Saturday, March 14, 2009

My "Out at Work" History: Polite or Chicken?

In the comments of my previous post, Lorry said, "In Denmark, religion never comes up. My husband doesn't even know if his own twin sister believes in God. No one talks about it. Ever. So I can identify with this post.", while John Evo said, "Even some of the most vocal bloggers are, in REAL life, quite silent about the fact that they carry no superstitions - some even lie about it and simply parrot the name of whatever religion they were raised in."

That's essentially why I wrote that post to begin with -- I'm trying to figure out which one I am. In my case, if someone asks my religion, I do not hesitate: I'm an atheist who was raised Mormon. But it seems like I've been practicing a bit of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy...

You be the judge. Here's my professional history in a nutshell:

  • In college, attending BYU, I was completely in the closet about my disbelief. Frankly, I didn't want to be expelled and have BYU refuse to transfer my credits. Long before it happened to Chad Hardy, it was no secret that that was the policy.

  • In grad school -- as I explained in how I came to sympathize with the Mormons -- the first question after “What’s your name?” is “Where’d you get your undergraduate degree?” In the Math department (at Rutgers), they posted a list of all the new grad students along with the name of the university each came from. So I was obliged to explain to everybody. “Yes, I went to BYU. No, I didn’t want to go there. Yes, I was raised Mormon. No, I don’t believe in it.” That was cool!!! I had an excuse to tell everyone all my funny stories about growing up Mormon without ever being the one who was impolite enough to bring it up. One Christian guy displayed a pamphlet called "A Christian's Response to Homosexuality" in on his desk in view of his out-Lesbian office-mate, and everybody talked about the appropriateness (or not) of that.

  • At my first real job (as a programmer in NJ), a Muslim colleague gave me a card inviting me to her Sunni Muslim center, which I politely declined. Another Muslim colleague was shocked by anecdotes that involved social drinking. An Orthodox Jewish colleague refused to shake my hand. A Lutheran Colleague didn't have any peculiar restrictions but managed to bring up his Lutheranism pretty frequently anyway. I was the junior member of the team and said nothing about the subject.

  • My second job was at a little dot-com startup back when all you needed to get investors on board were an idea and a few slides (before the dot-com bust of 2000). All of my colleagues were from India. They were from all over India, and was curious to hear about all of the cultural differences among the different areas. Many of them were vegetarian and/or did strange fasts like eating only fruits and nuts one day per week. At my request, they brought me along to a Hindi movie and (on another occasion) to their Diwali service. It was really quite fascinating. Belief in God (or gods) per se didn't really come up much except when I was talking about France (being engaged to a Frenchman and all). When I mentioned that the French almost never go to church, a Hindu colleague asked, "But when do they pray?" My reply: "They don't."

  • My third job was almost entirely telecommuting, so I had very little casual contact with my colleagues. This actually presented real problems for communication and collaboriation on projects, so I've tried to avoid excessive telecommuting since then.

  • At my fourth job, I'd started getting involved with Mormon-related discussions online, so I kind of wanted to talk to my colleagues about it, but still I didn't bring it up. As far as I could tell, nobody in the whole company (of a few hundred people) was religious at all. The closest thing to a display of ideology was one guy in another department who put up a rainbow flag in his personal work area. One colleague told me how shocked he was when he saw a documentary about G.W.B. and how much he brought God into public policy. Said my colleague, "Here in France, we have a tradition of separation of church and state..." I sadly replied, "We used to have that too!" On another occasion, a colleague was telling someone a funny story, and I caught just the end bit where he recounted saying to someone "Écoute, dieu n'existe pas [Listen, God does not exist]". I caught his eye and smiled, but didn't say anything (because he was talking to someone else).

  • My fifth job was fairly brief (I had to quit when I moved to Switzerland), but I got in one conversation about religion. My family took a trip to Lourdes -- the #1 world Catholic pilgrimage spot -- so I was careful to explain that it wasn't a pilgrimage, it's just that my husband's aunt is a nun. A colleague told me his story of visiting Lourdes when he was a kid, in Catechism. The healthy push the sick (in special wheelchairs of Lourdes) to the healing waters to bathe. An endless procession of the dreadfully ill marinate in the miraculous pool from morning until night. Then it's your turn to get in. "That you don't get sick from it -- that's the miracle!" he said.

  • And that brings me up to my present job. One colleague volunteered that he'd voted in favor of gay marriage when it came up in a Swiss referendum. This came up because another colleague was planning to visit some gay married friends on vacation. (Both of these colleagues are straight guys.) I've hinted about being atheist-friendly, and one colleague has hinted back. He lent me his disc of Randy Newman's Faust, and pointed out specifically that Randy Newman (who wrote it and plays the devil) is an atheist. I'm listening to it now -- not bad. :D

So what do you think?

It would be fun if some of you -- atheist or not -- would take this as a meme! I'm curious about how my real-life "out at work" experience compares to others.


Craig said...

