ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Nov 22, 2010

Words, Words, Words—Spiritual and Religious

I appreciate Michael Reeder’s response to my first blog raising the issue of what groups should be recognized legally as a religion. Should a Wiccan coven or a community practicing Voudun or that small group outside of Cedaredge, Colorado gathered together by a prophet who was called by God? What difference is there between them and the running club or the Lions Club? Should their leaders who are duly ‘set apart’ with special authority and responsibilities be allowed to perform marriages and conduct funerals? What makes the difference?

This raises the whole question of definitions. Unless words are accurately and usefully defined, communication fails and progress is severely limited. As long as chemists considered fire, water, air and earth as the four elements, little progress was made in understanding the chemical processes of the world. As long as fire was considered a releasing of phlogiston from combustible materials, no progress could be made in understanding the true nature of oxidation.

I think the same is true of spirituality and religion in counseling today. We as counselors depend heavily on words--their meanings and their force—both in the words our clients decide to speak to us and in our own thinking and the words we choose to respond with. Note that in both cases, it is the power of the words more than their meaning that is important because the whole process of counseling is concerned with change and force is always involved in change.

This blog is an attempt to clear out some fuzzy thinking occasioned by using words that are not clearly defined in the area of spirituality and religion in order to name things in ways that are useful for counselors (and others in other disciplines also). This discussion will help you know why I don’t use certain terms which almost everyone else does use when I later offer my definitions of spirituality and religion (SR).

Many of the most common words used in the discussion and the assessment of SR are used without clear definition without a clear context for that meaning. If I came in to work one Monday morning and told you I had scored over the weekend, you would not know what I meant until you knew whether I had been playing soccer or had been out on a date. Many commonly used key SR words require a specific context to have any clear meaning.

Perhaps the most important key word that I have no idea what it means without knowing its context is the word, god. To me, it is meaningless without identifying the religion (i.e., community of faith—which is also a specific language community) that uses this concept. (Note, I am not an atheist—even an atheist tacitly assumes that the word has some identifiable meaning which they do not believe in.) “God” is one of those hypothetical constructs which is created by some religious communities to help define who they are in order to provide a focus for maintaining their structure or order as a community. This does not mean that the concept of God is any less powerful—in many ways it is more powerful—referring to a being that cannot be challenged by those members of that community and cannot (unlike science) be proven or disproven.

For the Jewish community, the TANAK has many defining passages such as “I am YHWH, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” “Hear, Oh Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH is our One God. . .” Both of these confessions are followed by commandments which that community of Yahweh will follow so that their identity as a community is clear and their order (a la the sociologist Talcott Parsons) is maintained.

For some Christian communities, the “Apostle’s Creed”, probably beginning in the 3rd century, grew as a theological (and political) confession defining who considered themselves as members of the Christian community: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ,…” Those who confessed this often got privileges that those ‘non-confessors’ did not get. Thus Michael Reed’s question above was being addressed for some governments ever since the 3rd century when Christianity took on real political power.

“There is only one God, Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet.” Thus a Muslim is identified as a member of the Islam religion. Again this is a definition of who God is as well as who gets the privileges of a Muslim in certain countries.

Other religions use this hypothetical construct in other ways. But by itself, without any language community to define it, the word “God” is as meaningless as the words ‘soul’ or ‘christ’ or even ‘prayer’ without knowing the ‘language community’ that uses it. I don’t know what it means to report that over 90% of Americans believe in God. Probably those individuals were asked something like “Do you believe in God?” and over 90% replied “Yes” without any further qualification. Outside a faith community, I have no idea what that question itself means and what a “yes” or “no” response to it would mean.

Attempts to replace the word God with euphemisms such as ‘one’s ultimate concern’ (Paul Tillich) or ‘the supreme being’ only emphases this lack of any essential meaning by choosing one aspect some individual attribute often associated with this hypothetical construct. These phrases seem to try to capture the ‘power’ this word has for some individuals who no longer identify with a particular faith community.

Note that, as with the idea of ‘religion’, Christian missionaries, more often than not, did not find anything in non-western cultures that would count as God in their Christian sense—they somehow had to pick one or create one to make their gospel meaningful. The seeming ubiquitous belief in God is due, I suggest, to an invention of the three main western religions as they spread to politically unite diverse cultures and peoples.

Prayer is another of these fuzzy terms. I have read many reports of studies done to see if ‘prayer’ works without defining prayer any further. Chanting "We beg to differ" at a basketball game when the students disagree with the refs' call; or reciting 'Nam myo rengo key' in a Buddhist service; or chanting 'Kill him! Kill him' at an execution; or singing ‘kyrie elison’ (you can say that again); or asking that God help heal a friend; or saying OMG: what makes some prayers and the others not? What makes some spiritual and others not? What are we talking about?

I stop here, but I hope this gives you enough understanding to know why I am confused when people use these words which are specific to spirituality and religion without clearly defining them. As a counselor, I know these words can be very powerful for my client, but I am also aware I may not have a clue as to what they actually refer to—I must never assume I know.

One last story: in the inner city, one of my friends was teaching a Sunday School class about how God was like a father and so powerful, knowing everything about them. One of the boys ran out of the classroom and feeling so sick and scared that he threw up. My friend went out and tried to comfort him—but he said he was terrified because his own father frequently abused him and the idea of God being like a father terrified him beyond measure! As counselors, we must be careful about assuming that we know what meaning and power these terms have for our clients.

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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