Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Perceiving Religious Men through Counselor Eyes: Risks and Tips

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Perceiving Religious Men through Counselor Eyes: Risks and Tips

Article excerpt

Mark Twain's humor often sparks a smile ... and a wince. For example, "Man is a Religious Animal.... He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight" (Twain, 2010, p. 121).

In this article, I discuss two oversights that weaken a counselor's ability to work skillfully with a man's spirituality or religion. One is to overlook his attitude toward religion. The other is to underestimate the importance of one's own views of religion. I then present vignettes to demonstrate how understanding a man's religiosity not only broadens a counselor's grasp of a man's presenting problem, but also can inform counseling behavior. The client experiences are real, although I have used pseudonyms and have modified some details to protect identities.

In this article, I use the term spiritual to describe the ideas and experiences that a person finds personally meaningful or uplifting, transcendent, enriching, private, and interconnecting. The term religious refers to organized social groups that write creedal statements of beliefs and sponsor structured rites and services (Shafranske & Maloney, 1990). I place more emphasis on the religious perspective than on the spiritual perspective.

Five Views of Religion

Some men have religious beliefs and some do not. All men, however, have thoughts about the world of religion. I believe that a man's approach toward religion is just as important as the content of his views. Each of the following five approaches has implications for the way a man thinks, feels, acts, and relates in many areas of his life.


Are you sure you want to talk with me about religion? I think it's a waste of time. Religion is good for starting wars, and not much else than I can tell.

--Adam, age 27; law school student; presenting problem, marital distress

During his assessment, Adam reported a lifelong awareness of injustice. As the only Jewish boy in his rural middle school, he was often ridiculed and bullied because of his religion. He never fought back, but coped in two ways--by fantasizing retribution and by blaming the religious side of Judaism for making him different. His resentment gradually generalized toward all religious, prompting him to strongly condemn any religiousness wherever he saw it. In college, his anger at his own unfair treatment was converted into an occupational interest, and he went to law school so that he could defend civil liberties against religiously tinged legislation. His argumentative anger, however, became habitual and personal, intruding into his recent marriage. When he thought his wife was "missing the point" in a disagreement, he would react belligerently. Eventually, he complied with his wife's plea that he contact a counselor. On the telephone, he explained, "She says I pay attention only to her mistakes and make too many blanket statements; but I have strong views, so a little anger is justified sometimes, don't you think?"

A reductionist approach reduces the complexities of a system into a single observation or idea. Reductionist views of any multifaceted human structure, including religion, generally tend to be unitary, universal, and (often) unflattering. Mark Twain's aforementioned conclusion is similar to a more recent comment by Richard Dawkins (2008): "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion" (p. 28).

These observations appear to reduce all versions and expressions of religious thought and experience into a single concept: a delusion, an obsession, a neurosis. Yet religion appears to be a vastly more complicated concept than these reductionist witticisms suggest. The religious tent is large, creating space for much human activity, some of which can be destructive or constructive. The destructive side of religion is often at the core of reductionist views, and there is much damage to notice. …

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