Atheists in Christian Workplaces (Continued)

Continuing the conversation from before, I received this email from an atheist who worked for a church nursery. If you’d like to share your experience as an atheist in a Christian workplace, please shoot me an email.

When I was 16, I started working at a church nursery. At the time I was a junior in high school and I was still an ardent Christian. They started me as a floater and teaching assistant. I was put in whatever room needed the most help that Sunday or Wednesday. After a few months as a paid employee, I found out that the lead teacher in the 3-year-old room was leaving, so I was asked to be the lead teacher.

I left this church after 3 years of service still only making $7.50/hour when I knew that other churches paid their lead teachers at least $10. The congregation was in general very judgmental and unwilling to help in the nursery when we needed it. The quality of care went down because of this. So I got a different job working at a smaller church. This other church was closer to home, started me out at $10/hour, and the people were much nicer. Of course, by the time I took that job my problems became personal. I had been questioning my beliefs for a long time. Aside from the initial background check and the application I had to fill out, after working for about 6 weeks they handed me another form I had to fill out. This was the beginning of my personal problems with the job.

The first page of this form had you fill out the basics (name, number, address, etc.), but then at the bottom it had a long list of dogmatic claims and asked you to check any and all that you believed.

The second page was simply for you to list or explain what other ministerial work you’ve done, such as mission trips and the like. The last page was the one that surprised me. It was basically a questionnaire about which “sins” I had committed.

One question asked “Have you ever had a homosexual experience? Yes___ No___ If yes, please explain below:”

I didn’t see how this was relevant to my job at all. I’m bisexual, and at the time I was finally starting to accept that part of myself. I had had homosexual experiences before, but I was not about to tell that to my employers when it was none of their business. There were similar questions about smoking or drinking. It also had a question about pre-/extra- marital sex. I never turned in this form. In fact, I think I threw it away.

The first page was insulting to me, because it reduced what little beliefs I still had in Christianity to a mere checklist, and implied that if I don’t fit the whole checklist then I may not be fit to work there. The second page was insulting to me because it wouldn’t let me list any extra-curricular activities that weren’t specifically linked with church. I spent most of my time in high school in band, practicing, performing and helping teach the younger students, yet I could not use that teaching/leadership experience on the form. The last page, where I was asked to list and confess to “sins” that had nothing to do with my employment, was insulting and intrusive.

I worked for this church as the lead teacher in the 3-year-old room for almost three years. I loved teaching the children. The rest of my week I spent as a server at a restaurant or at school, so those kids were the highlight of my week. At this job, I was paid more, but I also had more responsibilities. I was in charge (mostly) of the curriculum. I put together the lessons for each Sunday morning and Wednesday night. I set the schedule for the day and put the crafts and snacks together. I had to stay a few weeks ahead so I could list my supplies for my boss. I also had to keep up with the bulletins (inside and outside the class) and attendance. When a child hadn’t attended for three weeks, I would send a letter to their parents. It was a lot of work but I still loved it… until I stopped believing.

It had been a long time coming. Over the course of my 3 years there, I went from liberal Christian to deist to agnostic to atheist. The last year there was the hardest. I felt trapped and alone. I didn’t tell anybody I was an atheist — no friends or family, not even my boyfriend. I had spirited, anonymous, debates online. I had always loved debating, and I had been debating Christianity and belief in god since I was about 11 or 12, but now I was on the other side.

Every day I worked there felt like a lie. At first, I tried to hide it by diving deeper into the work. I would come up during the week and work on lessons, months in advance. I would come up with intricate crafts and games to teach the kids. I always tried to find a way to link the Bible story to real life problems. I started almost completely omitting god, even in the songs we sang. One particular lesson that stands out in my memory was the one I taught of Moses’ sister watching over him while he was floating down the river in the reed basket. The curriculum I worked from wanted me to stress that god watches over them the same way Miriam watched over Moses, but it didn’t feel genuine to me. The kids can puppet-talk about god if you prompt them, but that day I changed the discussion. I opened it with this question: Who looks after you and takes care of you?

The children’s answers were: mom, dad, my sisters, my brothers, my aunts, my uncles, grandma and grandpa, my teachers. I just smiled and we had a long discussion about how each person looks after them. This was one of the first times I had changed the lesson to talk about their daily life instead of the abstract concept of god. The children loved it and I felt better. I had been torturing myself for months. When I first became an atheist, I was angry about the indoctrination that I had been put through as a child. I was just like these 3-year-olds. I didn’t want to be a part of their indoctrination. What would they think of me if they grew up and shed their beliefs as well? Would they remember me as a kind and good teacher, or would they resent me for being a part of the system that indoctrinated them? What of the parents that I sent letters to for low attendance? Are they still believers? Would they think I was just trying to coerce them into coming back to church?

I couldn’t come out as an atheist to my boss though. She’s friends with my mother. She is possibly the nicest person I’ve ever met, so I don’t think she would have judged me or thought badly about me, but I knew she would tell my mother. I was not ready to have that conversation with my mother yet. I finally quit, but I was able to use school as an excuse. I was taking journalism classes and most of the work was done outside of class time, so I didn’t have time for two jobs. I still miss the kids, and I miss teaching. If I could work at a secular preschool and have time for school, I would do it. I count myself lucky that I got out when I was young. If I felt trapped at the age of 22 and it was just my part-time job, then how must a middle-aged pastor who’s never done anything else feel?

The advice I would give to those in this situation is to make the best of it while you’re there, but search for a way out. Find a friend or family member in whom you can confide. They can help you and lend support when you need it. Mine was my boyfriend. He knew what I was going through, since he had become an atheist while studying at a Bible college.

