A reader writes:
I didn’t know you took Dear Abby questions, but here’s mine. I’m a recent graduate in a “helping profession.” I have a new job and everyone is a Christian. There’s a local skeptic meet-up group that I’d like to be involved with, but I feel like if I come out as agnostic now I will never be promoted and my career will stagnate. But if I wait 5 years or so then come out, I will be in a better place to help the movement. Does that make sense or am I rationalizing cowardice? — K. G.
Thanks for the question, KG! For the record, last week’s question was the first reader question I’ve answered. I didn’t originally intend for this to be an advice column, but I’m certainly happy to try to help if any other readers have been struggling with a question involving atheism.
So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of your question. You haven’t given me a lot of detail, and that in itself tells me something. You’re clearly concerned that even giving away which profession you’re in will possibly compromise your future. And whether that’s true or not, the fact that you feel that way speaks volumes about the oppressive work environment. (You’d be surprised, I think, at how many people are probably in exactly the same position. I don’t think there’s any chance of someone guessing who you are from a Dear William letter, even if you had given your exact profession.)
My first guess is that you’re in some kind of internship or other temporary position, where your evaluation is going to determine whether you get hired permanently. (Although… five years? Maybe a tenure track position?) And “helping profession?” Are you a nurse? A social worker? A therapist? Not knowing, I’ll just make some generic observations. Feel free to contact me again if you’d like to be more specific, and I’ll answer privately.
Technically speaking, your involvement with a skeptic group in your free time should have absolutely no bearing on work. Are you worried about snooping co-workers seeing posts on Facebook? Or maybe the skeptic group has public events and you don’t want to be seen with them? If that’s the case, then there’s probably a “middle ground” position that will give you a little bit of both worlds. Get in contact with the skeptic group and explain to them that you’re in a temporary “holding pattern,” and that you need to get your promotion before you can be openly skeptical. Tell them that you’d love to be involved, but you’d like to remain behind the scenes. If they have events, find ways to help them backstage. Donate money, bake cookies, stuff envelopes, order pizza. Do anything you can think of to show that you’re supportive of the cause, but don’t participate visibly in public events. If they have a Facebook page, encourage them to make it a closed group so you don’t have to worry about co-workers cyber-spying on you. (Don’t worry about attending meetings at a bar. Join them and have fun. If all they’re doing is sitting around having beer, your co-workers have absolutely nothing to pin on you.)
This kind of approach has two benefits. First, it’s unlikely anyone at your job will find out. Second, if they do find out, they’ll have had to really snoop to do so. If that’s the case, you might well have a legitimate discrimination suit. I know that’s not much of a consolation. Most companies are not fond of hiring the job candidate who sued their last company for discrimination. But at some point, non-believers everywhere have to at least start nibbling the bullet, even if they’re not willing to commit to a bite. The reason so many non-believers have this problem is that so many believers are actively hiding their non-belief.
There’s possibly a bigger life decision here as well. Are you in a profession that is loaded with Christians in every location? Or did you just get unlucky and get hired by the one company run by an Evangelical? If you’re going to be facing this same worry every time you move jobs, you might need to think about whether your career and your lifestyle are compatible. I’m guessing you’re pretty young. Maybe 25 or 30? (If it’s a job, you’re probably just out of grad school. If a tenure track position, you just finished your PhD…) It may not seem like it now, while the rush of graduation is still the main thing you’re feeling, but trust me on this one: Getting another degree or otherwise changing fields might be a better option than committing to a field where you’ll be constantly living a double life.
If you’re just unlucky with your initial job placement, I don’t think it’s necessarily rationalizing cowardice to “play the part” until your job is protected, or you are promoted over the people you’re worried about. But five years seems like a long time to pretend to be someone you’re not, or to hide personal activities from all prying eyes. And frankly, if you’re in a field where Christianity is so prominent that you can’t even hang out with a skeptic group on your free time…
Well… that really is a pickle, isn’t it?
KG, my best guess is that you’re over-estimating the impact of someone figuring out that you’re a non-believer. Christians aren’t generally afraid of non-believers who keep their noses down and don’t actively challenge believers. They’re afraid of the ones who make a stink. I don’t think joining a skeptic group will ruin your life, especially if you let them know you don’t want to be in any pictures that might make the local paper. Get involved. At the least, let the skeptics know that you’re one of them. Tell them your situation. For one thing, they’ll be thrilled to have the support, even if it’s behind the scenes. For another, it’ll energize them towards action, knowing that there are still such big issues with “coming out” in your area. Your story will give them resolve that they’re doing something important just by existing.
Remember that coming out in your private life doesn’t mean you have to come out at work. The workplace isn’t an appropriate place for religion OR atheism. If they’re constantly flaunting their Christianity, they’re in the wrong, and you don’t have to flaunt your atheism to counteract their gaffe. Keep your nose down at work, and do your job so well that nobody will think of giving you less than an excellent rating. Don’t comment on religion one way or the other. But in your private life, don’t be afraid to make non-believer friends, or to hang out with them in public. As long as you’re not seen as an active threat to Christians at work, they’re unlikely to cause you any trouble.