In 2006 Richard Dawkins presented a two-part television documentary on Channel 4 with the title Root of All Evil, in which he argued that the world would be better off without religion. Although Dawkins was not comfortable with the title, as he acknowledged that ‘Religion is not the root of all evil’, he nonetheless qualified this statement by adding ‘…as nothing is the root of all anything’, thus retaining the criticism of religion, a position for which he is very well known.1 Dawkins’ stance might feel intuitively relevant to some in 2017 as recent terrorist attacks in the UK and mainland Europe have brought a particular view of religion into a world that seems to be dominated by discussions about radicalisation and the ‘Prevent’ agenda. Arguably, this view is largely negative, with misunderstandings and fear framing potential discussion.

While it is recognised that such negativity is not totally pervasive and within communities it is not unusual for different faiths to find common purpose and dialogue together, even in such encounters there are often challenges, with the human tendency to create insider and outsider groups.2 As a consequence, within our generally tolerant British society wherein religion has been viewed historically as a largely private matter, doctrinal differences are presented, by some, as matters for confrontation. Compounding this, as Britain develops into an increasingly secular society, there is a commensurate decline in religious literacy, impacting upon constructive discourse and discussion, and effective practice around religion, spirituality, faith and belief.3

Certainly, religion, spirituality, faith and belief are not synonymous, though the terms are mistakenly seen by some to be interchangeable – perhaps as a feature of the decline in religious literacy. There has been a protracted, though largely now resolved, debate around definitional distinctions between religion and spirituality.4 Passionate discussion was evident for some years among academics, practitioners and policy makers, with clear acknowledgment today that religion and spirituality are not synonymous. As Swinton warns, assuming synonymy between religion and spirituality disenfranchises those individuals who have ‘…very significant spiritual needs… with no formal religious interests’.5 Also, West advises that the words (and the perceived differences between each), ‘really matter to many people’ with the ‘polarisation and controversies around religious beliefs in recent years… increas[ing] the amount that they matter’.6 All four terms – religion, spirituality, faith and belief – are used in this article, as the discussion here is not around terminology but, rather, it is about challenges of engaging with the issues. For with apparent concord achieved in a definitional understanding of spirituality and religion, nonetheless, many remain ill-equipped to engage with religion, spirituality, faith and belief when they encounter them in everyday life.3 This can lead to a lack of confidence to work with either issues or people around religion, spirituality, faith and belief. Indeed, as Dinham and Francis note, many British people are ‘in a muddle’.3 They argue for work around ‘religious literacy’ to be developed and introduced across practitioner training.

To date, it is noticeably absent from most teaching curricula. For example, Mathews noted the lack of training in religion, spirituality, faith and belief in social work.7 In counselling too, despite the work of a specific division within the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, BACP Spirituality, counsellor training in issues of religion, spirituality, faith and belief is limited or lacking altogether.8,9 Across professions, the training that does exist appears to reflect largely poorly defined secular assumptions.10 For example, within healthcare, religion, spirituality, faith and belief have been raised as important,11 and arguably, there is some growing consideration of the need to review medical models of healthcare to talk to the ‘whole person’ – including their religious, spiritual, faith and belief identities.12 Yet, currently, health and care in the UK operate within the medical model, social scientific view of the person, which can ignore these factors.13 A recent shift in emphasis is perhaps evident in the emerging interest in ‘wellbeing’ and ‘mindfulness’, included within ‘compassion in care’.14 Also, in occupational therapy, spirituality is considered by some as being a core value within wider holistic practice.15 Nonetheless, generally in hospitals today, issues of religion, spirituality, faith and belief largely remain matters for referral to a hospital chaplain. Healthcare practitioners do not usually engage with these parts of a patient’s life and there is little, if any, discussion about them.

Perhaps our apparent reticence to discuss and work with issues of religion, spirituality, faith and belief was reflected in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme which looked at the abuse perpetrated against Victoria Climbié.16 Despite representation on the programme by Mor Dioum, Director of the Victoria Climbié Foundation, issues of faith and belief, which were central to the abuse and ultimate death of Victoria Climbié, were hardly considered. Rather, her story was submerged within the general horror of child abuse cases discussed. It is curious to consider the programme editors’ rationale for this, but certainly, it can be argued that a valuable opportunity for raising awareness of child abuse linked to faith and belief (CALFB) was lost. This is a pity, as currently there is limited awareness of this specific form of child abuse.

