ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
May 09, 2011

Think: Religion—Community/Sociology; Spirituality—Individual/Psychology

The more I have been reading and thinking about how to include religion and spirituality into our counseling, the more I have been drawn to the critical need to sharply distinguish religion from spirituality and that difference is the difference between dealing with a faith community and dealing with an individual’s own psychological processes.

Religions are identifiable groups of individuals who have been organized around certain rituals, beliefs, authorities, scriptures, etc. Their ‘order’ continues through time and helps maintain the order of the culture they are a part of by referring to something beyond that culture. A religion is inseparable from the culture of many countries. If you are born in a particular country, you are a ‘member’ of the religion of that country. Only recently has the idea been tried that a government can even exist without an identifiable religion to give it that authority it needs to maintain order throughout history. The head of the government has always been a person who has special connections with that which is beyond the community, whether they be a God, the son or daughter of a God, or appointed by a god. To propose an alternative religion in such a situation would be considered treason. Until recently the United States has been somewhat unique in this experiment.

The critical point from this for counselors is that we are not counseling a religion; we are counseling individuals who may participate in such organizations. We must clearly distinguish the order and identity of the religion from that of the client. A book like Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions is interesting reading but I’m not sure how useful it is to me as a counselor. We need to use the insights of social psychology to understand the impact on a client of being involved in any social group, including a religion.

Thus, and here I am going to get make a radical suggestion, I’m not sure how helpful it would be for counselors to study various religions any more than it would help them counsel clients any more effectively if the counselor were to study other organizations that the client might be involved in like political parties, educational institutions, health clubs and running clubs, study groups, or professional organizations such as ACA. Thus, in assessing a client, I’m not sure including religion would be important any more than asking what their political affiliations or professional memberships are.

Spirituality, yes; religion, no. The problem comes from the fact that religion and spirituality use some of the same words, but in radically different ways. The word God is often used as a hypothetical construct by a religion to refer to that absolute power that is beyond the community and helps keep the community together. However, some individuals use this word to help describe personal experiences they have had which feel powerful and of ultimate importance. Attempts to replace ‘God’ with other concepts such as ‘one’s ultimate concern’ or ‘the ground of being’ or ‘the absolute’ to make it more functional for individual use seem to me to be concerned with individual spirituality and not with the relationship a religion has to the source of its ultimate identity.

When someone says, ‘I’m not really religious; but I am deeply spiritual,’ often they mean, ‘I have decided not to be a member of any specific faith community (=religion) but I do have a personal commitment to that which is beyond as I have experienced it. That is, I do not consider myself a member of (=I have not consciously joined) any identifiable faith community (that is, any religion) but that which is beyond is very important to me and my life.’

Such a declaration often has developed from experiences where aggressive communities of faith use their collective force to pressure an individual into joining them by manipulating feelings of fear, anxiety, pleasure, guilt, even hunger and shelter—whatever works. Those in the community get the meaning for their lives by participating in that community and anyone outside that community becomes a threat to the order of the community—a threat of chaos and therefore inherently evil.

Again, I’m not sure how helpful it would be for a counselor to spend much effort studying the so-called ‘World Religions’. What is important is to clearly distinguish those statements of a client which refer to his or her personal spiritual experiences from those that merely indicate a client is claiming to a member of a particular community.

If a client says ‘Yes, I believe in God,’ are they claiming that they identify with a faith community which gets its strength and unity and meaning from a power called God; or are they saying they themselves have experienced something they describe as ‘An experience of God’? This I believe is one of the most difficult issues in assessing a client’s spirituality: How to distinguish descriptions by a client of their own personal experiences, beliefs, actions and feelings from those that of the community the client identifies with. Even something as simple as prayer needs to be clearly defined as either a communal act (such as in a worship service, praying 5 times a day toward Mecca, or a family before a meal) or as an individual spiritual activity (such as in meditation, visualization, personal scripture reading, personal chanting, etc.).

I have spent this blog trying to make clear the role (or lack) of religion in the counseling context. In my next blog I will express some of the issues that become clearer in dealing with spirituality when we eliminate the confusions coming from trying to include religion or religiosity in this context.

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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