Against the Current

By Mary Lynn Bahr, Associate Editor

Facing stiff anti-religious traditions, a crew of BYU professors has made headway in the fight to legitimize religion and integrate spirituality in the mental health professions.

Against the ChildrenThe relationship between psychology and religion has not had a history of calm seas and smooth sailing. Since psychology emerged as a profession, most mental health practitioners have chosen to see the world and treat their patients from naturalistic assumptions–without reference to the possibility of spiritual reality or divine action. Some prominent psychologists even claim that religion promotes neurosis and that religious devotion is a kind of pathology. In some circles the likelihood of a friendly interaction of psychology and religion is similar to the chances for a successful mixture of oil and water.

In at least one psychology circle, however, there is new chemistry. Since his graduate work at Stanford some four decades ago, Allen E. Bergin has been striving–and largely succeeding in the attempt–to swim against the counter-religious current in his field. Along the way, others have joined this BYU clinical psychology professor in his efforts, most notably BYU associate professor of counseling psychology P. Scott Richards. Together with other therapists across campus and around the world, Bergin and Richards have made it their business to study the mental health value of religion and to test the effectiveness of therapy interventions that tap into religious practices and moral principles.

In the process, Bergin and Richards have been–and still are–both glorified and vilified. Yet even those who protest must join with those who praise in acknowledging the impact these professors have had. With national awards now on their walls, and with their second collaborative book about to be published by the American Psychological Association (APA), Bergin and Richards have come through (and helped to cool) the biases against religion that have traditionally been part of the mental health professions.


Bergin has made a splash in psychology since he was a young faculty member at Columbia University, where he built a national reputation as editor of the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change. Frequently cited and now in its fourth edition, the handbook has shaped a generation of psychotherapists and is still widely used. But, though his peers respected his work, every time he brought up religion or values in professional settings, “It resulted in minor wars,” he says.

In 1972 Bergin came to BYU and began to actively explore research options related to religion and mental health. In 1980 he published a landmark paper titled “Psychotherapy and Religious Values” (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 48, no. 1 [1980], pp. 93–105). The paper proposed that counseling and psychotherapy become more open to and inclusive of religious values, arguing that the profession had excluded spiritual ways of knowing and that most therapy approaches ignored or denigrated the basically theistic beliefs of most Americans.

He also offered nine testable hypotheses about how religious values can shape psychological outcomes. Among those hypotheses were these:”Those who endorse high standards of impulse control (or strict moral standards) have lower than average rates of alcoholism, addiction, divorce, emotional instability, and associated interpersonal difficulties. . . .

“Teaching clients love, commitment, service, and sacrifice for others will help heal interpersonal difficulties. . . . A good marriage and family life constitute a psychologically and socially benevolent state. As the percentage of persons in a community who live in such circumstances increases, social pathologies will decrease and vice versa” (p. 103).

In the paper’s conclusion, Bergin argued, “Religion is at the fringe of clinical psychology when it should be at the center. Value questions pervade the field, but discussion of them is dominated by viewpoints that are alien to the religious subcultures of most of the people whose behavior we try to explain and influence” (p. 103).

Those claims made waves. At the time, psychology professionals rarely spoke well of religion or traditional moral values, so professional response to that paper, Bergin says, “really shocked me. First, that it got published in the world’s leading journal of clinical psychology, which is anathema. And second, that I got more than a thousand responses from people. That was kind of the opening shot, so to speak, in the public debate.”

That opening shot, made by one whose work on psychotherapy had been so prominent, caused Bergin’s colleagues to take sides. Some even reevaluated their once-high opinions of the professor. Richards, who worked with Bergin at BYU before going to the Univer- sity of Minnesota for a PhD, says he encountered varied views of his mentor among the Minnesota faculty. “People there of course knew of Allen’s work and would talk to me when they found out that I had been Allen’s assistant,” he says. “One professor, I remember, used Allen’s Handbook in his classes. But when I mentioned I had been Allen’s assistant at BYU, he shook his head, looked really sad and pained, and said, ‘I don’t know what happened to him. He got into all that religious stuff.’

