When Your Therapist Doesn’t Share Your Faith

A few potential clients asked me this the first time we spoke on the phone:

Are you Christian?

Since I’m not, the call soon ended.

I never tried to talk them out of their decision. Not that I could have.

The choice of practitioner involves numerous factors, but one shouldn’t dismiss the importance of religion. For many, it represents a major pillar of their lives and a source of sustenance.

Nor should the helping professional disregard it in a new client who never asked about whether he believed in a higher power.

A counselor must respect your creed. The doctrine you hold offers guidance in morality. Therefore, you possess the right to expect the practitioner to be principled, even if not identical to yourself in his every value and code of conduct.

From this retired clinician’s standpoint, a professional who adheres to a different faith requires two levels of acceptance of his new patient:

First, she needs to remember the beliefs and motivations of the human race are dependent on a large component of instinct and emotion. Because we lack scientific proof of God’s existence, religious differences begin from a base of uncertainty.

No wonder there are thousands of Christian denominations alone, all basing justification for their understanding of proper Christianity on the same book.

No one in the mental health profession encounters a robot-like slice of humanity without a core of emotion. If such people existed anywhere, they would consult computer programmers for all their sadness and anxiety.

Second, the practice of treatment with words includes the ability to accept homo sapien frailty. No healer has every answer.

He must recognize his own limitations, his patient’s foibles and model for the client a generous, empathic embrace of the human condition despite the condition of humanity.

Some of those in search of psychological help believe shared faith ensures security. Unfortunately, supposed identical beliefs may enhance a false sense of safety and enlarge the opportunity for the authority figure to harm one who comes for his aid.

A therapist always starts by playing catch-up. He attempts to accumulate information about this woman or man with speed. The client’s belief system adds to his understanding.

I treated adherents to multiple forms of many religions and of no religion. To understand Christians, I read historical volumes and enlarged my familiarity with the New Testament. I also began to educate myself about Buddhism when I worked with my first adherent to this Eastern way of living.

In cases involving sexual abuse, I occasionally consulted ministers or priests who were not among my clientele. Misfortunes challenging to the patient’s faith led me to encounter questions impossible to respond to from a position of religious authority. Among these was how a supposedly all-good and all-powerful Deity permitted such suffering.

When one woman wondered how to manage her rage toward God. I encouraged her to meet with a sympathetic priest. He offered her a transformational change in viewpoint:

If you choose to speak to the Lord about your anger, that too is a form of prayer.

Her faith remained intact.

On occasion, the helping professional walks an invisible line between supporting the client and undermining her credo. He takes care not to rob the sufferer of the spiritual reliance upon which she depends.

Too often, a patient encounters co-religionists who shun her because of her alleged moral failure or absence of prompt forgiveness of devastating injuries.

The same challenge occurs if she is told her emotional pain demonstrates a lack of commitment to the Almighty’s requirements. So-called righteous individuals have been known to blame unhappiness on insufficient prayer or shaky fidelity to dogma.

The counselor needs to negotiate this tightrope-like pathway regardless of his own doctrinal attitudes or their absence. The personal bias of an atheist social worker is not necessarily less or more than the prejudice held by a therapist who belongs to the patient’s community of faith.

Religion can connect the individual to something beyond himself. Our secular and isolated world of individualism leaves many without a sense of higher values. I needn’t explain the problems of too great a focus on the self, material success, or the tribe.

While religious differences present unique challenges, other variables also impact the doctor-patient relationship. These include age, race, nationality, gender, background, politics, personality, sexual identity, therapeutic orientation, and more.

Experienced and talented counselors work to create the human connection needed for healing. When such souls are suited to their vocation, they welcome the enlargement of their own humanity by encountering and assisting people unlike them.

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All three of the images are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is The Battle between the Gods and the Giants, 1608, by Joachim Antonisz Wtewael. Next comes Sunset, 1930, by Paul Klee. Finally, Bodhisattva, from 8th century, Japan.

26 thoughts on “When Your Therapist Doesn’t Share Your Faith

  1. Jo Ellen Reaves

    As a Christian who benefited greatly from your wise counsel, I can attest to the fact that you walked that invisible line and it helped me develop into the person I am today. Thank you for your integrity, care, and professionalism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This means a great deal to me, Jo Ellen. I can’t even put it into words. I can only say that to know how far you came during and after our contact was beyond remarkable. Your “being” is testimony to what can sometimes, too rarely, be accomplished by a combination of courage and faith. I’m glad I could help and lucky to have been along for part of the journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. lydiahopebakker

