A few weeks ago, a student asked me during my office hours whether I was religious or not. More specifically, he asked whether I believed in his religion, and was visibly disappointed when I replied negatively.

How should I react to a question such as this? Religion is a bit of a touchy subject, and even if I am a TA (i.e., not the instructor of the course - and more importantly, also a student), I don't want to be put in a similar situation again.

More generally speaking, how do I react to a situation in which I have to answer a question in a way that I know is likely to upset a student, without lying or making the situation worse?

edit: Some comments have pointed out that the student was never actually preaching, and I understand and somewhat agree. The reason I chose this phrasing over anything else was because he did try to make the conversation into something along the lines of "Do you want to learn about the ways of [religious figure]? There's always time, you know".

edit 2: I'm in computer science; there is no link whatsoever between religion and the contents of the class (or the whole program, really).

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    @osuka_ I think the edit is helpful. You could also use "proselytizing" which conveys more of an attempt at religious conversation, including one-on-one interaction, whereas "preach" suggests the audience is a larger group. You could also add "in office hours" to your title to make more clear this is a private, rather than public, overture. – Bryan Krause Nov 5 at 22:16
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    "proselytizing" does not fit either. This word means "the action of attempting to convert someone from one religion, belief, or opinion to another" and from what you described this did not happen. Would you consider it "proselytizing" if he had asked if you were a Dallas Cowboys fan, following it up with, "Do you want to know why they are the best"? – Michael J. Nov 5 at 22:39
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    @MichaelJ. From the OP: he did try to make the conversation into something along the lines of "Do you want to learn about the ways of [religious figure]? There's always time, you know - that's proselytizing, or evangelizing if you prefer. They aren't having a broad discussion about theology, someone specifically brought up their religion and asked for a chance to start converting them toward it. – Bryan Krause Nov 5 at 22:46
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    // , "Proselytizing" seems a bit much to describe this sort of tepid "Have you been saved" type of question. If you want to put yourself in a situation where no one will ask you awkward questions, well, that's a different post entirely, isn't it? :) – Nathan Basanese Nov 6 at 1:23
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    @MichaelJ Not at all: to the question "Are you a fan of my favorite sports team?" a TA can answer: "No, they are shit, my team is sooo much better!" without getting into trouble. Try doing that with religion. The TA could be expelled from University. – Ivana Nov 7 at 9:03

13 Answers 13

up vote 178 down vote accepted

You address this by stating directly

"I would prefer not to discuss this topic during office hours. Can I help you with any questions you have on the homework?"

If the issue persists, I would speak with the professor and perhaps also your dean of students (or something similar).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please keep all comments civil... there were quite a few ad hominem attacks in this thread. – eykanal Nov 8 at 13:33
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    I like this answer, but it could come off as a bit cold. I answer such questions with a smile and say "that is an interesting question and I'm sure we could have a great discussion, but I prefer not to talk about these sorts of things at work, I hope you understand". If they push, you could say "answers to these sorts of questions can have unintended consequences" and "I'm curious why this is important to you" – Behacad 2 days ago
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    it could come off as a bit cold. — As it should. – JeffE 2 days ago
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    @Behacad I don't really agree with that... for starters "I'm curious why this important to you" is pretty obvious, but more importantly is engaging the conversation rather than closing it. – Shadow yesterday

and was visibly disappointed when I replied negatively

This is their problem, not yours.

How should I react to a question such as this?

If you feel uncomfortable defending your position when it comes to religion, politics or sex, or simply you don't want to discuss them with an extraneous person, recall that you don't have any obligation to: cut it short and answer that you're there to just answer questions about the subject you TA.

