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Religious and non-religious diversity

November 3, 2010
by Rob Swindell
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One of the privileges in working in the social sciences is working with people of differing religious beliefs and cultural customs. It’s the experience of diversity that both enlightens and challenges social workers and counselors as they try to help their clients. To enhance this experience, many organizations offer diversity training.

In considering religious diversity, there is one group, despite representing up to 15 percent of the population, that is often left out—agnostics and atheists. While only sometimes prejudicial, it is often an honest oversight, under the misunderstanding that “these people” do not believe in anything.

If there is ever a field that needs to consider the diversity of non-believers, it is substance abuse—where programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous often recognize a “greater power.”

Non-believers, like many religious sects, range across a spectrum of individual or personal beliefs. However, the commonality along this spectrum is that they live their life “without god.” Many non-believers are quite well versed in religious teachings but have rejected the idea of a “greater power” as a knowable truth (a recent poll found that non-believers know more about religion than religious groups). And, it is not as shocking as one might think, as every member of one religion, rejects, in one way or another, every other religion.

Agnostics and atheists believe in one thing, that whatever lies outside our present existence is uncertain. For that reason, many non-believers place a significant value on this life, the one they know exists—the one we know will eventually come to an end. In this respect, as their one and maybe only chance at life, for not only themselves, but also every other human being and animal on the planet, many non-believers “believe” in the philosophy of “life—working to make this world kind and just.

In terms of substance abuse, trying to treat a non-believer with religion is like a doctor trying to treat the flu with chocolate milk. It doesn’t work. Unfortunately, many non-believers will simply “play along” not wanting to risk further stigmatization. And while some may find god in this, their most vulnerable state, others will personally dismiss the idea altogether. Either way, without an honest assessment and understanding, their treatment will suffer.

In your next religious diversity training, consider inviting a non-believer. There are many Freethought organizations across the country, and most, I suspect, would be glad to send a representative.


Rob Swindell

Rob Swindell


Rob Swindell is the Associate Director of the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services (ADAS) Board...

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