Bruce Johns column mug

“I could not say I believe. I know! I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God. …I find that all my thoughts circle around God like the planets around the sun and are as irresistibly attracted by Him. I would feel it to be the grossest sin if I were to oppose any resistance to this force.” – Carl Jung

The man sitting on the sofa across from me had begun speaking about his spiritual quandaries. Mid-sentence he stopped, looked at me quizzically, and apologized: “I’m sorry, it’s not okay for you to talk with me about religion, is it?”

There is sometimes a public perception of an unbridgeable chasm between psychology and religion. I had run into it early on when I divulged to a few friends that I was going to grad school in psychology. With concerned faces they asked: “Don’t most people that go into that field end up losing their faith?” They believed that psychology was antithetical to religious conviction.

There are legitimate reasons for such views. In the U.S., 50 percent of professors of psychology do not believe in God and another 11 percent are agnostic. While university professors, as a whole, are not known for their religiosity, psychologists lead the pack as the most irreligious of an already faith-challenged group.

Psychologists’ antipathy toward religion has historical underpinnings. The early statements of some of psychology’s founding fathers were often less than congenial toward theology. Freud thought religion was a mechanism that civilizations use to impose their moral standards. He said, “The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that … it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.” John Watson pronounced religion a “bulwark of medievalism.”

When B.F. Skinner was asked if he was trying to improve religion, he said, “I prefer to get rid of it.” Albert Ellis dismissed theistic beliefs as “irrational and maladaptive.” Compared to other physicians, psychiatrists are the least likely to attend church or believe in God and the most likely to believe that religion causes guilt, anxiety, or other negative emotions that contribute to patient suffering.

Historically, the fields of psychology and psychiatry either ignored or pathologized a person’s religious experiences, which were interpreted as either regression into childhood, psychosis, or brain pathology. Some believed religious conviction to be an attempt to protect the ego from facing the reality of nihilism.

Early psychologists sought to align themselves with the hard sciences and their empirical methods. At the time, psychology was a budding discipline and perhaps proponents feared their fledgling field not being taken seriously. Adherents therefore shunned anything subjective, internal or supernatural.

Traditionally, America has been and still is a very spiritual nation. A 2017 Pew poll found that 80 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Even among the 19 percent of non-believers, 9 percent believed in a higher power.

Research suggests such devotion can be a very good thing. Higher levels of religiosity are linked with lower rates of stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance abuse, chronic pain and suicidal behavior. It is also linked with better physical health and higher levels of self-esteem, optimism, hope and increased feelings of internal control, happiness, well-being and social support. Prayer and meditation have been shown to reduce tension and anxiety, diminish self-blame and stabilize emotions. The benefits of religiosity show up particularly during periods of heightened stress or during life-changing events when belief facilitates adjustment to major change.

Psychiatrist Harold Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center, says one of the reasons that people who are more religious seem to cope better is that their faith gives them a sense of purpose and meaning, which helps them make sense of negative events. Additionally, their religious community often provides needed support and encouragement through hard times.

Religion can be a two-edged sword. Psychologist Kenneth Pargament says seeing God as loving and supportive yields benefits, while believing that one is being punished by or abandoned by God is linked to higher rates of depression and diminished quality of life. A view of God as threatening, unreliable, disinterested or angry yields greater distress and can be more harmful than helpful.

Given America’s fondness for spirituality, it is not surprising that when it comes to working with a counselor, two thirds of Americans prefer to see a therapist with spiritual values who is comfortable integrating those values into psychotherapy. Nevertheless, given the historical antipathy between psychology and religion, many people, like the man I was seeing, assume that it’s inappropriate to bring up religious issues in therapy, although they might want to.

That’s unfortunate for two reasons. First, can a person feel accepted and understood by his counselor — vital conditions of positive therapeutic outcome — if they have to avoid talking about issues or beliefs that are potentially as central and potent as spirituality. Secondly, religious issues are frequently intertwined with other personal problems and religious views often affect both self-perception and one’s world-view.

The unique atmosphere offered through psychotherapy can be utilized to explore feelings, misgivings, values and assumptions while exploring what role a person’s beliefs and practices have played previously in attempts to cope with stresses. Such reconnaissance may help sort out ideas and feelings about sources of meaning, hope and help. Furthermore, when a client is able to draw upon the strength of his religious beliefs and practices, chances increase for successful therapeutic outcomes in other problem areas.

As psychology matures, its historic antipathy toward religion — and religion’s historic suspiciousness of psychology — appears to be breaking down. Increasingly, therapists understand the value of respecting and employing a person’s religious beliefs and are open to helping patients utilize their spiritual strengths. They also appreciate the benefits of a cooperative partnership with clergy.

Carl Jung, Freud’s most famous mentee, was ahead of his time. He believed that incorporating spirituality into psychotherapy was crucial to personal healing because it connected the “unconscious” to larger divine forces in the universe. The calling for those who choose a career within the sacred space of psychotherapy today is to respect each client’s wellspring of meaning, find the good and virtuous within those beliefs, and attempt to apply them for the person’s psychological benefit.

And as for me and my house, when it comes to asking spiritual questions in therapy, ask away.

Dr. Bruce Johns is a clinical psychologist at Mt. Logan Clinic. He can be reached at brucerjohns@gmail.com.

Dr. Bruce Johns is a clinical psychologist at Mt. Logan Clinic. He can be reached at brucerjohns@gmail.com.

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