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    I don't think this is stated strongly enough; even if you feel comfortable defending your position and want to discuss it, you likely have an obligation not to (at least during office hours or otherwise as part of your job). – Misha Lavrov Nov 5 at 20:10
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    @MishaLavrov I find your claim implausible. Can you name the law or policy that forbids an instructor from discussing their religious beliefs with a student when prompted by a question from the student? – Dan Romik Nov 5 at 20:26
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    @DanRomik I can't name a specific policy, but as an instructor I have had to take "ethics training" which mentioned that I'm not allowed to express political or religious views while on the job. My impression is that this applies even when prompted by a student. – Misha Lavrov Nov 5 at 20:43
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    @MishaLavrov ok, interesting. Well, since some people’s religions require them to express their religious beliefs through their outward appearance, clothes etc, I find it difficult to see how such a rule can be enforced without violating instructors’ religious freedom rights. But I agree it would be generally inadvisable for an instructor to discuss their religious beliefs with their students without being prompted to do so. – Dan Romik Nov 5 at 20:54
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    @MishaLavrov That … sounds downright unethical; as in, a freedom of speech violation. Discussing ≠ proselytising. It’s even more extreme than forbidding show-casing your belief (e.g. in clothing), and likely wouldn’t fly even in countries where the latter is restricted (France, potentially Germany). – Konrad Rudolph Nov 6 at 10:20

I don't want to be put in a similar situation again.

If that is indeed your main motivation, the best thing to do is to politely refuse to discuss the topic with the student, as suggested in @Vladhagen’s answer.

More generally speaking, how do I react to a situation in which I have to answer a question in a way that I know is likely to upset a student, without lying or making the situation worse?

Although Vladhagen’s suggested approach seems the best suited to avoid confrontation and minimize the extent to which the student may get upset without lying to them, I think it’s worth examining your premise that telling students things that may upset them (particularly in the current context) is something that necessarily needs to be avoided. Consider the fact that for many students, college is the first place where they start encountering many people whose cultural backgrounds and beliefs differ significantly from their own. So, “making the student upset” by showing them that there are interesting, intelligent people out there with beliefs different from theirs may actually be doing them a big favor. You are not making them upset, you are helping them grow up.

Moreover, a truthful answer promotes the general value of truth-telling, which is always a good thing. So, unless you have reason to fear that the student genuinely “can’t handle the truth”, answering truthfully seems to me like the course of action that leads to the best outcome for society, although it is a bit more unpleasant for you personally.

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    This is an excellent answer. I think, too often, we simply expect that young people should act professionally without helping to teach them about it. Professionalism is learned, and not just by example. – De Novo Nov 8 at 18:51

Make it clear that religion is not a topic for conversation. When raised, reply with:

My religious views are private.

That should end the conversation, but, if pushed, follow with:

This isn't a topic for conversation.

You needn't react, per se, you just need to dismiss the topic, and this response enables you to do so honestly.


As rightly noted by Buffy, "[t]here are countries...in which the only accepted (safe) answer is the State Religion". I have assumed the OP isn't in such a country, given the phrasing of their question.

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    You do realize that it is only under certain religious views that religion is private... – einpoklum Nov 6 at 10:24
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    @einpoklum It’s less related to the religion and more to the individual (and things like social contracts … case in point, in most Western countries, it’s common etiquette to treat religion as a private matter). – Konrad Rudolph Nov 6 at 10:28
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    @einpoklum That seems somewhat irrelevant. Nonetheless, as noted in the above comment, it does depend on the country. – user2768 Nov 6 at 10:50

In the US, you have done just the right thing. Tell him the truth and leave it at that. You can't avoid such situations as they are set up by others.

Of course, you can say, and it is perfectly valid, that such questions are very personal to you and you don't feel that you want to discuss them. Reasonable people will accept that, and if they aren't reasonable, they have no right to proselytize. You don't need to be harsh ("None of your business"), but you have no obligation to answer.

There are countries, of course, that have State Sponsored Religion in which the only accepted (safe) answer is the State Religion, but not here.

