Shedding light on key factor influencing perceptions of workplace harassment against atheists

New research suggests that a person’s own religious beliefs play an important role in how they perceive harassment of atheist employees. The study, published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, found that Evangelical Christians are less likely to perceive a supervisor deriding and proselytizing to an atheist employee as discrimination

Despite the growing presence of atheists and agnostics, nonbelievers are still often subjected to negative stereotypes and discriminatory behavior. For instance, previous research has found that people are less willing to allow an atheist symbol in the workplace compared to a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish symbol.

The authors of the current study observed that little was known about perceptions of workplace harassment against atheists and how these perceptions might impact legal decisions involving atheist employees.

“I have always been interested in the intersection of law and psychology – how can psychology help us to better understand and improve the legal system? I am also very interested in creating a better, more equitable workplace, as we spend a significant part of our lives at work, virtually and/or in-person,” said study author Jason A. Cantone, an adjunct professor at George Mason University.

“Many researchers have examined workplace sexual harassment and racial discrimination, but very few address the religious discrimination that many face at work. My earlier study in 2017 examined how people perceive workplace religious discrimination cases involving Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and Evangelical Christian employees. This new study expanded that work, seeking to understand how people perceive workplace discrimination against atheists, a group that has been rising in number according to recent Gallup polls.”

In the new study, participants read a complaint from an atheist employee, who was described as either a man or woman. The atheist claimed that an Evangelical Christian supervisor often discussed religion and had remarked at a staff meeting that the employee “might be running out of chances” to accept God. The employee also alleged that a demotion by the supervisor was a result of his or her atheism, while the supervisor maintained the atheist employee was demoted because of performance issues.

The participants then completed a questionnaire that assessed the extent to which they believed that the supervisor had created a religiously hostile work environment. The questionnaire was based on actual jury instructions, which explained the four factors necessary to prove such a claim: the conduct was unwelcome, based on religion, severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment, and capable of being attributed to the employer.

The final sample for the study included 234 participants. Slightly more than half (58%) of the sample identified themselves as Christian, and 24% identified as Evangelical Christian. In addition, 31% stated they had no religious affiliation (“nones”), 5% identified themselves as atheist, and 3% stated they were agnostic.

Cantone and his colleagues found that atheist/agnostic participants perceived the conduct to be more unwelcome and more likely to constitute discrimination compared to religiously affiliated or “none” participants. Evangelical Christian participants, on the other hand, perceived the conduct as less severe and were less likely to believe that discrimination had occurred.

“Who we are affects how we view other people and whether we believe other people have been discriminated against. We often want to protect people we see as similar to us. In this and my prior work, an individual’s religious or non-religious views can affect their perceptions of whether workplace religious discrimination occurred,” Cantone told PsyPost.

“If we think an act would be discrimination if it happened to us, we are more likely to consider it discrimination if it happened to other people we see as similar to us. For example, when presented with the case of an Evangelical Christian supervisor allegedly harassing an atheist employee, atheist participants were more likely to see it as discrimination, and Evangelical Christian participants were less likely to see it as discrimination.”

 But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“We often put people in large groups as if one word can define many very different people,” Cantone explained. “Words like ‘Black’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘nonreligious’ actually describe many different groups and researchers should address this more clearly. This study focused on a scenario involving an atheist employee, but future research should address whether there are similar findings regarding agnostic, non-religious, or secular employees.”

“In addition, the term ‘Evangelical Christian’ encompasses many different groups of people. To better understand how people perceive workplace religious discrimination involving different groups, we need to better understand how our own religious attitudes interact and affect our perceptions of others’ religious attitudes.”

“When I published my study in 2017, I had hoped it would result in more researchers examining workplace religious discrimination,” Cantone added. “It generally did not. With this study, I again hope that my work can inspire others to examine workplace religious discrimination. As researchers, we should strive to make sure our work is applicable to the real world and helps to create a more equitable workplace for all, regardless of one’s religious (or non-religious) views.”

The study, “Self-Referencing Affects Perceptions of Workplace Discrimination Against Atheists“, was authored by Jason A. Cantone, Victoria Walls, and Taylor Rutter.

By Eric W. Dolan July 8, 20 22 in Business, Psychology of Religion

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