Atheists in Christian Workplaces (Part 3)

Continuing the conversations from here and here, I received this email from an atheist who teaches at a Christian school.

If you’d like to share your experience as an atheist in a Christian workplace, please shoot me an email.

I met my husband in church. We had both been raised in fairly conservative, Bible-believing homes. Our parents are well-educated, though, and always encouraged us to think for ourselves. By the time we met, we were both fairly liberal in our political beliefs but very involved in our church life. We soon moved to New York City so my husband could pursue graduate school. At the time, I taught physics at a public high school. We attended a local megachurch, but as soon as we finished premarital counseling we stopped attending. (That is the wonderful part about megachurches — they are so easy to leave!) We also moved in together a few months before our marriage, unbeknownst to our parents.

A couple of years after getting married, my husband was accepted to law school in Florida. I had to leave my teaching job and search for a new one — the problem was that I had to look for a job at a private school because I did not have a teaching license in this new state and it was going to be prohibitively difficult to get one — about a year’s worth of classwork and hoops to jump through. My husband and I only plan on staying in Florida for his three years of law school after which we will relocate back to NYC.

I applied to a conservative Christian school, as they seemed very dedicated to their education and it was a good position. I still considered myself a Christian at that point and I had once been conservative… so I figured that it wouldn’t be so bad for three years.

Well, by about the third week of classes I realized that I just couldn’t convince myself of my faith anymore. I had read a lot of Brian McLaren‘s work and a little of Rob Bell‘s, and these paved the way for me to stop taking the Bible very seriously. My science background had me doubting the reliability of the entire book of Genesis. I think it was finally seeing the way that young people are indoctrinated into the faith that finally forced my visceral rejection of my faith.

For months, I still believed that Christianity was real and that I had simply rejected it. I kept on waiting for the principal to call me into his office and ask me to pack up my things — I figured that if I was a mole in a Christian workplace, God would promptly inform his leadership of my presence and they would root me out. No such thing happened. In fact, I received glowing praise — all the while, I was desperate to quit and find work elsewhere. Unfortunately, not a single job was available this spring when I looked. We are in a small college town and there aren’t a lot of options. I would quit if I did not have to support myself and my husband while he is in school.

I began reading books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Bart Ehrman. (Somehow Daniel Dennett got the boot for Ehrman :) ) I was fascinated at the idea of redaction criticism and some of the theories behind the formation of the Jewish religion, the Israelite people, and Hebrew Bible. I read voraciously and I listened to all of Reasonable Doubts’ podcasts. It took me about five months from my first epiphany about rejecting Christianity to be able to admit to myself that I was an atheist. It still feels weird.

It was rough at school for a while, but I have settled into a routine. I do feel like a two-faced liar at times, but most of the time I really go out of my way to say “Many Christians believe this…” when I have to talk about faith. I never talk about my personal faith and I don’t think the kids even notice it because they get it from so many other places they just assume I’m a Christian. I do my best to teach critical thinking skills and ethics without ever teaching something that goes against the school’s principles. The school itself is conservative (politically and doctrinally) but they also care a lot about education. That is one redeeming factor that helps me continue to show up every day.

I do have a handful of stories I have been writing down in case I ever want to share them in a more organized manner. They include teachers telling me that they are glad they believe in God and hell because otherwise they would do all kinds of awful things, hearing a 6th grader at a football game scoff at the local Jewish team because, “They don’t believe Jesus is the savior… what bullcrap… how can they believe that?” When a sibling was killed in a car crash, our teachers consoled one student by telling him that God “preordained” it. It may not make sense to us, but then again, “God’s ways are above our ways.” What tripe.

I have resigned myself to the fact that I will stay here for the next two years and I will get out only when we move back to the Northeast. I have almost become cognitively dissonant in the way that I approach my job, to the point that I actually enjoy a lot of it now (while still hating a very few parts, and my duplicity). I am thankful that I still have employable job skills and am gaining more valuable experience… I really feel for clergy members that have to stand up in front of their church every Sunday and preach something they don’t believe. I plan on contributing to the Clergy Project as soon as I stop supporting my husband and his education.

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://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    https://twitter.com/#!/GodlessAtheist just posted 
    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=last+western+heretic&nfpr=0  I’ve only watched the first bit, and won’t be able to watch the rest until later tonight (after going to Sean Faircloth’s talk in Sacramento this evening 
    http://www.meetup.com/SacFAN/events/63162532/) but it looks interesting.
    Relevance being atheist clergy.

  • IndyFitz

    Very strong story; thanks for sharing it.  I’m curious:  What are your husband’s religious beliefs?  It sounds as if you became an atheist on your own… or has he also become atheist?

  • Renshia

     I am sure that your time there will be a great learning experience. I hope all goes well an I bet your students love you.

  • Jane Smith

    Sorry about the delay, IndyFitz. 

    My husband would call himself a Christian but he has not been going to church for years, has not been reading the Bible in over a year and we have not been praying for years, either. We never really talked about our faiths when we were both Christians. I was actually the more fervent Christian and I worried about him because he never prayed with me or initiated any interest in Church/talking about God. I never brought it up in conversation because I decided it was his personal relationship and I had no business meddling. Well, now that I have become an atheist, I feel the same way. I know that I do owe it to him to tell him eventually…but I am still coming to terms with my thoughts and I am not ready to tell him yet. It feels like I am being dishonest in a major way by not telling him the extent of my religious changes but I have been completely honest with him when he asks about books I read (Bart Ehrman/Richard Dawkins/Elaine Pagels etc.) and the way I feel about leaders in the church.
    He is extremely liberal and think there is a good chance he comes around to agnosticism/atheism someday (he was a philosophy major!). He pokes fun at religious conservatives like Santorum et al. but I think he still thinks Jesus was a righteous dude and most Christians are just not doing a very good job following his commands.


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