“Then there was another professor, a wonderful Christian woman at the counseling center where I did my internship. I gave her Allen’s 1980 paper to read, and she came back and said, ‘I loved it. He’s brought all of psychology’s skeletons out of the closet’–you know, pointed out the biases that have existed for so long.”

But responses, even from the faithful, were not always positive. Bergin recalls, “An LDS professor who came here from another university to visit said, ‘I would like to recommend that you stop doing this work.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s maverick-type stuff, and it’s not going to have credibility. You are well enough known nationally that everyone will think all of the other Mormon professionals are like you. And I don’t want to be labelled as like you.'” Bergin laughs, “So I took my licks.”

Of course there were also “licks” from outside the LDS academic community. The 1980 paper prompted responses from many prominent non-religious psychologists, notably Albert Ellis, a famed clinician and an outspoken atheist. Ellis answered Bergin’s 1980 paper in print and later critiqued his research at a national meeting. Bergin recounts the occasion: “We were invited to speak on this panel, and everyone looked at it as a debate. At one point when I was presenting all this data collected at BYU, he said, ‘Oh, I know those BYU students. They’ll just tell you what you want to hear.’ And I said, ‘Well, we included some fake good scales, so that we could see if they were faking good, and they did not show elevations on the fake good scales.’ He said, ‘I don’t trust those scales.'” Because Bergin had data and Ellis could only assert his opinion, Bergin says, “He definitely lost on that one.”

But he wasn’t completely alone, he says. “Fortunately, there was strong support in the 1970s from some prominent scholars at BYU and other universities that strengthened my courage.”


According to Richards, Bergin’s 1980 paper “ended up being a catalyst to help energize an international movement to bring religious and spiritual perspectives into mainstream mental health professions.” It was also a spark that fueled Richards’ own resolve to pursue a career in psychology.

While serving an LDS mission in Canada, Richards encountered in the Ensign a 1976 speech delivered at BYU by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, then an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in which Maxwell called for Latter-day Saint social scientists to build bridges between gospel truths and secular scholarship (July 1976, pp. 70–75). That speech, which Bergin calls “the charter lecture on the relationship of the gospel and behavioral sciences,” touched Richards profoundly. After his mission, he chose to attend BYU, believing there would be no better place to correlate psychology and religion. But he discovered in his first semester that some professors and students were averse to the idea. “After my first couple months here I was getting kind of disillusioned,” he admits.

Then he met Bergin. “I was very excited when Allen Bergin came into my LDS Perspectives in Psychology class that fall semester 1979,” Richards says. “He came in as a guest speaker and told us about an article he had just had accepted for publication. I was a junior undergraduate who was awestruck by a professor here at BYU who was taking a lead to integrate religious perspectives into the profession.”

Richards obtained a prepress copy of Bergin’s landmark paper and read it with enthusiasm. Shortly thereafter, he volunteered to work for Bergin, initiating a professional relationship that has spanned two decades. Since 1980 Richards, like Bergin, has worked to demonstrate scientifically that religion is not neurosis and that spiritually-informed therapies have verifiable merit.
And in following Bergin’s lead, Richards has had his own battles with biases. While in Minnesota he encountered research, sponsored by a prominent professor, that seemed to show that highly religious people were deficient in moral development.

Richards recalls his initial response: “I had just come from BYU, and I thought ‘Well, this is disturbing. Church leaders and administrators at BYU wouldn’t be too happy if they realized that LDS theology is stifling people’s moral reasoning development.'”

So Richards, as he says, “got into” the research and examined the test used to measure moral reasoning. It was based on a theory of moral development proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg, a well-known psychologist. Kohlberg hypothesized that people function on six different levels or stages of moral reasoning. The highest level, what he called “principled moral reasoning,” is achieved when a person makes moral decisions without consulting any authority outside the self. So in the view of that theory (and, consequently, in the testing instrument that Richards questioned), people who appeal to God or the scriptures when making moral decisions are considered, as Richards says, “less adequate in their moral thinking.”

