Saturday, October 13, 2007

Good Advice

Unless I’m ranting about political or legal matters, I try to avoid being serious here because I think my readers prefer being entertained. There’s enough dead-seriousness in the Atheosphere already, and I’d rather not add to it. But today, you’ll have to pardon me, because I’ve got something I need to get off my chest. If I were a Roman Catholic, I’d probably go to confession. But I’m an atheist, so I blog.

I gave advice to a friend. The advice, unfortunately, was good. In fact, I think it was very good. But I hate myself for giving that advice.

Throughout my life, I’ve been in the enviable position of never having to censor my nonbelief. Notice that I said “enviable.” I know all too well that some people aren’t free, for one reason or another, to advertise their atheism.

My friend is an atheist. My advice was to keep completely quiet at work about that. I didn’t say, “Don’t go out of your way to publicize the fact that you’re a nonbeliever.” I didn’t say, “Avoid debates”or “Shun conversations about religion.” I just said, basically, “Shut up entirely.”

Now, I’m about the last person in the world to urge someone to keep mum. About anything. But I thought my suggestion was right because revealing an atheistic worldview could seriously jeopardize my friend’s career. I would never advise anyone to stand idly by while religion was being aggressively advocated. But that wasn’t the situation I was told about. It’s just that my friend faces the possibility of being “outed” as an atheist by some folks in the workplace who accidentally stumbled upon the “secret.” If that were to happen, my friend might be faced with some serious out-rage on the part of the people who pay the salaries. So I said, in essence, “Don’t talk about it at all.”

When I thought later about what I’d said, I realized that I would never have voiced a similar opinion to a friend who was worried about being revealed as a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim. No one would dream of taking action against a worker who wears a cross or a star of David.

But as I’ve mentioned, my advice was very good under the circumstances. If you knew all the facts, you, yourself, would have given the exact same counsel. But it’s advice I’ll never give again because it makes me disgusted to concede that we live in a world where merely acknowledging one’s atheism can deprive one of a livelihood.

So, in retrospect, I wish I had said, “Yes, admit proudly that you’re an atheist. Assure your boss you wouldn’t dream of trying to convert anyone at work. Insist that your non-belief doesn’t conflict with your job, doesn’t hurt the people with whom you come into contact, and doesn’t make you any more suspect of propagandizing than your Catholic coworker who gets his or her forehead shmeared on Ash Wednesday. But don’t deny who you are.”

That would have been very bad advice, indeed. But, on reflection, it’s the advice I should have given.


vjack said...

It sounds to me like the advice you gave was exactly the advise you should have given. There is often a wide difference between the ideal and the actual. Ideally, your friend should be able to proclaim his rationality as loudly as Christians routinely proclaim their idiocy. But in actuality, you recognize that we have a long way to go before getting to this point. Consider how you would have felt if you had given different advice and then your friend had been fired.

Anonymous said...

Well, life is a bunch of trade-offs and I have found that the old saying: "Be truthful, but with one foot in the stirrup" is quite worthwhile.

I wrote here once before what happened when I first 'came out' at age eight. Besides the immediate physical assault and its aftermath, even as a kid I didn't have that much to lose. Your friend obviously had a lot to lose. People have a picture in their head that they label 'atheist' (or 'moslem', or 'queer') and that's what they react to, not the reality. It's what they see as the alien other.

Anonymous said...

I think what they see is the worst aspects of themselves looking back, actually.

PhillyChief said...

This article went from infuriating me to profoundly moving me. It has prompted me to publicly out myself which I go in greater depth about on my site. I think I have to do this and I'm torn on where I stand with people who, out of fear, choose to hide. I think I'll probably wrestle with the latter for a long time.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Your advice looks familiar. I think I know the guy. I gave him the same advice.

Russell Hume said...

I'm not sure if this is right, but I believe you are an attorney right?

I'm not currently practicing law (I'm still in the learning stages), but from what I have learned so far about advising clients is that we, as advisers and council, are suppose to lay out the possible options for our clients, inform them of the possible repercussions of each option, and let them make the decision. If a client were to ask me which decision I would make, I would probably advise them of the different chances of an argument actually succeeding.

This practice has worked well for me whenever friends have asked me for advice in the past and I usually refuse to allude to what option I would take if I was them. After all, it is ultimately my friend who must live with the decision and I believe that they are best able to discern what option they feel they can accept, and which options are too costly, whether those costs are financial or internal.

After all, what is a "good" or "bad" decision for someone depends on a lot of internal factors that we might not be aware of and while you may believe the advice you gave was "bad" in an internal sense while "good" in an external sense, it may be that you are projecting the internal weight you give to the option onto your friend, who has a totally different feeling?

Sort of a rambling message there, but I hope it helped.

Spanish Inquisitor said...


Not sure if your comment was directed at me, but I'll answer it, since I am an attorney.

What you say is exactly what I'd do if some one came to me, as an attorney, and asked for my legal advice. At that point one has established an attorney/client relationship (which has legal implications itself) regardless of whether the attorney actually gets paid.

I got the impression that what Ex was referring to was a friend asking for personal advice. There is no legal pressure to be right in that situation. No possibility of a claim against malpractice insurance. So one simply gives the best advice one can, friend to friend.

Not that I wouldn't give the best advice to a client...

Russell Hume said...

Spanish Inquisitor (SI),

Oh, it was probably you I was thinking of then SI (I read your blog as well).

I suppose what I was trying to get at is that what is normally a good practice for clients also seems to be a good practice for friends. That, and that while he may feel that he gave "good" advice that felt wrong to him, his friend may not feel the same internal frustration.

The Exterminator said...

Yeah, I, too suspected that you were actually addressing SI, rather than me.

I'm not an attorney. So I have no code of ethics to follow -- except my own -- when I throw my two cents into a conversation. It's my personal code that's the subject of this post.

I must say, though, that in my social interactions with attorney friends, it's always understood that any opinions expressed by either party are purely personal and in no way professional. If not, how could an attorney have any non-lawyer friends at all? He or she would constantly be forced to censor conversation on any subject which touched even peripherally on the law.

When I need to seek an attorney friend's advice on a legal matter, I pay for it. That makes the attorney-client privilege official.

Cragar said...

I have had this problem myself (not your problem but your friends) and blogged about it. I basically do not advertise my beliefs but if asked I will state my opinions. Now if it is the owner of the company (who is very religious) then I assume I will temper my opinions slightly compared to an equal co-worker.

Now that I have been here for a number of years, I doubt anyone's opinion of me would change much, and if it does, who cares? But when first starting out, it is probably best to tow the line unless questioned about it in most situations, until you are settled in.