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Atheism and nonspirituality as diversity issues in counseling.

Counseling professionals have begun to realize that, in order to be as effective as possible, counselors must explore and understand the spiritual and religious beliefs of their clients. The literature on client belief systems and diversity, however, does not include discussion of individuals without religious or spiritual beliefs. The purpose of this article is to (a) suggest that atheism and nonspirituality should be included in the multiculturalism conversation and (b) offer ways that counselors might effectively help and nurture such clients.

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There has been a growing realization among counseling professionals that, in order to be as effective as possible, counselors must explore and understand the spiritual and religious beliefs of their clients (Hinterkopf, 1994; Ivey, Ivey, & Simek-Morgan, 1993; McCullough, 1999). Researchers and scholars have worked hard to give voice to these beliefs by exploring ways that counselors and counselors-in-training can use these personal beliefs to maximize the effects of treatment (Hinterkopf, 1994; Wolf & Stevens, 2001). Respecting diversity is not only vital to the helping relationship but also has become a question of ethical practice. Attention to religious and spiritual beliefs is so essential to the course of treatment that it has been incorporated into the ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005; Section C.5., Nondiscrimination). Ceasar and Miranti (2001) have suggested that "counselors who choose to ignore these dimensions may be in violation of the code," and may "fail to promote the growth and development of their clients" (p. 211). Counselors adhere to a code of ethics that ensures acceptance of each person who seeks treatment, help, or support. Counselors pledge--if not to themselves, to their profession--that they will see all clients as individuals and accept them as they are, whatever they may believe about their existence and purpose. Clients expect counselors to respect, rather than challenge, their beliefs (Schaffner & Dixon, 2003).

The literature on counseling and spiritual and religious beliefs is vast and growing, as is that for other important diversity issues, such as gender, socioeconomic status, disability, age, culture, sexual orientation, language, trauma, and ethnicity (Weinrach & Thomas, 1996). Few counselors would argue with the fact that clients' contexts and what they believe about the meaning of life, morality, and life after death informs the counseling or therapy process.

The literature on the importance of client belief systems, however, does not include discussion of clients without religious or spiritual beliefs. No articles in the Journal of Counseling & Development or in the major educational, medical, and psychological databases (e.g., ERIC, Medline, PsycLIT, and PsycINFO) address atheism or how a counselor might approach a client who identifies as nonreligious or nonspiritual. The few articles that do address atheism tend to focus on the compatibility of beliefs between counselors and clients (Richards & Davison, 1989), the effects of nonbelief on the spiritual and psychological well-being of clients (Herzbrun, 1999), or the importance of respecting clients' religious/spiritual life during the counseling process (Miovic, 2004). As far as we can ascertain, very few articles focus on the counseling process specifically with atheistic and nonspiritual clients, and none address nonbelief as a diversity issue.

Weinrach and Thomas (1996) suggested that the reason this group has largely been ignored in the counseling literature is because scholars tend to focus their attention on topics that are politically correct and publishable, therefore ignoring topics that are likely to draw controversy. In our view, the current sociopolitical contour of the United States makes it unpopular to acknowledge, let alone focus, on this particular group, as is evidenced by the scarcity of scholarly material on this topic. It may also be that people in the helping professions tend to assume that everyone's belief system includes a god or some higher power (Linnenberg, 1997) and that the standard of practice has been built around this assumption.

Including nonbelief in counselors' circle of diversity issues expands efforts to embrace multiculturalism, thereby moving the goal to include all people and all groups one step further. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the issues that are relatively unique to this group and to suggest ways that counselors might effectively help and nurture clients who do not possess religious and spiritual beliefs. We do not mean for this article to be a defense of or an advocation for atheism or even a complete and accurate accounting of this issue, but rather an attempt to bring attention to a minority group that has been so far ignored in the diversity conversation among counseling professionals.

