this, only a small collection of anecdotes, but it seems reasonable to me that theists believe what they do because they truly need the comfort of religion to cope with life. As a result, religion becomes a part of their identity, perhaps a major part. I posit this from experience – while I was never truly a theist, there was a long stretch in my life where I found that not believing in a greater being or life after death would make me terribly anxious. I also really didn’t like it when anyone challenged that thinking – I felt anxious and personally attacked at the same time.

    I don’t know what the solution is to this identity-with-religion problem. Maybe we have to wait for it to die off. Maybe it’ll always be with us. Expecting people to let go of their crutches is pretty unrealistic. At our core we are all insecure; atheists just cope differently.

  • Lippy

    I’ve run into this problem with my family after coming out as an atheist.  The most successful way I’ve handled it is to join in with the discussions, with my family knowing that I am approaching it the same way I would a discussion about Star Trek philosophy or the Greek myths.   I know they’re all fictional, but if the discussion can be constantly steered towards storyline plot points or philosophical undertones and kept in the hypothetical, (i.e. “If one, according to the stories in the old testament, were to …….”)  the conversation can actually be quite stress free.  I have about as much trouble discussing divine duty as I do the prime directive this way.

  • Christian Guest

    Christian Guest weighing in. As long as your tone is respectful, and you avoid words that will build walls rather than engage in a discussion of beliefs, and you might find the discussions profitable. Also remember that you may experience a harsh response but that is often identifying the weakness of the response. Many on all sides of the question of theistics rely solely on rhetoric. And rhetoric does not allow for discussion but is simply a monologue. You may want to disengage from those discussions.

    When I recently completed work on a logical/mathematical examination of belief, I intentionally sought readers of all beliefs (or non-belief) and backgrounds so I could be confident I was on the right track. I made sure I had atheist readers that could provide responses from their perspectives. And in the end, their comments helped make the book stronger.

    I wish you well in your discussions.

  • Trace

    That is a hard one. The family and friends part I will not comment on. The part that concerns me most is the situation at work. Is it advisable for you to start looking for other places to work where you may not encounter a similar development? If it is not an option, I would probably try to avoid participating in these discussions as much as possible. Since your job may depend on your perception by others, just try to be “patient” and “respectful”  for as long as you can.

    I personally would listen and not try to confront their beliefs since I am afraid that in the long run the politeness and acceptance you now enjoy at work  may be replaced by something else. But perhaps not.

    Sometimes humour can help, sometimes not. If they continue to approach you with the intention to discuss their faith and you once were a believer
    and truly feel you understand how they feel about their faith, you may
    want to offer an “I understand where you are coming from” or “I
    understand what you mean” and just add, “but I no longer see things that
    way”. The non-committal  “I am still seeking/in search of answers” (or something along those lines) may sometimes help
    you if left with no options. On the other hand it may redouble their attempts to include you in their discussions.

    Only you can truly evaluate how things at work develop regarding your coming out as an atheist and  weather continuing your participation in theological discussion is advisable.

    Best of luck, Robin and sorry for my long comment.

  • Trace

    whether? oops 😉

  • Bananafaced

    Unfortunately, letting go of one crutch usually means having to replace it with another crutch, (i.e. alcoholics swap their addiction to alcohol for an addiction to theism.) Once addicted, it is really difficult for anyone to quit cold turkey or to entertain any other options. Alcoholics tend to associate with other alcoholics and believers congregate in church. A united front for addicts of any kind keeps them mired in their addiction from which they usually do not want release. Also, didn’t Native Americans admonish us about walking in another person’s moccasins?

  • Anonymous

    But I am afraid to “come out” (even to my neighbors) because I might find my tires slashed, my property vandalized, and I might never be able to sell my home.

    You have my profound sympathies Bananafaced.  Despite occasionally hearing similar fears from people in (certain parts of) the US, I’m still gobsmacked by it 🙁

  • It is a psychological phenomenon by which most people identify their own persona by the ideas that they hold about the world.  The same thing occurs in Politics and Sports.  Insult a sports team, or attack Ron Paul (just an example) and many people will feel personally attacked.

