Religion and Counseling

The term religion comes from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together or to express concern.” In modern times, religion has become a visible institution that provides an organizational structure for faith in the divine, sacred, or supernatural. In addition, there frequently are moral codes, ritual practices, worship, and celebrations associated with each religion or religious belief system.

Religion and spirituality are two constructs that have become inextricably and inappropriately linked in the professional literature, despite their differences. Although religion and spirituality are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they remain separate and distinct constructs. For example, one may express her or his spirituality through religion, whereas another may feel that religion inhibits the full expression of individual spirituality. Hence, some people will find religion and spirituality to be mutually exclusive. It is important to note that there is no consensus on the definitions of the terms spirituality and religion, and many scholars continue to merge the two erroneously. People may generally have a similar lack of precision regarding their religious and spiritual self-perceptions; this presentation is most likely a reflection of their personal experiences with, and understanding of, religion and spirituality in their lives.

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In the United States, there are approximately 12 major religions represented, with an unknown number of lesser-known groups as well. Of the major organized religions in the United States, the overwhelming majority of the population (77%) is Christian. The remaining major groups, with the percentage of the population in parentheses, are Judaism (2%), Islam (2%), Buddhism (1%), and Hinduism (0.5%). The rest of the 12 major American groups include Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan/Pagan/Druid, Spiritualist, and Native American religion, as well as secularism, atheism, and agnosticism; each represents less than 0.5%, except secularism (i.e., nonreligious persons), which represents 13%. It is important to note that these figures are estimates of the religious composition of the current U.S. population; the government no longer assesses religion as part of its annual census. It also bears attention that religious diversity tends to be greater near large metropolitan areas, and religious minorities tend to cluster as communities in specific demographic areas (e.g., East Coast and West Coast).

The religions in the United States are somewhat comparable to those in the world, with a few noted exceptions. The largest world religions include Christianity (2.1 billion), Islam (1.3 billion), secularism/ atheism/agnosticism (1.1 billion), Hinduism (900 million), Chinese traditional religion (394 million), and Buddhism (376 million). Recent trends include the rapid rise of Islam in the United States and worldwide, as well as a significant increase in the numbers of Buddhists and Hindus in the United States.


Like culture, religion provides its members with a unifying sense of identity and feeling of belonging. In addition, religious groups often espouse certain worldviews and expect that their congregations will hold similar, if not identical, views. Said another way, religion provides people with a lens through which to view the world. Related to this, religious traditions also prescribe attitudes about specific issues and behaviors related to observance. For example, there are five foundational principles of Islam: (1) the belief in monotheism and Muhammad as the final prophet, (2) prayer 5 times per day, (3) giving charity, (4) fasting and abstaining from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, and (5) making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hinduism provides another worldview example. Hindus believe in the repetitious reincarnation of the soul after death into another body, a process called Samsara. Karma, which is essentially a tallying of one’s good and bad deeds, determines whether a Hindu will be reborn at a higher or lower level in her or his next life. Hindus can escape Samsara by becoming enlightened. In pursuit of enlightenment, Hindus structure their lives around the four aims of Hinduism: (1) dharma (righteousness in one’s religious life), (2) artha (economic success), (3) kama (sensual, sexual, and psychological enjoyment), and (4) moksa (becoming enlightened and thus liberated from Samsara). Of course, the degree of adherence to religious doctrine will likely guide the degree of adherence to the espoused worldview (and associated attitudes and behaviors) of the particular group. Judaism is a good example, with a variety of denominations that reflect varying degrees of adherence to traditional Jewish law.

Family and Marriage

Religious doctrine often includes specific guidelines for families, including marriage, sexuality, roles of family members, and divorce. For example, many religions discourage intermarriages among different religious groups, and some may require conversion of one partner before the marriage can be sanctioned by the religious body. Choosing which religious rituals and customs to observe may be difficult within mixed marriages, particularly when children are involved. Within a marriage, the specific roles and rights of male and female partners may be prescribed, though the degree to which these roles are followed may depend on the couple’s level of religiosity. In some religions, the children’s relationship with their parents is also prescribed. In Islam and Buddhism, for example, adult children are obligated to provide care for their elderly parents. Most Western religions prohibit sexual activity outside of marriage, though the degree of adherence to this clearly varies. A recent issue of debate within both Eastern and Western religious groups is the degree to which same-sex relationships can be recognized and accepted. This has resulted in a range of responses, from ordination of gay clergy in some Protestant denominations and Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, to varying levels of tolerance in Buddhist traditions, to expressions of stern disapproval by fundamentalist Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, and Islam. Once a marriage has been sanctioned by a religious body, most religions strongly discourage divorce. In some cases, such as in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism, a marriage must be dissolved by a religious body in addition to a civil divorce proceeding, before the individuals may remarry.


An emerging area for career counseling is the role of religion in career decision making. While understanding an individual’s work-related values is a recognized component of career counseling, some individuals may feel called to a career by a higher power. Such a calling may arise from Christian or Muslim religious values, such as service to the poor, or from the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which is a call to heal the world. In such cases, a client might be encouraged to go beyond traditional career choice methods, such as interest and skills inventories, and engage in a process of “discernment,” which is derived from the process used to assist individuals contemplating religious vocations.

Counseling Implications

Because religion may affect a wide range of personal issues, counselors must consider that their clients’ religious value systems may affect the presenting issues. When counseling couples and families, counselors are commonly called to resolve value conflicts, which may occur within, as well as across, religious groups and across generations. Just as importantly, counselors should seek to explore and understand the effect of their own religious values on their own lives and on their clinical judgments. Counseling is not a value-free process, but responsible counseling may be achieved if counselors are attentive to the interaction of their own values with their personal and professional lives.

Everett L. Worthington put forth a model that examines level of religious commitment as a predictor for client behavior as it relates to counseling. For example, clients with higher levels of religious commitment are more likely to want counselors with similar values. Assessing clients’ level of religious commitment can also assist counselors with understanding how clients may respond to challenges in session and generally how clients will perceive the counselor. Hence, counselors may want to assess both religious identity and religious commitment in their clients. In fact, getting the identity without understanding the degree of adherence and commitment to the religion will limit the counselor to operating from stereotypes of the particular religious tradition.

There is tremendous within-group variability in all religious groups. Hence, counseling experience with a member of a particular religious group may not necessarily translate to applied work with another person from the same faith. Counseling professionals need to educate themselves about the religions of their clients yet, at the same time, allow their clients to define what religion means for them or how religion affects their lives.


  1. Matthews, W. (2004). World religions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  2. Richards, P. S., & Bergin, A. E. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of psychotherapy and religious diversity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31, 44—51.
  4. Worthington, E. L. (1988). Understanding the values of religious clients: A model and its application to counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 35, 166-174.
  5. Worthington, E. L., Kurusu, T. A., McCullough, M. E., & Sandage, S. J. (1996). Empirical research on religion and counseling: A ten-year update and prospectus. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 448—187.

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