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    For completeness, you also have countries that have State Sponsored Religion (Sweden until 2000 for instance, or UK) in which people are neutral / do not particularly care about religion. – WoJ Nov 8 at 21:11

It's simple:

"Sorry, I do not discuss my religious views with anyone, and am not interested in learning about other people's views. Thank you."

And it's the same if they approach me about politics.

I'm fairly blunt, assertive, and unequivocal: stay away from me in all matters of religion. I'm not interested in what anyone has to say.

People should know by now that discussing politics and religion with strangers or acquaintances is liable to get you an earful at best; but the chances you are going to sway someone one way or another - while at work - is slim to none. Such topics create bias and division in the workplace, and can bite you in the rear later on. Best to always avoid these subjects while at work, unless your work is directly related to religion. (Or politics).

It is like a question about your political opinion or sexual preferences: It is your private matter!

If you want to tell the student, you can do so, but you'll have to face the discussions (which can be fruitful or stressful), but if you prefer not to share them (which many people will do in a professional context), tell the that this touches your private field and since this does not belong to the workplace, you do not want to answer this question.

Although other answers are basically reasonable, I think the answer to this and other questions about personal/inflammatory things is "don't engage"... but be polite.

E.g., say "We really shouldn't talk about this here. Here, we talk about math (or whatever)." This can also apply to pick-up lines, and harassment of other sorts. It is harassment. Thinking of it that way, the futility of giving some information and "reasoning with" the harasser becomes clearer.

In different words, although we should be "personal" as opposed to "stand-offish" with students, it is definitely a friendly-and-compassionate persona we take up... which does not even understand questions about religious or political affiliations, for example. :)

I know, easier said than done. But I do recommend aiming for that.

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    "It is harassment." No, it is not. Asking someone out, asking about their religion or political affiliation, or offering to talk about religion is not harassment. It would only be harassment if you insisted to continue even after they said no. – vsz Nov 6 at 7:07
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    @vsz, actually, in the workplace in the U.S., especially if there is any sort of power differential (in either direction), the things you mention are considered "harassment" in policy documents. Anything that adds an unhelpful cognitive load is undesirable. – paul garrett Nov 6 at 16:16
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    I agree with this advice. If you're going to throw up a stop sign, provide a detour to get the conversation back into safe and fruitful territory. You still want to have a good TA-student relationship here. A simple "Oh, let's not go there [smile]...do you you have any more [math] questions?" will give the student a graceful exit from this line of inquiry. Now if it continues, that's when you can say, "This isn't appropriate." – Matthew Leingang Nov 6 at 20:21

So the goal is to find a way to react, with the following requirements

  1. to never be put in the same situation again
  2. to not upset the student
  3. to not lie
  4. to not make the situation worse

Let's take them one by one and then combine the solutions to find the optimal one.

  1. to never be put in the same situation again

I am afraid that you cannot control what people will say when they start talking with you. You can influence that by opening every discussion with something along the lines I don't speak about religious matters. In this way you will also get notoriety and perhaps some people will stop doing it. Still, it's not 100% effective. It might even have a boomerang effect, i.e. religious people to consider you're a lost soul needing guidance. Conclusion: No solution.

  1. to not upset the student

What did exactly upset the student? From what you said, it's the fact that you told the student that you do not have the same religion. So, to NOT upset the student, just reverse the previous phrase, i.e. do not tell the student that you do not have the same religion. We can go with the analyses further and think what would happen if you would not say that, but instead reply with something along the lines I do not want to speak about religion. I think the likely outcome of that would be that the student would still get upset, but that's just my assumption, you may try it out and come back to this answer. Alternatively you can lie and tell the student that you do have the same religion. I bet that would not upset the student. Conclusion: lie to the student and tell them that you have the same religion.

  1. to not lie

If you don't want to lie to the student, you obviously have to be honest. The way you proceeded is the most honest way. Conclusion: Be honest and tell the student that you do not have the same religion.

  1. to not make the situation worse

I don't know how you define worse, so I can't provide advice on that. Conclusion: No solution.

