Psychology and Religious Faith - Kimberly Thompson

      Occasionally I will encounter someone who is very uneasy about entering psychotherapy because they are concerned that it will conflict with their religious beliefs. Here in the Bible Belt, those potential clients are usually Christian, although Christians certainly are not alone in these concerns.

     I think these concerns arise from the fact that psychology and religion (or spirituality) address common concerns: how people think, how they feel, what they believe, and how they act. People very naturally want reassurance that psychotherapy is not going to undermine, or even attempt to undermine, their religious belief system.

     So in light of this very legitimate concern, I would like to put out some important points about what happens in psychotherapy.

1. The point of psychotherapy is to

facilitate personal change.     

     It is natural, and to a certain degree healthy, to be hesitant about change. For some people, it is an out-and-out fear. This may be despite the fact that staying stuck in the same place has become terribly painful. The people that come to me for therapy are in pain in some way — emotional pain, the pain of having dysfunctional relationships, the pain of not being able to function well at work or in society, or the pain of feeling alienated and different from other people. Some of them are in so much pain that they are a danger to themselves or others. Sometimes they bring their children because their child is in pain, or because the whole family is in pain because the child isn’t functioning well.


     Pain is a physical and emotional phenomenon that warns us that something is wrong. Physicians are trained to identify and alleviate physical pain, and psychologists are trained to identify and alleviate emotional and interpersonal pain. The similarities pretty much end there, though. Physicians prescribe medication, surgery, or physical therapy to alleviate physical pain. For the most part, what the patient does is to comply with her physician’s orders. Psychologists, by contrast, work intensively with the individual and with her family to facilitate recovery from that emotional and interpersonal pain. The patient (and mostly we psychologists prefer the term “client”) must be an active participant in her own healing.

2. Psychotherapy is intended to be personally empowering to the client.        

     The change that occurs during the psychotherapeutic process is not something that is done “to” you. It is something that you as a client are an active participant in. Every step of the way you decide what you think and what you believe about it. Once I have a good understanding of the signs and symptoms each client is struggling with, I often say, “I know what has worked with many people with similar problems. You on the other hand are the expert on your own life. We will work together to find solutions.”

      There is a school of thought that says that a psychotherapist should be a “blank slate.” In other words, a therapist should not reveal anything about herself to the client. This is for several purposes: first to make sure the total focus is on the client and her problems, and second to be able to use the therapeutic relationship to observe how the client interacts with people in general.

     I don’t belong to this “blank slate” school of thought. This is for several reasons. First of all, I think it is a really lofty goal to aim for and am not sure it is totally achievable. Secondly, in this day and age of internet searches and social media, it is relatively easy to discover a lot of information about your therapist. To me it seems better to simply be myself and at the same time be diligent in keeping the focus of psychotherapy firmly on my clients. I am a storyteller, with a very interconnected mind, and if I have a personal experience that illustrates a point I’m trying to make, I might use it.

3. Psychology and religion are not substitutes for one another.     

     I will admit that I know some people who seem to use psychology as a stand-in for religion. I also know some people who totally reject the usefulness of psychology because they are religious. I don’t think either of these extreme positions is necessary or helpful.

     I am a practicing Christian and also a practicing clinical psychologist. I don’t call myself a “Christian counselor” because I am not trained in religiously-based interventions, but rather have been trained in evidence-based interventions (based on research). I am a Christian who is a clinical psychologist … I have two codes to live up to in my life, my professional code of ethics and the moral code of my faith. I know a lot of psychologists who have similar stances to mine.

     In this way, psychology and medicine do have a lot in common. If you and your physician share a common faith, this may be helpful to you in terms of the personal connection you have with him or her, but it should not impact the quality of medical care that you receive. Similarly, if you do not share my religious beliefs, this should not impact the quality of your psychotherapy.

4. It would be unethical for a psychologist to attempt to convert a client religiously.     

     This goes for converting religious clients to another type of faith (or no faith) and for converting nonreligious clients to some sort of faith. While “conversion” is a specific type of change, and change is necessary in psychotherapy, it is not appropriate for a psychotherapist to pressure or make the case for a religious conversion.

     I have had many clients say that the most vital part of being in therapy is that they can express themselves openly without being judged. I take this nonjudgmental attitude very seriously. Some people have no other place to go where they will not be judged. And it doesn’t work if I am nonjudgmental about some things — this attitude of nonjudgment must cover everything that every client brings to therapy.     Telling someone that their faith (or lack of it) is wrong in some way would be violating this very basic principle of psychotherapy.

5. I can almost guarantee that you will be asked to reexamine your belief system as a part of therapy.     

     Taking a nonjudgmental stance does not mean that you will not be asked to think deeply about what you believe. However, “what you believe” covers so much more than your religious beliefs! And, being asked to examine your beliefs is not the same thing as being instructed to change them. The power to change always lies with you, the client.

     We all have many layers of awareness. Becoming aware of underlying thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes is like peeling away the layers of an onion (or a parfait, as Donkey said in “Shrek”). Once we are aware, or awake, to the existence of those beliefs, we acquire the power to examine and to modify them. As long as they fly under the radar of our awareness, they have the power to drive our behavior in ways that we may not understand.

     I hope that you understand a bit better now how psychology and religion are different, how a clinical psychologist can be a Christian without being a “Christian counselor,” and what clients (both religious and nonreligious) can expect if they enter psychotherapy. If you are in search of a good psychologist, I invite you to contact me.


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.