“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.’’

The French philosopher, Voltaire, was never more right than when he realized that humans have a very basic carnal need that can never be ignored; the need to worship. Throughout the course of history, mankind has been deeply invested in the worship of all different sorts and forms. Celestial bodies, forces of nature, a myriad of different deities and finally the Abrahamic God, to name a few. Regardless of what people believe in, the crux of the matter is that they believe. They believe in a certain anchor that is strong enough to breathe meaning into their existence and provide them with that much-needed sense of purpose.

Most identify as religious

According to Pew Research Centre (PRC), 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God or a Higher Being, and around 70% of Americans identify with an Abrahamic faith (comprising of Christianity, Islam and Judaism). From a strictly scientific point of view, this is extremely important to keep in hindsight as faith is an undeniable source of mental strength for the majority of people around us. Powerful emotions like happiness, melancholy, guilt, anger, gratitude are closely tied in with a person’s religious views, therefore, when it comes to treating a patient’s mental health, ignoring the elephant in the room doesn’t seem like the wisest thing to do. This is exactly why I believe that integrating an individual’s religion and spirituality into their psychotherapy is a notion that needs to be discussed and dissected.

As we progress as a society and explore various facets of the human mind, the individual and the society at large have realized the importance of mental health and psychotherapy. Intricate studies of the human mind and its behavior have uncovered mental disorders and behavioral abnormalities that were unheard of. Fortunately, owing to unprecedented levels of social awareness that electronic media has blessed us with, people have slowly started shedding their shells of ignorance and started accepting psychotherapy and psychiatric help as basic medical needs. 

Faith supplements healing

From being labeled as witchcraft to being called a pseudoscience to finally being accepted as a legitimate science of rehabilitation, psychotherapy has indeed come a long way, but it still has much further to go. Since much of psychology and psychotherapy has been conceived by prominent atheist think tanks like Sigmund Freud, Burrhus Skinner, and their likes, religion has always been kept out of the critical discussions. Although this helped to keep the studies free of much religious bias, the strong secular bias that one finds in classical texts is unmistakable. Surprising as it may sound, credible scientific literature suggests that religion is almost indispensable when it comes to the psychological well-being of religious clients. Researchers (most notably Brewer-Smyth, & Koenig, 2014; Faigin & Pargament, 2011; Blando, 2006; Koenig, 2001) show that religious elements, such as praying/meditating, engaging in community service and/or religious events, etc, when integrated into the patient’s counseling, accelerate the process of their psychological rehabilitation.

Why should religion be integrated?

One might naturally wonder, why introduce religious sensitivity to psychotherapy now, when it has classically been areligious? Well, there is a strong rationale for that, as stated by Dr. Jeffrey E. Barnett, professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland:

  1. i) Religious and spiritual issues may be relevant to the underlying issues that prompt clients to seek treatment. These can include conflicts over religious values, crises of faith, feelings of alienation from one’s religion, and distortion of religious beliefs and practices, among others.
  1. ii) The client’s religious and spiritual beliefs and faith community are often sources of strength and support that may be accessed in the course of psychotherapy to assist clients to achieve their treatment goals.

iii) Dr. Kenneth I. Pargament, a leading expert in the field of psychology, adds: Surveys show that people would like to be able to talk about matters of faith in psychological treatment. By communicating their own interest in religion and spirituality, psychologists open the door to what may become a richer, deeper conversation.

Thus, as suggested by relevant clinical literature, brushing aside or willingly turning a blind eye to a patient’s religious and spiritual beliefs and values translates to not treating them holistically. It is also pertinent to the discussion that instead of the psychotherapist’s spiritual and/or religious beliefs and values, it is the patient’s that demand attention and significance.

The need for additional training

Keeping in mind how such a customized approach to an individual can greatly benefit them, it would be a no-brainer not to teach and normalize the integration of religion and spirituality in therapy to practitioners. I wish things were that simple. Regardless of the ample contemporary evidence supporting such integration, it is a glaring truth that an overwhelming chunk of psychotherapeutic schools of thought has been conceptualized by Western scholars. This means that, naturally, only a handful of psychotherapists are trained to work with patients belonging to religiously diverse backgrounds. 

Moreover, there’s not only a lack of training but also a lack of knowledge. A prerequisite for effective religiously sensitive counseling is a thorough comprehension and understanding of the patient’s religious and spiritual values and beliefs. This would require extensive and rigorous training of psychotherapists in major faiths so that they could understand and accept the religious identities of such patients. It goes without saying that this is easier said than done and despite offering promising results, the task of inculcating religious sensitivity into psychotherapy, which is enshrouded in a particularly secular atmosphere, is an arduous task to say the least.

Final word

All in all, the induction of religion and spirituality can greatly aid psychotherapists in bringing about positive changes in their patients, but in order to actually bring forth the fruits of such counseling, the therapists have to be grounded in their knowledge and strong in empathy. This would also set the bar higher for psychotherapists as it would demand from them, a higher level of quality; highly-trained professionals who self-reflect and are in harmony with their own beliefs and principles before they can go on to fix those who are struggling. Standing on the shoulders of contemporary research, psychotherapy can finally enter a new phase of holistic healing: By science, through faith.

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