Let's put draw all conclusions and see how we can put them together:

  1. Conclusion: No solution
  2. Conclusion: Lie to the student and tell them that you have the same religion
  3. Conclusion: Be honest and tell the student that you do not have the same religion
  4. Conclusion: No solution

Solution 1, and 4 are incompatible with any other solution, so you either accept that there is no solution, or you change requirements 1 and 4. To go further, I'll assume you give up on these requirements, as I can't possibly know how you might want to change them.

Now we only have solutions 2 and 3. They are obviously incompatible. 2. says you should lie, 3 says that you should be honest, which are antonyms. You'll have to give up on one of the requirements 2 or 3.

In conclusion: You either pick 1 and 4 as a solution, or 2, or 3. One last alternative is to change the requirements all together, but that would just mean that you accepted 1 and 4, and you'd try to solve a different problem, wouldn't it?

Note 1: By this point I expect that some people will say that this answer is not helpful, as it doesn't give the OP a solution that matches all their requirements. To which I reply that you can't draw 7 red lines, 2 with red ink, 3 with green ink, and the rest with invisible ink, all perpendicular to each other.

Note 2: Some critics will say that my answer (lying and honesty are exclusive) is trivial. To which I reply that the question would not have existed if the solution would have been that trivial.

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    "I don't wish to discuss that" seems to satisfy all four of your requirements /to me/. Perhaps it would be worth adding that into your discussion and how you think it weighs up against your requirements. – Chris Nov 6 at 15:18
  • They're not my requirements. I merely structured and formalized the requirements mentioned by OP. Saying "I don't wish to discuss that", will not convince other people to approach OP. They wouldn't know that he doesn't wish to discuss that. It would also likely still upset the student. Answering a simple question like "do you have the same religion as I do?" with "I don't want to discuss about this" is changing the subject. Most people would classify that as being less than honest, even if not lying. I already mentioned all of the above in my answer. – Andrei Nov 6 at 15:29
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    This answer is completely logical and correct, but also overly pedantic and formal, and ultimately (I suspect) not quite what OP would consider the most helpful. But you certainly crossed all your t’s and dotted all your i’s, and even foresaw possible criticism of your answer and tried to preempt it, which I think is quite nice. So, +1. – Dan Romik Nov 6 at 20:08

Religious proselytizers don't do you the courtesy of letting you avoid this conversation in the first place.

You don't have an obligation to extend them a courtesy they don't extend to you (that of avoiding an unwelcome turn in the conversation).

That is not to say that you should seek to be rude, but seeking to avoid offending someone who sets out to create a situation in which they will be offended if you don't give the answers they want is creating the problem -- don't take on responsibility for the situation they felt no compunction about creating.

I suggest you don't answer questions on personal topics, particularly on religion or politics or your personal relationships (or a number of other subjects).

I recommend simply cutting the conversational direction right at the beginning. Don't feel like you have to be overly gentle (it tends to be taken as encouragement) -- the inappropriate behavior was not yours. It's necessary to be firm and clear and leave no hint of wiggle-room for continuing the conversation in that direction. Something like this:

"I am here as a TA for your course. I am willing to discuss anything directly relevant to the course that falls within my responsibilities as a TA. It is not appropriate to expect to engage in discussion of personal topics."

If they choose find that offensive, that's not an issue you should need to be concerned about -- you can remain within the bounds of reasonable interactions but you cannot control how people will react. After that, as far as possible make sure that any interactions with the student take place with another person present.

How do I react to a situation in which I have to answer a question in a way that I know is likely to upset a student, without lying or making the situation worse?

There is no such situation regarding religion! There is no obligation to provide any answer to a student's question. Professionals are entitled to their own personal beliefs, just like normal people, and they are entitled to refuse to answer personal questions. But please do this politely.