In his dissertation Richards “argued that there was a bias built into the theory and measure,” he says. “It penalized conservatively religious people and was not sensitive to the conservative, theistic world view.” His analysis showed that almost one-third of the questions used to assess moral reasoning carried a bias against devoutly religious people.

“And it got me into all sorts of controversy,” he says. The professor whose work Richards had debunked was on his dissertation committee, and until that professor was replaced, things were tough. “I remember one or two visits on the phone with Allen that helped me hang in there,” Richards says.

The endurance paid off. In 1990, Division 5 (Measurement and Evaluation) of the APA gave Richards its Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for his research. And in 1992 an article based on his work was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (“Religious Bias in Moral Development Research: A Psychometric Investigation,” 31 [1992], pp. 467–485).


Over time, Bergin’s highly respected voice and careful research have helped to legitimize the discussion of religion in psychology’s academic forums, and he has led the way for other believing professionals who want to study the interface of religion and mental health. Richards has perhaps worked most closely with him, but Bergin has mentored other faculty, too. His influence has profoundly shaped teaching and research about mental health and religion, at BYU and elsewhere.

“You might think that someone with his reputation could hold himself aloof from new faculty,” says Mark H. Butler, BYU assistant professor of marriage and family therapy. “Yet he hasn’t done that at all. From the very beginning, when I arrived here at BYU, Dr. Bergin has practiced inclusion. He’s invited me to come to meetings of other researchers similarly minded about the interface between mental health and spirituality. He’s also invited me to participate in a multi-disciplinary course.

“That kind of inclusiveness is very encouraging.”

Daniel K Judd, a BYU assistant professor of ancient scripture, says similar things about Bergin’s leadership: “As just a young, ‘wet behind the ears’ master’s degree student, I went to his office and knocked on his door. And from that day to the present, he’s worked with me and helped me in many ways–he has been a real blessing to my life. As a professor he didn’t settle for anything less than stellar work, but that’s great. That’s competency in action.”

Of course, there are those among Bergin’s colleagues who disagree with aspects of his work. BYU psychology professors Richard N. Williams and Brent D. Slife, for example, express reservations about attempts to blend or correlate religion and psychology. They argue, among other things, that because traditional psychology assumes that human beings lack free will, it is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Slife has written extensively about “the historic incompatibility between spirituality and traditional science,” arguing that the scientific method itself enacts a philosophy and cannot appropriately be applied to research on spirituality.

Still, as Williams says, “I do think we have an interest, and I have an interest, in defending religion in general. Even at its worst, bad psychology will be better if it talks about spirituality and religion. So I want to defend and support every effort to get religion into the discourse in any way I can, to show that religion is mentally helpful. That is the great service these people are doing.”


“These people” began working together when Richards was Bergin’s research assistant at BYU, and during the 1980s the two scholars collaborated even when they were on different campuses. “We did a lot of studies on BYU students,” says Bergin. “The whole point of doing the BYU students was that we considered them generally to be religiously devout. The question was, ‘Do religiously devout people show pathology on psychological tests?’

“So we gave them a lot of psychological tests, and we found they looked pretty good, especially a group of recently returned missionaries.”

In 1987 Bergin and Richards reported some of that research in a paper coauthored with Kevin S. Masters, who, like Richards, was a BYU graduate student when the research was conducted. Published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, the study showed that religious people are not more mentally disturbed than nonreligious people. The study also found that religious people whose church activity is based on “intrinsic” motivations are more mentally healthy than those who are motivated by “extrinsic” factors. Bergin explains, “If you’re intrinsic and personally committed, you show up much better on the tests than if you’re kind of role-playing your religion and you’re extrinsic, looking at the externals–who you’re going to please or the kind of social contacts you’re going to make. People who are oriented that way do not score nearly as well.”

