For psychotherapy, God has always been a problem. Among the scientific theories for understanding human behavior, the acknowledgement of the supernatural is generally lacking. Freud, the founder of our profession, saw God as an illusion based on the infantile need for a powerful father figure. To him, religion was a convenient instrument for controlling people – the institutional representation of the super-ego, or conscience.
Belief in God and psychotherapy share significant traits: hope, redemption, change, and their similarities spawn a slippery slope. Thus, every psychotherapist must come to grips with this pesky interface, for even Darwin, the secular scientist, observed, “A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal.”
A good percentage of therapists who hold strong religious faith unabashedly integrate it into their practice, convinced that faith trumps theory. Others steer far clear of the subject, believing that the power and influence incumbent in the therapist’s role is too potent to tread the hallowed ground of religion. A psychiatrist I trained with years ago acknowledged the power of belief, although he was scrupulously agnostic. At times, rather than explain to a patient the biological mechanisms of neuroscience, he would leverage the patient’s own belief system. Handing them a pill, he would say, “Let’s try this. It just might work.”
Logotherapy, a branch of existentialism founded by Viktor Frankl, seems to allow for both positions. Dr. Frankl posited that finding the meaning and purpose in one’s life is the task of living, and of psychotherapy. He said there are two paths to meaning: finding meaning that already exists in God (the teleological approach), or finding meaning in one’s own existence (the mechanistic approach).
In a 2011 Gallup poll, 92 percent of respondents stated they believed in a personal God. So simply ignoring The God Problem seems either impractical or specious. God is simply too ubiquitous – inhabiting even the consultation room.
Belief in God and psychotherapy has not been studied much, but recent research published in The Journal of Affective Disorders may start a new conversation.
Scientists at Harvard Medical School examined relationships between belief in God and treatment outcomes, and identified mediating mechanisms. Belief in God, treatment credibility/expectancy, emotion regulation and congregational support were assessed prior to treatment.
“Patients who had higher levels of belief in God demonstrated more effects of treatment,” said the study’s lead author, David Rosmarin. “They seemed to get more bang for their buck, so to speak.”
Of those who expressed the strongest belief in God, half also had very high expectations for the treatment, while 8% had very low expectations. In contrast, of the patients who said they had no belief in God or a higher power, only about 5% had high expectations for the treatment. Belief in God and psychotherapy, but not religious affiliation, was associated with better treatment outcomes. With respect to depression, this relationship was mediated by belief in the credibility of treatment and expectations for treatment gains.
So at least acknowledging the role of faith in psychotherapy now has some science behind it. Whether this is because of Pascal’s claim that there is a god-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man, we may never know. Maybe it’s as simple as my mentor claimed: “This just might work.”
For more on faith-based therapy in Sarasota, read on.