Spirituality, Religion, and the Interrelationship: A Nationally Representative Study

Article excerpt

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. …