Should we ask social workers to ignore their religious beliefs?

Following debates over the role of faith in social work, Ryan Wise analyses whether insisting beliefs are put to one side is the right approach

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by Ryan Wise

In recent weeks there has been plenty of discussion in the social work community about the role of religion, and what part it can play in practice.

This was prompted by a social work student losing an appeal case against his university’s decision to expel him after he shared support for an American registrar who refused to give marriage licenses to gay couples on grounds of faith and said homosexuality was a ‘sin’. His appeal was on the basis that the university had unlawfully interfered with his rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

A piece written in Community Care on 6 November inspired me to reflect on my own perspective of being a social worker, a practice educator and a gay male. I think it is important to look at the relationship between social work and religion with an emphasis on when religious belief leads one to hold views possibly at odds with ideas of equality; namely same-sex marriage.

I am personally fascinated by religion and faith, I completed my undergraduate in religious studies where I was curious to explore the complexities of religion and the influence it has on society and people’s thoughts, views and behaviours.

I respect faith and belief and recognise how religion can be a drive to do well in the world. However, when it comes to views against same-sex marriage, I then struggle. Theologically, I must admit I am not au fait with the intricacies of teaching in monotheistic faith which indicates same-sex marriage as wrong.

Quite the contrary, my understanding is that most of the teachings focused on equality.

Right way forward

When confronted with these views, I do wonder if questioning why they are held is the right way forward. I don’t know for sure, but for me it is about understanding how one has come to this view.

It is key to explore such views and explore faith-based viewpoints more generally. I don’t propose questioning theologically, but adopting a curious approach to ethics and values which our profession holds at its foundations.

When I started as a practice educator I was informed on my first day that a high number of students on the University course held the view that same-sex marriage was at odds with their faith and thus possibly wrong. I struggled with this and, truthfully, I still am struggling. I was perhaps surprised as a view which opposed same-sex marriage was one I considered to be held by few rather than the many, like it was in this context.

I believe it is my role to encourage different thinking and curiosity. The example of referring to homosexuality as a sin is perhaps a clear red flag but what about the grey areas? The grey areas indicate that we can only consider each case in its own individual context.

Beliefs in social work

Perhaps it is about the individual person’s ability to consider their beliefs and values concerning same-sex marriage and reflect on difference. It can be argued that not agreeing with same-sex marriage is not the same as a homophobic stance, but again we have the issue of equality.

People have different beliefs, and often the question is how they can be put to one side to effectively practice in social work. I feel this is the wrong position to take and wonder why this is suggested. I do not think we can put our values and beliefs to one side.

We engage with difference all the time and we must engage with ourselves reflexively.

There is a difficulty when beliefs and values are at odds with equality, although this can be explored through the Social Graces. Devised by Roper Hall and Burnham, Social Graces represents aspects of difference in beliefs, power and lifestyle, visible and invisible, voiced and unvoiced, to which we might pay attention too.

The Social Graces have grown since their original development and currently represent: Gender, Geography, Race, Religion, Age, Ability, Appearance, Class, Culture, Ethnicity, Education, Employment, Sexuality, Sexual Orientation, and Spirituality.

An important part of self-reflexivity is engaging with the Social Graces. Religion is only one of the graces, do you have specific ideas about people’s ages, or people’s class or race? Are we always acutely aware of what we think or believe? With so many Graces in play at any one time, should differences over religion and faith play such a prominent role in deeming what makes a person fit or unfit to be a social worker?

My point is that we all hold different views, ideas and beliefs and we must engage with ourselves in the reflexive process to question those.

Critical reflection

For me it is no coincidence that in my colleagues’ article they mentioned the student in the case central to this renewed debate did not ‘demonstrate critical reflection or regret about his comments, showing little insight into how LGBTQ+ service users might experience such an attitude’.

Critical reflection is a process, a process supported and encouraged by good quality supervision.

I have learned that it is my role as a practice educator to engage with beliefs and values concerning same-sex marriage which are at odds to my own and develop curious thinking.

I am coming from a standpoint that one can hold views that are different, or be seen by the majority as ‘unethical’, and if they are willing to engage with their beliefs then they can practice as a social worker.

I am not saying this is a right or wrong view, merely pointing out there is a plurality of beliefs and values.

If someone is sharing beliefs or values that are outwardly discriminatory or oppressive then it is different to being opposed to same-sex marriage because you believe it to be at odds with your faith. If same-sex marriage is not compatible with your religious beliefs, what counts as ‘good enough’ engagement or reflection and do we have a standard to work towards to allow practitioners to start working with vulnerable children and families?

Fostering curiosity

I think there must be a standard; it is for the practice educator or manager to consider that individual’s capacity to reflect and engage with the Social Graces; if there is evidence of little-to-no reflexive willingness or skill I would question how that person would be able to effectively encourage and empower children and families to change.

I have spoken a lot about what is expected of someone else, but there’s also a question around how I address my own views and my own responsibilities. I must be open and foster curiosity, creating a space for students to explore their thinking. I need to engage with my own approach. I respect religion, but I am not a religious person myself; do I think about this enough when working with those who hold strong beliefs and values?

