How Social Work (And Secular Society) Colonizes Through “Religion”

“What I want you to think about next time somebody wants to make some vast generalization about religion is that maybe there isn’t such a thing as religion and that therefore what they say cannot possibly be true.” Kwame Anthony Appiah concluded a TED Talk with these words, his response to the question “Is religion good or bad? (This is a trick question).” I wanted to walk into the lobby of the social work school where I studied at the time and proclaim these words with a megaphone. I had found my good news.

In the field of social work, “religion” means organized groups of people who come together of their own volition around a clearly defined set of beliefs. This is usually contrasted with “spirituality,” which means the individual search for meaning. Spirituality will sometimes be presented as an innate human impulse, a built-in yearning for the transcendent. Religion answers this yearning with a membership card to a codified belief system. Whether explicitly stated or not, this definition tends to carry an undertone of ambivalence, as if “religion” provided answers too easily, stifling a highly complex and individual search for meaning.

Very little makes social workers more nervous than the specter of an evangelical social worker. The idea of attempting to convert a client to one’s religious worldview violates several tenets of the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, but a general proselytization-aversion runs even deeper, haunting any conversation when the topic of religion is brooked. Given this aversion, it is ironic that the field pushes such a thoroughly Protestant definition of religion.

Religion as an organized, voluntary association characterized by shared beliefs actually covers a very small portion of the experiences, practices, and beliefs that fall under the umbrella of “religion.” A Baptist may stop identifying as a Baptist when she stops believing in God, hence she has a “voluntary” affiliation with Christianity. For Jewish and Hindu individuals, religious identity might overlap with ethnic identity. A Jew does not stop being a Jew when he stops believing in God. Catholicism may not be an ethnic identity, but it still retains a nebulous zone of “cultural Catholics” for whom beliefs and practices do not map easily onto an organized systematicity. And these are only paradigmatic examples. The fact is, the typical human being who comes from, currently professes, or considers professing any identity that falls onto the list of “religions” has a complex interweaving of relationships, practices, and beliefs that is anything but “organized” or systematic. And so the definition of religion fails to capture the complexity of human experience.

Were this the only shortcoming of “religion,” it would simply fail in its descriptive purpose. But the concept does not only fail to describe, it also mangles. This is where an idea becomes a colonizing force. It is not a coincidence that, of the examples above, it is the Protestant that best fits the “voluntary association by belief” model of religion. Modern European Christianity initiated both the impulse to define religion as a belief system, as well as the desire to systematize religion within a distinct category of its own. Taking on “religion” as an overarching concept in the field of anthropology, Talal Asad explains that “the entire phenomenon [of “religion”] is to be seen in large measure in the context of Christian attempts to achieve a coherence in doctrines and practices, rules and regulations” (Asad,1993).  He traces these attempts through the rise of “natural religion” in early modern Europe, after the fragmentation of the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation and the crisis of authority that accompanied it.

As much as the field of social work has secularized and diversified its sources, including exciting new discourse between cognitive behavioral science and Buddhism, it cannot escape the baggage it still carries from its Protestant Christian roots. Part of this baggage is the notion of “religion.” When social workers sally forth into diverse, marginalized communities with this concept in their toolkit, they categorize experiences into categories they were never designed to fit. This danger also applies to well-meaning individuals setting up interfaith encounters and failing to consider how the context of that encounter will determine the conversations that happen within them.

Even worse, social workers – and others who hold power – can actually force categories that alter the way those they encounter experience the complex practices, relationships, and rituals that make up their lives. By setting the parameters for self-articulation, the community that defines “religion” can convert others to its way of thinking without ever proselytizing them.

The preservation of client autonomy and self-determination constitutes one of the key concerns in the discussion of how to integrate religious and spiritual matters into social work. Yet the very definitions of “religion” as organized belief system and “spirituality” as an essentialized search for meaning come from a historical tradition that violates autonomy and self-determination through a discourse of power that has delimited how individuals and communities articulate their lives. This force of decision locates such beliefs and acts instead within a fabricated, essentialized landscape that bears indelibly Protestant characteristics, distorting those beliefs and acts.

While social work aspires to be justice-oriented and inclusive of diverse backgrounds, the indiscriminate use of “religion” has forced members of “minority religions” to redefine their identities to better map onto dominant identity categories. We – as social workers, as people – would be better doing away with the concept, and treating the complex interwebs of ethnicity, belief, practice, and community that get lumped under religion as the unique entities that they are.

Asad, T. (1993). Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in christianity and islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 29.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “How Social Work (And Secular Society) Colonizes Through “Religion”

  1. YES! Thank you so much for making this visible and especially for your use of the word colonizing. From my lens, the way I describe this is to say that in the US, the system of white supremacy oppression that maintains power for a minority uses white christianity (as different from Black church, for example) as the dominant standard to control what qualifies as a religion and what benefits accrue to the religious. This is overt in the colonization of indigenous peoples where religious conversion includes violent removal of language and culture and just as pernicious (but perhaps not as obvious) in legislation limiting recognition of clergy and chaplains and tax-exempt status of religious organizations to those who fit the christian-like prototype. Colonization is an important word to use when describing this dominance, because it reminds us that this isn’t just an issue of bias or status but of power and social control.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Elizabeth. In the case of indigenous people, the colonization process absolutely continues through the definition of religious categories. A salient example is the battle over resort development of the San Francisco Peaks, and specifically the use of reclaimed sewage water. The Navajo and Hopi lawsuits on the basis of religious freedom have been unsuccessful because the National Parks, by granting the resorts’ request, is not preventing them from expressing their beliefs or engaging in rituals, or otherwise punishing them based on their religious identity. But that understanding of religion fails to account for the spiritual damage done simply by treating their sacred mountain in this way. If they want to win legal recognition, they have to contrive to define their ways of life within a European paradigm of “religion.”

  3. Brilliant example, yes. A friend of mine recently asked: if Oak Flats was the hill of Golgatha (site of Jesus’ crucifixion) how would that change the battle over its use? Because western-euro perception/experience of religion is decontextualized (christians like me assume that the actions of a first-century Palestinian are somehow relevant for inhabitants of a northern continent, thousands of years later), there is a bias against seeing local land/ecology as essential for religious ritual and practice. Any land will “do,” because the land itself isn’t seen as relevant to religious life, ritual/worship, & practice. Climate change may be changing that perception a bit, but not far enough (at least not as far as I’ve seen).

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