Religious Issues in Secularly Based Psychotherapy

By Genia, Vicky | Counseling and Values, April 2000 | Go to article overview
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Religious Issues in Secularly Based Psychotherapy

Genia, Vicky, Counseling and Values

Because many potential clients have religious as well as secular concerns, secular counselors and psychotherapists are striving to become more empathic and competent in treating religious individuals. This article discusses some issues and implications involved in working with religiously committed clients in secularly based counseling.

Religion serves as an important influence in the lives of many Americans (Hoge, 1996). In stark contrast to most of the U.S. population, secular mental health professionals seem to eschew involvement in organized religion (Bergin & Jensen, 1990; Goud, 1990; Shafranske & Malony, 1990a, 1990b). Given that a substantial constituency of clients with religious concerns might prefer a secularly based psychotherapeutic approach and may be unlikely to seek religious counseling (Quakenbos, Privette, & Klentz, 1985), psychotherapists are challenged to provide sensitive and competent treatment to religiously committed clients. These are clients for whom conventional religious beliefs and practices are important.

Although many forms of psychotherapy do not address religious issues, several approaches are noted for their spiritual perspectives on psychotherapeutic healing. The various twelve step programs are based on an individual's reliance on a higher power for assistance in stopping destructive behaviors. Positive life changes are considered to result from an act of faith. However, twelve step programs may emphasize the importance of personal spirituality and deemphasize involvement in traditional established religions (Hopson, 1996).

Transpersonal psychotherapy is another approach that recognizes the potential value of a spiritual worldview in promoting psychological health. Because transpersonal therapists believe that spiritual development can occur within or outside of organized religion (Vaughan, Wittine, & Walsh, 1996), religiously committed clients can talk openly about their religious beliefs and values.

Despite some notable exceptions, many secular practitioners still assume that traditional religious involvement is a liability (Wulff, 1996). In addition, many report that they have received no training in the psychology of religion and feel unprepared to competently work with religious material in therapy (Shafranske, 1996b; Shafranske & Malony, 1990b). The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the therapeutic issues involved in working with religiously committed clients in secularly based psychological treatment. If they are informed about important issues regarding the treatment of religious clients, psychotherapists will be better prepared to address the needs of this population.


Because traditional psychology-oriented professions seem to disfavor conventional religious beliefs and practices (Lovinger, 1984; Meissner, 1984), some mental health providers may automatically assume that clients with strong religious convictions are unhealthy psychologically. Exposure to information about religion and mental health can help dispel an uncritically examined antireligious bias.

Much research suggests that strong religious commitment is associated with positive mental health. High levels of religious involvement predict lower suicide ideology (Gartner, Larson, & Allen, 1991; Payne, Bergin, Bielema, & Jenkins, 1991; Stack & Wasserman, 1992) and depression (Gartner et al., 1991; Genia & Shaw, 1991) and greater marital satisfaction (Payne et al., 1991). Alcohol and drug use tends to be low among individuals who attend religious services frequently (Gartner et al., 1991; Payne et al., 1991). Moreover, studies show that a strong religious commitment helps alcoholics achieve abstinence and maintain recovery (Payne et al., 1991).

Given that mental health professionals see large numbers of clients who experience marital discord and suffer from depression and chemical dependency, the aforementioned findings are encouraging.

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