Faith and Therapy

by 26Health Staff

I had a conversation with my father where he asked me about an alternative to therapy for those who would prefer a more religious route. I thought about it and landed on my position.

Religion and therapy aren’t 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 might be what keeps you grounded. It could be where you find hope for better things to come – the foundation of your sense of purpose. 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 practices 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.

The Foundation of a Healthy Therapeutic Alliance

I have had many clients over the years tell me that they’ve had therapists in the past who tried to push religion in therapy as an alternative when it was not welcome. My stance as a therapist when it comes to things like this is based on the teaching of Carl Rogers. He said that there are three attributes needed to form a healthy therapeutic alliance: Congruence, Accurate Empathy, and Unconditional Positive Regard. 

Sit and ponder those three things for a minute. It’s profound.

Congruence requires 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 point: accurate empathy, or the ability to sense and understand the client’s world and their experiences while refraining from judgment. That lack of judgment leads to the third principle: unconditional positive regard. It is not the therapist’s job to disapprove of the client or their choices; by expressing unconditional positive regard, the therapist expresses a complete lack of judgment and creates an environment of acceptance.

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. That’s not the only reason, but even when that’s not the intention, it is often the received message. This is based on judgment, but that is not my role as a therapist. It is not the role of any therapist.

Whether you’re interested in faith-based therapy as an alternative to therapy or not, a good therapist (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. 

Religion in Therapy Should be Guided by the Client

My personal practice in regards to religion in therapy is this: I don’t talk about religion unless my client does. I don’t express my personal views on faith to my client. If my client practices 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 about their beliefs and work within those. 

That’s the key to accurate empathy. Look for that in your therapist.