The Atheist Academic

The Atheist Academic: Coming Out At School

Q: How do you deal with your atheism as a teacher? Do you tell coworkers, parents and students, or do you just keep it to yourself?

For the first semester at my current job, I was really quiet. I talked to the kids, of course, and I made awkward conversation, but I was really afraid to be myself. The other two new teachers didn’t have that problem, so I let them talk and I just smiled and nodded and at one point, I believe, did not make any comment at all when two of my fellow English teachers professed that it was a good idea to bury a Virgin Mary in your front yard when you were trying to sell your house.

But, I’ve gotta tell you: that time is over. Everyone in my department – and a majority of those in my school – know that the blinders are off, and that I say what I think. They know that I’m an atheist, they know that I make wildly inappropriate jokes to just about anyone (I believe the phrase is “Wow — she has NO filter!”), and they know that I would go out of my way to help someone who needed it. I’m totally myself, and although I don’t talk as much as SOME people in my department (love you, Becks!), I talk plenty. And I make myself heard on pretty much every topic.

I was scared, at first, to admit at work that I was an atheist. I bet many of us feel that way. After all, in 2011, a study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) that showed that atheists are distrusted by much of society. According to an article in USA Today, the JPSP study was, “conducted among 350 American adults and 420 Canadian college students, [and] asked participants to decide if a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher? The participants, who were from religious and nonreligious backgrounds, most often chose the atheist teacher.”

So it may be difficult to profess your atheism at work, because we’re apparently less trustworthy than rapists. (RAPISTS? Really? I’m still kind of annoyed at that survey.)

Anyway, I made the decision to let my coworkers know that I was an atheist, and nobody made a big fuss about it. But a couple of my fellow English teachers took it upon themselves to use me as a case study. The guy in the room next to me, a devout Christian, would come and talk to me every day about my lack of beliefs, and he would try to understand why I felt the way that I did. Another coworker asked me, “How can you teach logical fallacies and morals when, as an atheist, you have no guideline for morals?”. I used these opportunities for conversation, education, and direct, biting sarcasm (“Dude, what’s up with you wearing those two colors together? Did JESUS tell you to do it?!), but not animosity. And as the year went on, I think I put a happy face on atheism. I’m hopeful that the people that I work with have a more positive view of atheists because of me. Although the one guy did transfer to another school after two years, so maybe he had enough of my atheist humor.

I don’t openly admit to atheism to my students as a whole class, but if one comes and asks me, I will honestly tell them that I am atheist. I’ve never received any flack from teachers or administrators about atheism, but if I do, my union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation will be notified immediately. I make sure not to wear any t-shirts with atheist slogans, but I do have a bumper sticker on my car that tells the religious to keep their beliefs out of our government. And, just so you’re aware, you can not LEGALLY be fired for being an atheist — at least not from a public school. Parochial schools may have some sort of religious provision in their contract, so you’d have to check that. If anyone threatens you with being fired, call the Freedom From Religion Foundation immediately, or call your union representative if you’re in the union. However, your coworkers could make your life awful, so you’ll need to weigh the consequences.

I can’t tell you whether or not you should let your coworkers know that you’re an atheist. There are tons of vague statements you can make if you’re ever asked, so you can always dodge the question. I’ve used “I was raised Catholic” in the past, which is kind of a non-statement but seems to pacify people. I wouldn’t make a huge deal about my religion (or lack thereof) in class, but I don’t see anything wrong with telling co-workers. I would hope that the majority of people would just accept it and move on. I mean, isn’t that what you would do? Religious people are rational, right?

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Tori Parker

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.


  1. June 30, 2013 at 4:42 pm —

    I’ve used “I was raised Catholic” in the past, which is kind of a non-statement but seems to pacify people.

    I would definitely say I’m a Catholic atheist (sometimes if necessary I change this to “extremely lapsed,” such as when discussing funeral arrangements with clergy). It seems to me that most religions have major cultural implications that aren’t always changed by a lack of belief in the supernatural, especially in cases where religion is more tightly bound up with national or cultural identity (in my case, Italian and Irish, but certainly also true for Jewish atheists and many others).

    In a way it was helpful, since now a large part of my job as a musicologist involves familiarity with Catholic liturgy (although it would have been a lot more useful to have been born before Vatican II, since most of the stuff I look at is no longer in common use). One of the main reasons I specialise in secular music, though, is that for some time I was uncomfortable dealing in theological analyses of sacred music, especially those that ascribed musical elements to features of genuine belief (where evidence for this belief on the part of the composer is lacking or pro forma). Ironically this discomfort was dispelled by occasionally singing with my boyfriend’s church choir, of whom a significant minority (if not the majority) were open atheists (many were paid ‘ringers’ brought in to make the amateurs from the congregation sound better).

    I still think that we overstate the religious belief and dedication of many historical figures and artists (especially in the Renaissance, where in most cases the Church was literally the only gig in town but most educated people would also have had access to Lucretius and the Neoplatonists), but no longer feel the same need to distance myself from the theology after experiencing first hand how easy it is for non-believers to compartmentalise and even appreciate theological symbolism and other cleverness without buying in to the whole enterprise.

    Well, that got off-topic pretty quickly. I guess what this all leads to is that I try to raise this point in some way or another when dealing with this kind of material in class, especially since the diverse backgrounds of my students might otherwise lead at least some of them to be turned off by its religious aspects (as I was). It also helps to put another crack in the façade of that monolithic past that so many of them grow up believing in, and shows them that we can’t always take cultural objects at face value.

  2. July 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm —

    I also use “raised Catholic” in some situations, specially with my girlfriend’s family. But in any other case I just say I’m an atheist, but it hasn’t been much of a problem. Some of my family is part of the Opus Dei, and they certainly make comments, but they don’t go much farther, certainly not as far as one would expect from Opus Dei members!
    Part of my classes are away from the central campus, in a small city/town, and religion is certainly more fervently followed there than where I live, but there have been no problems with that. I’ve made minor atheist jokes to my co-workers, but I’ve never actually “come out”. It’s just something I don’t feel I need to do, unless someone asks me directly, I just act as if I’ve already come out, and if someone’s bothered by it, then so be it.
    BTW, it’s funny that my girlfriend keeps telling me to keep my filter on, but it seems I really don’t have one, guess we have that in common!

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