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What Might Spirituality and Religion Offer the Contemporary Practicing Psychologist?

By Thomas Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
Department of Psychology
Santa Clara University

© 2008 Thomas Plante

Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP is professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, adjunct clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, and in private practice in Menlo Park, California. He has authored a dozen books and is currently completing the book entitled, Using Spiritual and Religious Tools in Psychotherapy to be published with the American Psychological Association. Address correspondence to Thomas G. Plante, Psychology Department, Alumni Science Hall, Room 203, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA. 95053-0333; Email:; Telephone: 408-554-4471.

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What Might Spirituality and Religion Offer the Contemporary Practicing Psychologist?

Thomas G. Plante

Santa Clara University

There has been much interest in the relationship between spirituality and psychology in recent years with many books, articles, ad conferences offered to health care professionals. Professional psychology has appeared to have rediscovered spirituality and religion with renewed interest in integrating this aspect of life into professional psychological services.

Since 96% of Americans believe in God and 40% attend religious services on a weekly basis or more (e.g., Gallup & Lindsay, 1999), spirituality and religion is an important aspect of life for many. Yet most psychologists have little if any training on these matters. There are a number of spiritual and religious tools that could be employed by psychologists in their work with clients regardless of the particular faith tradition (or lack of faith tradition) of either clients or psychologists. The purpose of this article is to articulate thirteen spiritual and religious tools that emerge from the commonalities of the major religious and spiritual traditions that can be incorporated into professional psychological services.

Thirteen Spiritual and Religious Tools for your Psychotherapeutic Toolbox


Quality research has demonstrated the many mental and physical health benefits of regular meditative practices (Shapiro & Walsh, 2007). Mindfulness meditation is a good example of using a religiously based practice from the Buddhist tradition that can be use as a secularized technique in contemporary psychotherapeutic environments. While mindfulness meditation has had the most acceptance among health care professionals, other meditative practices can be incorporated into our work with success and similar therapeutic outcomes (Walsh, 1999). Benefits of regular meditative practice include stress reduction, acceptance of self and others as well as improved coping and relationships. Many physical benefits such as lower blood pressure and stress reactivity are possible too (Kabit-Zinn, 2003; Shapiro & Walsh, 2007).


Research supports the health benefits of prayer which can be defined in a number of ways but essentially is understood as being communication with the sacred. Religious and spiritual traditions encourage prayer but they differ in style and technique. Prayer has been found to result in a many health benefits including improved psychological functioning, a sense of well-being and meaning, and better stress reduction and coping (Masters, 2007).

Vocation, Meaning, Purpose, and Calling in Life

Spirituality and religion offer an opportunity to secure and develop meaning, purpose, calling, and vocation in life. All of the religious traditions provide some answers to questions about what someone should do with their life with particular strategies for finding more meaning and purpose.

Acceptance of Self and Others (Even with Faults)

Religious and spiritual traditions provide advice about the benefits of accepting ourselves and others. They offer strategies for redemption and acceptance from others and from the divine. Much of psychotherapy focuses on helping people accept what they cannot change and change what they can to improve the quality of their lives. The well known "serenity prayer" well articulates what traditional and secular psychotherapy both try to accomplish stating: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

Ethical Values and Behaviors

The religious and spiritual wisdom traditions provide time-tested guidelines for ethical living. Living more ethically, with or without religious involvement, is likely to have psychotherapeutic benefits (Plante, 2004). The ethical principles for psychologists include most of the same ethical guidelines offered by the religious and spiritual traditions. These include respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and concern for others (RRICC, Plante, 2004). Both professional ethics codes and religious and spiritual traditions encourages people to be concerned about the welfare of others, to be honest and maintain integrity, to be respectful to everyone and to life, and so forth.

Being Part of Something Larger and Greater than Oneself

Religion and spirituality often contributes to a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Religion offers a way to put life in perspective and speaks to issues that occurred long before us and long after our passing. Furthermore, feeling part of something bigger than ourselves can help us better cope with the many challenges in life.

Forgiveness, Gratitude, Love, Kindness, and Compassion

Religion and spirituality, at its best, encourages people to be forgiving, grateful, loving, kind, and compassionate. For example, research has demonstrated positive benefits of forgiveness (Koenig et al., 2001). Forgiveness is an antidote to anger, hostility, and bitterness. Research indicates that those who tend to be grateful sleep better, are more optimistic, more energetic, and maintain better interpersonal relationships (e.g., Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Finally, all of the major religious traditions encourage love, kindness, and compassion (Armstrong, 2006) which also has mental and physical health benefits (Snyder & Lopez, 2007). Treating others as you wish to be treated, often referred to as the "golden rule," is found and emphasized in all of the major religious traditions (Armstrong, 2006).

Volunteerism and Charity

All of the religious traditions support charitable works and volunteerism trying to make the world a better place. Research indicates that volunteer activities results in mental and physical health benefits and reduces mortality risks as much as 40% (Oman & Thoresen, 2003). Religion provides an organizational structure to support productive community engagement that usually emphasize helping those in greatest need such as the poor and marginalized. Additionally, volunteerism can provide the volunteer with an enhanced sense of meaning, purpose, and calling which can help keep their own troubles in better perspective.

