Including God in Psychotherapy: Strong vs. Weak Theism

By Slife, Brent D.; Stevenson, Tiffani D. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Including God in Psychotherapy: Strong vs. Weak Theism


Slife, Brent D., Stevenson, Tiffani D., Wendt, Dennis C., Journal of Psychology and Theology


The authors first attempt to conceptualize theistic psychotherapy by discussing the relationship between theism and naturalism. Many psychologists have assumed that naturalism and theism can be combined in various ways, so the authors review the more prominent of these combinations at the outset. They argue not only that these mixtures are "weak" (i.e., they restrain God in some way) but also that they ultimately assume naturalism is incompatible in many ways with theism. The authors compare "weak" theism with a "strong" theism that does not restrain God or rely on naturalistic assumptions. This comparison is elaborated by distinguishing a published example of strongly theistic psychotherapy from three common types of weakly theistic psychotherapy, with corresponding examples from the theistic literature.

Recent efforts to introduce spiritual and religious elements into psychology have opened the door to theistic approaches to psychotherapy (Miller & Delaney 2005; Richards & Bergin, 2004, 2005). Many researchers and psychotherapists have attempted to incorporate theistic features into psychotherapy, including prayer, moral values, and scripture readings (Richards & Bergin, 2004). However, several scholars have argued that a strong notion of theism rarely penetrates very deeply into the theories and practices that are labeled theistic (cf. Griffin, 2000; Jones, 2006; Richards & Bergin, 2005; Slife & Melling, 2006; Slife & Reber, 2009). These scholars have made various arguments that the naturalistic worldview of traditional science has deflected thoroughly theistic conceptions, even among those who personally embrace religion and/or spirituality. If this contention is true, then it has important implications for the progress of theistic approaches in the discipline. Indeed, it begs the question: what is a thoroughly theistic approach to psychological conceptualization and intervention?

Beginning to address this question is the purpose of the article. We first attempt to conceptualize theistic psychotherapy by discussing the relationship of theism to naturalism. Many psychologists have assumed that naturalism and theism can be combined in various ways, so we describe the more prominent of these combinations at the outset. We argue not only that these mixtures are "weak" (i.e., they restrain God in some way) but also that they ultimately assume naturalism is incompatible with theism in many ways. We then compare "weak" theism with a "strong" theism that does not restrain God or rely on naturalistic assumptions. This comparison is elaborated by distinguishing a published example of strongly theistic psychotherapy from three common types of weakly theistic psychotherapy, with corresponding published examples.

THEISM AND THEISTIC PSYCHOTHERAPY

In order to clearly define theism, especially in a science such as psychology, we must first understand its relation to the fundamental worldview of traditional science--naturalism. As the historian of psychology Thomas Leahey (1991) put it, naturalism is "science's central dogma" (p. 379). It directs psychologists to appeal to and study only natural events and processes, not "supernatural" events and processes, to understand and explain psychological phenomena (Collins, 1977; Griffin, 2000; Gunton, 1993; Leahey, 1991; Richards & Bergin, 2005; Russell, 2002; Smith, 2001). As we will discuss, this dualism of natural and supernatural can itself be problematic, but the point here is that the naturalism at issue in this article, whether it is labeled metaphysical or methodological, (1) makes the pre-investigatory assumption that God is not necessarily needed to conceptualize, conduct, or explain scholarship and psychotherapy in psychological science.

The relation between this form of naturalism and theism is controversial, with many scholars contending the two worldviews are incompatible (e.g., Collins, 1977; Gunton, 1993; Leahey, 1991; Richards & Bergin, 2005; Smith, 2001) and many others treating these two worldviews as completely, if not primarily, compatible (e. …

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