In my last blog I proposed the following definition for ‘religion’:
“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.”
This definition came to me as I was teaching ‘World Religions’. I was never really clear what distinguished a religion from just culture or other social institutions—especially in Africa, South America and Asia. Religion seemed to be whatever Huston Smith included in his book on world religions. But this idea presented itself from sociology, especially from Talcott Parson’s work.
Ever since then I have been amazed at how well it has served in clarifying what makes religion unique. In this blog and the next I will give some rather random observations to help fill in for you my thinking about these essential elements of my definition of religion for counselors: 1. ‘The beyond’ and 2. ‘Create, maintain or restore order’.
Since I define religion as a social organization, all of the tools of sociology can be used to study its dynamics and it should be compared to and contrasted with other social organization to determine its uniqueness. This is important for us as counselors because as individuals or families experience stressful situations they tend to turn to social organizations to help them and religion offers one of the best. Since ‘the beyond’ cannot be questioned or challenged from within their community, we would expect religion to be stronger than other social organizations—that is, it should be able to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with more force. That is a proposition that can be and has been tested. Consider the fact that marriages conducted in a church, on average, do last longer than those conducted outside a church.
When a person is feeling powerless and out of control in the face of forces beyond their control they turn to resources which may provide help for them (including us as counselors). Individuals who feel extreme stress often become much more rigid in their beliefs and become more committed to their own religion—sources of hope for them beyond their immediate situation (again those slings and arrows). In such a situation, I as a counselor must be very sensitive to the power and hope that a client gets from participating in their religion at that time—even though their ‘beyond’ and the ‘beyond’ of their religion makes no sense to me—whether it be the end of the world coming in 1847 or 1914 or 2000 or (now) 2012; or eternal life after death or reincarnation; or the Bible or the Koran or the Golden Tablets; et al. Although I do not incorporate such beliefs in my life, I am in no position to try to refute or change them.
This feeling of powerlessness often happens to religions too: The more powerless and threatened and persecuted a minority religion feels, the more they ‘fight’ for their existence and the more dogmatic and vocal they become.
Thus I worry about counselors who use CBT exclusively to try to ‘correct’ the ‘stinking thinking’ of such individuals. It’s not the content or meaning of what a person says or thinks that is important here. It is the power and hope that ‘the beyond’ gives an individual. And participation in a religion which embodies those ideas in rituals which affirm that individual may be exactly what that individual needs at this time. For a counselor to question that might feel to the client a challenge to that which gives life purpose and provides the individual with his or her identity. When the individual begins to reclaim their own power, then they may loosen their hold on their dogmatic beliefs and their participation in their religion may soften. But that is the client’s journey, not the counselor’s.
Next week I will throw out a few other observations that make more sense to me in light of this definition of religion.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.