Have you ever questioned the faith beliefs and practices you inherited from parents or once embraced? Do you yearn for spirituality but are skeptical of religion because of negative experiences or associations? Perhaps you don’t have anyone with whom to explore these questions in a safe and non-judgmental way. Therapy can help.
Losing my religion?
Many clients I see grew up in a faith or religious tradition that they no longer practice or that no longer suits them. They are not alone as religious affiliation in the U.S. continues to decline: in the past 15 years the share of the population that says they are unaffiliated with any organized faith tradition grew from 16% to 29%. More specifically, about 30% of those who grew up in a Christian-identified household tend to disaffiliate from Christianity by age 30. Further, more than one in four Americans now identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Spirituality has long provided human society with a sense of community, belonging, and purpose. So as more people move away from organized religion, therapists need to be mindful of how to help their clients who are interested to find meaning and connection through a spirituality that works for them.
The Positive and Negative Impact of Faith Traditions on Mental Health
Therapists need to recognize that many of clients who have disaffiliated from a faith tradition did so because they experienced emotional or physical trauma in those communities. As a therapist, I believe it’s important to be skilled at helping clients address the impact of past religious experiences on current mental and emotional health, and to provide a safe space for clients to explore and clarify their beliefs, values and spirituality moving forward.
Studies have shown that spirituality or “religiosity” can have positive effects on mental health, such as lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Therapists who might have had their own negative (or positive) experiences with a faith tradition should be aware of their own biases and work with clients who are interested in exploring spirituality with curiosity and non-judgement. We need to remember that exploring beliefs and spirituality can be a critical aspect of the therapeutic process for many.
Navigating Religious Trauma in Therapy
As someone who has experienced shifts in my own faith journey, I empathize with clients who have been deeply wounded or disappointed by their faith tradition. Many individuals have experienced abuse or exclusion by members or leaders in their traditions, causing long-lasting psychological scars that impact multiple domains in their lives. As a therapist, it is crucial to create a safe space for these clients to tend to their wounds and heal. I find that this starts with simply listening to and believing the client’s story – something they might not have ever experienced safely given elements of shame and guilt that are often involved in matters of faith and family traditions.
Supporting Clients in their Spiritual Journey
For clients who feel they have lost their “belief certainty” from childhood – or who continue to identify with and practice a faith tradition but struggle with doubts and contradictions – exploring what that means for them and what a new belief system or spirituality might look like can be a transformative process. This can involve re-evaluating handed-down beliefs and values, identifying sources of conflict, or finding new meaning in or interpretations of traditional beliefs or practices. It could also mean exploring and creating new spiritual practices or traditions or finding meaning in non-religious sources of spirituality such as nature, art, or community.
The idea of addressing spirituality through therapy is gaining in popularity as individuals are recognizing the mutually reinforcing benefits that come from improving mental health, emotional well-being, and spiritual fulfillment. Many clients find that strengthening their spirituality helps them to feel better equipped with life’s challenges. Therapy thus can be part of a holistic approach to restoring and maintaining balance and meaning in one’s life.
Of course, incorporating spirituality into any therapy session requires cultural humility and a sensitivity to different religious backgrounds, beliefs, and individual preferences. Starting the session off by asking your client if spirituality is something that is available or interesting to them as a possible resource and, if so, how they would like to have spirituality addressed in therapy, can make sure the conversation is tailored to their needs.
Common positive elements in many spiritual practices can be incorporated into therapy sessions to help clients meet their goals. I find that clients appreciate exercises aimed at increasing gratitude, forgiveness, joy, humility, acceptance, staying present, connections beyond oneself, and generosity. Discussion of rituals and “sacred time,” grieving the loss of one’s former religious convictions, and conversations about morality and ethics, can all help clients in their spiritual journeys. Suggesting a simple meditation or mindfulness practice can be an excellent starting point. And incorporating expressive arts such as writing or drawing can be another way for a client to experience spiritual exploration during therapy sessions. It may also be helpful for the therapist to provide clients with educational resources or suggested readings that are aligned with their interests and values, allowing them to continue deepening their spiritual knowledge and understanding if they choose. Ultimately, by inviting and supporting people to explore their spiritual beliefs, as well as their spiritual doubts and wounds, in an accepting and safe environment, clients may feel more encouraged to take more risks to make meaningful changes in their lives.
Raising children in a faith tradition? How to navigate interfaith unions?
Sometimes couples haven’t talked much about the faith tradition of their respective upbringings until they decide to have children. One partner might start to feel pulled back to the religious traditions of their childhood while the other does not. This can cause tension, but it is also an opportunity to grow as a couple and as individuals. Therapy can help such couples learn more about what is important to each other regarding spirituality and rituals. Couples can feel closer as they deepen their understanding of why the other might have moved away from their family-of-origin faith practices. They can also build skills in negotiation and comprise as they decide on how spirituality will be part of their children’s lives in ways that are mutually beneficial, if at all. Questions about which holidays to celebrate and how, and whether to formally join a religious community and participate in its rites of initiation, are challenging but surmountable. Therapists can help.
Taking a step
No matter what your personal belief system is, there are many benefits to incorporating spirituality into therapy. If you’re looking for a therapist who can help you explore your spirituality, find one that feels like the right fit for you and don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of spirituality in your first session. Remember, therapy is about helping you feel better and live a more fulfilling life – incorporating spirituality into therapy can be a resource to help achieve those goals.
“About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated”, by Gregory A. Smith, Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021
 “Modeling the Future of Religion in America”, Pew Research Center , September 13, 2022
 “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious” by Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz, Pew Research Center, September 6, 2017.