Religious, Spiritual, and Secular Identities: Forgotten Components of Multicultural Training

By: Stephanie Winkeljohn Black & Amanda Gold

Note: Shortly after submitting this piece for review, a domestic terrorist targeted and killed members of the Tree of Life Jewish community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We express our grief for the Tree of Life community and all affected by the terror attack. Further, we want to emphasize the life-or-death need for psychologists to rise up in advocacy for faith (and non-faith) diversity.

Counseling psychologists called on our division to commit action and resources toward engaging with and advocating for religious minority communities (Hutman, Reynolds, Walinsky, Heesacker, Mahmood, & Rasheed Ali, 2018). Their op-ed outlines ways counseling psychologists have begun to address religious minority issues and identifies where we need to do more work as a field. We suggest that a major inhibitor to working alongside minority religions in our communities to respond to increasing hate and bias toward these groups (Per Research Center, 2016) is the field’s propensity to exclude religious, spiritual, and secular (RSS) identities from multicultural identity discussions and training. Our lab at Penn State Harrisburg, DIRECT Interventions (Diversity in Religion-Spirituality-Secularism and College Students), explores how counseling and clinical psychology students engage RSS identities, and how this affects the state of RSS-responsive psychotherapy.

Trainees and RSS Awareness

Recently we conducted a study wherein graduate students completed tasks that measured their implicit associations between RSS identity and client attributes (e.g., motivated, genuine, resistant), and then received their feedback on the task. The feedback became a discussion trigger (a training approach used in medical settings, e.g., Burke et al., 2015). Participants then processed their feedback in semi-structured focus groups. We discovered three major themes in analyzing these focus groups: spaces need to be prepared intentionally for our students to hold RSS dialogue; students – and likely all of us – need assistance in determining next steps toward RSS responsiveness; and many struggle with how to reconcile RSS identities alongside other marginalized identities (e.g., race/ethnicity, SES, LGBTQ+ individuals).

A Need for Space

Counseling and clinical programs rarely address RSS issues in multicultural training (Magaldi-Dopman, 2014), which reinforces the problematic assumption that RSS does not need to be addressed in psychotherapy. This is despite findings that RSS dialogue in psychotherapy leads to better outcomes (Owen et al., 2018). As with many multicultural dialogues, our participants expressed fear to discuss RSS with each other, noting worries that they would offend their peers, say something wrong or prejudiced, or themselves be insulted in some manner. Students’ normative inhibitions combined with graduate programs’ failure to include RSS issues in training results in a system where students are not encouraged to develop an autobiographical account of RSS identity in the same way they are pushed to explore their racial or class identities. We suggest that training programs need to integrate RSS issues explicitly into multicultural training and supervision to overturn this accepted silence.

Finding the Right Approach

In our study, all participants wanted RSS included in their training, though two distinct camps emerged with regard on how to include RSS. Half of participants asked for increased RSS cultural competencies (e.g., learning more about religious scriptures, developing skills specific to particular RSS populations), which aligns with a cultural competency model of training (e.g., Sue, 1998). The remaining participants identified goals around increasing awareness of how they relate to others when it comes to RSS identities, which aligns with a multicultural orientation model of training (e.g., Davis et al., 2018). We suggest that combining these paradigms could be especially useful for RSS training, as few students are prepared to dialogue on RSS issues in the same way they are expected to dialogue on other multicultural identities.

Reconciling ‘Conflicting’ Identities

As clinical and counseling psychology students do tend to identify as advocates, many grappled with how to hold clients’ RSS identities alongside identities that religious systems historically or may currently oppress, particularly LGBTQ+ identities. Participants noted that not only is it difficult to hold conflicting identities for a client, but that they had difficulty reconciling strong reactions toward some RSS communities based on personal experiences, especially experiences that involved conflicting multicultural identities (e.g., religious upbringing alongside LGBTQ+ identity). We want to be clear that affirming LGBTQ+ identities is a critical component of delivering ethically sound and responsive psychotherapy. For more information on how to affirm LGBTQ identities while also addressing other multicultural identities, including RSS, see the APA’s report ‘Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation’. We also believe that these very difficult conversations are discussion triggers that help our students – when done with safety, affirmation, and guidance –develop a growing awareness of self-RSS identities and thus appropriately address RSS countertransference as it arises in psychotherapy. Giving space and validation to these very real conflicts grants our students permission to explore such issues further, and is an antidote to the current tendency to exclude RSS issues from multicultural dialogues.

In Conclusion…

There is a continued need to educate psychologists on how to address RSS identities in therapy, as needed, and on how to advocate for minority RSS groups within our communities. We suggest that developing safe spaces within clinical/counseling psychology programs, where graduate trainees are provided skills (competency paradigm; Sue, 1998) and self-awareness and humility (MCO paradigm; Davis et al., 2018), is a critical first step in addressing our field’s growth edges around RSS. Psychologists should address difficult topics, such as intersectionality of conflicting values and identities, with their students, clients, and communities to combat the silence around these issues in order to facilitate dialogue and introspection.

Stephanie Winkeljohn Black, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg.





Amanda P. Gold, B.A., is a master’s student in Penn State Harrisburg’s Applied Clinical Psychology program.






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