How about putting a Code of Ethics for the Clergy?
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When returning from a conference in Bari to the airport, together with an international colleague of mine, Leslie J. Francis, I suggested that we collaborate on writing a code of ethics for the clergy. He responded enthusiastically and gave the thumbs up to me.
The idea that I, as a psychologist with a background in theology, offered originated from my daily observations and experiences on the behaviours, writings and speeches of Muslim clergy in the media or the mosques. Whilst some of clergy preach wisely, constructively and compassionately, others, I reckon, may look positive at first sight, but could in fact be harmful and even detrimental for the masses.
It should be noted, first, that basically there is no clergy stratum in Islam (at least among Sunnis) as it is among, say, Catholics, but in reality today it is possible to mention a class of religious officials (din görevlileri). However, they have no superiority over the followers in terms of religious status.
Today most vocations including psychologists, medicals, and teachers have developed their own rules or codes of ethics to govern their actions. Why should clergy, who often talk on ethical matters, have immunity regarding such codes? Vocational codes of ethics could be drawn up by an external committee but not from the ethical sources of obligants) so that an ‘impartial’ body could assess their actions. If these are not adhered to, some sort of penalty could be imposed. As a result, I developed the following ideas which are at their initial stages. It is possible to argue that the following gaps may occur during the religious services, which should be avoided by the clergy.
Causing Potential Psychological Distress: Clergy should avoid disproportionate over-emphasis on the illustrations of ‘negative’ content of religious texts such as details of punishment in hell which could increase the feelings of intimidation, unnecessary level of guilt, or anxiety on the part of members of the congregation, particularly on those who suffer anxiety and religious scrupulosity. This may lead some people to develop a negative attitude towards religion.
Abusive Hermeneutics: The way the clergy addressed theological content is perceived as an “absolute truth” and members of the congregation are expected to take it as an unchangeable truth to reach salvation. This should be addressed beforehand that it is only one perspective and that this comment may bear flaws in its nature. In addition, such a one-directional and one-sided approach may reinforce blind conformity on the part of the congregant and deprive the person of his/her personal autonomy in thinking about religious matters. Therefore, before starting the speech the clergy should emphasize that the speech to follow is bounded within a particular perception, interpretation and understanding by a particular person of a particular text and should not be taken as an absolute truth. In other words, they are not the direct “true” (but mediated) projections of the messages.
Divisive Language: The discourse should not be used in such way that it divides people and create antagonistic segments within the society. It should not be allowed to sow hatred in the heart of people towards one community or the other. Related to this, religious discourse should not state implicitly or explicitly that religion is the monopoly of a certain group but not of others (a kind of tribalism).
Building and Misusing Power from Clergy Identity: The way the theological content is presented may foster on the congregants the feeling that the theologians/clergy have special powers and that what they say should be followed verbatim as they are the only authority or advocates representing God’s will. This should be avoided.
Mediating Physical Abuse in RE: In some religious contexts it is observed that RE teachers apply physical abuse to students in teaching (especially on those who are studying to be hafiz) and that parents, because of assigning clergy higher status, would show more tolerance to such an abuse as it is done for the sake of “better religiousness.”
Emotional Abuse for Financial Aim: Working disproportionately on the emotions and feelings with theological texts, the clergy may influence especially agreeable and tender-minded well-off people to donate more money than they would usually do under normal conditions.
Exaggeration in the Narration: For the sake of creating higher impact, some of the clergy tend to give the impression as if s/he was present and witnessed the event/episode that s/he is narrating during the time of the prophet. Since, this may increase over commitment to ‘the truth claim’ of the clergy and lead audience to attribute holiness or super-humanity to clergy who narrate them. Any type of unrealistic and irrational exaggeration in the comments should be avoided. The places of myths or hadith with shaky link in the narration chain should be keenly differentiated. Clergy should act as the guest of the text but not the host of it.
Misusing Religious Language for the Purpose other than Divine Will: Clergy should avoid using religious and spiritual discourse for the purpose other than the “divine authority aimed” such as enhancing nationalism, or gaining any sort of personal power, or for a legitimization or exculpation source.
Stigmatization/stereotyping: Clergy, putting themselves in the place of divine authority, should avoid using labelling and stigmatizing language such as discourse like “those who commit a certain ‘sin’ are ‘damn’ people, or gone astray from the true path.”
Transference/counter-transference: The matter of transference and counter-transference may happen not only in therapeutic encounters but also within clergies’ one-to-one relationships with members of the congregation. Therefore, clergy should be trained in how to deal with such issues arising in their meetings.
Hindering Personal Growth: Religious discourse is expected to foster personal growth, liberation and maturity. Accordingly, clergy should avoid using discourse which obstructs ways to personal developments, open-mindedness and causes distress and oppression of congregants directly, or their family members, indirectly.
It is hoped that this text manages to initiate further discussions on this issue.
Ibn Haldun University Psychology Department.