I had a conversation with my father the other day where he asked me about alternatives to therapy for those who would prefer a more religious route. This question confused me, as I don’t believe that religion and therapy are mutually exclusive, any more than I believe that one is necessary for the other.
As a former practicing Catholic, I understand the desire to engage in a faith-based approach to healing; faith is often what keeps a person grounded and gives them hope for better things and that they serve a great purpose and/or entity. Many therapists practice faith-based therapy, and intertwine their personal religious beliefs into their work with clients. Many clients seek out therapists whose religious beliefs and/or practice coincide with their own. When the clinician and the client are on the same page, it works. When they are not, it doesn’t go so well.
I have had many clients over the years tell me that they’ve had therapists in the past who have tried to push a religious approach when it was not welcome. My stance as a therapist when it comes to things like this is based in the teaching of Carl Rogers. He said that there are three attributes needed to form a healthy therapeutic alliance. The first is congruence, which necessitates that the therapist be authentic with their clients by letting them see that although they are an expert in their field, they are human and have struggled, too. This facilitates the second, which is accurate empathy, or the ability to sense and understand the client’s world and their experiences in it, while refraining from judgement. That lack of judgment leads to the third principle, which is unconditional positive regard. It is not the therapist’s job to approve or disapprove of the client or their choices, and by expressing unconditional positive regard, the therapist expresses a complete lack of judgement and creates an environment of acceptance.
In my experience, those who advocate religion to others sometimes do so because they feel that religion will provide some moral compass that they believe the other person lacks, which is based in judgment. That’s not the only reason, but even when that’s not the intention, it is often the received message. But that’s not our role as therapists. If you are not interested in faith-based therapy, most therapists (whether they specialize in faith-based counseling or not) will do one of two things: proceed with the type of therapy best suited to your needs or refer you to someone who can. Same goes if you’re looking for faith-based therapy.
My personal practice in regards to religion in therapy is this: I don’t bring up religion until my client does. I don’t advocate my personal views to the client. If they express that they believe something particular, I ask about it. If it is a religion I’m unfamiliar with, I learn about it. Even if it is one I feel well-versed in, I do my best to learn from my client what their beliefs are and work within those. Often, religion never comes up at all. And although I personally do not currently ascribe to any particular religion, I govern my life and my practice by this simple rule: let he among us without sin be the first to condemn.