Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Secular and religious therapy

On the couchA “religion and science” conflict may exist on a much more subtle and practical level than “creationism vs. evolution” or “old earth vs. young earth.” A conflict may arise over mental health. Secular psychologists use particular methods and assumptions to help people improve their mental health, while priests use significantly different methods and assumptions. Wanting to know which type of therapy Romanian youth prefer, Vlaicu Claudia (Valahia University, Romania) compared secular and religious therapy.

Before proceeding to data collection, Claudia compared secular and religious therapies at a theoretical level. Being from Romania, by “religious therapy,” Claudia means “Eastern Orthodox Christian” therapy. Claudia finds two major similarities and one major difference between secular and religious therapies. First, both secular and religious therapies require that a person make behavioral changes. In secular terms, this would include cognitive change, change of will, monitoring thoughts, and refraining from certain actions. Religious therapy includes all of those items and adds prayer. Second, both types of therapy aim to get patients to have insights about themselves and their behavior. Not surprisingly, for secular therapy insights include destructive behavioral patterns and other mundane actions, whereas religious therapy includes the secular and also includes framing the patterns and problems in terms of living a spiritual life. Finally, Claudia sees secular and religious therapies diverging over the ultimate end goal of therapy: secular therapy, after the patient experiences insights, has essentially done its job, but religious therapy includes another step – namely, unification with God.

With these similarities and this difference in mind, Claudia developed a questionnaire to see which kind of therapy young adults (ages 20-25) preferred. The questionnaire included items concerning religious education, how the participant understood psychological problems, what resources they felt they had available in order to deal with their problems, how important therapy and religion are to their life, and what psychological well-being and living a fulfilled life means to them.

The survey found that only 9% of the Romanian participants knew of psychotherapy. As such, when asked where they go to solve their problems, a mere 2% sought a secular therapist (67% went to family and friends, 21% to a priest, and 10% did nothing). Interestingly, those without a religious background considered psychotherapy a painkiller, but those with a religious background considered religious therapy to have a permanent healing effect.

Claudia concludes that, in general, the non-religious go to therapy for achieve psychological balance, while religious people go to therapy for well-being. In other words, according to the survey results, non-religious people tend to see psychological health as the absence of illness or problems, but religious people tend to see it instead as the presence of physical, mental, and social well-being. Claudia writes, “Whatever the type of therapy the person chooses, there is no easy way. There is a huge difference between the psychotherapy done by a psychologist or psychiatrist and the orthodox psychotherapy done by a priest.” This “huge difference” for Claudia consists not only of what the therapist offers (unification with God or not) but also what the patient expects of their therapist (lack of illness versus well-being).

Of course, given that this research only surveyed Romanians and only looked at one kind of religious therapy, it's difficult to draw any kind of general conclusion. It's even more difficult to reach any sort of conclusion regarding a possible “religion and science” conflict here. At the very least, if it is true that some religious people seek more out of therapy than what is typically offered in secular psychology, then there's no “conflict” in the sense of “contradiction,” because both types of therapy are similar. If, however, religious people reject secular psychology because of religious therapy, that could lead to a conflict tense enough to send anyone to therapy.

For more, see “Spiritual Orientation of Youth from the Perspective or Humanist and Orthodox Therapies” in the journal Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences.

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