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The Varieties of Religious Therapy: Introduction

A series about integrating faith with psychotherapy

The Varieties of Religious Therapy: Original art by WG

Together we embark on another big blog series. I did one in 2008 called The Seven Questions Project featuring interviews with 14 of the top psychology writers, theorists and policymakers on their approach to psychotherapy. In 2010 we had the Ten Coolest Psychotherapy Interventions, again interviewing the top practitioners of various techniques. But this one is different, going beyond theory and technique to the underlying assumptions about the soul. I'm truly honored to present these interviews that explore the therapeutic and spiritual wisdom of several influential faith traditions.

Why religon? I write this blog to demystify psychotherapy for the general public. Part of that demystification is showing you the incredible diversity within the field. My fellow shrinks span a huge spectrum of training, experience, theory, technique, specialty, personality, attitude, quirks and religious beliefs. Just as there are therapists who advertise as CBT specialists or focus on the treatment of trichotillomania, some therapists form their practice based on a belief system. You could even argue that everyone practices from a belief system, but some are aware and explicit about it while others are unaware. Today I'm talking about therapists who consciously espouse spiritual beliefs, religions, movements and ideologies.

I've shamelessly stolen the title of this series from The Varieties of Religious Experience, once called "the most notable of all books in the field of the psychology of religion" by our own Psychology Today. I swipe it in honor of its author, William James, who wrote: "To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. (p. 2)" I agree with old Bill, but not all therapists do.

According to one study, 72% of the general population described religious faith as the most important influence in their lives as compared with 33% of clinical psychologists. A 1984 survey of academics found that 50% of psychology professors claimed no religious preferences, placing them among the least religious academics. One survey of therapists found that religion and spirituality were never or rarely discussed in 81% of their graduate training programs. On the whole, therapists aren't as religious as the rest of society. In this series I'm talking with the exceptions.

Twelve therapists and researchers who write, teach and practice in accordance with their belief system have agreed to share their thoughts on a few questions:

  • What is the role of religion or spirituality in your clinical practice?
  • How does your technique or theory differ from mainstream psychotherapy?
  • A new client comes to therapy reporting his main problem is feeling detached from God. How would you proceed?
  • What is the relationship between sin and psychopathology?
  • Who or what is the primary agent of change in therapy?
  • What is the most difficult part of practicing psychotherapy while maintaining your beliefs?
  • What is the most rewarding part?

Standing alone, you'll find each participant gives a wise, candid reflection on psychotherapy within a spiritual context. The added value comes when we compare one faith-based practitioner with another to truly see the nuances of their approach. We see the diversity beyond their theology as well. Some wrote a little, others a lot. Some were personal, others more theoretical/philosophical. No, therapists are not all the same.

By the way, I'm very interested in this topic. I consider spirituality to be an important part of the self and believe religion is a vital component of a client's social, cultural, moral and relational worldview. I am aware that my Judeo-Christian background could potentially lead to blind spots as I present this material, and will try my best to eliminate any bias. For example, one of the questions is about sin, which is a concept not shared by all religions. I knew this, but asked because it's a concept familiar to Western readers and I thought it would help distinguish between religions. But really, there's very little room for me to muddy the waters - my next twelve posts are essentially written by other people.

Disclaimers: In no way is the intent of this series to promote or discredit any of the traditions discussed. The aim is to educate clients, students, therapists, professors, and anyone interested in the relationship between religion and therapy. The participants have agreed to share their personal opinions, but they are not speaking in an official capacity on behalf of other members of their religion, including your therapist. Respectful dialogue in the comments section is stongly encouraged!

To add an element of mystery and dramatic tension, I'm not going to tell you who's coming until it posts. This is my birthday gift to you, kind readers. I hope you enjoy the journey.

The Varieties of Religious Therapy

Post 1: Judaism with Mordechai Rotenberg
Post 2: Native American Spirituality with Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Post 3: Catholicism with Gladys Sweeney and colleagues
Post 4: Islam with Hanan Dover
Post 5: Hinduism with V George Mathew
Post 6: Mormonism with Derek Hatfield
Post 7: African Spirituality with Suzanne Henderson
Post 8: Biblical Counseling with David Powlison
Post 9: Secular Humanism with Leon Seltzer
Post 10: Twelve Step Spirituality with Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Post 11: Christian Psychology with Mark McMinn
Post 12: Buddhism with Lorne Ladner
Summary and Conclusion: coming soon!

I'll post these once a week. In case you don't catch it among the rushing river of PT blogs you may want to RSS subscribe, bookmark In Therapy or this page (this will serve as the table of contents) or "Like" my facebook page where I'll be announcing each new post. 

All artwork by WG