Michael Wakelin, a consultant to UK businesses and associate at Cambridge University’s Interfaith Initiative – and speaker at the recent G20 Interfaith – says some people are “really hostile” to religion in the workplace. “Religion is now the biggest butt of jokes in the office. It’s replaced gender and race,” he says.
David Brent, the antihero of the classic British satire The Office, had a crude line in jokes about race, disability, sex and sexuality. When he quipped about “Oliver, the office black guy” or "the disableds” or his gay colleagues — “one in 10, apparently, that seems a bit high” — he never thought he was being anything but liberal-minded and funny. Brent’s humour was, even then, out of bounds, and properly so. No one should be mocked for how they are or how they were born.
Yet some people still believe it’s OK to joke about an element intrinsic to many people’s character — their religious faith. Michael Wakelin, a consultant to UK businesses and associate at Cambridge University’s Interfaith Initiative, says some people are “really hostile” to religion in the workplace. “Religion is now the biggest butt of jokes in the office. It’s replaced gender and race,” he says.
Mr Wakelin spent 23 years at the BBC, most of them as head of the Religion and Ethics Department, overseeing its television, radio and online content. He was a keynote speaker at the recent G20 Interfaith Summit in Potsdam, Germany, where he discussed the new “religious literacy” program he is running with the international management consulting firm Ernst & Young.
The program does not aim to make people more or less religious — only to be aware of faith’s importance to co-workers and clients. “If you’re the sort of person that thinks religious people don’t have any friends, don’t blink very often and don’t go out much, that’s not a good place to start your religious literacy training,” Mr Wakelin quips. “But religion’s not going anywhere, so let’s deal with it.”
Mr Wakelin’s project deals with big UK-based companies that want advice about working in societies that take religion very seriously, such as the Middle East and South Asia. It follows Harvard University’s esteemed Divinity School, which has long had its own religious literacy program aimed at diplomats and public policy wonks who need to understand the non-Anglo and non-European world, where religious sentiment is rising.
Australia and the United States, meanwhile, are gradually forsaking their historic faith. Australians reporting “no religion” in our 2016 census are now 30 per cent of the population, the biggest single faith — or, more appositely, non-faith — group. In the US, according to Pew research in 2015, that figure is almost 23 per cent. But that is not the trajectory across most of the world. In April, Pew released data projecting that over the next 40 years the world’s population with no religion would actually fall from 16 per cent to 13 per cent. The pattern is due mainly to believers having larger families.
For countries built proudly on immigration, such as Australia — and for a liberal class that embraces cultural diversity, often as a mantra, while spurning faith — this makes religious literacy even more important. New immigrant communities are the most intensely religious, and usually remain so for two to three generations. Religion is a major element in their identity — think not only of Australian Muslims and Hindus but also Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities — and is also seen as a part of national culture throughout the diaspora.
So the chances are you’re likely to have more, not fewer, religious co-workers in the future. As Mr Wakelin observes, “Organisations and businesses that have better religious literacy within their workforces are better at attracting and retaining staff.
“There are [still] a very large number of religious people who are working in the public and private sectors who need to be accommodated well at work.”
This does not mean an office full of zealots trying to proselytise their colleagues or street-corner preachers invading the tea room. In practice, it might just mean flexible hours to allow employees to observe occasional religious holidays, and a quiet place for a few minutes of prayer or contemplation. “If you are able to bring your whole self to work,” Mr Wakelin says, “you are going to be happier in that workplace.