    I also am a Christian who sees a therapist who is an atheist. She’s amazing though, and so professional! I pray for her regularly…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lydia. In the past year a friend of over 50 years surprised me by telling me he prayed for me. He, too, is an atheist. And, I recently discovered for myself, despite my lack of belief in a supreme being, I also was able, for the first time since I was an early teen, to pray for someone. To do so, at least in my own case, was offered in hope.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Gerald, a very interesting post, I am a Christian and the psychologist I worked with for 61/2 years is an atheist, it never got in our way of developing a really good working relationship, there was a mutual respect for each other’s beliefs and in fact he was able to work with my very damaged religious history very well. He also contributed highly to repairing some of the damage that exists in my relationship with God, he accepted God as being another very significant person in my life, all the time us both knowing that he didn’t believe he exists. The help he gave to me with this was more effective than speaking to my spiritual advisors as they are not trained psychologists, but having a respectful outsiders perspective from my psychologist without being in any way dismissive to my faith is something I am incredibly thankful for. I don’t think he will ever understand how much his willingness to work with my faith and help to heal some of the damage meant to me, it was some of his finest work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Claire. Thank you for your own interesting story. It may be that he benefited from working with you, as well, in terms of enlarging himself. Although it is a cliche for me to say so, my own experience as a therapist enabled my growth on a number of occasions. Life does not permit any of us, including therapists and their patients, to sit still. We are forever stretching ourselves as new challenges arise. All the best to you, Claire.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr. Stein, as you mention in your concluding remarks, the unique challenges of religious differences is just one of several variables that impact the doctor-patient relationship. Your openness to research other religions in order to help a client is quite admirable and explains why I have had no trouble in connecting with you in such a positive way.

    Your remarks that “the helping professional…takes care not to rob the sufferer of the spiritual reliance upon which she depends” brought to mind a conversation I once had with my atheist, white American friend who died four years ago. Her efforts to win me over to her atheist beliefs, I told her, would serve only to drive me to despair in the oppressive world in which I live and navigate. She never fully understood that, while we shared the same spaces when we were out together, we lived in different worlds.

    I appreciate the point you make about believing that shared faith would ensure one’s security. You note: “Unfortunately, supposed identical beliefs may enhance a false sense of safety and enlarge the opportunity for the authority figure to harm one who comes for his aid.” That can so easily happen when one is most vulnerable.

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    • Thank you for this, Rosaliene. I’m glad it resonated, especially since faith and vocation mean something of importance to you. For what it is worth, I counseled a handful of Protestant ministers, was trained during my internship by a psychologist who had been a Catholic priest, and had a few friends who also had left the priesthood. The role of religion in human life never seemed beside the point, though I also had to learn not to judge, a continuing challenge for those of us who encounter the world of today.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Both of my therapists are Jewish, one being a cultural Jew who is an atheist, and I purposely sought someone who was not Catholic or Evangelical. This has worked well for me as an agnostic and I have always been interested in the Jewish faith. I imagine you were excellent with your patients.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Nancy. You actually raised a significant question that has long been part of the conversation about what it means to be Jewish. Can one be Jewish without being religious? Apparently, that question depends on who you ask. Most gentiles, I imagine, don’t think about it. Hitler and most anti-Semites have their own answer, one of racial (not religious) identity. Therefore, no matter how long one’s family had been practicing Christianity (perhaps even going back hundreds of years), a Jew was still a Jew. Thus, for them, being Jewish was as much racial as being, say, black. The word “cultural” you use, suggests there might be an additional category, which would mean (perhaps) that a gentile raised in a Jewish neighborhood might actually be considered a “cultural” Jew! Anyway, just a few thoughts on the subject.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Dr. Stein…My therapist was raised in Montreal and his parents were scientists, who were atheists but culturally Jewish. He was raised in a Jewish neighborhood, attended Hebrew school instead of the Canadian school system, was Bar Mitzvahed, and attended the shul. His parents wanted him to learn the Jewish culture because they were not thrilled with the public school system. He is brilliant, and it is not because of some weird transference on my part. He truly is a brilliant man and has a high intellect. To ease into therapy, we will chit chat about Jewish culture. He has lived in Spain and is well versed in the Sephardic tradition. Another sign of his intellect, is his love of classical music and he is well versed in that. When I mention rock and roll or blues musicians, he knows nothing about any of them as his only interest is classical. You both would get along very well. Since he trained in Chicago, I have often wondered if your paths have crossed.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What about the role of “faith”, often mostly irrational, in therapy itself? Must the client be able to have faith in the therapist? What can therapists do to engender faith?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A terrific question, Herman. I’d extend your suggestion to the broader, often irrational faith in medical care, at least to the extent that the individual knows little about how it works. We want our advisors and caregivers to enable us to heal and prefer to believe they work miracles. Sometimes, metaphorically speaking, they do.

    Concerning therapy, there are many conditions for which empirically supported treatments exist. If one does research, one needn’t rely upon faith alone.