Reflexivity is not just for those who have faith, or who may hold views we deem controversial, its for every member of the profession.

I recently attended a talk on Witchcraft and Spirit possession. Here I saw a particularly inspirational speaker who spoke openly about how, as a pastor’s wife and a social worker, she skilfully articulated how she negotiated challenges of faith and practice.

The reflexive skill showed was outstanding and left me feeling enthused.

We need to identify our own areas of development and realise that this is not an easy area to articulate or navigate. It is important to consider the culture of organisations and the profession, and how they can work together to bring out these conversations.

This is necessary, not only to ensure that practice is anti-discriminatory but also support practitioners to feel that they should not have to hide their faith.

Ryan Wise is an advanced social work practitioner in children’s services. He tweets @ryanwise18.

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21 Responses to Should we ask social workers to ignore their religious beliefs?

  1. Black star November 22, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    Knock knock Human rights act article 9, and the HCPC codes of standards clearly indicates we need to consider the religious and spiritual needs of our client base.

    Dsm 4 V codes advise that religious and spiritual beliefs require professionals to be mindful of clients religious views.

  2. Dave November 22, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

    In the Standards of Conduct, Performance, and Ethics (9:1) it is written: “You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession.”

    I suppose they do have one thing in common with Christianity: everyone’s a sinner

  3. Glenys Turner November 22, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    When you are employed as a social worker, you take on the social work value base of anti oppressive person centered practice and perspective and leave prejudices and discrimination at home. A need for person centred care means respecting the rights of the individual and promoting equity.

    • AMHPwasASW November 22, 2017 at 7:53 pm #

      Good ‘Bread & Butter’ stuff.

    • Geoff Fox November 23, 2017 at 10:18 pm #

      Should we?
      A definite NO. You cannot sink two thousand years of faith in the bleak swamp of political correctness.

      • Christina November 24, 2017 at 9:32 pm #

        Geoff Fox, I absolutely agree with you. Well done for speaking out so clearly.

        • Graham November 28, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

          Some of us think that there have been 2000 years of ‘swamp’ and that ‘political correctness’ as it is denigrated, represents enlightenment!

  4. Billy Regan November 22, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

    I believe that Ryan is advocating a very sensible approach. As an agnostic borederline atheist I believe that I also need to consider my beliefs when working with someone of faith. Though I am a strong advocate of same sex marriage and actively challenged opposing views held by a surprisingly high number of students at university, fours years of practice makes me realise that we come into contact with people with different views to our own everyday. Reflection is critical to practice everyday.

  5. Jason M November 22, 2017 at 4:27 pm #

    I work with people who have utterly different views to me all the time. As a confirmed and unapologetic atheist, pro-assisted suicide vegetarian humanist I am not queried on it but would be happy to be. If I was told to set these beliefs aside when I come to work what am I supposed to think? Only pre-determined acceptable thoughts that are approved as consistent with the value base of social work? My capacity for respect and tolerance is all you need to know and if lacked it, THAT would be the problem, not my beliefs.

    The identification of some beliefs as problematic HAS to be about the actions and speech that arise from them and if none do, it will probably be because the holder is open and aware. This is much more likely if we don’t say ‘leave it at the door’. But only what you think is ‘free’.

  6. Eyes wide shut November 22, 2017 at 5:05 pm #

    Interesting article
    Equality does not mean you have to agree with everything secular and virsa versa. I dont if euqlity non discriminatory practice is taught differently.
    What is the purpose of reflection and supervision if one cannot question their values and professional values?

    Social workers are robots vut human beings that exist in the very competing context as our service users.
    So if social workers are not allowed to have religious views as individuals are we asking the same of our service users?

    Social workers are highly trained and scrutinised professionals. They must be able to have boubdaries of their personal views and beliefs. In oractice professional values should always supercede the personal.

    Just like you cannot ask social orkers to not have a political view or affiliations in their personal lives however, you ask them to put their political views and affiliations to one side when it comes to professional practice.

  7. Caro November 22, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

    I have been part of a Christian family since birth. I practice Christian ethics and beliefs. However, this does not mean I am unable to work with those of different ethics and beliefsfrom myself whatever they might be. Rather in my practice I have used assessments and intervention considering the holistic person, with reference to their needs and values. I found that there was more confrontation within the teams and colleagues I worked with rather than the service users. Perhaps qualified Social Workers need to use reflection to examine how often they treat unequally their colleagues who have religious views And ethics different to their own and treat them with the same equality they treat service users, which in my experience I found severely lacking despite completing their university degrees.

  8. Barbara MacArthur November 22, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

    When working as a social worker, some I have helped, particularly elderly and/or disabled persons, have grasped my hand and said to me ‘You’re a Christian’. I never knew what to say, so I just smiled, but it seems strange that they must think only a Christian can help another human being? If I said, ‘No, I’m an atheist’, would that have been unkind? I don’t know. Those of other races or religions usually said nothing or just said thank you, so why the difference? Anyway, I always bear in mind that quote of Clare Booth Luce – ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ because I know from experience that is true, so it is best to expect nothing more, but just carry on as usual.

