Talking about Religion in the Workplace?

Perhaps this kind of educational engagement is not the business of business. But if this disposition is of critical importance for the democratic ordering of our nation, an argument can be made that this practice is too important to be left exclusively in the hands of religious professionals. 

Written by Dr. Christopher M. Leighton (February 14, 2013)

During the last few weeks, I have entered into a lively conversation with an international investment firm. The corporation has a special committee that has orchestrated a series of programs and oriented employees to a range of “diversity” issues, including the complexities of handling race and gender. There was an interest in exploring the challenges that emerge in a workplace that includes a great many divergent religious perspectives. Indeed, there was concern about the chasm that sometimes separates those who hold firmly to their religious faith and those whose secular outlooks are incompatible with any religious attachments.

My colleagues and I encouraged the Human Relations officials to pursue this inquiry. We noted that believers and non-believers alike find themselves in a world that is profoundly shaped by religious conflict. The turmoil that roils the Middle East also reverberates through much of Africa and the Far East. The clash of cultures in Europe vibrates, however distinctly, in North America. No region has escaped the collision of incompatible ideologies. Furthermore, religious literacy has not been high on the agenda of most students as they plod through the academy. The national surveys reveal that the vast majority of Americans are poorly equipped to interpret religious conflicts, and they routinely fail to grasp the global and local dynamics that ignite and sustain these unruly tensions.

The committee officials noted that this summation sounded a bit abstract, and they wanted to know what this global conundrum had to do with their workplace. Could we be more specific, provide a more detailed outline, offer practical guidelines and issue concrete recommendations that would help employees become more accepting of “religious diversity”? How exactly did we propose to improve the corporate climate at the firm?

I appreciated the imperative to make it real, but I was reluctant to hammer home the point that the ways in which religious wars are sparked and spread may actually have relevance to some corporate settings. Conflicts are not easily managed, and the experts who are called in to address “human relations” problems often fail to understand that some tensions cannot be “resolved” by means of an on-line lecture or even extended sensitivity training. There are dilemmas woven into the human condition that cannot be fixed.

I was reluctant to interpret silence, but the pauses in our conversation were noticeable. I surmised that some human resource managers do not like to ask questions that cannot be answered. And they do not want to crack open problems that turn into insoluble mysteries, especially in regard to potentially divisive matters that have been carefully avoided for decades. So I did my best to encourage them to embark on an educational journey that might provide fresh insights into the highly combustible religious antagonisms raging around the globe, knowing full well that these conflicts also have a habit of infiltrating our own neighborhoods. There might be something of value in such an investigation, and I had little doubt that the employees could connect the dots and discover specific applications. We were opening up an inquiry rather than bringing closure to a historic puzzle.

My proposal was kicked up the ladder, and our next conversation brought new voices into the dialogue with genuine “concerns.” At their encouragement, I offered an overview of a potential presentation. First, it was important to note that religions are double-edged. In the United States they have mobilized passions and shaped the commitments that galvanized the abolition movement, that brought about major changes in labor practices, and that inspired prison and mental health reforms. It is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights movement without the religious leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others dedicated to their religious ideals. At the same time, religion has often been placed in the service of hate. As studies from the Carter Center have demonstrated, most of the wars currently wreaking havoc around the world are fueled by religious zealotry. Our most recent election yet again reminds us that religious loyalties can be manipulated and channeled into narrow ideological currents. Our religious traditions all too often teach us to splinter the world into two irreconcilable camps—“us” and “them.”

To better understand when a religion makes a dangerous turn, a number of scholars have designed analytic tools to identify the most important warning signs of trouble. These destructive dynamics are not confined to any single tradition. Indeed, as Charles Kimball illustrates in his volume When Religion Becomes Evil, almost any religion is susceptible to disruptive excesses. A few of these troublesome elements are worth highlighting.

