The Atheism Challenge – by Terry Howard

‘Terry, I’m (gasp) an atheist!’  There was not a hint of anger in her during the entire time “Mary” and I talked that afternoon in the crowded sandwich shop. In fact, it was just the opposite. “Mary” laughed, we laughed, so hard and so much that out of the corner of my eye I could see icy stares from booths nearby “telling us” to pipe down so that they could get back to their business dealings, grandkiddos, tuna sandwiches, chips and lattes. Here’s the email “Mary” sent me the Friday before that prompted that late Monday meeting:

“Terry, I met you at the meeting and enjoyed your talk on personal branding. We discussed the nonreligious members of the community and how it’s hard to identify as a *gasp* atheist. I’ve never brought up my affiliation (or more accurately lack thereof) to my family, so I definitely do not bring it up at work. I’m sure that a majority of people wouldn’t have any issue, but I have noticed that sometimes individuals see nonbelievers as different from someone of a different religion (but still religious.) I’m interested in your opinions on atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists, and everything in between (particularly in a Texas workplace). Just writing this in an email makes me more nervous than it really should. I’d like to stay anonymous and in the heathen closet!”

As we sipped our soups, it became obvious to me that Mary’s a smart and talented engineer in a company that values smart and talented people. But beneath Mary’s smile lurked traces of concern, the paramount being fear of rejection.

“My biggest fear in ‘coming out’ to my family is being rejected. And I know that coming out at work will ultimately cost me my job. I remember when I first came out as an atheist years ago that the responses were many, from ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ to ‘No you are really religious,’ to ‘What? But you are such a good person,’ to total silence. A few even steered their children away from me during a company event as if I had a disease of some sort.”

Many thoughts darted through my mind that evening as I mulled over my conversation with Mary. We’ll get back to my meeting with her shortly.

I tried to imagine how it would feel to live daily on the fragile outer edges of being found out and rejected by family and co-workers. I tried to imagine dreading the inevitable “What church do you attend?” or those “Bow your head, and lead us in prayer” moments. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to have to live in fear of disappointing others, well-meaning others.

I then thought about why it is so important to seek out other views, including those that we may disagree with, on issues like this. Why? Because when we don’t, we risk locking ourselves into echo chambers of sameness and groupthink, isolated from fair and legitimate – and sometimes uncomfortable – questions that should be asked. Consequently, we don’t grow and we don’t learn. That was my thinking when I tossed this question out to a group of thought leaders, folks who are smart, opinionated and brutally honest and whose views I value ─ friends who have no problem taking my rear end to task when I’m not as objective as I should be: “If you were about to meet face-to-face with the “Mary” above, what issues would you bring up, questions would you ask and recommendations you would offer?”

ROB: If I respected her before I knew she was an atheist, then nothing would change. And if I had an ongoing relationship with her, I would gently but persistently try to convince her by my words and actions of the “realness” of God.  And she should not be offended by that because if I didn’t care about her I would just leave her alone.

JIM: From my experience, any prejudice toward atheists stems from exposure to activist atheists behind efforts to erase God from the country, the elimination of Christmas or Easter displays, prayers in the locker room, removing “under God” from the pledge, objecting to God Bless America, etc. Typically I am “live and let live” and believe most others are as well. However, many object to having to defend long-held traditions against the objections of a few. Certainly, she may not be trying to eliminate traditions and may not hold religious people in contempt, but many of her fellow atheists do these things. I don’t like to assume each person I meet fits some norm, so unless she actually does some of the above, she wouldn’t have any issues with me.

TIS: I would begin with commending her courage in coming forward. Cite this Pew study from Oct. 2012 –”Nones” on the Rise” that shows she’s in good company in that many are nonaffiliated. Next, inquire more about her motivations that brought her to the conversation. Assist her in achieving a comfortable outcome so that she returns to work with a strong sense of support, “safe space” and ways of identifying allies. Most important leave her with an abiding sense that TI is a workplace that “walks its talk,” a place with policies in place that encourage, support and protect every employee.

KELLY:  Take her hand, get down on your knees and pray for her because she’s lost and confused. Invite her to my church.

