Should I lie about being an atheist in order to get a job?
May 8, 2006 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Should I lie about being an atheist in order to get a job?

Is it okay to lie about your religion for the purpose of getting a job? I suspect it might be, in the same way I suspect that it is acceptable to lie about your sexual orientation when you know you will face discrimination. But I'm wondering if anyone has a good argument against "the religious closet." I'm particularly interested in: a. possible consequences if discovered, and b. strategies for justifying the lie to myself. In other words, will I open myself to a lawsuit of some sort, and am I going to be able to live with my lie?
posted by anotherpanacea to Work & Money (45 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What kind of a job are you asked about your religion at? I'd just ask back "What's your religion?" and then reply "Then I'll be one of those too." Or, if you're feeling snarky and no longer want the job you could just say the classic Ghostbusters line "If there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say." Depending on how it's delivered, it might not even be that rude...

(I'm sure someone will fix the question for you)
posted by shepd at 7:31 AM on May 8, 2006

If religion is important to the job, and you'd have to lie about it to get the job, do you REALLY want that job?
posted by SpecialK at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2006

It's perfectly acceptable to say nothing about religion, since in the U.S. it's illegal for a prospective employer to discriminate based on your religious views. If you still think you'll face discrimination by saying nothing, then it sounds like you should be the one pursuing legal action. Validating the existence of discrimination by lying, I would think, only encourages future discrimination.
posted by deadfather at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2006

Sexual orientation isn't yet a protected class, but religion is. They shouldn't even be asking.

CareerBuilder has advice on answering the questions the interviewer wasn't supposed to ask.
posted by justkevin at 7:36 AM on May 8, 2006

It's generally illegal to ask about religion, especially to make religion a contingency of a job offer. See the EEOC website. Your profile says you're a teacher. If you're applying for a teaching job in a school of any significant size, your religion shouldn't matter.
posted by MeetMegan at 7:38 AM on May 8, 2006

If it's illegal to discriminate, how does every religious university require that you sign oaths that you will represent the faith in your job?
posted by mathowie at 7:38 AM on May 8, 2006

I figure that it's illegal to hire based on religion, but not illegal to ask someone to practice reasonable sections of the work religion at work. I doubt it would be reasonable to ask someone to, say, be baptised for work, but I don't doubt that it would be reasonable for you to be asked to carry about a holy bible at work.

But those are just my guesses, perhaps a lawyer knows?
posted by shepd at 7:43 AM on May 8, 2006

If it's illegal to discriminate, how does every religious university require that you sign oaths that you will represent the faith in your job?

That's not the same as discriminating against someone of another faith. Even most PC reactionaries recognize that as a silly battle to fight.
posted by deadfather at 7:43 AM on May 8, 2006

Religious-based organizations can and do have religious requirements, for example, the first condition for every job at Focus on the Family begins with:


Is a consistent witness for Jesus Christ; maintains a courteous, Christ-like attitude in dealing with people within and outside of Focus; adheres to the Standard of Moral Conduct and Statement of Faith; upholds Focus on the Family's ministry in prayer

Demonstrates behaviors aligned with FOF core values
posted by m@ at 7:44 AM on May 8, 2006

Religious universities (or at least the ones that practice that discrimination) don't receive state money, right?
posted by schroedinger at 7:45 AM on May 8, 2006

I suspect you're applying to a job where there's a heavy religious affililation? Can you give us a bit of background on this situation please? I think it would help everyone answer your question better.

I guess to simplify it all, if you're fearful of being judged, terminated and then having legal proceedings launched towards you for your religious beliefs and further hiding and compromising your beliefs... is this an organization you want to work for?
posted by jerseygirl at 7:47 AM on May 8, 2006

So here's the situation: a job teaching philosophy at a religiously affiliated university. I'm in Tennessee, so most of the available jobs are of this type, and all of them require you to sign some sort of document that includes religious statements.

Here's one that bothers me:
"Do you believe that our freedom comes from Jesus Christ?"

I teach political philosophy, so this is not a duckable question. I'm quite good at working around and through my student's religious beliefs, so I think I'd enjoy teaching students at this school.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:54 AM on May 8, 2006

am I going to be able to live with my lie?

I don't know about the legal side, but this is the bit that would concern me. If you don't tell the truth, I imagine that the lying and covering for your story could get quite wearing and stressful. Could well lead to you resenting your job.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:59 AM on May 8, 2006

If you lie about being whatever it is your employer is, you may face increasingly more uncomfortable situations in which you are expected to participate.

If you don't lie, and they hire you, you may face constant prostlytizing.