    It is vital to any discussion on those topics to first identify if the person you’re discussion is capable of separating the two.  At some point, after pressing, we will all succumb to this misidentification.  However, the more versed one is in their ideas, or confident, the more able they are to express the ideas objectively rather than as an extension of themselves.

  • Quesita

    Wow.  I guess I’m a
    little surprised at your response.  I don’t
    live in the Bible Belt, and I don’t understand the reality that Robin is
    facing, but Robin has certain rights. 


    On this blog, and the corresponding forums, I’ve read all about
    lawsuits concerning nativity scenes or billboards or statues of Jesus in government
    parks.  Many of these lawsuits have
    struck me as silly and, dare I say, frivolous. 
    I do not see how a statue or a picture really infringes on an individual’s


    But discrimination in the workplace?  That is huge! 
    My advice to Robin would be to quietly start documenting
    EVERYTHING.  If Richard’s suspicions are
    correct, and if Robin’s job is really potentially in danger, that is really an
    infringement on rights.  Much more so
    than having my kid walk past a depiction of a baby in a manger surrounding by
    animals on a lawn by some governmental building.  If Robin’s were to lose this job as a result
    of being an atheist, to me, that would, in my opinion, be a fight worth taking
    to court.  

  • SK

    I was raised Hindu, surrounded by many evangelical Christians my entire life, and now consider myself an atheist. Mostly due to the judgment I felt from the Christians around me my entire life. “I respect your religion and love you, but you should follow Christ” never felt respectful or loving to me.

    The comment about separating religion from identity confuses me. I guess I can relate to the idea of relating religion to one’s identity, as you stated that theists do. I have had relationships with Christians where I truly did try to understand the religion and try to see their point of view.

    But asking me to believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior is like asking me to believe in unicorns. My logical mind can’t handle it. My heart can’t picture people I care about in hell because of what they believe. Doesn’t that mean my LACK of religion is a part of my identity? So I guess I see that as a part of who I am, which is why it hurts me when people around me tell me or my family we are eternally damned. It does feel like a personal threat. How could it not be?

    I actually do want to know. I’ve been mindfucked a lot lately. 🙂

  • Hi SK,
    People become attached to things that they love or that they think benefit them. They get attached to other people, possessions, abilities, opinions, and beliefs.  Sometimes that attachment can be very strong, and they can’t imagine themselves being able to even exist without the thing they cherish. Sometimes their sense of self becomes so enmeshed with the thing, that in their minds, it all blurs into one. They react to a threat to their attached thing with exactly the same terror and ferocity as if they were about to be killed. 

    But that conflation is only in their minds. It’s a delusion. Strong attachment to a thing is not being one and the same as the thing, regardless of how convinced they are that it is. Would they be very hurt, sad, broken-hearted, grieving, disoriented, dismayed if they lost that precious thing? Yes, but they would still exist, and most of them would somehow find a way to live on.

    Even though this is very common in people, it is not inevitable. People can free themselves of many attachments, and they can reduce their deeper, stronger attachments to less problematic levels. They can realize that they are not the thing, they own the thing.

    You might be your own example of this. You were raised as a Hindu, but you later became an atheist. I don’t know if your attachment to your childhood beliefs was as intense as I’ve described above, but imagine that it was. When your beliefs fell away, you did not vanish. You lost or discarded a possession, just like any other possession.  Think about how you really, really love some object you have, and you’d really not want to be without it, but you know you’d still exist if it was gone.

    “Identity” is a confusing term. Your lack of religion is now a part of your self description, one of your inner possessions, it’s important to you, and you may be developing an attachment to it, but it is not your self, the “you” who possesses it.  Your gentleness, love and compassion for the people you care about are very deep, and would probably remain the same regardless of the religious opinion/belief you currently possess. 

    Try to minimize that identifying/equating level of attachment to any things, interior or exterior, regardless of how much you come to cherish them.  It causes a lot of irrational thinking and unfortunate behavior.  Siddhartha Gautama warned us of this: The greater the attachments we have, the greater our suffering in life, and the greater the suffering we cause others.