KEN: I’d empathize with her. Perception is reality here, so unless she describes specific situations, I wouldn’t push real hard to determine whether there have been specific situations in which she has been actually persecuted because of her atheistic views. More helpful: Ask about situations that have made her feel persecuted because of her beliefs. I’d try to help her see that “atheism” and “religiosity” are similar in the following respect: Both “religious” people and atheists are often apprehensive about what others might think of them if their beliefs were known. We’re all in the same boat here. Not all people will agree.

To learn more about her, I asked Mary these questions:

ME: At what age did you realize that you did not believe?

MARY: As a child I went through the motions happily. I sang the songs, read the stories and prayed the prayers because that was expected and normal. It was presented as fact so I absorbed it the same way I did subjects at school. I started to get suspicious as I went through confirmation in the seventh and eighth grades. By the time I wrote my “faith statement,” I felt like I was lying and didn’t like being disingenuous. However, I didn’t have a good working knowledge of other religions, and I certainly wasn’t aware of groups of nonbelievers (my high school years were before the era of the ubiquitous smartphone and laptop). For this reason, I kept it to myself and went with the flow. I even helped organize my graduating class’ baccalaureate. I picked out Bible verses and everything! (I slipped a few Douglas Adams quotes into my graduation speech to make up for it though.)

ME: What some of the most common myths and stereotypes about atheists?

MARY: Atheism = Satanism, and we are a bunch of hedonistic troublemakers drifting through life with no purpose or direction (or some permutation) are pretty common. Another is that all atheists want to rid the world of all religions, think less of religious people and want to get rid of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Christmas, but it irks me when I hear “War on Christmas” when I wish someone happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I’m not excluding Christians, I’m including everyone else!

ME: What are some of the most common hidden and not-so-hidden costs of being a closeted atheist at work?

MARY: There is a mental cost of watching words and avoiding mentioning secular activities. If atheists are open about their lack of religion, they may cost themselves social and career opportunities if someone reacts poorly. Whether we like it or not, religion or lack thereof is a large facet of one’s personal life. It’s taxing to hold this in.

ME: What else would you like TI to know?

MARY: First, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secular humanists all exist at TI alongside Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others. And the reality of that existence doesn’t mean we’re bent on eradicating any and everything religious. We’re here, like everyone else, to get work done and execute on business priorities, nothing more, nothing less. Second, Atheism is not a denomination and is not equivalent to Baptist, Lutheran, etc. Like other groups, atheists often congregate together for a sense of community and fellowship. And third, rather than make assumptions, or ask personal questions, about a person’s religious affiliation, Don’t Assume and  Don’t Ask! Allow them to volunteer that information if that’s their choice.(Bold highlight added for emphasis and for quick ‘if don’t remember anything else about this column’ recall.)

ME: Care to offer any parting thoughts Mary?

MARY: My degree of openness has evolved. In college I came to terms with the term “atheist.” When I attended my first Secular Student Alliance meeting, I was dodgy. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, refused to attend social gatherings in public, etc. Over time I got over it and all my current friends know. It hasn’t damaged my relationship with even the most religious among them. If anything it’s an opportunity to discuss life and the world in depth.

At work, I like to think that people mean well when they invite me to their church or talk to me about God. It almost makes me wonder why people don’t proselytize more. I suppose it may be more common than we think to identify with a religion by default (upbringing, region, etc.) without giving it the consideration it deserves.

On the other side of the coin, I almost never proselytize from a nonreligious point of view. Even then, it’s usually just to let people know that they’re not alone with their doubts. Nonbelief can be a lonely place. I think it is valuable that we’re free to hold any beliefs we like in this country and I will not begrudge anyone something that brings them peace.

At that, “Mary” and I headed for the front door, laughing, with those dagger-like stares bidding us farewell and good riddance!

Questions for personal reflection:

1.        If an opportunity presented itself for you to have a dialogue with any of the above folks, what would you say to her/him?

2.        Pause and think about all the smart and talented people you work with. Consider the possibility that a few may be “closeted Marys.” Ask yourself: what would my professional life be like if she/he left the company for fear of be found out, rejected or otherwise treated unfairly?

3.        If you consider yourself a “live and let live” person, and would not have a problem if someone came out to you as an atheist, agnostic, etc., what can you do personally to make others who may see things differently get to where you are in your level of acceptance?

4.        What perspectives could atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and secular humanists bring to bear in advancing business priorities, how best can you learn about them and facilitate that understanding for competitive advantage?

Terry Howard

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Huffington Post and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com.

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