I am a Episcopalian. If I were interviewing with a company that was comprised chiefly of, I don't know, very evangelistic Reconstructionist Dominionists, I would neither confirm nor deny my own faith. I would just back away slowly and look for another potential employer.
posted by Biblio at 8:05 AM on May 8, 2006

Specifially, 42 USC 2000e-1 provides an exemption from the equal employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act to all religious corporations:




Sec. 2000e-1. Applicability to foreign and religious employment

(a) Inapplicability of subchapter to certain aliens and employees of
religious entities

This subchapter shall not apply to an employer with respect to the
employment of aliens outside any State, or to a religious corporation,
association, educational institution, or society with respect to the
employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work
connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association,
educational institution, or society of its activities.
posted by thewittyname at 8:05 AM on May 8, 2006

"Do you believe that our freedom comes from Jesus Christ?"

Is this a yes/no or an essay question? If it's the latter, you could, in good conscience, discuss what parts of current political belief derive from the recorded teachings of Jesus. Or you can explain how political rights should be considered universal regardless of religious belief (e.g., followers of Islam get the same due process as Christians.)

Lying to get a job is rarely a good idea.
posted by La Cieca at 8:08 AM on May 8, 2006

There are loopholes built into the religious discrimination laws for some kinds of religious institutions. Don't know if this extends to Universities that receive public funds.

My feeling is that if you plan on staying there for more than a few years, it is likely to come out eventually. One of the things I've learned from various professors is that tenure only means they can't kick your ass to the curb because they don't like what you say. Universities have plenty of creative passive-aggressive ways to punish tenured faculty they don't like that could be worse than just leaving. (Funding, offices, and course assignments are three big ways.)

But on the other hand, you can feel them out. It might turn out to be one of those administrative mandates that's given only a token nod in the school and department.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:15 AM on May 8, 2006

This question has been asked before; it was a lawyer or accountant or something like that considering a job at a religious school, but I can't find it.

Religious institutions are permitted to discriminate by religion. It seems very likely that the job in question is at some sort of religious institution, which is why you know that it's a litmus test for getting the job. Accordingly, if you are an athiest and don't lie you will be denied the job, and it will be legal for them to do so. Consequences of being discovered are that you'll be fired - I doubt it would be more than that.

Negatives are, you'll have to lie a lot. "So, what church do you go to? Why don't you come to our church next Sunday?" "Say, did you hear about [controversy in a particular religion]?" You'll get a lot of those.

In the last question, several people chimed in in favor of discrimination. Me, I think it's stupid to allow religious organizations to discriminate except for the obvious jobs (pastor = religious faith is a job qualification, janitor = it isn't). But the law allows it and since the essence of strong religious faith in America is intolerance of difference, so the religious qualification exists for everything down to janitor.

You may be shocked! SHOCKED! to hear that there are unofficial qualifications for very many jobs. There are a great many jobs where a black person, or a white person, or a woman, or a man, would never in a million years be hired, although these requirements are almost never spelled out in the job advertisement, it's simply pure coincidence that there's always a better white candidate, or black candidate, or male candidate, or female candidate.

My recommendation is screw it. They don't want you. You don't really want to work with them, I don't think. Why force the issue?

On preview: I see why, as you say there aren't many jobs of other types in Tennessee. My suggestion: move. The Bible Belt doesn't LIKE people like you. You may survive there, but you'll never fit in. There are many areas of the U.S. that would welcome you.
posted by jellicle at 8:18 AM on May 8, 2006

That would be a sin, oh wait, you're an atheist.

Actually, I think that misrepresentations on your application are probably grounds for termination of discovered later. Teaching philosophy in a religious university would make it quite difficult to hide this stuff. I think you would be better off explaining yourself fully and why your experience and perspective would be valuable to the institution and to students of faith. I think Don't ask, Don't tell is a great policy in these matters, but they are now askin' so you best get tellin'. Of course, there is no need to tell more than necessary to answer the questions and to state your case for why you are the best candidate for the job.
posted by caddis at 8:23 AM on May 8, 2006

jellicle: In the last question, several people chimed in in favor of discrimination. Me, I think it's stupid to allow religious organizations to discriminate except for the obvious jobs (pastor = religious faith is a job qualification, janitor = it isn't). But the law allows it and since the essence of strong religious faith in America is intolerance of difference, so the religious qualification exists for everything down to janitor.

Well, as one of those people who see a good use for this exception, a wide-open law would make it possible for members of a majority to legally force their way into minority religious institutions and then dismantle those institutions from within. Granted, on the other side of the range is are the big denominational institutions of higher education where the value of such protection is questionable.

