ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Nov 12, 2010

Spirituality and Religion for Counselors

I appreciate the ACA giving me this opportunity to have a dialogue with other counselors on a topic that is important to me and to other counselors and is attracting more and more interest: spirituality and religion. On the one hand, spirituality and religion (SR) are among the most powerful forces in human history and in contemporary human life throughout the world. Gone are the days when they can be ignored or explained away by psychological reductionism.

On the other hand, as I read discussions and investigations of SR in the counseling profession, I get so confused as to what is being discussed. As counselors we must be as clear as possible about SR so that, first of all, we do no harm and secondly we can be sensitive to what force they might be exerting on other psychological issues a client is dealing with.

When I was teaching religion in a small, black college in Birmingham, Alabama shortly after the height of the civil rights struggles, I personally experienced SR ‘from both sides now.’ Many of my students were encouraged by their faith and religion to challenge the brutal segregated social structure of the South in general and Birmingham in particular. Their faith gave them the necessary added strength to protest in the face of overwhelming odds against them. On the other hand, much of the strength of their opposition from the segregated South came from a strong, passionate faith in God and the Christian religion—God had created the races to be separate and anyone or group that threatened that is evil and must be threatened and eliminated by all means necessary. For them it was a requirement from God to do whatever it took to maintain the order that God has established. Both sides were empowered by their beliefs in God and Christianity.

Another issue for counselors is the fact that science is a powerful process for learning about this world but spirituality and religion, because their essence comes from that which is beyond, can be even more powerful as it exerts its influence through the human spirit. But how can SR be incorporated into ‘evidence based’ therapy which has its roots in the scientific process?

I want this blog to an opportunity to dialogue with other counselors to help deal with some of these issues. By clarifying what spirituality is and what it is not for counselors (and others) we can be aware of its power for good or evil and thereby be more effective counselors.

I’ll finish this first blog with one critical distinction that must be made, I believe, before we can know what we are talking about: let us all agree (as many others have already suggested) that religion refers to a social phenomenon and spirituality to experiences of individual human beings. Religions have an identifiable social organization with its own authorities, membership rolls, and distinctions between who are members and who aren’t, etc. Therefore, religions are most effectively studied with the tools of sociology.

I realize that this is not the way many use the word ‘religion’ but that is precisely my point. For research and discussions, let’s agree to this distinction. I have taught World Religions using Huston Smith’s ‘The World’s Religions’ in which he presents a mixture of religions, cultures, and philosophies all under the rubric of religion. That is confusing. Some scholars have even suggested that the very word ‘religion’ really is only a western phenomenon applying to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and similar groups. Often Christian missionaries found no word for religion when they went to other cultures—they had to find something in that culture which had enough aspects of Christianity (rituals, beliefs, holy authorities, etc) that they could call use the word ‘religion’ to talk about it but that was a kind of Procrustean bed distorting other cultures and peoples.

Religions as identifiable social organizations need to be studied as such. Spirituality would refer uniquely to individuals and need to be studied with the tools of psychology. Only with this clear distinction can we more the discussion forward.

In each blog, I will present an issue I believe is important for counselors as we move forward in incorporating issues of spirituality and religion.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor recently graduated from Argosy University, Schaumburg with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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