It is not the purpose of this article to give detailed discussion of CALFB. This has been undertaken in other recent work by the authors.17,18 However, as this form of child abuse is still not widely recognised, it is pertinent to give some information in order to set the context for the discussion below. In brief: CALFB is not a recent phenomenon,19 but most work on CALFB has focused on witchcraft, spirit possession, ritualistic and satanic abuse, despite there being no proven method to establish whether a child is either ‘possessed’ or a ‘witch’.20 The accusation is often made by a religious leader without other validation.21 It has been argued that CALFB can be attributed at least partially to the migration of African communities;22 though work by the Victoria Climbié Foundation (VCF 2011) and Pull illustrates that it is evident in communities and cultural groups outside of these.23,24 Currently, there appears to be greater acknowledgement of CALFB internationally and also in the UK through cases such as Victoria Climbié and Kristy Bamu.25–27 It was also included as a specific category of child abuse in the 2016–17 ‘Children in need of help or protection’ statistics. However, there remains confusion around exactly what constitutes this form of abuse. There is still no single universally agreed definition and there is still no clear guidance for practitioners who may encounter children who have been subjected to CALFB. Further, if the Radio 4 programme is used as a marker, even when the opportunity is afforded to discuss CALFB, it is negated in favour of more recognised child abuse practices.

In this context, a collaborative study involving academics from Manchester Metropolitan University, and the Directors of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) and the Victoria Climbié Foundation (VCF) was initiated by the National Working Group to explore frontline practitioner and community groups’ awareness and understanding of CALFB and identify additional support and training requirements.28 

The study utilised an online survey, live on Survey Monkey from September 2015 to June 2016. The survey comprised 21 questions: 13 closed and eight open. One thousand, three hundred and sixty-one people completed it, participants coming from a range of professional backgrounds including social work, teaching, the police, medicine and counselling. Seventy-nine participants identified as counsellors. A Likert scale of responses was used to indicate quantitative measures of participants’ knowledge, experience and confidence in managing incidences of CALFB. Survey Monkey’s online tool was used for descriptive statistical analysis. ‘Free text’ responses to open questions provided qualitative data on participants’ experiences of working with CALFB and also their training and support needs. These qualitative data were analysed using Survey Monkey’s online qualitative tool. 

Full details of the study have been reported elsewhere, but a brief summary of counsellor data is presented below.17,18 Also, of particular interest to the current discussion is that participants identified problems, misunderstandings and fears of discussing issues around religion, spirituality, faith and belief in the free text comments – despite the fact that the work did not set out to look at these issues. Looking at the counsellors’ responses to questions on working with CALFB, 79 per cent stated that they had heard of the term, 66 per cent were confident that they knew what the term CALFB meant. However, only 46 per cent were confident they could identify indicators of CALFB, with 25 per cent choosing the option – ‘neither agree nor disagree’. Fifty-four per cent were ‘confident’ that they could respond effectively to a case of CALFB, but again, there was a reasonably high percentage – 30 per cent – choosing the ‘neither agree nor disagree’ option. Only 34 per cent of counsellors stated that they had received any specific training on CALFB. Within this group there seems to be some confusion as many noted that it was mentioned in other child safeguarding training as an issue, but that they had not received focused training on this form of abuse.

Three key themes emerged from the analysis of counsellors’ qualitative data. These were: ‘effective responses’, ‘issues of cultural competence’ and ‘limited knowledge of working with these cases/ need for training’ (for a full discussion of these themes, see Kinmond et al 2017).18

It is clear from the findings that counsellors want to be better equipped to offer counselling to those who have experienced CALFB; though many have not yet had experience of working with this form of abuse and state that they feel ill-prepared or uncertain about how best to work effectively. Counsellors specifically asked for training around working with CALFB and how best to identify the main features of this form of abuse. Participants also reflected a need to be better equipped to engage more with religion, spirituality, faith and belief in counselling practice. This echoes the growing call for increased religious literacy across professions3 and also the inclusion of religion, spirituality, faith and belief in counselling training.29,30 It is clear that participants want to provide the best practice possible.

So, we need to provide proper training for those coming into professions and those with experience to be able to talk about religion, spirituality, faith and belief in their practice. We also need to take away the fear of talking about these issues and make them part of everyday conversation. In this way, professionals will be able to include such talk in their work. This should also then have a positive impact such that where faith or belief is part of an experience of abuse, it can be recognised, and people at risk of harm can be supported.

We also need to challenge the way in which we think about religion, spirituality, faith and belief. Recent events have arguably presented a distressing and fearful view so that many are unable to see any positives. We need to discuss issues honestly and with respect for others’ stories, to reach ‘harmony through difference’.3 Such discussions are not an attempt to persuade a person to adopt another’s viewpoint, but rather, to facilitate understanding of the ‘otherness’ of another’s opinion, and through increased awareness, to build mutual respect. We should then celebrate when things go well and not be afraid to ask questions when there are problems. We believe strongly that this is the time to talk honestly about faith.

Dr Kathryn Kinmond is an Executive member of BACP Spirituality. Her research is in faith-based abuse and also patient experience in healthcare. She is a member of the National Working Group for Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief. She counsels in private practice.

Dr Lisa Oakley is a visiting Research Fellow at Bournemouth University and an associate with CCPAS (The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service). Lisa is Chair of the National Working Group for Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief and is the principal investigator on the current research project into this form of abuse.


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