Ritual and Community Support

Research has consistently found that mental and physical health benefits can be expected from social support. Religious activities offer community social networking and ritual activities shared with others who maintain similar values, beliefs, and traditions. Regular church service attendance, bible studies, holiday celebrations within family and faith communities each provide opportunities for social connection, networking, and support.

Social Justice

The religious traditions support social justice activities to help the poor and marginalized of society and work to make the world a more humane and just place. Social justice engagement helps people to be less self focused. It is hard to feel stressed by daily hassles when confronted with the problems of poverty, oppression, and violence experienced by so many in the world.

Spiritual Models

Religious and spiritual models provide followers with exemplars to imitate (Oman & Thoresen, 2003, 2007). The popular question, "What would Jesus Do?" is an excellent example. Religious models such as Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, as well as more contemporary models such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dali Lama, Martin Luther King, and even family and friends can be a template for better living. Research has indicated that observational learning is a powerful way to learn new skills and behaviors (Bandura, 1986). Having role models can be a useful way to help motivate and inspire others to "go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).


Psychologists have used bibliotherapy for decades. They have encouraged their clients to read self-help and other books to augment their treatment. These materials could be used for psychoeducational purposes such as learning more about diagnosis and treatment. They might be also used for motivational and inspirational purposes. The religious and spiritual traditions encourage their members to read sacred scripture such as the Bible as well as other readings to help them improve their lives.

Sacredness of Life

The religious and spiritual traditions emphasize the belief that life is sacred and that the divine or something sacred lives within us all. This understanding that we are all important, sacred, a "child of God" has implications for how we think about ourselves and interact with everyone. The faith communities and traditions instruct that if we are all sacred, then everyone should be treated with great respect, kindness, love, and compassion. Psychologists can use this perspective of sacredness in their psychotherapeutic work and support their clients in finding ways to improve their self esteem and interpersonal relationships.

Ethical Precautions

There are several important ethical precautions that should be mentioned when integrating spirituality and religious tools into professional psychological practice. First, it is critical for psychologists to practice within their area of competence. While a clinician who might be spiritual, religious or both may want to integrate their interests and beliefs into psychotherapeutic work, it would be inappropriate and unethical to practice outside of one's area of expertise or to promote their particular spiritual and religious beliefs on their clients. Second, psychologists must avoid potential exploitive dual relationships especially when their clients could be members of their own religious community. Client referrals usually come from people we know including fellow congregants in church communities. Unforeseen dual relationships and conflicts can easily occur. Finally, psychologists must avoid potential bias by supporting one faith tradition or belief system over another. Psychologists, like anyone, likely maintain certain either positive or negative impressions about various religious traditions. Psychologists must also be aware of the diversity of beliefs and practices even within each religious tradition. Naturally, psychologists must closely adhere to the ethics code (American Psychological Association, 2002) and get appropriate consultation and training as needed.


While psychology as an independent discipline has been conducting research and practice for about 100 years, these great religious and spiritual communities and traditions have reflected and offered suggestions on life and living for thousands of years. Rather than ignore what these traditions offer, professional psychology should embrace them in a manner that makes sense for high quality, contemporary, and ethical professional practice.



American Psychological Association (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code

of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.

Armstrong, K. (2006). The great transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions. New York: Anchor Books.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Gallup, G., Jr., & Lindsay, D.M. (1999). Surveying the religious landscape: Trends in U.S. beliefs. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Research and Practice, 10, 144-156.

Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Handbook of religion and health.

New York: Oxford.

Masters, K.S. (2007). Prayer and Health. In T. G. Plante & C. E. Thoresen (Eds), Spirit, Science and Health: How the Spiritual Mind Fuels the Body (pp. 11-24). Westport, CT: Praeger/ Greenwood.

Oman, D. & Thoresen, C.E. (2003). Spiritual modeling: A key to spiritual and religious

growth? The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13, 149-165.

Oman, D.& Thoresen, C.E. (2007). How does one learn to be spiritual? The neglected role of spiritual modeling in health. In T. G. Plante & C. E. Thoresen (Eds), Spirit, science and health: How the spiritual mind fuels physical wellness (pp. 39-56). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.

Plante, T.G. (2004). Do the right thing: Living ethically in an unethical world. Oakland, CA:

New Harbinger.

Shapiro, S.L., & Walsh, R. (2007). Meditation: Exploring the Farther Reaches. In T. G. Plante & C. E. Thoresen (Eds), Spirit, Science and Health: How the Spiritual Mind Fuels the Body (pp. 57-71). Westport, CT: Praeger/ Greenwood.

Snyder, C.R., & Lopez, S.J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Walsh, R. (1999). Essential spirituality: The seven central practices. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Books by Dr. Plante:


Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned
Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned

Sins Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church

Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World

Mental Disorders of the New Millennium
Spirit, Science, and Health: How the Spiritual Mind Fuels Physical Wellness
Spiritual Practices in Psychotherapy
Contemporary Clinical Psychology (2nd ed.)
Faith and Health
Faith and Health: Psychological Perspectives

Contemporary Clinical Psychology
Contemporary Clinical Psychology

Getting Together and Staying Together
Getting Together and Staying Together : The Stanford University Course on Intimate Relationships

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