Religious spambox: how one email can give you the boot

A recent news story on Christian Concern states:

“A Christian doctor who was sacked for emailing a prayer to his colleagues has lost his clam for unfair dismissal, after an Employment Tribunal ruled that there was “no need” for religious references to be made at work. Dr David Drew (aged 64) took legal action against Walsall Manor Hospital after he was dismissed for e-mailing a motivational prayer by St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, to his department, stating that his colleagues had made him feel like a “religious maniac” for circulating the message. “

Why is it that he lost his suit? It’s because he infringed some unwritten principles in the workplace. A few points will make it clear:

  • discussions about religion should be avoided if considered “inappropriate” in the workplace. It’s confusing and counterproductive.
  • religious references are always construed as an attempt to force religion on other members of staff. It’s an assault.
  • religious references impede communication. It’s antisocial.

Naturally, symbolic assault, incongruity and communication breakdown are truly to be avoided in the workplace. But let’s look closely at David Drew’s email initiative. Was that in itself the embodiment of all these hazards? If your judgment is not driven by the mere hatred of religion (which might turn you into a fundamentalist and risks upsetting many social groups, thus defeating your humanistic ambition), then common sense would suggest that one circulated email is unable to set those things in motion.

The problem is that Drew’s email was put in a larger perspective, adding to it some a priori assumptions about the allegedly insidious power of religion: an email might just be the beginning of a longer series of indoctrination attempts; a prayer email is totally unscientific and irrational so exposure to it might lead one into temptation as to its true, scientific, rational self; having a religious-minded colleague and employee is not good for the image of an institution that prides itself on secularity, reason and scientific method in going about its business.

All these points (and many more that could easily be imagined at work) attempt to regard as demonstrated something that awaits demonstration. It’s a petitio principii sort of fallacy and it cost a man his job. Surprisingly, no indication is made in the news story of a breached “hospital charter” where religion should be banned at the door. Moreover, it is not even suggested that David Drew was advised to cease circulating emails (he only dispatched one). If anything, the hospital staff showed inflexibility, intolerance and, given the significance of redundancy for an individual nowadays, resentment.

How many emails do you receive from your colleagues and boss the content of which your sensibility or conscience might find repugnant? How many scabrous, racist, sexist jokes and comments and how many irrelevant “social” initiatives (e.g helping stray dogs when humans are still suffering and dying in many places in the world) do you receive each month from all across your address-book range? I have actually experienced the undignified and damaging effects of a whole company team passionately discussing social change. People can take issue with many things and press for conscience-damage compensation but I think there is one point which we can all apply in our lives and in our workplace: forthright tolerance. It does not involve condoning antisocial and context-inappropriate behaviour but rather taking action only against that behaviour which truly proves to be offensive, damaging and disrupting communication.

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