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Science and Spirituality: Finding the Common Ground

C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D.

Annellen Simpkins Ph.D.


Gordon Allport (1950), one of the primary early personality theorists, found that human personality includes an individual, evolved religious sentiment as a natural consequence of a mature life. He believed there is no universal form of religious sentiment, but that some individual form is universal. He thought that it served an important role, promoting inner strength and personal meaning while facilitating personality integration. 

But psychology, in its effort to be scientific, had relegated the study of religion and spiritual values to a minor role, until an unforeseen paradigm shift took place. One eminent spokesman for the shift was Nobel laureate and foremost split-brain researcher R.W. Sperry. By the late 1960’s he came to believe that the quest to link all mental phenomena to physiological brain functions was false. Sperry found that although many direct links between brain activity and mental states could be made, many mental events such as the cognitive sequencing of a train of thought could not be reduced to simple biophysical or biochemical laws. (Sperry 1988) Sperry now believes that scientists should embrace what he calls “higher level forces:” to explore and include spiritual and mentalist aspects of human consciousness.

Some psychologists are now calling for “an explicit and constructive relationship between psychology and religion” (Jones 1994, 184). Jones proposed ways that the two disciplines can come together. Science and religion share common goals: to make sense out of our complex existence and foster human understanding. When the commonalities are uncovered, progress can be made.

Statistical surveys have given good reason for practitioners to rethink including spirituality into their practices. A recent Gallup poll, Religion in America (1996), found that 94% of those surveyed believe in “God or a universal spirit.” 87% said that religion was either very important (58%) or fairly important (29%) to them. Psychotherapists (including marriage and family therapists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers) tend to be more religious than would be expected. Bergin (1991) found that 77% of psychotherapists agreed with the statement: “I try hard to live by my religious beliefs.”  Paradoxically, only 29% rated religious content as important in treatment issues.

Rose, Westefeld, and Ansley (2001), cite numerous studies concluding that clients tend to want to discuss spiritual and religious issues with their therapists and patients want to discuss such matters with their medical doctors. Only 17% preferred not to discuss religious or spiritual issues.

Worthington (Worthington, et al, 1996) reviewed a decade of research (1984-1994) focusing on religion with regard to clients, counselors, and religious counseling. One important finding addressed in countless projects was that religion has a positive effect on mental health.

But including spirituality in one’s practice opens potentially complex and multifaceted value issues. Yarhouse and VanOrman (1999) believe that if therapists are going to deal with spirituality in their practice they should have professional guidelines. Using the APA (1992) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, Yarhouse and VanOrman provide some suggestions to help guide therapeutic interventions. For example, in keeping with APA’s valuing of diversity, they suggest that clinicians should become aware of the significance of religious beliefs and values held by the client. They discourage opposing clients’ beliefs. Therapists should also examine their personal values. Erickson showed us the influencing power of two-level communication. Unexamined unconsciously held values of the therapist may unintentionally become “hidden persuaders,” as Bergin calls them.

Science and spirituality needn’t be in opposing camps. It is not only possible, it is important as sensible and ethical practitioners to facilitate the client’s welfare on fundamental levels. In keeping with Milton Erickson’s commitment that the needs of the patient should always come first, practitioners may sometimes be better able to help by permitting the client to delve into spiritual matters when needed, in the safety of the therapeutic relationship. 



Allport, G. W. (1950). The Individual and his Religion. New York: Macmillan Company.

Bergin, A. E. (1991). Values and religious issues in psychotherapy and mental health. American Psychologist. 46 394-403.

Jones, S. L. (1994). A constructive relationship for religion with the science and profession of psychology: Perhaps the boldest model yet. American  Psychologist. 49 184-199.

Rose, E. M., Westefeld, J. S., & Ansley, T. N. (2001). Spiritual issues in counseling: clients’ beliefs and preferences. Journal of Consulting Psychology. 48 61-71.

Sperry, R.W. (1988). Psychology’s mentalist paradigm and the religion/science tension. American Psychologist. 43 607-613.

Worthington, E. L., Kurusu, T. A., McCullough, M. E., & Sandage, S. J. (1996). Empirical research on religion and psychotherapeutic processes and outcomes: A 10-year review and research prospectus. Psychological Bulletin. 119 448-487.

Yarhouse, M. A. & VanOrman, B. T. (1999). When psychologists work with religious clients: Applications of the general principles of ethical conduct. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 30 557-562.




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