  • Absolute Truth: When adherents of a religious tradition believe that God has revealed truths to the community that set them above the rest of humanity, there are potential dangers that follow. For example, the Missouri Synod minister the Reverend Rob Morris was recently criticized for participating in an interfaith service in Newtown, Connecticut. By joining with members of other faith communities to pray for the victims and their families in the wake of this national tragedy, Pastor Morris was viewed as giving legitimacy to the false teachings of other religions. Claims to absolute truth run the risk of turning neighbors who ascribe to different traditions into people who must be avoided or converted. Taken to an extreme, those who regard themselves as the exclusive representatives of God’s truth may demonize the outsider and pursue policies that lead to expulsions and even murder.
  • Blind Obedience: When a religious community invests an individual or an elite group with the authority to command obedience, another layer of danger is added to the mix. Although religious traditions often aim to overcome the centripetal pull of the ego and honor the needs of others, the discipline of surrendering oneself to a higher authority carries significant risks. A religious leader who demands blind submission and will tolerate no dissent can exercise a tyrannical power. This danger is amplified when a leader permits no room for the challenge of individual conscience and rules out reasonable debate.
  • Selective and Literal Readings of Sacred Scriptures: Most religious communities invest their foundational writings with special authority and anchor their ethical norms within these texts. However, the same sacred writings that contain lofty wisdom, beautiful poetry, and spiritual guidance may also harbor polemical arguments that can teach disdain for those who belong to different communities and uphold different worldviews. When a community is unwilling to acknowledge that some religious writings may prove toxic and therefore require special handling, these scriptures may unwittingly enshrine ignorance of others, reinforce fear and distrust, and ultimately justify hatred of others. Holy wars invariably find scriptural justifications, as does the mistreatment of women and gays/lesbians in many parts of the world.
  • Apocalyptic Endings: Most religious traditions orient followers to dream of a noble future. They note the gap between the way things are and the way that they are supposed to be. They inspire their adherents to act in a way that helps to usher in the Kingdom of God or at least a more humane and just world. Some religions hold to an apocalyptic vision of the end-time and envision a cosmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. They believe that a new and glorious world can only emerge in the wake of this bloody confrontation. When global affairs are filtered through this lens, a clash of civilizations is seen as inevitable. For example, a cataclysmic encounter that pits Christians against Muslims is understood as a necessary part of a divine plan, and, therefore, the mounting conflicts in the Middle East are welcomed as a divine sign of God’s imminent return.

I noted that this summary could be fleshed out in greater detail, and I could easily provide the evidence to demonstrate how a dysfunctional alignment of these elements can warp the great religions of the world and destabilize the social order. History provides far too many examples for anyone to take refuge in dogmatic slumbers.

My interlocutors at the investment firm were very polite, but they expressed some serious and understandable misgivings. They anticipated conversations about religion that would have an edge and cut into the comfort level of their more devout members. I was assured that the company was not riddled with zealous fanatics, but they were not convinced that the tools to critically engage divergent religious traditions would promote corporate tranquility or clear a path to harmonic relations. The workplace should be an environment that accepts diversity and does not cast a shadow of judgment on anyone.

Yes, I understand the importance of a safe place, but does that mean a program on racism or sexism does not level judgments against those who regard black people as inherently inferior or see women as constitutionally incompetent? What exactly are we afraid will happen if religion becomes a topic of conversation and employees ask hard questions of one another? How do religious values shape or even distort their worldviews, and how do employees respond to a cultural climate (or, for that matter, a political or business climate) that moves in an extremist direction? Is tolerance the highest ideal in the creation of a corporate ethos that builds respect for others?

What impressed me as a daring educational venture seemed laden with all the promise of a cafeteria food fight, if not Armageddon, to my corporate colleagues. I sensed a paternalistic concern, a desire to protect employees from awkward exchanges or uncomfortable arguments—most especially when the subject did not appear to have much bearing on the bottom line, improve efficiency, or bolster morale. As the human relations representative explained, “We were taught that neither religion nor politics belongs at the dining room table.”

I do not know if the employees need protection from potentially disruptive inquiries, and I do not know if this avoidance infantilizes those who want to wrestle with difficult conundrums. I think that it would be misleading to suggest that this kind of conversation comes free of risk. Yet I do know that there are inescapable challenges that we face in a religiously plural world, whether we are believers or atheists or only vaguely interested in spiritual matters.

This may not strike most of us as good news: There is simply no way around the disagreements. The Roman Catholic Jesuit John Courtney Murray had a refreshing take on this dilemma. He explained that a genuine disagreement is a true achievement. More often than not, people talk past one another when they have an argument. They do not develop a line of inquiry that connects the disputants so that they come away with a clearer understanding of where the other stands or grasp the deeper reasons behind the dispute. Most arguments are conducted with the expectation that the verbal exchange will yield a winner and a loser. People deploy various rhetorical skills to elevate their own views, and they aim to diminish the position of their opponents. And this has been the pattern that defines the majority of encounters between different religious communities.

The rabbinic sages, however, maintain that there is another possibility. People can conduct a “sacred argument for the sake of heaven.” To develop this discipline, the rabbis suggest that we must learn to see and imagine our opponents in new terms and recognize them as among our best teachers. Why? Because the people with whom we disagree offer us a way to see the world more deeply and more broadly than is possible if we remain comfortably locked in our own assumptions and never take advantage of the opportunity to venture outside of our own enclaves. The challenge is to create a culture that welcomes sacred arguments, a culture that honors minority opinions and constantly risks more thorough self-examination. Here the goal is not resolution of differences, but an increased ability to see others as the bearers of surprising blessings.

Perhaps this kind of educational engagement is not the business of business. But if this disposition is of critical importance for the democratic ordering of our nation, an argument can be made that this practice is too important to be left exclusively in the hands of religious professionals. If not those whom we entrust to handle our financial resources, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?