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Spirituality and Social Justice


In the current ANS featured article, author Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham, PhD, RN explores an area of scholarship that is rare in nursing literature – the interplay between social justice, religion, spirituality, health, and nursing. The article is titled “Nursing Research on Religion and Spirituality Through a Social Justice Lens.” Dr. Reimer-Kirkham uses the critical perspectives of postcolonial feminism and intersectionality to inform nursing’s perspectives on spirituality and social justice. She has shared this background about her work in this area:

Bringing together critical perspectives (such as postcolonial feminism and intersectionality) and research on religion and spirituality in nursing has opened up new and productive terrain.  And yet, conversations on religion/spirituality and social justice can be contentious:  for some religion is dismissed as too irrational, too political or violent, or too bound up in structures of power; for others religious/spiritual beliefs are held as too “sacred” for objective, scholarly analysis.  Such contentions leave many to appeal to secularism as the way to manage religion and spirituality in the public sphere.

Dr. Reimer-Kirkham

Dr. Reimer-Kirkham

However, attempting neat separations between religion and the secular can, according to philosopher Charles Taylor, do more to obscure what is going on in our world than clarify the moral issues we face.  Shying away from critical analyses of the intersections of faith with nursing, religion/spirituality with social justice and equity, leaves us open to incomplete analyses, and fails to account for influences on the values, beliefs and practices of many of our patients.  Several recently published books by nurse scholars move beyond generic approaches to spirituality to engage more specifically with the influence of various religious traditions.  See for example Stajduhar and Coward’s (2012) Religious understandings of a good death in hospice palliative care, SUNY Press; Taylor’s (2012) Religion: A clinical guide for nurses, Springer; and Fowler et al.’s (2011) Religion, Religious Ethics and Nursing,Springer.

My entrée into the integration of religion/spirituality with critical research came about during my doctoral research that examined intergroup relations in hospital settings.  As I conducted this ethnographic research, I realized that many of the hardspots described by nurses and patients in intergroup interactions were directly shaped by religious perspectives and often involved accommodating religious values and rituals, and yet these situations were nearly always conveyed to me as cultural matters.  While there is significant overlap between culture and religion/spirituality, there are also important distinctions. So I have worked toward more intentional analyses of religion and spirituality in the context of health and healthcare, and am convinced of the importance of intersectional approaches in such scholarship. Intersectional analyses inevitably require that we take seriously social relations of power mobilized through religion as it intersects with gender, race, class, ability, and other social categories; particularly as these social relations contribute to equity and inequity.  The relationship between social justice and religion is critical, but not always straight forward.  Human rights and religious accommodation can, in fact, represent competing interests (e.g., religious freedom vis-à-vis heteronormativity or patriarchy).

In this manuscript, I propose critical nursing scholarship on how religion and spirituality relate to social justice and social transformation in the context of health and healthcare. I look forward to your views on the matter!

I too hope you will read Dr. Reimer-Kirkham’s article and return here to join in a discussion of her ideas!  You can download the article at no cost while it is featured on the ANS web site!  

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. As a certified Tunisian nurse educator, I found it so intresting and really we are facing daily those concept.
    Thanks and hope can found the vole research

    September 9, 2014
    • Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham #

      Thank you for commenting from Tunisia! Social justice, equity, and human rights can take different expression in different countries or settings, and can serve as orientating points when studying (or teaching) about religion and spirituality in healthcare and nursing. I am interested to learn more about how you would teach about religion and spirituality as a Tunisian nurse educator.

      September 9, 2014
  2. Savitri Singh-Carlson #

    Spirituality is a complex concept to dissect regardless of the discipline or lens that one takes, however it becomes even more complex when discussed within the intersections of health care, history, and personal views. Sheryl, presenting this concept in the midst of social justice, equity and equality, health care setting’s social and cultural environment and the patient population’s own understanding of their spirituality in light of their illness is even more difficult. Health care professionals’ are confronted with their own spirituality each time a patient presents themselves and wants to know why?? this happened to them. This research field is complex and is riddled with social and cultural nuances that are sprinkled with history, demography, individual identity, gender, geography and politics. I struggle with this concept in the academic setting as I sit across the table from a graduate student who is struggling to find her/his own place in this world. Sometimes I feel that I sit in the way of the student finding her/his own full capacity of their spirituality which maybe what they are looking for to reach their goal. These are some thoughts to share.
    Savitri Singh-Carlson

    September 15, 2014
    • Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham #

      Thanks, Savitri, for your insightful comments. Taking the discussion on religion/spirituality into the classrooms of higher education represents another necessary conversation. At a basic level, we hope higher education involves transformation at some level for students, but how this transformation interfaces with spiritual values and beliefs is complex, particularly as we navigate religious diversity and secularism. You are so right in noting that it is difficult to create safe yet critical spaces, where students are pushed to examine assumptions, where there is room for diversity of views, and where every effort is made to account for social relations of power (e.g., coercion, imposition, discrimination) that threaten to enter in. There is a lot of variation, I’m finding, in how much space there is for acknowledging the potential influence of religion, and the extent to which shared values can become a language to bridge difference. ~ Sheryl

      September 21, 2014
  3. Elizabeth Johnston Taylor #

    Yes, religion is in the public sphere! Thank you for articulating this and how nurses can relate to it. Nurses encounter religious patients daily and provide care in societal and individual contexts that are shaped by religions. I think nurses have been like ostriches with their “heads in the sand” in regards to theory and practice about how to relate to religions. So thank you very much, Sheryl, for providing us with a way to make sense of this “elephant” that has been a collective worry for nursing. Your discussion is impressive also because it reflects a deep and profound understanding of religions as it is debated in several other disciplines. Kudos and thanks!

    September 17, 2014
    • Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham #

      Hi Beth: Thanks for your comments, and reminding us of what this means for nurses in clinical practice. In our research in Canada, we’ve found some nurses have such rich & respectful repertoires in accounting for the influence of religion for their patients, others feel that spirituality is irrelevant to their role as nurses, and yet others puzzle about their role (and may have moral distress about this). Your recent book Religion: A Clinical Guide for Nurses has been so helpful in providing nurses with concrete examples and suggestions on how to respond to patients’ values, beliefs and practices. Seems this type of person-centred care is an important contribution to ensuring social justice.

      September 21, 2014

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