Author Guidelines
Editorial Board
Related Links
Contact Us

a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2007
Vol. 34 No. 2

Exploring Religion and Christianity as Points of Diversity within Counseling Training Programs


Robbie J. Steward, Matthew A. Miller, Amber Roberts, Rebecca Slavin, Alfiee Breland, and Douglas Neil


The tension between psychology and religion originates with Freud’s, the Father of Psychology, atheism.1 Freud challenged established religion and perceived it as a socially constructed fiction, and religious beliefs as defense mechanisms.2 His "enlightened rationalism" pathologized and marginalized religious beliefs as childish allusions3 that were to be conceptualized as a system combining repression of drives, substitutive symbolic wish-fulfillment, and anxiety reducing behavior.4 Some authors have attributed Freud’s obvious disdain for religion to his unsatisfactory and fearful relationship with his mother5, while others have highlighted his ambivalence about his Jewish ethnicity and his distant relationship with his father.6 Regardless of the etiology of his depreciation of religion, the resulting rift between psychology and religion has been maintained for almost a century and represents a long-standing tradition of psychology’s favoring Freud’s interpretation of religion as a "compulsion neurosis of mankind".7 The results of this historical disconnection is twofold: a) a considerable number of psychologists view religious belief as a reflection of individuals’ neuroses, pathological guilt, and unhealthy dependency; b) some religious individuals avoid or approach psychological services, psychological literature, and the profession of psychology with skepticism or hesitation.

Although many leaders, theoreticians, researchers, and practitioners alike, have adopted and embraced Freud’s understanding of the influence of religious beliefs on psychological well-being and emotional development, throughout the 20th Century (i.e., Albert Ellis’s emotional disturbance hypothesis)8, there have always been psychologists who did not (i.e., G. Stanley Hall, W. D. Fairbairn, H. Kohut, D.W. Winnicott, A. Roland, A. M. Rizulto, and M. H. Spero).9 However, in the last decade the historical anti-religious zeitgeist within psychology has been confronted with a seemingly stronger and more concerted voice. This more concerted voice that raises questions about the long-standing, anti-religious stance may have occurred for two primary reasons.

One reason may be that for the first time in the history of the profession, a critical mass of 43% of psychologists report a belief in God.10 A second reason is multiculturalism, defined as the 4th Force in Psychology, providing a context for attending to religion, a point of cultural diversity, in training.11 Within this climate, improved statistical procedures and research methodology also appeared. Consequently, the body of literature addressing the relationship between religion and psychology has been transformed. Academicians and practitioners are challenged to rethink the role of religion in work with clients and in the training of future psychologists.

Browning’s question provides an appropriate frame for the current dialogue within the profession: "Can psychology escape religion?"12 Browning purports the evolution of psychology into a modern academic discipline that supports research and practice in dialogue with a broad philosophical anthropology, informed by religion. His obvious answer to his question is a resounding "no" which seems to be shared in a number of colleagues’ conceptual articles.13 Even the mainstream media has most recently acknowledged the new positive attention and respect that religion has gained in the eyes of the intellegencia in higher education.14

In addition to these conceptual pieces, there are results from empirical studies that challenge psychology’s tendency to pathologize individuals having religious beliefs. In a review of 148 empirical studies over a ten-year period, Worthington, Kurusu, McCollough, & Sandage concluded that: religious people cannot be assumed to be mentally unhealthy; non-religious and religious counselors share counselor related values; and, religious differences do affect clinical judgment and behavior particularly with religious clients.15 The following is a brief overview of the empirical studies that attend to the influence of religion in client characteristics, efficacy of treatment modalities, and on practitioners’ counseling competence.


Religion and Clients


Bartholomew & O’Dea argued that contemporary Eurocentric norms and values continue to be superimposed onto various deviant religious convictions and expressions occurring both transculturally and transhistorically.16 He proposes that even today religious devoutness is construed as pathology within psychology. There are a number of empirical studies that support this notion. Scott found no significant differences between religious and non-religious students in prevalence of depression, shame, or psychological well-being.17 No empirical evidence was found supporting Albert Ellis’s religiosity emotional-disturbance hypothesis. McIntosh, Silver, & Wortman found that religious clients coping with the death of child perceived greater social support, had more positive meaning in the loss, and experienced overall less distress than non-religious clients.18 Similarly, religious female clients in early stages of breast cancer, reported religion as having a mediating effect of optimism on distress.19 Rice and Ryan, Rigby, & King found that religious beliefs serve as a means of control and for inhibiting gratification of self-defeating instinctual drives among adolescents.20 Mahoney, Pargament, Jewell, Swank, Scott, Emery, & Rye found a positive influence of religion in marital functioning.21


Religion and Treatment Modalities


In a study of treatment modalities with religious clients, Propst, Ostrom, Watkins, Dean, & Mashburn, found that religious and pastoral counseling cognitive behavioral treatments resulted in lower post-treatment depression and more positive psychological adjustment than non-religious cognitive-behavioral treatment and no treatment at all (control).22 McCollough found that the use of religious treatment modalities with depressed clients was no more effective than non-religious treatment, however, religious clients reported a preference for treatment that attended to their religious beliefs.23 McCullough noted that "given the importance of religion to many potential consumers of psychological services, counseling psychologists should devote greater attention to religion-accommodative counseling in future studies".24 In a case study, Neilsen, Johnson, & Ridley presented an effective religious sensitive Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Theory, and Technique.25 May reported a case indicating a negative bias against a religious client in a clinician’s use of the DSM-III-R as a means of diagnosis.26 May suggested that there is a need for a careful examination of the potential harm that this system for diagnosis might have for religious clients.