Another side to this is that multiple SCOTUS rulings have found that "religious institution" is broad enough to include equivalent Humanist and atheist groups for some kinds of privileges such as tax status.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:55 AM on May 8, 2006

This comes up all the time on the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education ( The consensus is that lying about statements of faith is 1) wrong, and confirms the folks that you are lying to in their belief that atheists have no morality, 2) impractical, since your initial lie will require followup lies as they ask what church you attend, how often, etc., and 3) damn humiliating when they see right through your lies and hire someone else.

You say you are in Tennessee, but surely as an academic you are resigned to move anywhere for the job--right? Perhaps you will find a more amenable position at a state institution or a private one in a blue state.
posted by LarryC at 8:57 AM on May 8, 2006

What if you answered the question with a list of various philosophies on the origins of freedom, and the highlights/important parts of the Christian philosophy? Kind of answering the question without really answering it, but still showing that you know your stuff?
posted by MeetMegan at 9:46 AM on May 8, 2006

anotherpanacea - Religious University in TN? Email wife teaches at an Episcopal school here in TN. If it's the same school, I can give you some tips....
posted by griffey at 9:48 AM on May 8, 2006

You should not lie to get anything, IMO.

If this is a requirement for employment, perhaps it's time for a career change.

OTOH, if lying to get employed or stay employed doesn't disturb you... a political career is always a good choice for unlimited opportunity and no troubling moral dichotomies.

All kidding aside, I'd take the opportunity to educate my interrogator/inquisitor, put the fear of god into the creep for asking such a question, and make him a little more humble. This is one of those places where righteous indignation is appropriate.
posted by FauxScot at 10:04 AM on May 8, 2006

Lie dammit. Take the money and lie
posted by A189Nut at 10:29 AM on May 8, 2006

You're going to have to tell us what the job is, because none of these answers will directly apply to you otherwise, just people disagreeing based on their own assumptions.

ewk: That wasn't an 11th commandment, he was clarifying what a portion of the commandments (stealing, murder, etc) mean underneath. That if you love your neighbor, you will naturally not steal, murder, etc.
posted by vanoakenfold at 11:20 AM on May 8, 2006

I think the characterization of every professor at religious affiliated universities as religious nuts is pretty narrow minded.
posted by caddis at 11:21 AM on May 8, 2006

World Vision has the following statement on their employment website. In addition, it's interesting that employees are required to "attend and participate in the leadership of daily devotions and weekly Chapel services."

Legal Background in the United States
World Vision U.S. is both an equal opportunity employer and a faith-based religious organization. This means that we conduct hiring without regard to race, color, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, age, sex, marital status, parental status, membership in any labor organization, political ideology, or disability of an otherwise qualified individual. The status of World Vision U.S. as an equal opportunity employer does not prevent the organization from hiring staff based on their religious beliefs, so that all staff share the same religious commitment.

Pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 702 (42 U.S.C. 2000e 1(a) World Vision U.S. has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles' Creed.
posted by lhauser at 11:30 AM on May 8, 2006

This comes up all the time on the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education ( The consensus is that lying about statements of faith is 1) wrong...

Which illustrates why I have so little respect for academics outside of their areas of specialty. The lack of understanding of real life is mind-boggling. "Yes, truth is a Higher Value, as you'd understand if you'd taken my Philosophy of Ethics class, so you mustn't be untruthful, no matter if it leaves you starving in an alley..." This from people who would give the dean a blowjob at high noon in the quad if it would get them tenure. Bah.

If you think you really want to work there, sure, lie your head off. People who would make you sign such a statement don't deserve the truth.
posted by languagehat at 11:53 AM on May 8, 2006

As a slightly amusing follow-on, here's a job for which being stone deaf is not deaf enough.

(For the benefit of the archives: Gallaudet University's new-chosen President, who was born deaf but not, apparently, to deaf parents, is being attacked by students for not being "deaf enough".)

Like I said, lots of jobs have unofficial qualifications.
posted by jellicle at 12:00 PM on May 8, 2006

I think this employment and religious discrimination question is the post that Jellicle means. It is very similar to your situation.
posted by acoutu at 1:35 PM on May 8, 2006

I asked pretty much this exact question here before, and I came to this conclusion: fuck them. Even if they weren't a religious institution and thus exempt, filing a complaint with the EEOC or anyone won't do any good, because religious freedom in the U.S. is for Christians only. You can only be religiously discriminated against if you're some sort of Christian. Sometimes they throw a bone to the Jews or some non-threatening pseudo-religion no one takes seriously like Wicca, but not often. This is not the way it's supposed to be, but this is The Way It Is.