    A therapist can cite such research when he explains his choice of treatment. This might engender such faith, or perhaps transform the need for faith to something more like confidence. Of course, the therapist’s own confidence in himself and the online ratings he has received might do so, as well. In the end, his behavior within the sessions and the progress a patient makes will confirm the client’s expectations or cause a “loss of faith.” Hope this answers your questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It becomes especially hard for the LGBTQ+ community and other communities when the therapist’s religion gets in the way of their therapeutic alliance with their clients. I think I heard some mental health professionals deny treatment because it wouldn’t be a good fit, due to the therapist’s religious beliefs. I wonder what the ethics books say about that, Dr. S? It seems like there’s a need for more diverse therapists, I would think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting question. I think there has been diversity within the therapeutic community for a long time with respect to religion, males and females, and straight or gay therapists. I am not up on whether there are enough therapists to cover all the other categories which tend to define diversity today.

      I also believe those making some of the referrals you describe as “not a good fit” may be influenced by their own biases. The physicians I have seen over the years would cover most of the colors in a rainbow. It would be nice if the first question asked about a health care professional was his level of competence and experience. Certainly, as a patient and as a referrer, that is the way I always approached the situation, but we do now live in a different time.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. My personal history with spiritual abuse entails many things. But in terms of receiving pastoral counseling in the past, I can say that I felt like I was not good enough for heaven or the afterlife, and that I felt worse about myself as a “sinner” than I ever did when I decided to focus solely on spiritual healing in my own way. In fact, when I was at a trauma treatment facility, they had a module for spiritual healing that freed me from the burden of having to pick a religion or be part of anyone’s flock. Instead, I chose to believe in more agnostic ways – that God would understand me and love me no matter what, as God created me and knows me, if that’s how I define God. Still, my alters and I sometimes bring up religion in therapy because of the twisted and sick things that happened to them, and how spiritual abuse is a real thing that so often gets overlooked and undermined in therapeutic circles and beyond. Spiritual abuse is a form of trauma, and it cuts to the core of a person’s identity and being. We so appreciate your post here, Dr. S! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You are correct about this Dragonfly, as I have seen this within the state system, social workers being rude and not therapeutic with some of their clients because of various biases. It was wrong and never should have been tolerated. What gave me hope was the hiring of a LGBTQ social worker who started providing therapy with said clients. The same can be said about race. We had 98% white staff bringing their own biases to therapy with clients of color. The ethnic and sexual orientation of staff should match the makeup of the clientele we serve, in order to provide comfort and familiarity for them.

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    • I would only add some questions. To what degree is it appropriate and possible to take into account the biases of therapists by finding counselors without them? Is anyone now suggesting therapists and referrers should be “tested” for biases? What about patients being tested for them when they say, “I must have this or that racial/religious/gender/sexual orientation/nationality of a therapist and it is your responsibility to find me one?” Where do competence and training fit into the equation and how is it weighed compared to other factors?

      I’m offering these hypothetical questions not because I have answers, but to illustrate the complexity of these issues. We all must be careful what we wish for and, if we are dissatisfied with the conditions that exist, begin to come up with solutions. It is easier to knock down a house than to build it up again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps having a therapist with a different racial/religious/gender/sexual orientation/nationality than the patient could serve a useful purpose and be a positive rather than a negative. It could offer the client alternative viewpoints which is rarely a bad thing. I would think it could open up horizons and actually be beneficial in treatment. No?

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  12. It is possible, Brewdun. Part of our dilemma is that so many factors enter into the therapeutic experience that it is always a challenge to find the right fit. I encountered many patients who had spent years in and out of therapy, never finding a person who was quite right. Often, but not always, they were relieved to find me, but it is possible that they were finally ready to deal with issues when we met rather than my possession of therapeutic gifts other counselors did not have. Thanks for your comment.

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  13. I see your point Dr. Stein, but nepotism and cronyism was the hiring practice at our agency, and unless someone had an “in” they were not hired. The best and the brightest unfortunately were not necessarily chosen. This is why there was such racial disparity at our agency. Also, the social workers did not pursue further therapy training, but attended yearly CSU training and then started therapy with our clients. But it is not only the social workers that are at fault, it is most of the staff, the agency and the state system itself. I agree with your statement about “bias tests,” or the “matching of nationality etc” of staff to clients, but couldn’t the agency even try to have some diversity? I could count on one hand the number of black staff, and even less for Latin and Asian. The house should be knocked down, for more reasons than are stated here. The private sector would do a much better job, and they do. When staff are given keys to a state car and no accountability, a lot of corruption happens, which caused a toxic work environment for the ones who were ethical, such as myself. Which means I myself am biased, against my former agency. I will keep myself in check in the future while commenting here.

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    • I did not intend to be critical of you, Nancy, or endorse the practices of the workplace you were describing. I appreciate your comments and hope you don’t censor your self unnecessarily. I only meant to make more genereral comments on the complicated nature of trying to get a therapist who “fits” these days, if taken to an extreme.

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  14. Thanks for sharing such an amazing article.

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