I've only been out as an atheist for (only actually been an atheist) for a little over 6 months or so. But anything the subject does come up, I make it clear that I'm atheist. Before I identified as agnostic and before that as an unbelieving Mormon, and as soon as I left BYU I was open about my beliefs. But it's rather common for people to ask you outright about your religious beliefs when you live in downtown SLC. Everyone wants to know who's Mormon and who's not.

But because I'm gay, I think a lot of people have assumed things about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) without me telling them.

La Framéricaine said...

Hi there!

I bookmarked your blog long ago because I find the subject of non-believers in an overbearing believers environment very interesting. One of my favorite books is "Shot in the Heart" by Mikal Gilmore.

I have to go now but I'll be back and hope to weigh in on this subject more from the point of view of minority/majority than religion proprement dit.


sarniaskeptic said...

I'm very much a "chicken" at work. I hardly keep it somewhat of a secret out of politeness.

The fear of it negatively affecting my professional life is what keeps me from being public about my beliefs.

Great blog, I'll have to check back - I just found you on the atheist blogroll so I thought I'd check it out.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Craig!!!

Yeah, I imagine that would be an interesting and unique experience. I'd be curious to hear more about it...

Hey Francamércaine!!!


I'd love to hear more about your take on the majority/minority aspect from another French-American perspective!

Hey Sarniaskeptic!!!

Welcome to you, too! Now I'm curious as to why it might negatively affect your professional life. Surrounded by believers, or just a generic question of keeping controversial personal topics out of work...?

to all: See? The skeptic community can seem homogeneous in our own element, but it looks like our IRL situations vary quite a bit, especially in the professional world. This is why I'm hoping this will take off as a meme...

gburnett said...

Hey C.L.,

I'm very much open about my atheism at work, but that's just my personality and I've been there a long time. I think you were being a chicken when you didn't speak up at your job in Jersey, but as the new guy sometimes the best path is chickenhood. :-) We can't just waltz into a job and piss everyone off right off the bat.

That doesn't mean that we should allow proselytizing at work, but there are usually more subtle methods available to protest the god-pushers.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey GBurnett!!!

Very true! I've resolved to do better if I'm ever surrounded by god-pushers again...

Unknown said...

I created a post to answer this question for myself. I haven't been online as much as I'd like lately so I haven't read any follow ups around the net, but I hope more people weigh in.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey O.G.!!!

Yes, I saw your post, and was was very happy to see that you took me up on my challenge! :D

I got in late this evening and just skimmed my reading list, but I'll read it more carefully tomorrow and comment.

Freckle Face Girl said...

I also tend to keep my religious background out of work conversations. It has been a while since anyone has read my resume, but the BYU thing does hint at it.

People have asked me if I knew it was a school that lots of Mormons go to and how I felt being surrounded by them. I had to laugh. That makes me wonder what they think Mormons look like.

In Miami, very few people knew about BYU. The conversation rarely came up. In my last job there, they had no idea until they hired someone for another office that graduated from BYU Hawaii. She was much more vocal than I have ever been. That lead to lots of questions of course. Like you, I mainly answer their questions about it.

King Aardvark said...

Hey CL,

Can't say that religion ever comes up at my office. Bunch of engineers in a fairly quiet, sterile environment, so we don't talk much about stuff like that. Occasionally you'll see a guy wearing a cross, but that's it.

There are a few people who are more open, but not due to what they say. There are a couple of jesus fish on some cars, a life begins at conception bumper sticker, and a darwin fish. I don't think anyone really cares though.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Freckle Face Girl!!!

That's fun. It's true that being a BYU alum can be a good conversation topic. ;^)

Hey King Aardvark!!!

Yeah, I know what you mean. Among engineers there's no reason for the subject to come up. In my case, I feel like it has so little relevance to the task at hand that I'd prefer not to bring it up in case it starts to color relations in a negative way.

Anonymous said...

My fiance's friends told me once "We don't talk about religion or politics." I said, "What do you talk about then, the weather?"

Also, once I started talking social issues, we found out we weren't really compatible friends. One said to me "You said you had gay roommates. I don't agree with that." :) lol. Bye! :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sunny Skeptic!!!

Yep, that's the problem right there. Sticking to non-controversial subjects may make the conversation less interesting, but, OTOH, you don't necessarily want to discover deep conflicts with colleagues that you have no choice but to work with...

beatdad said...

I try to keep my Buddhism a secret, not because I don't like to talk about it, but because being Buddhist means nothing.

I like to tell people I used to be Mormon when it comes up, especially if they are dis'n on my peeps, yo. ;^ )
Religious affiliation does not come up much around here (Eugene) so, I keep mostly quiet about my past and current practices.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Beat Dad!!!

Yeah, I like to talk about my Mormon connection if it comes up in conversation too! :D

Bull said...

When I was an active Mormon it was difficult not to talk about the church unless I didn't talk about myself at all. After all I spent a very large part of my free time doing church related activities. I wasn't embarrassed about it and didn't avoid talking about what I did over the weekend.

Now I still talk about what I did, it's just that the conversations tend to me more interesting now :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bull!!!

That's a good point. Mormonism, by occupying all of your free time, makes it impossible to be in the closet about your beliefs if you talk about your life at all.