Discussing Spirituality in Therapy May Be Appropriate

The majority of Americans believe in a higher power or God. Eighty percent of people living in the United States are affiliated with a structured form of religion, and the majority of those people consider their faith a significant aspect of their lives. “Thus, religion is likely to impact the lives of many counseling and therapy clients in the United States and may even play an integral part in their therapy,” said Marilyn A. Cornish of the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University. “A number of studies have found the large majority of mental health professionals to believe that religion and spirituality are relevant to the therapeutic process.” And yet, Cornish noted, not many therapists initiate the topic of religion or spirituality in their sessions. Therefore, Cornish led a study to determine why, even though therapists believe the use of spiritual or religious interventions are appropriate, they are underutilized. “The current online-questionnaire study was designed to describe how group counselors view and approach religion and spirituality in group counseling,” she said.

The participants, 242 group therapists, responded to an online survey and revealed that although the they believed that spirituality was appropriate in therapy, it was most fitting only in ambiguous and inactive forms. “Almost all found it appropriate to facilitate discussions of both spirituality and religion when a group member first brings up the topic,” said Cornish. “Most participants, however, did not regularly engage in more basic interventions, such as bringing up religion and spirituality or asking group members about their spiritual beliefs, despite the majority rating these as appropriate interventions.” Cornish believes that many clients who are resistant to bringing up personal topics may benefit from the therapist’s initiation of spirituality and religion and suggests that hesitant therapists overcome the hurdles that prevent them from doing so. She added, “Training and continuing education programs can help counselors learn to (a) navigate potential pitfalls that can occur when religion or spirituality are brought up in session; (b) use the interactions that emerge to highlight typical relationship patterns; and (c) steer conversations in a therapeutic direction.”

Cornish, M. A., Wade, N. G., & Post, B. C. (2011, December 26). Attending to Religion and Spirituality in Group Counseling: Counselors’ Perceptions and Practices. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026663

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  • Jeffrey


    January 5th, 2012 at 11:38 PM

    Problem is that religion has become a taboo in america. Speak of religion and you are often branded a religious fanatic or someone who is trying to push the Bible down someone’s throat. So people prefer not to speak of religion, although it can be highly advantageous in a setting such as therapy.

    There could be a question to the client about his religious belief and if the client consents,religion could be incorporated into the therapy. How do this sound?

  • bryan


    January 6th, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    I’m an atheist but I have no problem in saying that if it does work for some people and they would want to include then sure, why not!

  • AndrewDocherty


    January 6th, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    It’s a subject that needs to be approached with extreme caution. It can be rewarding, but one rule I grew up with was don’t talk about religion because you never know who you’re going to offend. Even the most deeply religious people might not want to discuss it, and misconstruing their beliefs could cost you a client if you offend them.

  • Devon


    January 6th, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    If spirituality gives you strength then why should you not cling to it at times when you need that support the most?

  • Nathaniel R.

    Nathaniel R.

    January 7th, 2012 at 3:39 AM

    @Andrew-Not just a client, it might even cost you your reputation. If you tell an atheist client for example that he needs to find Jesus to overcome his problems, you have crossed a line that blares out klaxons. My old counselor tried to push Jesus on me multiple times and I told him to knock it off eventually. I’m a Buddhist. I don’t follow Jesus.

  • DrewJ


    January 7th, 2012 at 7:51 AM

    I definitely think that spiritual matters should not be something that the therapist begins to explore unless the client expresses that this is something that he or she would be open to. There are going to be some clients who would easily embrace this point of view but then there are going to be others who will be totally against bringing spirituality into the discussion. I know that there are those who will feel comforted by this but others would be completely turned off so you do have to walk a fine line finding those who will respond to this and those who would be turned off by it.

  • lori


    January 8th, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    There are some clients that are really going to connect with this and some who will not. You have to find the things as a therapist that are going to motivate your patients to good behavior and not follow through with those that will not. A good therapist is going to recognize this and be able to make some good decisions about some methods that they should try and those that might work best for someone else.

  • Anthony M.

    Anthony M.

    January 9th, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    Therapist help people with body issues, the mind and spirit is part of our bodies. If there are physical issues in your body you can go to a physical therapist, if your have mind or spiritual issues in your body,you can go to a hypnotherapist or a life coach therapist. Spirituality and religion are a part of us and our ways, Therapist are professional and should know when to use it or not.

  • Amelia Grainger

    Amelia Grainger

    January 11th, 2012 at 12:52 AM

    The psychological benefits religion can have on people are very well documented. The downsides are equally well documented and as the above commenters said it’s very easy to offend someone. Any therapist who wants to take this road should take it very slowly, and until their client says otherwise, they should assume they are not religious at all.

  • darrel greenberg

    darrel greenberg

    January 11th, 2012 at 1:01 AM

    I don’t think a therapist’s personal belief system should seep over into their professional life. There has to be a division there somewhere. Religion is too inflammatory a topic. If you worked in Wal-mart you wouldn’t be allowed to go around discussing your beliefs with customers.

  • Sylvia Henry

    Sylvia Henry

    January 12th, 2012 at 12:54 AM

    I can name eight denominations of Christianity alone. The odds of a therapist being the same religion as their client is actually fairly low, unless they know how to talk to them in a religious sense. The best way for a therapist to go about this should simply be a passing comment like “If you need Jesus’ help, just ask.” No pressure.

  • dylanthemusicman


    January 12th, 2012 at 1:27 AM

    @Sylvia Henry: That is the best way, but using that particular phrase can easily drive away Jews, atheists, agnostics, or Muslims. There is absolutely no way to make their spiritual leanings known in a neutral way, so the whole idea is best left alone.

  • Jack


    August 22nd, 2014 at 6:58 AM

    I am an agnostic, leaning atheist, client who just encountered this kind of issue and I decided to end therapy (after a good two months of effort) because of it. My therapist was a devout Christian (in fact, ALL the counselors in the company went to conservative Christian Colleges), a reverand, an entrepreneur and was on the total opposite spectrum politically(although he didn’t come out and say it, it was obvious). He would mention that the Bible says this or that and it really annoyed me because I wasn’t there to hear about Bible teachings or what his religious views were. He went to a Christian College known as Liberty University which just totally me turned me off after I researched it. I’m not against religious-affiliated schools, but this school is particularly polarizing, especially since it was founded by Jerry Falwell. This was a problem for me because he didn’t have many tools outside of the spiritual/religious realm to help me fully. He did help me think more positively but ultimately we were just too far apart on core things, although we always got along just fine. In my opinion, as a client, I’d suggest that counselors don’t mention anything about spirituality, religion, or politics unless the client brings it up.

  • Daniel


    December 11th, 2014 at 6:14 PM

    I am in a group therapy setting at the moment, and religion is often brought up. There are several clients that broach the subject in an advice to all type of way in almost every session. This does annoy me being an atheist that grew up in a strict catholic household where it was crammed down my throat and has since become a trigger for anxiety. However I respect their right to talk freely in a group setting. It’s what we are there for. However the clinician running the group is also very vocal about her own religious beliefs. She brings them up in every session, even going so far as to invite people to her church. I’m considering leaving the group because of this. My opinion is a clinician should not use personal religious beliefs/opinions in such a group setting, and be impartial in the matter.

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