What place for religion?

Is there a place for religion and spirituality in social work? And if so, is it a resource or a challenge for social work professionals?

These unusual questions caught the attention of the delegates to the recent study tour organised by TAIEX for civil society organisations from the Western Balkans, Turkey and Iceland. The aim of the study tour was to give participants the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the EU policies and programmes related to social work, as well as to offer them exchange and networking opportunities among themselves and with other European-level civil society organisations active in this field.

Participants agreed that religion is indeed a source of challenges and an immense resource. "There are no rights without responsibilities" said a Jewish representative from Serbia reflecting on the attitudes of some service users, who expect the services to provide for them unconditionally. "Everyone must make an effort to contribute to the community, using whatever ability they have. You can’t just sit tight and expect a free ride."

The role of community kept coming back into the debate. "We can’t expect that a single social worker will come and solve all our problems; it takes a whole community to do so", professed a protestant representative from Ireland. Others agreed that no man is an island and the family, the neighbourhood and whole community should be the first circles involved in assisting an individual in need.

Should religion and spirituality be a part of social work curriculum? This question also sparked a lively debate. It was agreed that the sheer variety of religious manifestations makes it a very complex issue, difficult to include in social work education. But the lack of it leaves young graduates with precious little knowledge about belief systems and values. Quoting Collins Social Work Dictionary, ESN’s Dorota Tomalak observed: "in social work education, religion and spirituality are frequently ignored and treated with suspicion". You can download ESN presentation here.

Participants also discussed the reasons why so many women chose the social work profession, even though it is relatively low paid across Europe. "For historical reasons", argued representatives from Serbia. "Because men abandon low income jobs and women fill the gap", others commented. "No, it is because women are more compassionate and caring by nature", disagreed a Muslim Turkish representative.

Finally, participants reflected on the poor public image of social work and linked it with negative media coverage (good stories about brave social workers simply don’t make the headlines) and the lack of understanding what social work is about (everyone seems to know what teachers or doctors do. Social workers are a mystery. They don’t come to your life unless something bad happen).

This session was a part of the study tour ‘Role of the religious communities in social work’ organised by the European Commission within the framework of People for People programme.