ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Dec 13, 2010

Does This Definition Of Religion Work For You As A Counselor?

[I realize that this blog is longer than any self-respecting blog should be and I ask for your indulgence. I feel that these ideas need to be presented together. I want to be as clear as I can so that you can better understand where I am coming from and your critique can be as penetrating as possible. Thanks.]
I was born in central Kansas—homesteading and wheat farming country. Church (religion) was the central social experience for those living less than 1 family per square mile. It was the place where people gathered together for any excuse—pot luck dinners, dancing on Saturday night, sewing, comparing rain gauges and wheat yields, learning about the recent news about babies and who was sick and trips people had gone on and just enjoying being in the presence of other human beings. As such it enriched the lives of everyone and helped them survive a difficult style of life. Whether their beliefs were comparable to the corn god (see my first blog) or something else made no real difference. The social dynamics help them thrive just as the fish fertilized the corn of the Indians.

On the other hand, religion for many is a source for protesting injustice and bringing about social change. What we call religion has so many different manifestations. How can we define it in such a way that we all know what we are thinking about and talking about?

In this blog I offer such a definition of religion. Since I have not seen this definition anywhere, I truly need feedback on whether this definition works for you as a counselor.

First, religion and spirituality: gleaning from the above discussions, there seem to be 3 requirements for any clear definition of religion and spirituality useful for counselors:

First, we must acknowledge that they cannot be defined by referring to any specific content, any specific belief or practice or set of morals or rituals. What one religion or one individual calls sacred or religious or spiritual, another might call evil. Just note the recent heathen invasion of the Muslim country, Iraq; or was that the Christian invasion of the unsaved country of Iraq? The same can be said about the content specific to any religion and spirituality. In fact, almost anything human has been deemed religious or spiritual at one time or another. That is probably why religion and spirituality are often described as ‘multidimensional’—I don’t think they are multidimensional. I think that these words often obscure the fact that they have not been carefully defined. Fire was considered multidimensional before it was accurately defined.

Religion and spirituality seems to get their enormous force not from their content but from how they function in society and for certain individuals—from the opportunities belief in them offer individuals—from their effects on people. And isn’t that true of counseling in general—it’s not the content of what I as a counselor say but the impact that comment or that technique has on my client—counseling is about change and change requires forces. How often have we heard it said that the relationship between the client and the counselor is the key force in bringing about any change for the client? Or as a retired head of the psychiatric department of Johns Hopkins once said in a psychiatric grand rounds, ‘The main function of our theories is to keep us interested enough while the client heals himself or herself.’

Any definition of religion and spirituality which would be useful for research and for counseling must specifically describe what they do and how they do it. What is essentially unique about the force of religion and spirituality that distinguishes them from all other aspects of human life? Only in that way can we justify calling something spiritual and know we are adding value to the discussion by doing so.

And as counselors, I assume that our clients are not coming to us because they consider us as sacred or especially religious or spiritual. We are not liturgists or rabbis or ministers or monks or theologians or shamans or channels for spiritual entities beyond ourselves. They come to us in the counseling setting and in that setting the client is our primary reason for being—our customer. So how can we influence the client in beneficial ways even though we may not share the faith or religion or spirituality of our client? How can we define religion and spirituality to transcend any individual manifestation of religion and spirituality and still preserve its essential power for the client? An answer is suggested by the idea of influence—how can I identify, access and mobilize the force that religion and spirituality offers to influence the counseling relationship? Or on the other hand, how can such a definition avoiding doing harm to those who have different views that we do?

Starting with religion: I would like to suggest the following ‘functional’ definition of religion which I have found useful in the counseling context:

“Anything human can be considered religious if it helps to create, maintain or restore order to a group of people, a community, by referring to something beyond that community.”

It would not be appropriate for me to fully develop this definition in evolutionary, systems, social or psychological settings although they provide fertile ground for such exploration. Here I will briefly expand on these three critical ideas which shape this definition with examples that can be relevant in a counseling setting: 1. ‘Anything human’, 2. ‘Order’, and 3. ‘That which is beyond’.

