The whole idea of integrating behavior therapy with religion and spirituality might seem odd or off or impossible. But here in Theories Land, we don’t believe in the impossible. In fact, many religious folks do just fine with behavior therapy and many behavior therapists do just fine with religious folks. If you think about it, for behaviorists, the focus is purely on problematic behaviors. In some ways, this naturally leads to an acceptance of all people . . . .
Put another way, for behaviorists, there’s no room or need for discrimination based on race, sexuality, or religion. Behaviorists work with all people to help them with their problem behaviors.
Rather than digressing into the political, let’s refocus on behavior therapy and spirituality. Here’s the short section from the 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. If you feel moved (by the spirit, or anything else), please let me know what you think.
Strict behaviorists don’t believe in the utility of cognition. The clients’ problems are behaviors. Behavioral treatments involve new learning to facilitate behavior change. If you stick with the perspective that cognition is irrelevant—which is the perspective we’re sticking with in this chapter—then client religious or spiritual beliefs are also not relevant.
Considering religious and spiritual beliefs as irrelevant doesn’t imply disrespect for religious and spiritual beliefs. Behaviorists are respectful of beliefs, but the focus of therapy would be on behaviors—these behaviors could include religious or spiritual behaviors. If you’re following the logic here, then you can see that behavior therapy is 100% compatible with religion and spirituality.
The focus of behavior therapy with religious and spiritual clients would be on behaviors that are related to religion and spirituality. From a behavioral model, the question is, “Are your religious/spiritual behaviors causing you distress or contributing to your well-being?” The good news about this is that behavior therapy is an evidence-based approach for modifying behavior, including the development of positive and healthy habits (and behaviors commonly thought of as representing self-control and self-discipline). The focus on enhancing self-control and self-discipline is a good fit for clients with religious or spiritual orientations (Shapiro, 1978).
Researchers have explored the relationship between behavioral activation and client values. In one study, it was found that when individuals with high intrinsic religious values engaged in a greater frequency of religious behaviors, they reported reduced depressive symptoms (Agishtein et al., 2013). Conversely, for individuals with low intrinsic religious values, increasing religious behaviors were associated with more depressive symptoms. In conclusion, despite disregard for religious/spiritual beliefs, a strict behavioral approach can be used to increase or decrease specific religious and spiritual behaviors. . . and increasing or decreasing specific religious and spiritual behaviors may be therapeutic—depending on the individual client and his/her/their situation.