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Conference on Religious and Spiritual Psychology Focuses on Variety of Beliefs and Practices


When Allen Bergin first published his innovative research recognizing the importance of religious and spiritual concerns in psychotherapy, he received over 1,000 responses and requests for reprints—an incredibly high demand for a pre-Internet publication.

Now, 35 years later, a division of the American Psychological Association is devoted exclusively to religious and spiritual issues in the field of psychology. Bergin, an emeritus BYU professor, reflected on his experiences pioneering this area of study and witnessing the impact his research has had at the APA Division 36 Midyear Conference. Bergin influenced and mentored the work and lives of many in attendance at the conference, including conference director P. Scott Richards, professor of the McKay School. The conference was held in Provo at the end of March.

“Your work and your colleagues, with your acts of grace and insight, have made for me a long-delayed dream come true,” Bergin told conference attendees.

The conference featured a range of research investigating roles of religion and spirituality in psychology. Part of the difficulty of incorporating religion and spirituality into psychology is the number and variety of religions and spiritual practices to incorporate.

Variety in Perception

Pierre Yves-Brandt presents his keynote address.  Photo by Kelsi GreeffPierre Yves-Brandt, professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, remarked in his keynote conference address: “Despite various attempts to postulate a common core in a specific experience, no system is universal.“ He continued, “Existential questions are the only things that all religions have in common. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we headed?”

When Yves-Brandt conducted international research on how children viewed God, he noted several differences in ways children depicted God in their drawings. For example, in Japan more children perceived God as female than in other locations around the world.

“It becomes hard to find anything universal in the psychology of religion,” Yves-Brandt said. “The identity construction of a subject depends on the cultural referents that are at [the individual’s] disposal.”

Influence of Prayer

Frank Fincham was a keynote speaker at the conference.

Frank D. Fincham, an eminent scholar who directs the Florida State University Family Institute, noted in his keynote presentation that 68–88% of people profess some religious faith. “Given numbers, you will work with religious clients,” Fincham said. “These clients view clinicians who integrate religion into therapy more optimistically and more competently than those who do not.”

Involving religion and spirituality with psychological services can have significant positive effects. In several studies, Fincham investigated the role of prayer on partner relationships. He used four conditions: prayer for the partner, undirected prayer, positive thoughts, and a control group. Those who would pray for the partner would say prayers in their own words.

The experiment found that those who participated in partner prayer experienced greater forgiveness in relationships and greater gratitude. Findings also included a 50% decrease in alcohol consumption and less inclination to cheat in a relationship.

Presentations by BYU Students and Faculty

APA Division 36 President  Kevin L. Ladd welcomes attendees to the conference.

Differences in religions. Students in the McKay School Counseling Psychology program studied some of the differences that psychologists encounter with clients of different religions, which they presented in a symposium during the conference. Over the course of the semester, the student groups had each chosen a religion and explored issues involved for psychologists treating clients of that faith.

For example, one group mentioned that the Muslim faith condemns suicide. They suggested that a psychologist addressing suicidal tendencies in a Muslim client might have to do so indirectly: for example, asking “Do you wish God would just let you die?”

Differences between religion-integrated and traditional therapy. A study done at BYU investigated the differences between incorporating religion into therapy and using traditional therapeutic methodology. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receiving religion-integrated therapy would have Latter-day Saint scriptures and teachings included in their sessions.

Mica McGriggs, a student in the McKay School Counseling Psychology program, demonstrated differences in the techniques with the example of a therapist discussing the value of a person with her clients. In religion-integrated therapy, she would reference the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 18:10, “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” In traditional therapy, she would instead use the metaphor of the human-o-meter. A speedometer measures how fast a car is traveling, but there is no human-o-meter to measure the worth of a person. Either approach communicates that everyone has worth.

Considerations with ethnic minorities. Timothy Smith, chair of the McKay School Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education, presented research on the relationship between religiosity and mental health in ethnic minorities. Smith performed a meta-analysis of 120 studies of people of color in North America. While the results of the study showed a mild association between mental health and religion and spirituality, Smith acknowledged that the best approach to improving a client’s mental health is through personal knowledge of the individual.

“It is farcical to assume that any meta-analysis has anything to say about any individual,” Smith said. “Get to know your clients. Figure out how spirituality is influencing their world view.”

Allen Bergin mentored P. Scott Richards.

Role of Psychologist’s Values. P. Scott Richards, professor from the McKay School Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department, was the conference director. He began as Bergin’s mentee and later became his colleague and collaborator. Richards now carries the torch in this field. In one of his addresses at the conference, he discussed issues that might arise from a counselor’s own values.

“Beginning counselors are often warned not to impose their values upon their clients,” Richards said. But the meaning of this instruction is often non-specific and unclear. “The lack of clarity about this truism, combined with the widespread understanding that counseling is a value-laden process, leaves many counselors uncertain about how to handle value issues in an ethical manner. As a result, clients’ rights to self-determination are too often compromised, ” Richards concluded.

For a full list of presentations from the APA Division 36 Conference, visit this website.

Writer: Lindsey Williams

Contact: Cynthia Glad (801) 422-1922