Psychology’s religious revival

Secularization seems to be undergoing a reversal when it comes to the practice of psychotherapy, judging by the growing number of therapists who are catering to different kinds of religious believers. Writing in the conservative Christian magazine Touchstone (March/April), Paul Vitz, a New York University psychology professor who has been an outspoken critic of secular psychological trends, claims that in recent years he has seen a reversal of those trends. He describes how the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers that held sway in American psychology up until 40 years ago (and in some ways had challenged Sigmund Freud’s materialist and secularist ideas) gave way to new theories, such as cognitive psychology and emotion-focused therapy, which provided an opening, however unintentionally, to spirituality (often more of the “New Age” variety). In the 1990s, two Christian psychologists, Robert Enright and Everett Worthington, “introduced forgiveness as a major intervention in psychotherapy. Research on forgiveness and applications of it have expanded greatly ever since,” Vitz writes. During this period, the emergence of narrative theory and the idea that the patient is helped to arrive at a “redemptive story” to address their problems pushed the needle even further toward a faith-friendly approach in psychology.

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But it was the “positive psychology” movement of Martin Seligman in the 2000s, which focused on the formation of virtues, that Vitz sees as decisive for the current climate. As these trends developed, a large number of Christians were becoming psychologists, with the great majority coming out of evangelical graduate programs, such as the one at Fuller Seminary. Vitz estimates that there are currently about 100,000 Christian counselors and psychotherapists, with a small but significant number now including Catholic practitioners, and he speculates that serious religious psychologists could even become a slight majority in the profession. He argues that there is now available a “Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person” that integrates evidence-based therapies with the “grand narrative” of Christian redemption. Vitz is sanguine about the future of religion’s role in psychotherapy, observing that seekers of such therapies can now easily choose therapists who have compatible values. He adds that the internationalization of psychotherapy, with an emerging diversity of non-Western Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, will likely challenge the progressive, “sex-focused” positions of the American Psychological Association (APA). He writes that the APA’s and insurance companies’ “rigidity” will make them subject to lawsuits, “and we will see the development of alternative organizations to the APA.”