Having, with other researchers, proved that religion is not, in itself, a mental health liability, Bergin and Richards continue to investigate the success of therapeutic strategies and techniques that draw upon a client’s religious background.

They are careful, always, to insist that a therapist’s functions remain separate from those that belong to an ecclesiastical leader.

And they are now working to collect and develop their work into books that will, they hope, be useful to many of their peers. Their first collaborative book, A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and Psychotherapy, was published by the APA in 1997 and has received positive reviews.
“We’ve proposed an explicitly theistic, spiritual perspective for mainstream psychology and psychotherapy,” Richards explains. “And we’ve put it forward as the beginnings of a new orientation for therapy and for a view of human nature. Most theories of psychology and psychotherapy start with naturalistic assumptions.

“They don’t talk about God; they don’t talk about spiritual influences or realities. They try to explain human beings without any reference to that, or if they do make reference to it, it’s been done negatively. And so we start with spiritual assumptions. We try to help people see how if you start with these theistic assumptions it changes the way you think about human nature and also how you think about psychotherapy.”

Bergin adds, “It gives you a different perspective on personal responsibility, I think, because you feel an obligation to God or God’s commandments and laws. That really helps when you’re trying to teach someone self-regulation, that they have a higher reason to control themselves.”

Their second book, now in press, is also being published by the APA and will have an even broader audience. “It’s called the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Religious Diversity,” says Richards. “With Allen’s connections around the country and the world, we recruited religious therapists to write chapters on most of the major world religions. They introduce the readers to the basic beliefs and brief history of their tradition. And then they share suggestions and guidelines to help mental health professionals understand how to work more sensitively and ethically with people from their tradition.”


While there remain many critical voices from within and without the mental health professions, Bergin and Richards’ current work is emphatically well received. The professional tide has turned for them and for other therapists friendly to religion. In the last 20 years, dialogue about religious issues in psychotherapy has proliferated, and significant studies of religiously based interventions are underway.

An important force in the movement is the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Md., funded by Christian philanthropist Sir John Marks Templeton, who received an honorary doctorate from BYU in April 1998.

Dedicated to supporting religious perspectives, the institute sponsors research that investigates the ways faith affects mental and physical health. Bergin is a senior research fellow for the institute, and his research helped to shape their curriculum on religion and spirituality–a curriculum that is used to train psychiatrists at the University of Utah medical school and many other institutions.

The prominence and force of the movement are also evident in changes at the national level of the profession. For example, in 1992 and 1995, respectively, the APA and the American Psychiatric Association added religious components to their national ethical and training standards.

Bergin explains, “Psychiatry requires a six- to eight-week module on religion and spirituality now. The American Psychological Association doesn’t have a curriculum, but they have changed their ethical standards so that we must now have training not only in ethnic and racial diversity but also in religious diversity.”
Along with these signs of change at the national level, the personal paybacks have been many, and they continue to materialize. Bergin has been honored repeatedly for his lifetime of contributions. Some of his most prestigious awards include the APA’s Award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to Knowledge (1989), the Society for Psychotherapy Research’s Distinguished Career Award (1998), and the American Psychiatric Association’s Oskar Pfister Award in Psychiatry and Religion (1998).

Though Richards is still in the early stages of his career, his work has also achieved national recognition. Later this year Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) of the APA will give him the 1999 William C. Bier Award for “an outstanding contribution through publication and professional activity to the dissemination of findings on religious and allied issues.”

“For me,” Richards says, “it’s been exciting to have some involvement, first as a student early on in the movement, then to see it develop and gain momentum, and then eventually to step in and start to make a few contributions.”

Bergin began as a mentor for Richards, but their collaborative work of late has shifted the balance of responsibility: Richards is the senior author of both recent books, and Bergin will retire in July. “This movement has reached a level of maturity and distribution among professionals around the world so that it’s now comfortable for me to retire,” Bergin says. “It’s going to continue its momentum.”

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