ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Dec 07, 2010

Measure Spirituality? Are You Kidding?

If you read my last blog talking about the confusion around calling something spiritual without defining spiritual but you have read reports of studies assessing spirituality in such publications as Counseling and Values or even Counseling Today, you may respond, “But there are many instruments designed to assess a client’s spirituality or religiousness. In fact such an assessment is required by the agency for which I work. If you are correct, then what are we assessing?”

I would repeat your question back to you, “What are you assessing? That is my point.” On the one hand, hundreds of instruments claiming to assess a person’s spirituality or religiousness are available and more are being created seemingly monthly. But I have no idea what their results mean. The instruments turn an individual’s personal responses to ambiguous questions into impersonal numbers which can then be twisted and beaten to death using sophisticated statistical computer packages until some significant p-values raise their heads. (I picture the p-values crying “Enough already. Is this what you want?”)

One hunch I have is that measuring spirituality is an easy way to identify a doctoral dissertation topic: the question can be so easily formulated; data collection can be simple or as complex as the student is capable of; also, the data analysis can be a simple or complicated as one wants; and reporting the results give a good opportunity for presenting good-looking tables and graphs and means and standard deviations and p-values. (Shouldn’t any process that reports results using jargon such as ‘mean’, ‘deviants’, ‘p-values’, ‘regression’, ‘likelihoods’, ‘outliers’, ‘2-tailed’, et al. be suspect when dealing with human beings?) And so many doctoral dissertation questionnaires assessing spirituality or religiousness get published, especially if they have fancy looking statistical analyses and significant p-values.

Another hunch is that some investigators have an unconscious belief that if they are measuring spirituality or religiousness, they are measuring some mysterious force or effect that is beyond normal psychological analysis—crassly put, they are measuring the effect that God has on human beings. The only thing I have seen measured is the force of the belief in God or the belief in some other spiritual force on individuals. While that is very important, we must remember it is the force of a belief or a way of thinking that is the critical part of that, not necessarily the content of that belief; CBT gets much of its effectiveness from that aspect of being human.

I find 3 critical difficulties with the assessments of spirituality and religion whose individual statements or questions I have looked at:

1. Religiousness or spirituality is never clearly (operationally) defined. Usually it is left up to the test taker to say whether they are religious or spiritual. In fact, many questionnaires get their initial pool of questions by asking ‘experts’ in the field to suggest questions again without clearly defining what is being asked for. I’m not sure what is being measured if religiousness or spirituality is not defined before the questionnaire is created or clarified for the test-taker when they respond to such questions. As discussed above, even if a person says they believe in “god”, I have no idea what they mean without further clarifying the context or definition of these terms.

2. Many studies claim that spirituality and religion are correlated with better, happier and longer life. They administer an instrument purported to measure religiosity or spirituality along with other assessments that measure happiness, satisfaction with life, etc. But usually the questions in the religious or spirituality questionnaire are already known to be associated with a more satisfying life, without calling them spiritual or religious. Experiences such being involved in a social organization (such as a church, PTA, book club, etc.), having meaning or purpose in life, having feelings of harmony with the world and with oneself, experiencing a sense of forgiveness, etc.--these are known by themselves to provide a happier life—without calling them spiritual. In fact, many religions have practices which are known to promote healthier life styles. Is there anything distinct about these which make them religious or spiritual rather than just human? Again, what does calling them spiritual add to the discussion?

3. A final deficit I find in all of the assessments and this is an ethical issue. All these assessments seem to come from a “pastoral” (using a Christian term) dimension of religion—such as the heart strangely warmed or the feeling of wonder in nature or an experience of oneness and harmony with all creation. Never have I seen an assessment of religious commitment asking questions such as “How often have you been arrested or imprisoned for your faith?” “How often have you publicly protested an action you are morally opposed to?” “How often have you publically destroyed something you consider evil or of the devil?” The prophetic dimension rarely if ever gets even acknowledged in the discussion of religion or spirituality in counseling even though it seems to exhibit the strongest expressions of spirituality or the commitment to a religion. (If this prophetic dimension were acknowledged, should spirituality be added as a CACREP requirement? Would Amos, Jeremiah or even Jesus be allowed to teach in a CACREP program?) This lack adds credence to those critics of counseling who claim that counseling is merely a way of keeping people happy and contented in a rich nation like the US when the whole world is experiencing misery and poverty and injustice.

Another issue: in order to accurately assess the unique effect of a religious commitment, a study must have a ‘placebo’ group such as a civic organization, running club, writing or singing group—any such organization which is not ‘religious’ but offers comparable opportunities for individual involvement. The study would ask the same questions of both social groups so that distinctive aspect of participation in religious organizations could then be identified as the ‘religious’ factor. The best research of sociology (and psychology) should be used. Does anyone know of such a study?

My plea then is that no more assessments of ‘spirituality’ or ‘religiousness’ be done until a clear, meaningful definition of these two terms be determined and that all such assessments always include a placebo group to separate the ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ aspect from merely the human aspect. If there are such studies, please let me know—they would be invaluable.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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