My advice for everybody else is to support the Clergy Project.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandie.winchester Brandie Lynn Winchester

    I really enjoyed this post. I am a preschool teacher, our
    program is federally funded free to low income, so I do not have to worry about
    god coming up as a topic in my classroom. However Because of the amount of
    money my husband and I make we are ineligible for any state assistance for
    childcare. We spent a long time trying to find the right day care choices for
    our children. I want them cared for with the same amount for love I would give
    the students in my classroom. However the only options in our area are
    religious based daycares. We chose one that is in a facility completely separate
    from any church however they still teach about god. The guilt I feel for
    sending my child to a place teaching beliefs I myself cannot accept as true
    eats at me. The other day my three year old belted out at the dinner table “God
    is Good, God is Great”, and my 6 year old who never had to attend day care
    asked, “mom what’s God?” I justified sending him to this daycare
    because it was the least religious of all in our area and I knew once he was in
    kindergarten we would no longer have a need for the daycare, but at 3 he
    already is speaking about things he is too little to understand. I just hope I
    haven’t confused my child by choosing to put him somewhere with beliefs I do
    not share.

    • Shanine

      Don’t feel bad, we often compare god to santa and the tooth fairy as atheists. I know plenty of people who don’t mind teaching there young ones they are real, I let mine think so until they worked it out at 5 lol. It won’t be long now, in the mean time I suggest you start teaching her about other realigions including no religion and say SOME people believe/think x, y and z. Then tell them about how the world and humans really came from and say but scientists and doctors think….. Thats what I do/did I daughter stopped believing before my son who’s older, I’ve got a little lisa simpson on my hands :)

    • Yukimi

      My experience in the little city in Spain I grew up in when I was in catholic preschool with nuns is quite unusual because I don’t remember any mention of God there. We didn’t pray or anything like that. It was the only day care/pre-school in the area at the time so my parents (who were atheist although they never told us as kids). I have not many memories of it but I remember going to say goodbye to the nuns with my dad because they were very nice. The next year before I started grade 1 my mum asked me if I wanted to have religion class and I told her no because I didn’t believe in God even if I wanted the craft book the religion class had. This is to show that indoctrination-free religious daycares do exist even if it’s kind of unbelievabe XP

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      A difficult situation, but it sounds like it would be a good time to talk to him about the god-concept. Maybe try introducing him to mythology? There are lots of picture books about gods and goddesses so that will help him develop a diverse concept of deities in contrast to the single god he is hearing about at school.

      http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Goddesses-Picture-Books-Readers/lm/RFAITQ76RNBE0

      I know there will be a time my children come home from school talking about the biblical deity. When that happens, I plan to tell them, “Some people think gods and goddesses are real. Mommy and Daddy think they’re imaginary” and go from there.

  • Annie

    I enjoyed this post as well.  In response to the writer wondering whether or not the children will remember her fondly, I say they most certainly will.  I attended catholic school from K-12.  I never really bought into any of it, but I didn’t know what an atheist was until I was older.  I had a lot of nuns as teachers, and a few priests, and I have so many positive memories of my time in many of their classrooms.  Even though they were part of the attempted indoctrination of me, they were simply doing what they thought was best for me (and the wishes of my parents, as they sent me to the schools).  Best wishes to the writer, and may she find a place where she can utilize her talents and love for teaching in a secular situation some day.

    PS- Nature parks that offer summer camps or preschool programs would be a good place to look for employment, and the curriculum will most certainly be science-based.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E2YKNJBKUJEL7IN6HROUXSNCAY david

    It’s indoctrination when you tell a child about God, but it is not indoctrination when you tell a child there is no God?  http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      Children don’t have to be told there aren’t any gods. They don’t start believing in deities until adults introduce them to the concept and tell them that they are real.

    • Jason

       Yep.  Just as it’s not indoctrination when you tell them the truth about Santa Claus.

      And as for your spam, “We know the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true, and if it says it’s true, then it is, because the Bible said it is ” is a terrible argument.  Come on, you know that.

    • http://winlb.wordpress.com/ ToonForever

      It’s not indoctrination to teach the child provable facts about the universe we live in. 

      It *is* indoctrination to tell the child made up stories, insist they’re true, insist the child live by them, then shun them when they discover you were full of crap.

    • amycas

      Who said anything about telling a child there is no god. I never said that to a child.

      *I’m the author by the way.

  • Nigel Poncewattle

    I answered a similar questionnaire in order to get married in this one church.  An entire page of questions about sex, including whether or not I had had sex with a male.  I scribbled across it NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS and during counseling it came up.  

    I asked “Why do you need to know these things?”   The counselor said it was important to not keep secrets from each other that might have a negative impact on our marriage.  Fair enough, makes sense. So I told the counselor that I swore before God that my fiancé knew the truth about every question.  But no, that wasn’t good enough. The counselor wanted to know as well so she could look for potential problems in our upcoming marriage.

    So then I asked “Why is there not a question asking if I had ever been arrested for a violent crime?  Wouldn’t that perhaps indicate that I might be an abuser? Why the hang up just about sex?”    

    We then both walked out and never returned.  

  • Jason

     “[My boyfriend] knew what I was going through, since he had become an atheist while studying at a Bible college.”

    That’s the icing on the cake.

  • Faxywwf

    What you were doing there if you don’t believe in church and have its own teaching? Jesus teaching is clear 

    • amycas

       I am the author. The post clearly states that when I first got the job, I was still a Christian. Please, go read it again. I became an atheist while I was working there, not before.

      “Jesus teaching is clear”

      To what is this referring??


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