Dear Ethix – Issue 44

Secular Response to Religion in Business

Thank you for revealing — wittingly or otherwise — the intentions of in the article, “Creating the Right Mix,” by Albert Erisman. The case for allowing religion in the workplace was presented with such brief ineptitude that can surely be explained only by the author holding religious views that are substantially stronger than he lets on. Setting aside its poor construction, can it truly be a serious undertaking to make an argument for religion in the workplace in such a brief article? The article surely is an agenda rather than a serious argument.

I’ve no answer to offer an alternative to creating a holistic view of a person at work, because I believe the premise is false. The workplace is not an appropriate venue to address holistic personal expression. In such an environment where the holistic matters are given to emotion (e.g., religion, politics, and sex), views that are culturally predisposed to a substantial quorum (e.g., Christianity, capitalism, heterosexuality, or arguably conservativism in many subcultures in America) will tend to create an atmosphere of suppression (if not quiet intolerance) built upon a platform of holistic expression.

But to indulge the “three counter-arguments” with equivalent brevity:

Argument One: The fact that religion is a sort of right and wrong for many people is a far cry from concluding that it deserves a place in the workplace. Considering the example cited, I must ask: Do you really think that a limited forum allowing religion in the workplace will discourage the unethical behavior of executives? Nonsense! In fact, to the contrary, there may be an increased danger that such executives would use religious forums to rally support and further manipulate employees. Anyone who has truly learned right and wrong in any context — religious or otherwise — does not require an environment of religious expression to understand that it applies universally.

Argument Two: The perception that a company wants to “engage the whole person” is misguided. Businesses do have to compete for employees by catering to their needs beyond the workplace, but that is simply a matter of competition or legal fulfillment — it does not represent the desire of businesses. On the other hand, prospective employees might be attracted by the one further catered desire of more open religious expression at a given workplace. Does that make it right? Consider what harm stands to be done by allowing businesses to compete for employees by the level of religious expression they permit. It is a slippery slope leading to more discrimination in the workplace environment.

Argument Three: The argument of secularism as religion is such utter nonsense that one hardly knows where to begin, save perhaps by referring the author to a dictionary rather than Clouser. It is frightening to see an ostensibly secular publication utilizing reference material at its convenience to further its religious agenda, ignoring basic facts and definitions as it builds straw-man arguments.

The author’s experience of finding an outlet for discussion religion and politics at the Boeing workplace sounds like an HR nightmare. Perhaps, as he says, the participants were all agreeable and the proposition was sustainable for a number of years. One is left to wonder whether studies were done to see whether there were opinions that were stifled because they had no place in the discussion forum. Invitations soliciting differing opinions hardly exempt a forum from being discriminatory any more than does allowing the KKK to hold workplace meetings with the provision that they invite black-skinned and Jewish employees.

Paula Thorbeck
Manitou Springs, Colo.

Had religion really been “a set of beliefs that help interpret the world, get at principles of right and wrong, etc.” I wouldn’t be bothered by it, but unfortunately for very many practitioners it is not “a” set of beliefs, but “the” set of beliefs; it doesn’t “help interpret,” but “absolutely define.” However, even though I wouldn’t be bothered by religion if it indeed were satisfied with helping to interpret, I would still not place my worldview in the category of “religion,” since I see my own approach as a quest (not always successful) to let knowledge (or reduced uncertainty) rather than beliefs help me to interpret the world.

I really couldn’t care less what people believe — as long as they don’t shove it in other people’s faces. When you get a concentration of people with shared beliefs, their beliefs (and expressions of them) tend to become the norm, and so they might conceivably become unaware that they are shoving them in others’ faces, except for outspoken people like me who remind them, and get called “extremist” for their troubles.

A reader
In Europe

Editor’s Note: In the Special Issue on Religion and Business (Ethix 42, July/August 2005), we presented perspectives from Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity showing how these vastly different religious views offered some common basis for supporting business ethics. We invited response from other “religions” including secularism.