Dealing with Religious Symbols at Work and in the Office

Atheists at Work

Boardroom Prayer
Boardroom Prayer. kristian sekulic/E+/Getty

My coworkers have religious symbols all over the place — what should I do?


Because people spend so much of their time at work, it should be expected that they will decorate their desks, offices, cubicles, or other work areas with things that represent important parts of their lives. There will be pictures of families, objects representing sports, and of course religious symbols. But what do you do if those religious symbols become bothersome?

First, it really depends upon what is meant by "all over the place." People have as much right to decorate their work spaces with religious symbols as they do to decorate with pictures of families or other things. Indeed, forcing them to take away all religious images would be a violation of their right to the free exercise of religion.

Nevertheless, their right to have religious symbols around is not unlimited. A crucifix hanging on the wall is one thing, but erecting a shrine to the Virgin Mary, complete with candles and incense, is quite another. There are limits to how pervasive the religious symbols are allowed to be and still be covered by constitutional and moral protections.

If there are a lot of people who have one or two religious symbols in their work spaces, then that might seem excessive to you, the non-religious person, because you perceive a cumulative quality to them all. That, however, isn't enough to justify complaining.

In order for any complaints to be justified there would have to be people who really go overboard with religion, placing many symbols and pictures and such in the area where they work.

If you have to interact in that area a lot and the sheer quantity of religion bothers you, then you would have every reason to complain and ask that it be toned down a bit.

After all, a person's work space doesn't belong to them, it belongs to the company - and the company has an obligation to ensure that work areas are maintained in a professional manner. A couple of religious symbols would not interfere with that, but a couple of dozen surely would.

Religious symbols in common areas like hallways are another matter. If you work for a religious organization, then you have little cause for complaint! If it's not a religious organization, however, then they probably shouldn't be using the common spaces of all employees to express or promote religious messages which might be contrary or even offensive to the religious sensibilities of some employees. Common spaces like hallways or lunch rooms should be generally neutral in character and decoration.

If you don't mind people learning about your atheism, you may also want to consider decorating your own work space in a manner which reflects atheism, freethought, or humanism. You certainly don't want to go overboard because in that case you'll be doing exactly what you'd rather not see with others. However, by some expression of your perspective you'll be contributing to the diversity of the workplace and maybe it will lead to some interesting conversations with others you ask you about the things you have sitting around.