Atheists at work

Some employers and employees find the province to be welcoming to both believers and non-believers

Illustration by Heather Kat Cole

There are many people in the Keystone Province who do not believe in God. For some, lack of belief is a non-issue, for others, it raises various concerns.

Do employers care if you don’t believe in God or describe yourself as an atheist? Would you be less likely to find a job if an employer knew you associated regularly with other non-believers?

The 2011 National Household Survey Profile for Manitoba reports that 311,105 people in the province—approximately one-quarter of the population—have no religious affiliation. 2006 Census Data for Winnipeg shows slightly more than 20 per cent of the city’s population had no religion.

There are local groups like the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM), and organizations with similar understandings such as the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Winnipeg Secularists. There have been atheist film festivals, a recent advertising campaign on Winnipeg buses to build support amongst people who don’t believe in God, and public talks given by prominent atheists, such as P.Z. Myers and A.C. Grayling.

With a large population of the unreligious, and with various cultural activities and social groups for those who are non-believers, it seems safe to assume atheists would be accepted in this society. To find out how employers respond to a lack of religious beliefs in the workplace, the Manitoban attempted to interview winners of Manitoba’s Top Employers for 2014. Most did not respond to requests for interviews. A few referred to their company’s policy of not discriminating amongst employees based on religious beliefs, or explained they were not equipped to discuss the subject. Presented with the interview topic, a representative for one of the winners, Monsanto, replied, “Religious beliefs or lack thereof? I don’t think I’m going to touch that one. Thanks though!” The only winner to share more than a few sentences about how their organization acknowledges both believers and non-believers was Seven Oaks General Hospital.

Toby Maloney (Public Relations Manager) describes the hospital origins as unique, and not founded by any specific religious group – unlike other health-care facilities in Winnipeg. “The history, as it was told to me, is that Seven Oaks was the result of a multi-community approach [ . . . ] a coalition of a spectrum of various political and religious convictions.”

From the outset, Seven Oaks has sought to provide service to everyone in the community who needed it. Helen Holbrook (spiritual care co-ordinator) emphasizes her work is not to create a religious atmosphere, but to “listen and journey” with those who seek her services.

“Every person is trying to make sense of their experience [ . . . ] they may have no religious conviction. My job is just to listen to them,” says Holbrook.

Maloney says services offered by Holbrook and her colleagues are available for those who request them, and Holbrook explains that both religious and non-religious people come to her. Some employers, as Maloney and Holbrook indicate, are actively welcoming to both religious and non-religious employees and clients.

Amongst religious organizations, there is a tentative openness towards employing non-believers. Kirsten Schroeder, director of human resources at Mennonite Church Canada, explains that in addition to Manitoba’s non-discrimination laws, there is also the Bona Fide Occupational Requirement, which allows employers to hire based on appropriate qualifications. While her organization seeks candidates who are Anabaptist Christians, Schroeder affirms that if the right candidate applied, the potential employee’s application would be reviewed for employment even if they did not believe in God.

How do employees find the culture of acceptance for non-believers in Manitoba? A grade seven teacher in rural Manitoba who chose to remain anonymous says it took some time before he was willing to mention his atheism to people in the school.

“The first couple years I was just nervous because I was new,” he says, and states that the situation is now different. “I say very clearly that I do not believe in God, but I don’t get in religious debates with students ever.”

He has other atheist colleagues, and is not concerned with how administrators would respond to his beliefs.

“It’s the parents that I worry about.”

He describes rural schools as more likely to be staunchly religious. At the same time, he is happy about Manitoba’s laws. When asked if he is concerned about being known as an atheist, he credits Canada’s legal system.

“We’re pretty lucky in Canada. If I was ever fired for being an atheist, I’d get paid anyway. They can’t do anything to my job because I don’t believe in God.”

Many people may not be ready to discuss religion or a lack of it, but as Maloney, Holbrook, and Schroeder demonstrate, at least some employers, as well as the legal system in Manitoba, are willing to support those who don’t believe.