Religion and the Workplace

A recent post at my favorite godless liberal weblog, Pharyngula, on the gender and age distribution of writers for skeptical magazines such as the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic prompted me to think a bit about attitudes toward religious expression in the workplace. I’d be interested to see what Eric thinks.

My personal opinion is that religion should be kept to a minimal level in the workplace as much as possible. I’ve been relatively lucky to work in environments where religion has never been a major issue or concern. People have talked about it during their lunch breaks or around the proverbial water cooler, but there’s never been any pressure to accept a particular faith or join a church.

This research report on religious diversity and the workplace suggests that complaints about harassment because of religion have increased by almost 85% between 1992 and 2003. The complaints mentioned in the article are directed at Muslims, Sikhs, Rastafarians, and Wiccans. The people at offer some guidelines to dealing with harassment.

It does remind of a conundrum about evangelical Christianity that Fred Clarke raised over at Slacktivist in a recent post to his ongoing critique of the Left Behind books series.

In this installment of the series he looked at a passage where Rayford Steele, the main character, refrains from evangelizing to his daughter after his conversion experience. Clarke writes:

L&J, to their credit, disagree. Rayford Steele – their mouthpiece and LaHaye’s Mary Sue avatar – seems to recognize that the Great Commission and the obligation to spread the gospel do not require us to offend and scare off those around us. They seem to arrive at this conclusion for wholly pragmatic, tactical reasons, rather than principled ones (i.e., not because treating others with respect is the Right Thing To Do, but because treating them with disrespect doesn’t seem to work), but let that slide. Whatever their reasoning, they have recognized that the willingness to be “fools for Christ” does not entail an obligation to be assholes for Christ.

I doubt L&J would go so far as to agree with me about evangelism being a form of hospitality, but here at least they seem to agree that evangelism ought not to be blatantly inhospitable. Elsewhere in these books, they often take the opposite stance, and the preponderant emphasis of the series does seem to come down more on the assholes-for-Christ side of the argument, but here, briefly, on page 218, L&J and I seem to agree on something.

(I tried to find a less vulgar alternative to “assholes for Christ,” but the term was unavoidably apt. I realize that this term will be off-putting for some readers – particularly for those to whom the desperate plea above is directed – and that’s unfortunate. But again, the term seemed inescapable, and it does seem strange that the naming of the phenomenon should be considered more offensive than the thing itself.)

I’ve encountered some people who take the evangelizing part of religion way too seriously, most of the time outside of the workplace. One time I was approached by someone at Best Buy and asked if I had found Jesus. I gave an inconclusive answer and received a five minute talk about the demons that he could see surrounding me. I smiled politely and went about my consumer business as soon as possible. The ironies of being proselytized in Best Buy, a paragon of consumerism, are almost too multitudinous to contemplate.

I don’t necessarily object to hearing what other people believe. Most of the time I’m willing to listen attentively and then depart quietly once the episode has passed. Afterwards I sometimes wonder if I should have objected more to their proselytizing, but I guess I’m more tolerant of others foibles than arguments. Whether that’s a good or bad personality trait I’ll leave to others.

I wonder what the best practice on this issue according to human resource professionals.

I remember reading a few employee handbooks that discouraged people from putting explicitly political messages in their offices. Here’s an article that hints at some guidelines. I usually interpreted this as a sort of no campaigning during work type thing. The law seems clear, religion cannot be used to discriminate, but the line between discussion and harassment is a narrow one.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.