  • Anonymous

     I do the same thing, because I can enjoy the bible stories so much more now that I am not a Christian.  The Old Testament is my favorite, and also fun because many mainline Christians haven’t read all of the Old Testament.  I grew up in a Church that was very literal about the Bible and we read through it three times before I was 16.   Since leaving the church I’ve continued studying in the bible, but in the context of the surrounding religions and influences, the scholarly sources that explain who wrote the books and when.  I’ve blown a few minds by showing how the creation and flood stories are actually two different accounts blended together.

    I had it easier at my work place when religion came up, because I did not live in the Bible belt and my co-workers were interested in what I was talking about. I never even talked about faith, just discussed the stories as I would any other work of myth or fiction.

  • Anonymous

    I find it sad that my country too is slowing starting  introducing religion and spirituality at work. Also in the northern half, if the Hindu text is criticized, the religious folks immediately start filing police reports citing parts of the penal code ” intention to endanger national integration and incentive to start communal rioting”. It may be just a matter of years before atheists here face the same amount of discrimination and violence.

  • 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.

    FWIW, my experience (in religious discussions with relatives and one co-worker) has been exactly the opposite of this, i.e. when we have successfully drilled down to the point where they are forced to admit that they believe purely out of ungrounded faith, the discussion just sort of amicably ends.  

    But the Bible Belt this is not.  Maybe it’s different there.  I’ve noticed that virtually all of Richard’s answers take the form of “duck and cover!”  I’m not saying that’s never the right strategy, but sometimes it seems like there’s a knee-jerk “run away!” response here.  That’s not the right response for everybody all the time, y’know…

    In the case of my parents, once I decided I wanted nothing to do with their church (and this was even before I was nominally calling myself an atheist, BTW), I responded to even the very slightest pressure with guns blazing.  Our family culture does not tend to be like that — we tend to be more passive-aggressive, heh — so it was extremely effective.  They just don’t try now, because they know the response they will get is extremely negative.

    Obviously that will not work for every family, in some families that could result in estrangement, and that’s not a good thing.  But my point is, “be nice and run away!” is sometimes NOT the right answer.  In my case, the right answer was, “Immediately hang up or loudly shout at them given the slightest inkling of pressure.”

  • James, I’ll think carefully about what you have said, because I do not want to give formulaic or “knee-jerk” responses. 

    I do advise most people who write to me to be circumspect before taking the irreversible step of revealing their atheism, and I advise everyone to take care of their own self interest first. But I never say to never do it. The majority of those for whom I advise caution are in very vulnerable positions, such as teens with authoritarian parents, or newly-employed young adults with little or no financial resources to fall back on.

    However, I also give plenty of advice about how to reveal one’s atheism in the situations presented by the letters,  and how to constructively engage with religious people after one is “out” either by choice or by accident. You will find that kind of advice in many of my responses to other letters, and you’ll find that right here in my response to Robin.

    I think characterizing my responses as always being “run away” is not a very thoughtful or accurate appraisal.

    There are costs for every profit, a loss for every gain. Every choice is a trade-off. In precipitous decisions, weighing the likely benefits and drawbacks ahead of time is probably a general piece of advice I’ll offer every time. If that’s a formulaic response, then I’m guilty.

    I won’t ever say, “Oh, just jump in without looking, and kick everybody’s ass.”  It would be easy for me to talk bravely when I’m not the one standing in harm’s way, but I will not do that.  People should make their important decisions thoughtfully, because it’s their decision, and their consequences. In addition, even though they should take care of their own interests first, also having some consideration for the effect they have on others is part of a mature response.

    I’m glad that you are satisfied with the results of your method, and I’m also sure it had its costs. You said that estrangement in families is not a good thing, and so I hope that that was not part of the cost you paid. I wish you and your family well.

  • Marco Conti

    Do these people actually work or chat about religion all day?

    I understand it can be a delicate situation at work, but I did not get from the letter writer that things were at the level where he should be afraid for his job. Maybe I misinterpreted his letter, but what I gathered was that they were still asking him questions and try to chat as if were still a believer.

    At that point, depending on the situation one could say, “Sorry Jane, I’d love to chat but I am on a deadline” or one could also say “You don’t really want to know my opinion about the flood, do you?” 

    The latter has worked well in the past for me.

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