Ask Richard: Is it Hypocritical for an Atheist to Work for a Church?
COLUMN By RICHARD WADE
For Humanist Network News
August 12, 2009
You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard@ca.rr.com. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of request; please be patient.
I am an atheist who became an atheist after getting a job working for a church. I enjoy my work and it is well paying with good benefits (something I need as my wife has had many health problems). My job is not really religious in a major way. I do mostly clerical work. Yet, I still feel like a hypocrite. I do look for other jobs, but have not been successful so far. Should I come out even if it would cost me my job? Do you have any advice on not feeling like a hypocrite every day? Thanks for your help.
P.S. My wife knows about my atheism. She was happy when I ‘came out' to her as she only went to church on my account. She considers herself a deist.
There are two issues to sort out here which may overlap: Hypocrisy about your beliefs, and deceiving your employers in order to safeguard your job.
First of all, it's a credit to your character that the mere possibility of your being a hypocrite concerns you. Sadly, many people don't give such things a second thought. However, simply being concerned is not enough to be assured that your character is strong and intact. I follow the maxim, "You are what you do," meaning that a person's character is indicated by the persistent patterns of their actions, rather than by their thoughts or words.
So let's first look at the possibility of hypocrisy and see how much, if any, fits what you persistently do: The simplest description of hypocrisy is not practicing what you preach, or asking others to do something that you are not willing to do.
You say that your job is not really religious in a major way, that you mostly do clerical work. It would seem to me that when you are doing clerical work, you're not "preaching" or directly promoting a belief in others that you do not share. So when you are doing those clerical things, you are not being a hypocrite.
However, it's not clear from your letter what the "religious" part of your job entails, if anything. If in that part you directly promote in others belief in God and that church's religion while you do not personally have that belief, then to that extent you are being a hypocrite.
Secondly, there's the issue of deceiving your employers to safeguard your job. You are at least passively deceiving them and your co-workers who are probably assuming that you still share their beliefs. If in conversations you pretend to still be a believer, then your deception is also active and involves lying.
Unfortunately, many people have to keep secrets or even lie to their employers because of prejudice against things that have nothing to do with their work. So an electrical engineer or an insurance salesman might keep their atheism a secret from their prejudiced boss.
I don't see an ethical conflict in that because they are simply avoiding trouble that is not related to their work duties, and they're working within a system that would penalize them unfairly if they were open about their beliefs. As long as they have been honest about their qualifications to do their work, and are honest about the actual execution of that work, then they are acting in an ethically sound manner. Other issues are nobody else's business.
On the other hand, if you were originally hired on the condition that you are a believer in God and that particular religion, then having lost that belief, you do have an ethical conflict because you now no longer fulfill that condition. It can be argued that a church clerical worker should not have to be a believer, but in the strictest sense, in the pickiest sense, I think it's an ethical conflict.
I'm only being this picky to clarify the ethical issues. You seem to be a good, decent man, and yet in this particular area, it's possible that you're also being somewhat deceitful and dishonest.
What you do about that, if anything, probably will depend on how much it bothers you, if at all, as well as the pressures you are under, such as your wife's health needs.
Life puts us into many ethical dilemmas. Sometimes we have to make tough choices, and at other times we have to make compromises. We make those compromises as small as possible, trying to avoid building up large collections of rationalizations, which are good-sounding reasons for doing bad things.
In the three-dimensional world, we have to find a workable balance between scrupulous honesty and self-forgiveness. We have to make judgment calls and accept responsibility for the consequences.
The small amount of hypocrisy inherent in whatever your specifically religious duties at the church may be, and the ethical problem of deception for the sake of keeping your job may be minor dilemmas, but--they are probably going to pester your conscience just enough to keep you less than happy while working there.
That is an effective way to never be very successful in your work.
The pay is good, and the benefits are important for your wife's health needs, but that unhappiness may prevent you from excelling at your job, and you'll get stuck at close to your present level. I can't tell from your letter how old you are, so I don't know if this job is one of your first or perhaps one of your last, so the success issue may be irrelevant. But either way, being constantly uncomfortable and having to be secretive and pretending for so many hours a day sounds like a pain in the neck.
I've offered a couple of rationalizations that might "get you off the hook" with the hypocrisy and deception questions, but for a man with a strong and watchful conscience like yours, they'll only work if you actually think they are valid rationalizations. If you do, great, glad that I could help. But only you know the decisive details.
If not, then I suggest that instead of "coming out," you quietly increase your efforts to find similar clerical work in a secular setting, or get some training or education to open up a wider range of work opportunities. Take your time, but not too much time, and find a well-paying, good benefits-giving job elsewhere that allows you to be more relaxed and open about being you. In the long run, you'll be more successful and more satisfied, a happier worker and a happier husband.
(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He grew up surrounded by scientists at a major natural history museum, where his parents worked. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction, counseling more than ten thousand patients. He is now retired.
His viewpoint grows from a lifetime of skepticism, rationalism and a pragmatic attitude that life should be faced with equal measures of courage and humor. This column is not just for advising humanists or atheists. Anyone from any perspective or belief is welcome. Richard's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)