Bye Bye, Billboard.
I love my job. I really do.
I’d been waiting for a job at this prestigious suburban school since I first began my teaching career. My old job, where I toiled for eight years, wasn’t really satisfactory in many different ways. The department – and, to be honest, all of my coworkers – were either part of the “perfect people” club or they were depressed and stagnant. I taught angry 18 year olds that mostly just wanted to graduate so they could take over dad’s cow (or sheep, or pig, or chicken) farm. The administration hated me for a myriad of reasons, and I wasn’t too happy with them, either.
While working at this hell hole, I started examining my beliefs. Throughout my early years, I was a super Catholic on the outside, but on the inside I was imagining sex scenes in my head during church and giggling at the thought of an omniscient god getting off to some toriparker porn. I’d sing the word “breast” (oooh, naughty!) instead of the word “breath” and amuse myself during the boring service. When I got to college, I started out as a sweet Catholic girl who had never knowingly met a gay person or an atheist, and ended up a slightly less sweet (but much more fun!) agnostic who had dozens of gay/bisexual/anything goes friends. I loved to criticize religion. Still, I thought I’d better believe in a god “just in case”, and I lived in a cozy little in-between area devoid of church and rules but full of no-holds-barred fun.
I lived in this belief inertia until just a few years ago, when a friend introduced me to the world of skepticism. He sent me a book on cold reading and I was hooked. I devoured Hitchens and Harris (not literally, although I’m always up if you’re looking, Sam Harris – rawr) and used my critical thinking superpowers to discover that I actually was an atheist. Once I figured that out, I joined groups and atheist organizations and became out and proud, if you will.
One day, I emailed in response to a request from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. They were looking for people to be on billboards in the largest city near to me. I sent in a proposal for a billboard that said, “I refuse to teach my son a lie”. They responded back that they liked it, and I was all set to be on a billboard. One of my goals in life is to have as many billboard-sized images with me as possible, so this fed right into my evil scheme.
However, at the same time, I got a job offer from my dream school. I had literally been applying to this school since I had graduated from college, and they finally accepted me. Of course, I didn’t have to disclose my religion (or lack thereof) during the interview process, so they had no idea that I was an atheist. I began to suddenly become nervous about my beliefs. I knew they couldn’t rescind the job invitation if they found out I was an atheist, but what if I didn’t get hired back the following year? What if my coworkers had preconceived notions about me?
So, sadly, I emailed the Freedom from Religion Foundation and told them that I couldn’t be on the billboard. My dreams of shooting to atheistic stardom were shot. I missed the opportunity, and though I was sad about it, I was also really happy in my new job.
Now, two years later, I know that people probably wouldn’t have cared too much about the billboard. I’m teasingly known as the English Department Atheist, and I get into friendly “discussions” with my outspoken religious coworkers. However, there was no way of knowing what their reaction would have been before I had been a part of the department. I know that there are many people across America – across the world, even – who dislike atheists, who have horrific preconceived notions about what an atheist believes or wants.
I still have to hide my atheism in many ways. I’m comfortable discussing atheism around my coworkers. If an issue of religion comes up in my class, I’ll vaguely slide by any mention of religion and carefully direct the discussion in a different direction. Some students have picked up on this and asked me privately if I was an atheist. They typically are critical thinkers as well, and are looking for a role model who agrees with them. I tell them that I am, and we discuss it.
But I draw the line at mentioning atheism in anything that could be looked over by parents. I won’t put my atheism in writing, at least at work, and I think that it’s sad that I can’t. Students have so many religious role models, and it’s not a problem for a teacher to run a Bible group or mention that he went to church on Sunday. But if run a Hitchens group, or if I mention that I was teaching my son to critically think instead of blindly following Catholicism, then I’m sure that I will hear about it in one way or another.
I’m wondering — what is like in your schools, fellow atheist educators? Do your students know that you’re atheist, or do you keep your feelings to yourself? Do you teach critical thinking in your classes, or do you ignore the subject all together and move on to more safe topics? And what would you do if a parent confronted you?
Where do we draw the line between job security and personal honesty?
Why should we even have to?