So I’m pretty sure I came within an inch of losing my job today. For being an atheist while on the clock.
For my day job, I work at a private educational company (they’re terrible), and sometimes I administer evaluative tests to potential students. A few weeks ago, I was testing a boy about nine years old. Between tests, I make small talk. I can’t remember the lead-up to this, but at some point this kid made the comment, “Well, my mom says this world is ending and the next one is coming.”
It’s my firm belief that one of the major ways that religious hegemony is enforced is by silent consent to worldview expressions like these, despite the fact that they are not uncontroversial viewpoints in the slightest. I feel one of the most imperative acts I can commit as an atheist is to speak out in situations like these, to not grant consent to the illusion of universal acceptance of religious ideology. In my view, the fact that I was working with a young child only made my dissent more urgent, to challenge those notions before oppressive social expectations became established. So I said, “That’s cool. People think a lot of different things about the universe. I’m an atheist myself, so I don’t believe in god. But the great thing is that you get to decide what you believe.”
At the end of my shift today, I got sat down by my boss, who’d evidently been confronted by the kid’s parent. As nicely as she could, my boss told me that what I’d said was “not appropriate” and could not happen again. To which I replied, “I don’t want to lose my job, but I don’t think there was anything unethical about what I said, and it shouldn’t be controversial.”
My boss politely tried to find a common ground that wasn’t there, saying that she appreciated that I held ‘strong beliefs’ but that our (my) role was just to provide educational services and there was no reason to ‘go there’. At this I had to wonder, what other kinds of crazy-town views would this company’s management abide for the sake of not offending a parent-customer? I’ve set kids straight in the past when they’ve said homophobic remarks. What if a parent got upset that I had done that? Would my boss reprimand me, and then turn around and shake the hands of the many LGBT parents that bring their children to our learning center? What if a child talked about how their parents said there was a race war coming? Would I even be allowed to say, “You know, some people don’t think there’s an imminent race war. You can make up your own mind about it”, or would I have to zip it?
The conversation ended with her restating that it couldn’t happen again, and with me smiling wryly, unwilling to give any guarantee that I wouldn’t do the same in the future. I have no idea whether I have any legal rights or protections here (I’m not hopeful), but I stand by my conviction that what I said–that different views exist, that I held one of them, and that he the student was free to decide–should not have been controversial in the slightest. Diverse belief systems and religious freedom are all natural facts of the pluralistic society that we live in, and the seeming attempt by the parent at denying their existence is possibly even more troubling and dangerous than the crazy story about the next world after this one.