Dr. Kenneth Pargament

In these times of seemingly endless crisis and turmoil, people are trying to cope—and for some, that means turning to a religious or spiritual practice. Dr. Kenneth Pargament, professor of clinical psychology at Bowling Green State University, has made the connection between religion and health—both physical and mental—his scholarly focus, and he recently shared insights with a local audience.

Pargament recently spoke about Suffering, Despair and Resiliency: Spirituality in Trou-bled Times, as the guest of Care and Counseling, a nonprofit organization that addresses the spiritual, emotional and psychological needs of St. Louis-area individuals.

Pargament is the author of two best-selling books: Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred and The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice.

When and why did you become interested in the topic of religious beliefs and health? What spurred your interest in this connection?

I went into psychology in 1972 because I thought it dealt with the ‘big questions’—why we are here, how we should live our lives, how can we make the world a better place. But the psychology of that time was shaped heavily by behavioral and psychodynamic perspectives that largely overlooked these critical questions or responded to them in pessimistic ways. I found that the religions of the world were grappling with some of the same big questions that I was, though I didn’t agree with all of the religious answers to these questions.

I was hooked by the psychology of religion and health when I began to talk to people about the roles religion played in their most critical times, for better or for worse. Their answers were always meaningful and emotionally powerful, and I knew then that our field had a great deal to learn about and learn from religious life—we still do.

You’ve studied trauma victims and people who have various medical challenges. What are the most notable things you’ve learned about how religion affects the way these individuals cope? What’s surprised you most?

I am consistently impressed by the power of religion to affect people in the most critical times of their lives. But religion is a double-edged sword; it has the capacity to help or to hurt.

For many people, religion is the single most-valuable resource in times of medical illness, the place they turn to for solace and support before any other. Yet, for others, religion can be a source of pain, conflict and struggle. Religious and spiritual struggles may center around feelings of abandonment and punishment by God, internal moral conflicts, or tensions with other people about sacred matters. Unless these struggles are resolved, they can lead to declines in physical health and mental health.

So based on your studies, what conclusions have you come to regarding the benefit (or lack thereof) of religious practice in times of crises and its aftermath?

At its best, religion offers something people can find from no other resource—a way of coming to terms with human finitude and frailty. Our culture takes a very proactive approach to dealing with crises. We try our best to maximize our control, solve problems and enhance the length and quality of our lives. Yet, in spite of our best efforts, the reality is we remain finite-limited people.

We can do some things to enhance and extend our lives, but in spite of our efforts, we all will eventually die. The religions of the world provide people with a constructive way of think-ing about and coming to term with these basic existential realities. In the world’s religions, we hear a language that is unfamiliar to most people in medicine and the social sciences; words such as forbearance, acceptance, humility, surrender, letting go, faith, hope, gratitude and forgiveness. This language is of tremendous benefit to people, particularly when they face times of deepest crisis.

What does your work suggest about religion's role in health care? How can this inform the work of health-care providers?

For many years, health professionals and psychologists, in particular, steered clear of religion and spirituality in clinical practice. That was perhaps because there was some history of religious antipathy among early leaders in the field, such as Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, or perhaps because health professionals generally lack training in this area. Yet there are several good scientifically based reasons to attend to religion and spirituality in practice.

For many people, religion and spirituality are key resources that can facilitate their growth. For others, religion and spirituality may be sources of problems that need to be ad-dressed in the service of their health and well-being.

Surveys show that people would like to be able to talk about matters of faith in psychological treatment. Health professionals are ethically obliged to be respectful and attentive to the cultural diversity of their clients, and religion and spirituality contribute to our personal and social identities.

Finally, emerging research is showing that spiritually integrated approaches to treatment are as effective as other treatments. There is, in short, good scientifically based reason to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality in clinical practice.

In short, by becoming more appreciative of the religiousness and spirituality of their patients, health-care providers are likely to be more effective in their work.

You have 'designed and tested a number of spiritually integrated treatments for victims of child sexual abuse, women infected with HIV, people with serious mental illness, and patients with heart disease and cancer.' What would be an example of this type of treatment and its out-comes?

Psychologists are now developing and evaluating a variety of spiritually integrated approaches to treatment, including: forgiveness programs to help divorced people come to terms with bitterness and anger; programs to help survivors of sexual abuse deal with their spiritual struggles; treatments for women with eating disorders that draw on their spiritual resources; and programs that help drug abusers reconnect to their higher selves. These programs are still in their early stages of development, but the preliminary results are promising.

When you spoke in St. Louis, what was the most important message you hope people took away from your presentation?

I wish I had an easy answer to offer to the terrible problems of suffering we are witnessing and experiencing today. But I don’t.

What I do know is that there is a spiritual dimension to suffering—the way we experience it, its causes, and whether we succumb to despair or are transformed by it.

We will be unable to address suffering in the world unless we recognize its profoundly spiritual character. But any attempt to understand spirituality has to rest on an appreciation for its richness and complexity. Although we tend to think of spirituality as always positive and healthy, spirituality takes many forms. It can be the source of the greatest of human accomplishments. But it can also make bad matters worse by fostering hatred and divisiveness. How then can we foster the most benevolent of spiritual expressions and discourage spiritual in its most destructive forms? When we are able to answer that question and put it into practice, I believe we will take a giant step forward toward ameliorating human suffering and despair.

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