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God at Work

by Christopher Hitchens

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 2.

In arguments over prayer in school, I used to take the line of "Why stop there?" There are so many other locations where a moment of spiritual reflection might be mandated. Prayer in the stock exchange, for example, or a "moment of silence" while the commuter plane waits, stranded on a runway, for the corporate jets to take off. Prayer on the trains or the buses could also be facilitated by the public-address system. My satirical intent was obvious to the point of banality: the religious want religion in the schools because there, unlike the milieux of adult life, they can hope for a captive and malleable audience of the sort on which they have traditionally relied.

But one should beware of one's own tiny satires. I pick up my seventieth anniversary number of Business Week to find a special cover story, "Religion in the Workplace: The Growing Presence of Spirituality In Corporate America." With excited prose, the article instructed me that:

Executives of all stripes are mixing mysticism into their management, importing into office corridors the lessons usually doled out in churches, temples and mosques. Gone is the old taboo against talking about God at work. In its place is a new spirituality, evident in the prayer groups at Deloitte & Touche and the Talmud studies at New York law firms such as Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays and Haroller. 

According to something called The Fellowship for Companies for Christ International, there are 10,000 workplace Bible and prayer groups meeting regularly. The Dalai Lama's book Ethics for the New Millennium is "a business best-seller." Muslim prayer-mats are being rolled out in Milwaukee law offices. And, as Business Week phrases it, getting nearer to the bottom line this time:

Perhaps the largest driver of this trend is the mounting evidence that spiritually-minded programs in the workplace not only soothe workers' psyches but also deliver improved productivity.

One of the co-authors of a recent volume, the Spiritual Audit of Corporate America, writes that "spirituality could be the ultimate competitive advantage." However, a little further on in the article we learn that:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a 29% spike since 1992 in the number of religious-based discrimination charges, making those the third fastest-growing claim, after sexual harassment and disability.

It's a fair bet that such figures represent an under-counting. On a recent edition of Warren Olney's chat show "Which Way LA?," I was paired with a lady from Atheists United against a panel of drivellers who cited things like the spiritual quality of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. My ally had been fired from her job after refusing to take an interest in her boss's religious bull-sessions. As she reasonably pointed out, when asked whether or not she had sued, it was very hard to prove such a complaint, and she had in any case made haste to find a better job elsewhere. 

Frightening, though, were the remarks of the other "enlightened" participants. One and all, they kept on stressing that "participation" in religious exercises at work was "completely voluntary" or "optional." Why, I demanded to know, did they keep saying this? (No one had demanded the assurance; they just repeated it like a mantra, or like something they had been coached to say.) If an employer shows a strong commitment to religion at work, how "voluntary" or "optional" is the echo of this interest among employees? How to measure the enthusiasm, as between craven or genuine, or extorted or coerced? One way is of course quite simple. An exceptionally pious boss may invite his employees to join him, on their own time, for whatever rite it is that he follows. On the weekend, or in the evenings. This of course would not protect those who declined the offer, if they were later downsized, from the suspicion that they had been singled out. But it would protect the boss from some part of the suggestion that he created a bizarre or hostile working environment. (It would also mean, for those of us kept on hold as consumers, that we could assume the staff were putting in a full day.)

But of course, there would still be cases like the one filed by Jennifer Venters, once a radio-dispatcher in the police department of Delphi, Indiana. According to her complaint, a new police chief turned up one day, to inform her that: He had been sent by God to save as many people from damnation as he could. Things got worse, alleges Venters in court documents, when he objected to her female roommate, asked her if she had entertained male police officers with pornographic videos, and accused her of having sex with family members and sacrificing animals in Satan's name.

This of course could be held to be everyday harassment by a nutball superior (the case was settled without admission of liability for a trifling $105,000), but it could equally underline the essential distinction between freedom of religion, and freedom from it. Innumerable activities and advocacies are forbidden or discouraged at work, including in many cases the distinctly work-related question of whether or not a union can be formed. One would not want to intensify the situation where, as the American Civil Liberties Union once put it, the First Amendment ceases to operate at the factory gate. However, there are places called churches and synagogues and mosques, within easy reach of most workplaces, so it cannot be said that religious expression is the issue here. And, since attendance at a place of paid employment is only in the most exiguous sense a "voluntary" thing-having this in common with school attendance -it's clear that freedom from is the one that takes precedence.

Recent reports have disclosed that U.S. government agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Pentagon, used public funds to pay cult organizations, even as extreme as the Scientologists, to "counsel" and "facilitate" on the job. This is scandalous twice; both as coercing employees and as violating the separation provisions of the Constitution. It seems that the word spiritual needs a little deconstruction here. Why should it be assumed, even by materialists and secularists, that any money-making and control-oriented outfit, dealing in unfalsifiable babble, is axiomatically "spiritual"? And what would be my chances of getting the boss to set aside a room for my public readings of Shelley or Byron, just because I believe that employees and indeed all humans are more than animals or machines? Even to ask these questions is to be reminded that the place for religion is in the heart, and the place to practice it is in the home: in other words that it must be self-inflicted. 

Christopher Hitchens's comments on culture, politics, and religion have been widely broadcast and published in numerous magazines and journals. He is the author of The Missionary Position, an exposť of Mother Teresa, and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

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