With all this in mind, my question is this: Is it acceptable to be open about atheism in the workplace, and if so, how can one approach this topic in a way that will keep shit from hitting the office fan?
I am a teacher and I work in a school with impressionable children. What I say will (I hope) have an effect on them. It is therefore my responsibility as an educator to be mindful of the language I use and the messages I impart. Technically, I know that religion should not come up at all in school (at least one that claims to be non-denominational); however, the reality is a little less cut and dry. Once, when I was a student teacher at a public school whose population was overwhelmingly Catholic, a student in my class asked me something about church and I responded by saying I was Jewish. The class was shocked and proceeded not only to tell me that I was the first Jew they had ever met (unlikely), but to ask me wildly inappropriate questions such as, "Does that mean that if I throw money on the ground, you'll pick it up?" Needless to say I was taken aback by their brazen ignorance and we had to have a discussion about stereotypes.
When I think back on this incident now, I have to contemplate why I told them I was Jewish and not atheist. The fact is, saying I was an atheist never even crossed my mind. It would have seemed completely wrong to mention atheism in the classroom. Even now, several years later and much more adamant about my distaste for religion, I feel comfortable telling students or other teachers that I'm Jewish (if they ask me, which they always seem to - why do they even care?), but I always steer clear of the a-word. Perhaps it is my fear of angry phone calls from parents demanding to know why I am attempting to corrupt their children. In any case, I don't think I am alone in keeping atheism quiet at work. All my friends and family know this is an important part of my life and of my identity, but at work it is still a secret. There are plenty of times when I've had occasion to bring it up. Everyone at work knows I'm Jewish and that isn't a big deal in the least (although I still received a surprising number of Christmas cards this season). I've never tried to push Judaism on any students and I certainly wouldn't try to convince them to be atheists. I don't know why I have this unshakeable fear that I might get in trouble if I'm open about my beliefs at work. While I feel a kind of responsibility in letting students know that there are other options out there besides believing in god, which is something that was never done for me, I'm afraid that the word "atheist" on its own is enough to get people up in arms. Language is a very powerful thing, and we need to find a way to give this particular word its fair place, even in the workplace.