Note: To add another layer of anonymity for the letter writer, I have changed his name, as I do for all the writers who sign their letters with their name. I have also altered a few incidental details of his story to make him less identifiable.
I’m interested in your opinion on this matter.
I consider myself a radical Atheist, as Douglas Adams was known to say, he preferred to put the term “radical” there because it conveys the fact that he really meant it. Unfortunately I am also pretty much in the closet with regards to my lack of belief at work.
My problem is at work. My coworker in the next cube over is always ranting and raving about god and country. He’s a stereotypical Glenn Beck viewer, I could very easily envision him disrupting a Town Hall meeting if you get my drift. He thinks President Obama is an evil socialist Muslim from another country who wants to abort all the babies and kill all the grannies. Of course, he thinks atheists are the root of all evil and the problems of our country are caused by our abandoning god. I think he suspects I am an Atheist, perhaps because of the FSM logo on the back of my car. He recently put up a sign on his cabinet that reads “God Bless America” with a flag background. I suspect he is trying to provoke me into a discussion when I have zero interest in having one with him.
It makes for an uncomfortable workplace. I work on computer software so I can do my job with headphones on and I find myself turning the music up lately to drown my coworker out.
My question is, should I say something to him? I’d like to simply ask him to stop. I feel like he is trying to lure me into a discussion of religion just so he can try to evangelize and push his agenda. He has already made it known he has had a run in with HR when he was going around with a sign up sheet to raise money for his anti-abortion group. I personally feel such talk at the office is inappropriate. I think he wants to be a martyr with his loud offensive bullying talk. I suspect he wants me to say something and of course would claim I am somehow oppressing him.
Another wrench in the works is my manager, who can’t go two sentences without dropping a comment affirming his own religiousness. My manager even has a cup in his office from an evangelist college. It’s the kind of place that I would be amazed if they were accredited in any way. I suspect he may be a graduate from there. He also has a bible on his desk. So my manager is a devout Christian and so is his manager. My manager is also known as a cost cutter who has laid people off to save money. I wouldn’t want him to have any reason to fire me because I think he would do so in a heartbeat. If my manager were to find out I was an atheist he would probably take an interest in converting me and it would probably change his opinion of me for the worse.
We work at a pretty large company with an HR department, do you think I should go to HR over my coworker? Am I wrong for wanting him to keep his ill-informed opinions to himself? Should I just suck it up? I have a wife, kids and a mortgage to worry about.
To sum up the strategic situation, your coworker is a childish, boorish, paranoid, evangelizing activist who is annoying you with his loud and distracting blather, your manager is a devout evangelical Christian who uses an axe to protect the company profit margin, and his manager is also a devout Christian. You have a mortgage and a family to support.
I don’t think sucking it up or turning the music in the headphones up even louder will be a lasting solution. It’s just going to wear you down. You need and deserve a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere to do the work you do.
As irksome as you may find the content of Mr. Religious Right Reactionary’s opinions, that is not the issue. He certainly has the right to express his views, but he does not have the right to disturb his neighbors at work. It would be completely legitimate for you to try to quiet the irritating chatter from the next cubicle, but exactly how you do that is very important. Revealing that you are an atheist would not be a good idea at this time and place. I’ll speak to that issue later on.
I suggest that you begin to make polite requests to your coworker to quiet down always for work-related reasons. Say with a calm, flat tone, “Excuse me, I need to concentrate on my work.” or “Sorry, I gotta get back to work.” or “Can you please keep it down? I’m trying to work.” This will probably have to be repeated many times. Be patient and think of it as a game.
The volume and tone of your voice must remain low and calm, unchanging every time, so practice before you speak to him. It’s important to keep any hint of irritation out of it, because that will only provoke him. He’s looking for a challenge or even a fight, and you don’t want to feed him that.
Don’t touch the subject of his rants with a ten-foot pole. If he or your boss asks you if the specifics of your coworker’s opinions are what you object to, don’t answer that directly, just stick to you how you need to have a peaceful, quiet work environment. You just want him to stop his distracting prattling, period. Always attaching the need to do your work to your requests for him to be quiet makes your requests unassailable in that office. You’re there to work, not to discuss politics, religion, baseball or somebody’s gall bladder surgery. Even your two Bible-brandishing bosses couldn’t argue with that.
Going to HR should be the last resort, but prepare for it from the beginning. Keep a written record of the dates and times that he was disturbing your work, and the exact wording of the work-related polite requests for quiet that you made each time. This will simply help you to see if you’ve given it a fair enough time to have an effect, and if as a last remedy you decide to go to HR, you’ll have documentation that you have tried your best in a reasonable manner to get him to stop. Whether to him or to HR, always emphasize the disruption of your work, NOT the content of his tiresome twaddle.
If it finally has to go to HR, even though you will have taken all the reasonable steps and followed the proper channels, be ready for the poop to hit the propeller. If he wants to play the oppressed martyr, he will. His remarks may become more passive-aggressive, with sneaky barbs and sideways insults in your direction, or he may actually defiantly escalate his political-religious rants, daring you and HR to stop him.
Don’t get suckered into reacting to that. He wants that. Calmly and meticulously stick to your original tactic of polite requests for him to not disturb your work. Keep documenting dates, times and your polite requests, and when it seems like the right time, take it back to HR.
Now to the issue of your atheism and the tension you feel from having to keep your own views carefully concealed. I think that people with jobs should be constantly doing two things: doing their very best at their job, and looking for a better job. Even if the guy shuts up, you’re not working in a comfortable place. Casually socializing with your fellow workers is a healthy part of work, but being driven into a cubicle-within-a-cubicle, such as with your headphones on and the music up loud, or having to be extremely secretive about your own views is not a healthy way to live.
Quietly, daily, start looking around for a better place for you to work and be more free to be yourself. It may take a long time, but just the act of taking assertive steps for benefiting yourself rather than only defending yourself will help you to feel more empowered and in control of your life.