THE DEFINITIONS THAT helping professionals ascribe to constructs such as spirituality and religion have important ramifications. How constructs are conceptualized shapes decisions in clinical practice and research settings (Kuhn, 1970). Indeed, communication itself--the lifeblood of clinical interactions, research projects, and scholarly interchanges--is dependent on a shared understanding of the concepts discussed (Ai, 2002). If, for example, a client and practitioner conceptualize an entity differently, communication may be hindered or fail to occur, even though both participants might believe that mutual understanding occurs since the same terminology is used.
Current developments suggest that clarifying helping professionals' understanding of spirituality and religion is particularly important at this juncture. In public, professional, and governmental sectors, interest in spirituality and religion has accelerated over the past decade. Among the general public, interest in spirituality and religion increased during the 1990s and shows few signs of abating (Gallup & Lindsay, 1999). At the turn of the century, 78% of the general population reported they felt a need to grow spiritually (Gallup & Jones, 2000). The interest in spirituality and religion has direct implications for helping professionals, as research suggests that many clients want to integrate their spiritual beliefs and values into clinical settings (Bart, 1998; Larimore, Parker, & Crowther, 2002; Mathai & North, 2003; Rose, Westefeld, & Ansley, 2001).
The available data indicate that social workers, the largest providers of mental health services in the United States, are interested in operationalizing clients' spiritual and religious strengths (Canda & Furman, 1999; Derezotes, 1995; Sheridan & Amato-von Hemert, 1999). Although social workers currently in the field generally lack training in spirituality and religion, a growing number of educational programs have added specialized courses on spirituality and religion to their curricula (Canda, 2005; Miller, 2001) while others have integrated the topic horizontally (Kilpatrick & Puchalski, 1999). It is important to note that social work is not the only profession to witness such growth. In the field of medicine, for example, the percentage of programs offering courses on spirituality has grown from less than 5 in 1993 to 65 in 2000, a number that represents approximately 50% of medical schools in the United States (Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001).
Researchers have increasingly turned their attention to spirituality and religion, leading to the accumulation of a substantial body of research (i.e., more than 1,600 studies) that suggest that spirituality and religion are important client strengths (Johnson, 2002; Koenig et al., 2001), particularly for marginalized populations such as African Americans and members of the working class (Pargament, 2002). As this empirical picture has emerged, funding agencies have targeted spirituality and religion. For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched a number of research initiatives on spirituality and religion (Miller & Thoresen, 2003).
In tandem with the emergence of spirituality and religion as a field of inquiry, a diverse array of definitions has appeared in the literature. As observers have noted, little agreement exists among helping professionals regarding how these terms are understood (Canda, 1997; George, Larson, Koenig & McCullough, 2000; Miller & Thoresen, 2003; Plante & Sherman, 2001). In short form, spirituality has been defined as "the human search for purpose and meaning of life experiences" (Sheridan & Amato-von Hemert, 1999, p. 129), an "individual's capacity to experience a transcendent relationship with someone or something" (Gilbert, 2000, p. 68), "one's pivotal value," and "a sense of community" (Pierpont, 2003, p. 562). Religion has been understood as "acceptance of a particular set of beliefs and ethics" (Cascio, 1998, p. 524), "a search for the significant in ways related to the sacred" (Pargament, 2002, p. 169), and "the external expression of faith" (Gotterer, 2001, p. 188).
Disagreement has also occurred regarding the nature of the relationship between spirituality and religion. Spirituality has been defined as encompassing religion (Canda, 1997). Conversely, religion has been defined as encompassing spirituality (Tan & Dong, 2001). Some scholars have tended to polarize the two concepts while others have tended to treat them as identical entities (Ai, 2002; Miller & Thoresen, 2003; Pargament, 1999).
The lack of clarity surrounding definitions of spirituality and religion has sparked calls for empirical investigation of the subject (Gallup & Jones, 2000; Gilbert, 2000; Zinnbauer et al., 1997). Although a number of studies have been conducted with small, nonrandom samples (Arnold, Avants, Margolin, & Marcotte, 2002; Canda, 1988; Derezotes & Evans, 1995; Woods & Ironson, 1999), as far as we have been able to determine, few systematic investigations have been conducted to explore how individuals understand spirituality and religion. Directly below, we review the extant studies that shed some light on how these terms are understood among the general public and mental health professionals.
Among members of the public, definitions of spirituality and religion were explored with a non-probability sample (N=346) comprised of 11 groups drawn from Pennsylvania and Ohio (Zinnbauer et al., 1997). The groups were purposely heterogeneous, chosen on the basis of their likelihood of holding different understandings of spirituality and religion. The sample consisted of individuals drawn from a rural Presbyterian church, a conservative Catholic church, a non-traditional Episcopalian church, a rural Lutheran church, an urban Unitarian church, New Age groups, a Christian college group, students at a state university, nursing home residents, faculty at a nursing college, and community mental health workers. Respondents were asked to write their own definitions of spirituality and religion on a survey instrument, which were then analyzed and grouped into definitional categories.
The most common definitions for spirituality were the feeling or experience of connectedness with God/Christ/higher power/transcendent reality/nature, etc. (36%), personal beliefs such as faith or belief in God/higher power/the divine/personal values/etc. (34%), unclassifiable (17%), integrating one's beliefs or values into everyday life (5%), feeling or aiming at a desirable inner affective state such as comfort, security, anxiety reduction, etc. (3%), and aiming for personal growth, actualization, mastery, or self-control (2%). The most common definitions for religion were personal beliefs such as faith or belief in God/higher power/the divine/personal values/etc. (22%), organizational practices or activities such as attendance at services, performance of rituals, church membership, etc. (21%), commitment to organized beliefs or adherence to institutionally-based belief systems (16%), integrating one's values or beliefs into daily life, following God's will in one's life, demonstrating God's love to others, etc. (8%), negative means or ends such as procuring extrinsic rewards, feeling superior to others, an excuse to avoid personal responsibility (3%), and a feeling or experience of connectedness with God/higher power/transcendent reality/nature/etc. (3%) (Zinnbauer et al., 1997).
In a more representative study, the Gallup organization explored understandings of spirituality among a randomly selected national sample of adults (N=100) (Gallup & Jones, 2000). Respondents were asked what the term spirituality meant to them. The responses were then analyzed and rank ordered by category based on frequency of mention. The authors …