Psychotherapy has traditionally been solidly secular, and along the way garnered a reputation for actually being dismissive and scornful of religious belief. Sigmund Freud considered religion to be an illusion, akin to Marx’s opinion of religion as an opiate. Interestingly enough, Freud’s followers are still frequently called his “disciples” as often as they are called psychoanalysts. Numerous clinical modalities (ways of trying to help people deal with emotional suffering) have evolved since Freud, and I personally consider adopting a strictly psychoanalytic viewpoint is like using sulfa drugs for an infection, rather than antibiotics.
These days, however, a majority of therapists are comfortable with and skilled at incorporating a person’s spiritual/religious beliefs and sensibilities into the therapeutic process. Spirituality is a human quest for meaning, values, and purpose, which does not necessarily posit the concept of a transcendent being, or God. Religion is the communal expression of spirituality, and, to a greater or lesser extent, indicates a shared set of beliefs and practices. Therapists can develop an understanding of differing religious beliefs and practices in the same way they develop other cultural competencies. Cross-cultural competence is now a requirement for licensure for most of the mental health disciplines.
Spirituality tends to focus on the inner journey, and can include related practices such as yoga and meditation. Religious practice generally includes participation in communal worship. To be authentic, both spiritual and religious practices must improve my relationship with myself and with others. If someone is truly seeking meaning and purpose for their own life, that search will always bring them into closer connection with the lives of others.
There is such a thing as religious and spiritual maturity, and it can frequently be convergent with emotional maturity. Organized religious groups can run the gamut from an inclusive, communal best to an exclusive, dogmatic worst. This cuts across denominational lines – for example, a rigid fearful, judgmental Christian will have more in common with a rigid, fearful, judgmental Muslim or Jew than with a Christian who is guided by compassion and called to justice.
If clients are so inclined, together we may explore their concept of a deity. If a client relates to God as to a parent, this can be reassuring or terrifying, depending upon childhood experience. We may discuss the client’s conception of sin, and if too narrowly focused on individual salvation, I encourage the client to broaden his perspective. If he or she is part of a religious organization, we might explore that from a systems perspective. This includes how conflicts are handled, whether the hierarchy is inclusive and flexible, how gender, race, age, and sexual orientation are addressed, and if there is a process that deals with errant members, is it restorative or punitive. If a client wishes, I will work in concert with their clergyperson.
Almost all faith traditions, and also secular humanism, include some variant of the concept that one should love one’s neighbor as one would love oneself. This concept is especially helpful with clients who have had to function in the adaptive position in a relationship, or who have been diminished or abused. I emphasize that we are not called to love our neighbors instead of, or better than, ourselves. While encouraging love of others, self-love is also a given.
Martin Buber contrasted relationships as “I-Thou” or I-It”. Eric Berne might term the latter as “I’m okay, you’re not okay”. In our current polarized cultural context, there’s way too much “I-It” going on. Religion and spirituality can enable conversations about just this, and identify ways of relating.
For example, understanding, empathy, and compassion are all different things. Understanding takes place on a cognitive level, and involves coming to know another and the internal and external forces that impact them. Empathy occurs on an emotional, limbic, level, when one comes to perceive and resonate with the inner life of another. Compassion takes place on a sacrificial level, when one affiliates with another at the point of suffering and walks beside them. Therapists who are capable of compassion are worth their weight in gold.