Current global demographic data charts show that the world is a deeply religious planet with diverse belief systems that impact and react to each other in sometimes benign, sometimes explosive ways. Often these interactions are viewed as Geo-political or cultural without regard to the religious undertones that exist just below the surface.
Social work education has begun to recognize the importance of understanding that human beings are spiritual creatures and that spirituality must be included into the person in the environment approach. However, a distinction must be made between spirituality and religiosity in the social work conversation in order for social workers to effectively work with the diversity of peoples they encounter.
Simply put, spirituality is the internal connection that an individual has with a power greater than themselves. Indeed, religion is the external expression of belief through rituals, prayer, mediation, sacred readings and sacrifice. Therefore, people can be spiritual and not religious and vise-versa.
Understanding this distinction is essential for social workers to effectively work with and advocate for their clients. Religion (or the lack of) is the base of which everything from interpersonal relationships to international policy is founded. In an age with growing religious intolerance, especially Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, persecution of Christians, Mormons, Baha'i and other groups, people in all corners of the globe live in fear for their very lives for the truths they believe they hold. Truly, in the western world where values of freedom, fraternity, and democracy are enshrined, religious groups are persecuted even up to state sanctioned harassment.
Understanding religion in the social world is vital to understanding persecution of other groups deemed unclean or immoral by conservative religious groups such as gays, feminists, competing religious communities, pro-choice groups, racial minorities, indigenous peoples and others deemed apostates by religious philosophy. In places such as the United States, politicians must have a perceived holy sanction to run for and win an office, even in progressive regions of the country.
Social workers can utilize religious beliefs to free their clients from persecution as well. This has been done in many parts of the world to end enslavement, segregation, apartheid, homophobia, misogyny, and other social ills. Indeed, it has even been used to free countries from colonizing or authoritarian regimes.
In our profession we must be culturally competent and understand the diversity that surrounds us in order for us to be effective advocates for change. Social work education must incorporate a discussion from intangible and safe ideas about spirituality to real world expression of beliefs and the consequences of believing differently from ones neighbor. Indeed it must in order to remain true to its principles, ethical codes and its commitment to human rights.