Answer truthfully. If they don't want you to teach there, let them have a bunch of second-rate professors who think a question like that even makes sense.

Oh, and anyone wondering how my situation turned out, the church in question had a ton of applicants who were hilariously unqualified (I can use Publisher and I download clip art!) and I'm pretty sure the position still isn't filled.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:40 PM on May 8, 2006

I went through this same question when applying for jobs in philosophy. Though I'm not really an atheist, I'm not a Christian either. Philosophy is a really tough job market and we're willing to critically analyze almost any theory, so I know how tempting it can be. I would very much advise you not to do it, though.

Aside from concerns about integrity and self-image, you have to think about a long term career goal. If word should get out and you need to find a new job, you're going to have to answer questions about this period of your career and people are going to wonder, if you don't list them, why none of your letters come from people at the college. Also, I agree with the excellent point made earlier that it just fuels the "atheists are amoral" fire if anyone finds out.

I wouldn't feel bad at all about answering, "I don't think the evidence suggests that our freedom comes from Jesus Christ, but I would be willing to teach a course in which that theory is critically evaluated alongside other theories in an unbiased manner."
posted by ontic at 1:44 PM on May 8, 2006

Thanks all for the responses.

Here's what I've learned:

1. If caught, I can be fired. [Can I be sued?]
2. I may have to perform a number of subsequent evasions. [I pretty much assume this.]
3. Some people think this is wrong, and that atheists are immoral. [I'm not particularly impressed by this argument. Is it wrong to lie about being a Jew in Nazi Germany? What about the Maranos of Spain? Ok, my life is not at stake, but my livelihood is.]
4. I shouldn't want this job, because it will not make me happy. Also, I should move. [My partner is stuck in TN for the next two years. If I want to preserve my relationship, I must find gainful employment. If I want to preserve my career, it should be in a local philosophy department.]
5. I should tell my prospective employer to go to hell, or explain why religious intolerance is wrong. [These people are not open to persuasion on this issue. In fact, they're a bit fundamentalist about it. I have friends who have tried. The school fired a Unitarian a while back, claiming "that's worse than atheism."]
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:15 PM on May 8, 2006

Why not approach the situation as if you were an anthropologist and had to do some field research? Join a church, take notes, maybe you can write a paper or a book or something when your two years are up and you can move somewhere far far away. Besides, it'll give you lots of good dinner-party stories.
posted by meringue at 3:58 PM on May 8, 2006

Oh, please don't. Just don't. How are we ever going to get the US out of the dark ages unless people stop hiding the fact that they're atheists, or feeling they maybe ought to just in case?

Having sad that, if you really need the job badly enough, do what you have to do.
posted by Decani at 4:24 PM on May 8, 2006

While I’m not one of the saved myself, I still think that a religiously-oriented school has a justifiable interest in ensuring that its faculty members are adherents of the faith, if that is what they choose to do. Essentially, it is a job qualification. They probably view a faculty member’s faith as bearing on the content of his/her teaching or on the quality of his/her role-modeling to students. Does this interest of the school outweigh your interest in finding a job? I’m going to be a purest and say it does. I would encourage you to be forthright and explain that you don’t share all their views, and how exactly you would work “around and through [your] student's religious beliefs.” If they hire you on those terms, then you have the freedom to be yourself. If they don’t, your integrity remains in tact, and you can feel good about the fact that you avoided the psychic stress of pretending to be what you are not. Of course, this purest approach could very well leave you unemployed, and—according to what you wrote above—you would therefore stand to lose your partner and your career. Is that really so? Are there no other options for you? Because, if so, you are probably screwed. Have you spent any time around true believers? Unless you are the Meryl Streep of philosophy teachers, they will see through you in a New York minute.
posted by found missing at 4:45 PM on May 8, 2006

Yes, it's wrong. And no, the relatively tough bind you're in doesn't justify the lie or make it less wrong.

A few more thoughts/reactions/explanations:

1) Even if you don't end up with a guilty conscience, you probably won't be happy forcing yourself to stay in the "religious closet". Having come out of at least one major closet (the gay one) during my lifetime, I wouldn't go back in unless my life or the life of a loved one depended on it. Admittedly, some closets are more significant than others; maybe you don't find the "religious closet" to be all that painful. But I doubt this, because you're a philosopher, and the question of belief (or non-belief) isn't exactly irrelvant to your profession. I'd say, in this case, the religious closet is a very significant one and that you're going to be miserable pretending to be someone you're not and working with people you have little professional respect for.

