Research into practice

For some time now there has been a resurgence of interest in the
role of religion and spirituality in the education and training of
social workers. Perhaps this is more true for the US than in the
UK, but even here there are signs that the pendulum is beginning to
swing in that direction.

An American study of student views,1 based on two
schools of social work, questioned 208 students about their views
and experiences with religion and spirituality in social work
education and practice. The findings make interesting, even
challenging, reading. Results revealed a generally favourable
stance towards the role of religion and spirituality in social work
practice. This included what many in the UK would find highly
contentious – “a high endorsement of spiritually oriented
interventions with clients”. So it’s OK to include prayer in your
intervention strategy!

There is little doubt that US social work is taking these issues
seriously. For example, in the 1997 annual programme meeting of the
Council on Social Work Education, there were 13 presentations or
meetings about religion and spirituality issues. The Society for
Spirituality and Social Work, which addresses religious and
non-religious forms of spirituality in the social work profession,
is now 12 years old and is attracting wide membership across the

What are we to make of all of this? That our DipSW programmes
generally pay little direct attention to these issues is confirmed
by my own research. But these issues won’t go away, not least
because for many social work students who come from minority ethnic
groups, religion, spirituality and identity are closely
intertwined. Christian students, who until recently have felt
unable to “come out” on the DipSW courses, are beginning to
articulate their concerns.2

The need for open and honest dialogue is clear. A Central Council
for Education and Training in Social Work publication made the
challenging statement that: “Everyone is influenced by religion and
religious practices whether they are believers, agnostics or
atheists. Social service users are no exception. Yet religious
cultural practices, group and individual spirituality, religious
divisions and religion as therapy have had no place in social work
education and practice… Ever the invisible presence in modern
social work, its place should be recognised and taken account of in
the work of the profession”.3

The challenge, of course, is to recognise both sides of this coin.
Without doubt, religious groups can and do exercise oppressive and
controlling influences upon people’s lives. Women, gay and lesbian
people, sometimes disabled people are, on occasions, oppressed by
religious organisations and value systems which accord them
second-class status, and refuse to celebrate their contributions to
a diverse society. On the other hand, religion and spirituality,
however defined, can also be life-enhancing, giving meaning and
purpose, and – in the case of black communities in particular –
reinforce their community identities, and encourage them in their
struggle against racism. The social justice dimension to religion
and spirituality deserves full recognition.

So where, in the run-up to the new social work degree, will these
key issues be addressed? And if we continue to ignore the subject,
what will students have to say about it?

Bernard Moss is principal lecturer in social work and
applied social studies, and learning and teaching fellow at
Staffordshire University. Contact:

1 Michael Sheridan &
Katherine Amato-von Hemert, “The role of religion and spirituality
in social work education”, in Journal of Social Work
Vol 35 (1), 1999

2 Yvonne Channer, “Christians coming out”, in C
Macaulay, Transfer of Learning in Professional and Vocational
, Routledge, 2001

3 N Patel, D Nail, B Humphries, Visions of Reality:
Religion and ethnicity in social work
, CCETSW, 1998

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