Religious Beliefs and Practitioners


McMinn & Wade found that Christian therapists were no more likely to diagnose dissociative identity disorder or sexual abuse among clients than non-religious therapists; however, they were more apt to diagnose ritual abuse.27 Michels, Johnson, Hornung, & Updike found that physicians’ religiosity was also found to be significantly related to their treatment of substance abusers and practice pattern characteristics.28

Religion is of emerging interest to many social scientists.29 Given the growing awareness of the influence of religion upon theory development, research, and practice, it should be no surprise that members of the profession recommend strategies to attend to religion within training programs.

Vachon & Agresti proposed a training model to guide mental health professionals in the clarification and management of implicit values in counseling process.30 Yarhouse provides suggestions for ways clinicians may obtain skills to offer competent assessments and interventions with religiously committed client using the American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.31 Worthington identified five reasons why religious values should be explored within counselor education.32 First, the majority of the population identifies as having religious beliefs. Second, many people turn to religion when undergoing emotional crisis to manage their problems, even if they are not particularly active or have not been recently active in formal religion. Third, many clients experience inhibitions around presenting their religious beliefs or issues as a component of secular therapy. Fourth, therapists are not generally as religious as their clients are. Finally, because therapists are often not as religiously oriented as their clientele is, many professional helpers are not as informed to be of maximum benefit to many of their clients. Such authors believe that psychologists will become more effective and relevant when we acknowledge the reality that most of the population within this country reports a belief in God and that this belief warrants special attention in training settings. Kelly purported that accreditation standards for counselor preparation should include attention to religion.33 These recommendations become even more meaningful given that in the United States of America, 92% of the population is affiliated with a religion and 96% profess a belief in God.34 In addition, 42% attend weekly religious service, and 60% indicate that religion is "important" or "very important" in their lives.35 In order to best understand the experiences of most individuals within our current society, it would seem important to attend to religion as a point of diversity within training programs.

In addition, other mental health professions are acknowledging the importance of the inclusion of religion in curriculum and training of service providers. Prest, Layne, Russel, and D’Souza and Patterson, Hayworth, Turner, and Raskin suggest the inclusion of religion in marriage and family graduate training curricula and in the professional supervision process.36 A number of faculty in psychiatry programs have concluded from results of empirical studies that attention to religion is critical intraining and supervision describes a psychiatry resident and psychology intern training program in issues surrounding spirituality, faith, and religion.37 Recommendations have been made to attend to religion in the training of all board-certified physicians.38 Respect for the inclusion of religion in training exceeds the boundaries of counseling and counseling psychology. At this point in time, there has been no follow-up in the literature addressing the degree to which training programs actually attend to religion as a relevant point of diversity. The present pilot study addresses three research questions using a qualitative design. This design was chosen given that this is the initial work addressing the topic and the exploratory nature of the study. The first research question asks, are training programs addressing religion as a component of diversity? The intent is to examine the level of preparedness counselor trainees may have in working with religious clients.

Another purpose of this study is to examine Christian trainees’ perceptions of and experiences in training. The term Christian describes individuals who use Bible-based principles as a basis to guide day to day decision-making. (This specific focus was selected given Freud’s strongest negative reaction to the belief in the Judeo-Christian Bible-based faith and because that this group represents the largest religious groups represented within this country at this time.) In spite of the prevalence of Christianity in the USA, a most recent review of the literature using PsycArticles found that only 15 articles out of 405 (3.7%) that attended to religion specifically addressed Christianity. The results of a most recent PsycArticles review indicated that only 1 article out of the 43 that attended to religion specifically addressed Christianity (2.3%). It seems that the focus on Christianity continues to be limited by researchers and scholars in our discipline. Given the significantly lower representation of believers in God within the profession of psychology it would seem important to not only explore the experience of this special population within the profession, but to examine perceptions of faculty and peers around this point of difference in interactions with them.39 Therefore, the second and third research questions are designed specifically to examine the following critical points: What are the experiences of trainees with one another in attending to this point of diversity among them? What are faculty members’ perceptions of Christian trainees in terms of counseling competence and adjustment issues in professional development? Responses to both lines of inquiry move toward a better understanding of the training dilemmas directly related to "cultural collisions" between Bible-based believers and those who base their beliefs on other principles that are equally as important to them.40


[To Read More]