2) Sacrificing career for the sake of honesty is noble. And I think that failing to do doing so is, in your case, especially ignoble. Again, you're a philosopher. And a teacher. Both of these mean, in my opinion, that you're someone who is supposed to have thought longer and harder and more passionately than most of us about things like truth and ethics. You thus have a deeper responsibility than most to demonstrate, through your actions and life choices, commitment to the truth. People like me (and some of your future students) look up to people like you to as examples of what it means to live a good life.

To put this in perspective, I don't think you're obligated to "never tell a lie." But I think this is a very big lie, given a) the nature of the instutition, b) the nature of your profession, and c) that this institution is where your would be practicing your profession.

(And, for the record, I don't think atheists are any more immoral than religious people; in fact, I think that, as a whole, atheists are probably less immoral than religious people, so please don't count me among those who "think this is wrong, and that atheists are immoral.")
posted by treepour at 5:20 PM on May 8, 2006

I did this last year. I didn't get the job though, and on second thought I'm pretty glad. I've since met some of the people who would have been my colleagues, and my life would have been one big church picnic.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:52 PM on May 8, 2006

The school fired a Unitarian a while back, claiming "that's worse than atheism."

Given this new piece of info, if you decide to lie, you will be found out and it will not be an easy breakup. So you don't want to do that.

This next question may or may not matter, but are you an especially "militant atheist" ("There is no deity and you're a fool if you can't see that!") or more passive ("I don't worship a deity but if others choose to, that's their business.")? From some of your answers and even your original question, I figure you're closer to the latter, but I may be wrong. I don't know what the situation was with the Unitarian guy, but it seems to me that if you're a fairly tolerant person and a good candidate otherwise, they might be willing to "work with you" on the not-believing-in-Jesus thing, as long as you made sure they knew you wouldn't ever make a big deal out of it. Respecting the beliefs of 99% of the people there and all that. But I don't know much about religious universities so I can't say for sure.

Are there no public schools near you? I know in Georgia there's a state college in nearly every city of any size; seems like Tennessee wouldn't be too different.
posted by SuperNova at 10:12 PM on May 8, 2006

This from people who would give the dean a blowjob at high noon in the quad if it would get them tenure.

Languagehat, are you still stuck on that time when you walked in on me and the dean, all those years ago? Look, we were drunk, things got crazy, my promotion the next month had nothing to do with it. And I didn't know about you and him. No one meant to hurt you.
posted by LarryC at 10:36 PM on May 8, 2006

The real issue is with the SO. If he / she is reasonable, they'll see the bind you're in, and be willing to move somewhere else where you *both* can find gainful employment that doesn't require either of you to live a lie.

If they're not reasonable, well, you can try to find work at non-religious universities there, I suppose. But staying in a relationship with an unreasonable person can be hazardous to your mental health, not to mention karma.

If the place you're applying is going to insist in the application process that "freedom comes from Jesus", imagine what other nonsense they are going to insist on, and how they will skew what you can teach. By asking the question I think you are indicating you aren't comfortable with this already. It would only get worse if they hired you.
posted by beth at 12:49 AM on May 9, 2006

Well, here's a bit of a denouement, for those still following:

I found the speculation about quality of life the most persuasive. College professors are almost never fired midyear, so I had trouble worrying about that. However, the prospect that, as Mr. Gurl suggested, "my life would have been one big church picnic," probably did the most to turn me off to this option.

This question was mostly about putting my own fantasies to rest. My partner was always against it, but in my desperation I was feeling a certain "moral flexibility."

You all [or perhaps I should say, y'all] have proven worthy Dear Abbies. Thanks!
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:43 AM on May 9, 2006

Just in case you do decide to lie, remember that if you bring your philosophy into it, You might as well have said "No" (At least in the Bible Belt). Main-Stream Christianity there is a "faith of a child" matter, unquestioning and unwavering. It doesn't need to be explained or thought out.

In many Methodist , Born-Again, and Baptist Churches, Four words can "save" you: Jesus is my Savior. Anything more sounds like you're attempting to convince them that you're a christian.

(I make this comment in leiu of spending a week on a religious-based campus in the Bible Belt, and having many religious conversations. Unfortunately, my view of "them" was skewed by the plethora of "Isn't God Awesome" conversations {seriously} that were forced upon me.)
posted by hatsix at 2:49 PM on May 9, 2006

Just tell them, "Freedom may come from Jesus, but delicious pasta comes from God.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:03 PM on May 9, 2006

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