Saturday, July 12, 2008

Religious Displays in the Public Workplace

Vjack at Atheist Revolution has a post here about atheism and religion in the workplace, and how the religious attitudes of one's co-workers or supervisors "who wear, display, or push their religious beliefs in the workplace can be a problem. "Hostile workplace" generally refers to a form of sexual harassment, but many atheist workers experience another sort of hostile workplace. Express their feelings about religion, refuse to participate in prayer meetings, or turn down enough church invitations, and they can be ostracized, harassed, or even fired."

Black Sun over at Black Sun Journal tackles the subject of religious propaganda being posted on public property in violation of the law, "especially when those messages are anonymous–where the perpetrator cannot be traced or held accountable. It’s clear that this kind of message is not even an advertisement for a particular church. Instead, the signs are an attempt to generically proselytize and induce guilt in members of other faiths or those, like myself, with no faith at all." Read Black Sun's post to see how he personally dealt with the situation.

As for myself, I faced a situation this past Friday that was sort of an amalgamation of the two. Though it was my day off from work, I went to the Nassau County Clerk's Office in Mineola to get a notary signature authenticated for a document that was needed for a trademark opposition in Bolivia.

At the Notary Public section in the County Clerk's Office, there were two women behind the counter. The one to the left was available, and called me forward. I handed her my paperwork and she left to go to the back of the office to look in a file cabinet for the information on the notary public to authenticate the signature.

While I was standing there waiting, my eyes drifted towards the other women behind the desk. She had finished helping the person she was dealing with while I was waiting to be called and was now alone at her workstation. She appeared to be an Indian woman in her late twenties or early thirties with a pretty face. But what ended up catching my attention was her work area itself. Perpendicular to the counter was a pillar that formed a wall in front of which sat her desk. On this pillar were displayed rather prominently a cross, a Christian calendar, and some other Christian materials, along with a small picture of an Indian man who presumably was her husband. I was a bit surprised to see such items displayed so conspicuously in a county office, particularly for an employee who conducted her work face to face with the public from her desk.

I continued to stand there waiting, because the employee helping me was having trouble finding the notary public's information in the county records. While standing there, I noticed the Christian Indian woman staring at the t-shirt I was wearing.

"What does that say?" she asked me smiling, her voice friendly. I turned to face her and let my arms hang to the side so that she could more easily read my shirt, which looked like this. She chuckled briefly and I explained to her that I got it in Florida after taking off from work to finish a scuba diving class. And with that, our interaction ended. The other woman returned to the counter and explained to me that even though the notary's stamp indicated she was qualified in Nassau County, New York State's records indicated that she was in fact qualified in Queens County, which made my trip there a waste of time. Well, it wasn't a total waste, because I also went to the Social Security office in Mineola to submit an application to replace my lost Social Security card. And my experience at the County Clerk's Office provided me with inspiration for this post!

But back to the main thrust of this post. Some atheists in my position might have taken offense at the County employee having Christian paraphernalia so prominently displayed at her workstation, particularly since her workstation was behind a counter where she interacts with the public. On further reflection though, I was not bothered by it. None of the items were of a proselytory nature. Rather, they seemed geared towards providing her with a measure of personal inspiration, and I personally do not see the need to begrudge her that.

Others might retort that if an atheist in her workstation had atheist materials prominently displayed, that it would result in a torrent of complaints and the atheist employee would be forced to take them down. Probably true. But I think there is a difference between having religious items on display that are of a personally inspirational nature in contrast with items that take a negative position against the beliefs of others. If the woman's work station displayed signs along the lines of "Get Right With Jesus or Get Left in Hell," there definitely would be a valid cause for complaint, and I am sure that she would be forced to remove them (unless maybe it was a county clerk's office somewhere in the Bible Belt). An atheist equivalent to this woman's work station at the Nassau County Clerk's Office would be a work station that contained inspirational quotes and materials of a secular humanist nature that made no disparaging references to religious belief.

I don't know if anyone, whether atheist or a follower of another religion, has or will complain about this particular lady's display of Christian paraphernalia at her workstation. Personally, I don't have a problem with it. Given the nature of her duties, I fail to see how her religious beliefs would put her in a position to discriminate against the general public. Rather than have a knee-jerk objection to the display of any religious belief in such a forum, I think it would behoove atheists and worshippers of other faiths to draw a distinction between literature and materials that are merely inspirational to the employee who displays them, and paraphernalia that is proselytory or condemnatory in nature.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on this, I have been a non believer for alsmost all my life and I am now 70 years old. I guess I never did believe in the super sky daddy and his zombie son but if someone else cares to believe in this mythology fine but just don't try to push it down my throat and we will get along fine

vjack said...

My problem with it is simply that this is a county office. The county is there to serve all residents and not just Christian ones. Basically, this bothers me for the same reasons that seeing "In God We Trust" in a courtroom bothers me.

Suppose an atheist employee had a picture of Darwin with some sort of pro-science quote. I am fairly confident that this would generate lots of objections (at least where I live). While it wouldn't be attacking anything, you better believe it would be perceived as such.

Tommykey said...

Thanks for your comments Vjack.

In the situation I described, owing to the nature of the paraphernalia she had displayed in her workspace, I would have felt petty if I complained about it. Granted, it is possible if it was my workstation with a picture of Darwin and a pro-science quote, some bible thumper might have complained. As I alluded to in my post, it seems to be more of a regional thing, and your hypothetical situation would probably cause more controversy where you live than up here in suburban Long Island.

At the risk of opening myself up to accusations of being a "Neville Chamberlain atheist", I don't feel the need to bristle at every display of personal religious belief in such a public setting. On the other hand, if the woman's workspace conspicuously displayed religious paraphernalia that was overtly divisive, such as a sign like the ones Black Sun tore down, I would have registered a complaint without reservation.

As you wrote in one of your other posts, not all atheists are in agreement about which battles to fight. With regard to this particular situation, I think it needs to be handled in a nuanced manner as described above. Of course, this is my own personal viewpoint, and I don't expect the rest of the atheist blogosphere to necessarily share my views on this subject.

BlackSun said...

Tommy, thanks for the link. I mostly agree with your post. I think people should be able to display personal items at work within reasonable limits.

But I disagree that those limits must include "respecting" another's religion. Even something as innocuous as a "live for today" poster, or a "No Fear" sticker could be considered to disrespect someone's religion. Like vjack said, a picture of Darwin with the word "Evolve" could be misconstrued by a fanatic as some kind of threat. And that's not even considering what would happen if I was a Satanist and put up a picture of Anton LaVey with an inverted pentacle, for example.

If I have to look at someone's cross, star of David, etc, then they have to be willing to look at Darwin, LaVey, etc.

braisler said...

I concur that this display of religious materials was probably not cause for offense. I would also likely not object. I'd also like to offer another suggestion of why they might be there... to thwart off criticism from other fundamentalist Christians in the general public. Given that the county employee in question is of Indian descent, many less than tolerant fundies might assume that she is not 'one of them', but rather practices Hinduism or Islam (the 2 most common religions in India). The display might be there just to assuage such concerns from an uneducated public.

Tommykey said...

Hi Braisler.

It might surprise you that a number of Indian-Americans are Christians. Near where I live in Hicksville there is an Indian Pentecostal church. Thus, I have no reason to doubt that the woman is a Christian.

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