I’ve been rather fortunate that not many parts of my life are affected by my spiritual affiliation or lack thereof. I’ve had relatively few instances where I was put in an uncomfortable position by people who were suspicious or confrontational about religion. But when I do experience instances of ignorance or intolerance, they stand out.
A while back I had an incident at work where some customers complained to me because two of my employees were discussing atheist philosophy in the store. They were extremely upset about it, and were clear about their belief that allowing the discussion of atheism in the workplace was threatening to them as Christians.
Clearly, when they came to me to address the situation they assumed that I shared their faith and would also share their outrage. It didn’t occur to them for one minute that I would have a different view, and they certainly didn’t expect my employer to disagree with their assessment of the situation.
Initially, I did what I have been conditioned by years of working customer service to do: I apologized and said I would remind my staff that it isn’t a good idea to talk about religion at work. I caged my response in respectful corporate language which allowed them to continue to assume that I agreed with them, while actually remaining neutral on the issue at hand.
They seemed satisfied, and I wrote a memo to my staff.
And then I proceeded to privately obsess about it for well over a day.
I realized that my actions went against everything I believed. There is a time and a place for keeping one’s opinions to oneself in order to appease others, especially in a customer service environment. But telling my employees that they should avoid having intellectually stimulating discussions at work because some people might not like what they hear goes against my core values. Allowing customers to impose unreasonable restrictions on my staff just because we want them to spend money with us is unfair.
So I revised my memo. I told my staff to make sure that they always used respectful language when they were in the store. I told them that it is absolutely unacceptable to say things which imply that certain groups of people are less valuable than others. But as long as they are respectful and inclusive, they should feel absolutely free to discuss things amongst themselves which they find interesting. Those sorts of discussions are what make work interesting. They are how we bond as individuals and become a team. And I told them that I wanted them to feel absolutely sure that, when it comes to their rights and freedoms, I back them up 100%.
And then I told the customers that I had reviewed the incident and that my staff had not done anything out of line. I pointed out that starting to apply restrictions on mentioning one religion but not another would put the company in a precarious legal position anyway, and as an atheist myself I certainly didn’t support putting restrictions on my non-Christian employees which didn’t apply to my Christian employees.
My hope is not so much that those customers reconsider their religious viewpoint. I don’t really have any vested interest in converting others to my particular spiritual philosophy. But I do have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s freedom of belief and expression. If I don’t stand up for everyone’s freedom, I’m not standing up for my own.