First, ‘anything human’: As I mentioned above, it is difficult to find something human that some religion has not used as part of its practice. Certainly there are some universal favorites that are found widespread in many religions world-wide because they have great potential for dealing with social order: rituals, human authorities, morals, beliefs, writings, etc. These are universal favorites because they inherently can provide order in a community even in organizations which are not religious—whether they be corporations or families.

Second, ‘order’: The creation, maintenance and restoration of order embody the functionality of religion. The word ‘order’ is intentionally general. It has both structural and process implications: for example, it can refer to both social order and those commands (orders) which create that order. It even includes the concept of meaning which can be considered ‘conceptual order in a context’. Again it would be inappropriate here to go in depth into the rich literature on systems research, information and authority but it is there for anyone who would like to. Individuals participating in such a community can find much meaning and direction for their individual lives as well as more satisfying relationships with others.

Note that it is not a coincidence that throughout the world, creation stories are often told at the beginning of religious narratives—the present order from former chaos whether that chaos be formlessness, water, desert, moral chaos, or whatever is meaningless and without form. Again, it is not the content of these stories that gives them their impact. It is the expression of those values embodied in the ordering of the universe and those forces which bring order out of chaos as that religion understands it—the ultimate meaning of things and what maintains that meaning.

Note that the ‘order’ of something gives that thing its unique identity. The same individuals may belong to the PTA and to a running club—the difference in these groups is their ‘order’. The same materials may be used to build a house and a store—their unique identity comes from the ‘order’ of those materials. Identity comes from the order of its elements. Some of the fierceness of the attacks on an evolutionary understanding of the development of the world comes from those who feel that their very identity, their connection with their God and the meaning of life itself is being threatened by considering the possibility that present order has been created by evolutionary processes and not God’s order.

The third critical part of this definition is the phrase, ‘referring to something beyond that community.’ That is, something that cannot be questioned from within the community, from within that order. By questioning that which is beyond you are thereby declaring yourself outside that community.

The ‘beyond’ has been conceptualized in many different ways as ancestors, a past event, a future event, a being beyond space and time, an omniscient, an ultimate concern, an omnipresent being, a coming spaceship or a command from primordial history but they all function the same. They cannot be challenged. No one or nothing within the community has any authority to question them or change them—in that sense, they are absolute. Note how the Bible is regarded by evangelical Christians and the Koran by Muslims—they are perfect and cannot be questioned because they connect the believer to that which is beyond. To challenge the Bible or the Koran is to challenge the very essence, meaning and purpose of the community and thus of the ultimate meaning of life for that individual. However, neither the Bible nor the Koran can be ‘correctly’ interpreted except within that community of faith.

‘That which is beyond’ can neither be proven nor disproved. Thus any rational ‘proof’ of the existence of god which does not already assume his or hers or its existence by that very process of trying to ‘prove’ existence shows that it is not beyond and therefore it is not the force which gives the community its existence—that is, it is not God. I think this is why many prominent philosophers so vehemently denounce religion or God because they can neither prove nor disprove it. None of their reasoning has any power to challenge the force of religion since religion gets its force from the beyond— it seems to me that philosophers (and others) try to obscure this fact by irrelevant storms of word. It is like kryptonite to Superman.

The argument by believers about evolution is not a rational argument but an existential one—a declaration of the essence of the beyond. Creation is inexplicable and to try to explain it would be blasphemous. In this sense, religion can be a social force stronger than science. Science has to do with the accumulation of knowledge based on observation and proof which can be shared with anyone who has the same 5 senses; however, religion is based on reference to a beyond that can neither be observed nor proven—thus it cannot be disproved either—how strong is that!

Every religion also has to deal with disorder—where it comes from and how to repair it. And since religion relates an individual to that which is beyond, counselors need to be aware of whether an individual’s difficulties have a religious force--not just shame or guilt, but alienation from the ultimate for that client. The former can be dealt with using standard counseling techniques such as CBT; the latter require more careful sensitivity and CBT might even be dangerous. But that is getting more into spirituality which I will discuss next week.

This blog is getting too long, so I will leave to my next blog other important implications of this definition of religion for us in our counseling.

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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