  9. Planet Autism November 22, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

    Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 allows freedom of of thought, conscience and religion and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief.

    All human beings are prejudiced by what they personally believe. So if a SW disagrees with someone’s religion or expression of it, they might resent the parent instilling those beliefs into their children and make accusations of emotional harm. It happens. I knew this without even checking, so then I searched and straight away found this:

    “There are, though, other statements in the social workers’ notes that appear to support the Wilsons’ allegations of a liberal bias, particularly the contempt in which they seem to hold the couple’s Christian values.

    Take, for example, this statement: ‘Mr and Mrs Wilson articulate their strong beliefs and this at times is difficult for Melissa to accept, this being considered a homophobic and bigoted viewpoint within liberal circles.’

    Or even this part of the referral which ‘raised concerns with regards to parents’ strong Christian values and the impact of emotional harm’.”

    So basically religion and morals based on that religion, even common sense it appears, are being equated with child protection and a reason to intervene in family life and criticise parents.

    • Graham November 30, 2017 at 9:50 am #

      Interesting article. I could only hear the parents voice. Who is listening to the child? Social workers perhaps?

  10. Planet Autism November 22, 2017 at 7:01 pm #

    Then of course there is this case:

    “The seven-year-old boy, who cannot be named, has been placed with foster carers because of fears that his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, was causing him emotional harm by “immersing” him in her beliefs.”

    “But the judgment disclosed that a social worker at the centre of the case rejected this assessment and believed that, while the boy was damaged by the conflict between his warring parents, the mother’s religion was not the cause.”

    This child was still taken and put into foster care.

  11. AMHPwasASW November 22, 2017 at 7:28 pm #

    I think we are all ‘rubbish’ at discussing our religious beliefs…

    God does not seek to harm His creation or be injust. Indeed we are injust to each other by treating each other as ‘competitors’ rather than fellow human beings – this is the result of Capitalism which says that my interest is all that matters. It teach us that I am not your permanent friend or your permanent enemy, only what’s in my interest is permanent…thankfully i did not swallow that pill.

    You are all my fellow human beings and i will endeavour to do the right thing even when it is not in my interests (eg. i will not lie to you when selling my car or lie to the HMRC when working out my taxes, or discriminate against you because you gamble, or drink, or trade on a Saturday or Sunday, etc even though I believe some of these things to be a sin).

    The starting point should be whether a particular religious belief has any basis? ie is it from God? or better still is there a God? Why do we even need a God? Waht does He want from us? Once we have answered such questions only then can we move forward and say such & such is wrong or right because God has said so or we say there is no God and anyone can believe what they like.

    Currently there are too many people expressing too many opinions without a shred of proof. A belief by definition means certainty and how can one be certain without evidence. Let’s remove the ‘shackles’ and debate our beliefs in a civilised way without banners or slogans and bring forth our evidence. We must be a vibrant country, open to debate and not afraid to listen to the other side.

  12. Sara November 23, 2017 at 12:17 am #

    If you’re to be of any help to someone you have to try and understand the world from their perspective. It’s no good putting your own spin on things as it then becomes about you and not the other person. I’d suggest that any social worker with strong prejudices would need to be able to think beyond their own judgements for them to be of any real service to another human being… although I struggle to understand how anyone could become a social worker in the first place without a flexible and open-minded attitude.

  13. JJ November 23, 2017 at 12:24 am #

    Good article. We all come with beliefs and do do the people we work with. Critical reflection is the important thing and the capacity to be flexible . I have a string Christian Faith which is the underpinning value of my social work. After all Christian charities started so called social work. But I respect my colleagues and clients differing faiths and values ,and am careful not to let my beliefs inpinge in a negative way to anyone. But why should they. My faith is about loving your neighbour !

  14. Andy Story November 23, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    Yes of course we should respect diversity in our society. However, it is obviously always a case of being aware of extremes and the impact upon others of one’s adhesion to a particular cultural, often closely linked to religious, belief.
    – Take FGM and MGM as base examples.
    We as a society and as social workers cannot afford to abandon protecting a vulnerable person of any age for any reason.

  15. Eco-social worker November 23, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    Religious beliefs don’t have a special status in the world. They are no different to political beliefs, ethical beliefs or any other.

    Change the heading of this article to ‘Should we ask social workers to ignore their political beliefs’ and it becomes a no brainer.

  16. Marc R November 24, 2017 at 8:55 pm #

    I would not ignore my faith and would lodge a grievance if I was told to. My faith is integral to me and the passion I have for my job. However, I do not force my faith onto others, if someone asks I will tell them what I believe but it should be possible to do that without being judgemental or oppressive. So if I did over step, if I practiced in a way which oppressed others linked to my understanding of the teachings of my faith, then I should expect to be in trouble!