Suppose the question was personal, but of a different nature: one of the other topics "not to be discussed in polite company". Would you have reacted the same? ...or would you have felt more secure in responding, "I appreciate your interest, but I don't think it's necessary to get into my personal beliefs about [koans / the Prosperity Gospel / helminthic therapy / homeopathy / Interpretational Quantum Mechanics / Quakerism] during office hours."

And if you like the student, to add "maybe after the final we can get boba and talk about it some more."

  • Why do I ask you to be polite about this? It's because students are in some real way, kids. They don't know what they don't know, and they depend on authorities in their lives (like you!!!!!!) to learn how things work out in the big world... this means that it is not unprofessional for you to overlook what would actually be a lot worse in a workplace setting, social club, or Thanksgiving dinnertable conversation. – elliot svensson 15 hours ago

In the very first college class I taught, I had a student come up after class who wanted to engage me in conversation. He began with something along the lines of "Don't you think all these Christians are stupid?" He assumed that all college profs and TA's were atheists, and he was clearly looking for some validation.

Unfortunately, I'm a fanatic Lutheran, attend church every Sunday, sing in the choir, go camping with the youth group, etc. So I just said, "Well, I don't feel all that stupid, but I can ask some of the others at my church, if you'd like." His eyes got big and he slunk (slinked?) away. I felt bad for him.

I also didn't want to be put in that uncomfortable situation again. So I make it a point in every class to somehow let it be known that I'm a serious Christian. I do this by sneaking the fact in when I'm introducing myself. "My hobbies are homebrewing, coffee roasting and I'm learning to play the pipe organ. I suck at pipe organ, but I'm good enough now that I can play one hymn while the real organist goes up for communion." Slick, eh?

I believe that the first day of class is when the students are listening most closely. That's when to set up your personality. The things you say the first day will stick. "Please don't give me little gifts like key chains or pencils. I appreciate the gesture, but it makes me uncomfortable. Please keep our relationship academic. I will be most effective as a teacher if I know you only as a student. I'm not going to join your pyramid scheme, your club, watch this great movie you love, read this book, etc. It only distracts me from my number one goal. If you're in a play or part of a concert, do let me know that, because I'll probably attend."

This sort of pre-emptive strike may not be 100% effective, but it's close.

Some religions make recruitment ('Spreading the Good News') a permanent obligation. This student seems to believe in his religion, and doubtless gains benefit from it. Maybe it even makes him a better person. Don't set Human Resources up against all this. No-one wins, everyone gets upset.

You deal with lots of people. You WILL be put in this situation again. People will also invite you to join pyramid selling schemes, book clubs and drinking parties. It's part of YOUR life skills to be able to deal with these politely, and without getting YOURSELF upset. Don't worry about his behaviour. Worry about your reaction.

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    The question is how to avoid being put in an uncomfortable situation that I don’t know how to reply to. Escalating didn’t even cross my mind; taking it up with someone else feels overkill here. But regardless of whether he has to do it or not, there’s a time and place to do it - the fact that someones religion says they have to do it doesn’t make the practice acceptable in all contexts. – osuka_ Nov 6 at 14:11
  • As I said, you can't control being put in such positions. It's part of being a social human being. What you CAN control is whether it upsets you. Just shut down the subject in a friendly manner. Or, if you're feeling mischievous try 'Actually, I'm a witch. Wanna try it? There's a coven on Tuesday! (Actually, DON'T do this. You're a strong person who doesn't let such things upset you, he may not be.) – Laurence Payne Nov 6 at 14:18
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    you can’t control being in this position, but you can control whether you know how to react to it or not (i.e., if you know what to do then you’re not in a situation where you don’t know what to do). Obviously I now know how to react to this example, but the answers to this question should apply somewhat more generally. – osuka_ Nov 6 at 14:20
  • Are you falling into the trap of making a big deal out of it? The advice was NOT to! – Laurence Payne Nov 6 at 14:40
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    nope. I meant react in a way that doesn’t make it a big deal or a worse situation than it is – osuka_ Nov 6 at 14:46

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