Atheism and Nonspirituality as Diversity Issues in Counseling

Diversity has been defined as "the condition of being different or having differences" (see Grove et al., 2002, p. 663). Other definitions include words such as variety, assortment, mixture, melange, medley, multiplicity, heterogeneity, difference, unlikeness, dissimilarity, and contrast. The more meaningful definitions of diversity take on a distinctive significance when one considers the meanings of words like melange, which is defined as a mixture of heterogeneous and often incongruous elements. If is also defined as behavioral normality and abnormality. It is worth noting that the term diversity is inclusive rather than exclusive, like the words discriminate, segregate, and the many "-isms" that have been incorporated in the vocabulary and belief systems in the United States. An emphasis on accepting and respecting cultural differences by recognizing that no one culture is intrinsically superior to another underlies the current usage of the term diversity.

Counselors have become aware of, or perhaps have given assent to, the fact that words have meaning. Some of the definitions noted are limiting, whereas others are expansive and inclusive. Nevertheless, the significant factor involving the word diversity is whether or not we, as therapists and counselors, embrace diversity in our own personal and professional lives. Are we truly accepting of the multiplicity, heterogeneity, and dissimilarity of people? Can we accept and include all of the incongruous elements of the life and worldview of the clients that come to us for help? We are urged to honor the context from which our clients come and to embrace what is significant and meaningful to them. If someone embraces religion and spirituality in all their manifestations, for that client, the tenets of his or her religion and spiritual expressions are real, significant, and meaningful. If a client comes to us who is spiritual, but not religious, we are guided by the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005) to accept that client with his or her interpretation of spirituality and meaning. In the same manner, counselors who subscribe to the codes of ethics of their various disciplines, must also accept that they may encounter clients who have nonreligious or no spiritual beliefs. Counselors must accept the fact that, for clients who lack a belief in a higher power, believe there is no God, or have limited or no spirituality, their experience is also real, valid, and significant for them, regardless of counselors' personal belief and value systems.

Diversity for counselors, then, is not just the acknowledgement of those who are different from us. It is the respect and understanding of the diverse beliefs of clients who come to counseling to work through adversity, loss, and other psychological stressors, including marginalization, that might be obstacles to their growth and change. Multiculturalism, in the context of counseling, addresses the need for counselors and counselors-in-training to promote social justice by empowering clients who belong to groups that have traditionally been marginalized and devalued by our society (D'Andrea & Daniels, 2005). Such marginalized groups as ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and those with diverse religious beliefs have been addressed in the multicultural literature (Williams, 2005), but to date, individuals who have no religious or spiritual beliefs have neither been described nor seen as belonging to a stigmatized group in need of sensitivity and understanding as they seek mental health care.

Who Is Atheist or Nonspiritual?

Self-report data over the past several decades indicate that most people in the United States, and the world, believe in the existence of a supreme being (Johnson & Hayes, 2003) and that there are relatively few who do not. It is estimated that approximately 4-5% of American citizens identify as atheist (more precise estimates of how many Americans are atheists are difficult because the law prevents the Census Bureau from asking about religious affiliation [U.S. Census, 2000]); and about 14% of the population worldwide claim to be atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious (Hunter, 2005). For comparison, nearly 4-10% of the U.S. population identifies as gay or lesbian (Miller & House, 2001), 3.6% identify their ethnicity as Asian, and 0.1% identify as Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). In other words, there is approximately the same number of atheists (or nonbelievers) in the United States as there are Asians or gay and lesbian individuals. As with these other minority groups, the fact that there are relatively few of them should not exclude them from consideration in multicultural counseling models.

The Stereotype

The stereotype of the person with no organized belief system tends to include those who exhibit moral decadence, self-indulgence, and disregard for others. For example, Jenks (2001) asked 146 respondents to attribute characteristics to two hypothetical deviant groups, atheists and homosexuals, and two nondeviant groups, Catholics and Republicans. Results showed that for all attributes, the deviant groups were rated significantly higher in terms of needing counseling; having permissive parents; and being politically liberal, more likely to use drugs, and lower in class. Furnham, Meader, and McClelland (1998) had previously found similar biases among 167 participants who were asked to rank people on a waiting list to receive a kidney. Respondents were given hypothetical demographic data that included gender, income, alcohol consumption, and religious beliefs. Respondents gave significantly lower priority to patients with atheist/agnostic views than to patients who identified themselves as Christian. The authors explained these findings in the context of the "just world" thesis that suggests people need to believe that they, and others, receive what they deserve (Furnham & Boston, 1996). In other words, people with undesirable characteristics, such as not believing in God, were deemed less deserving of a second chance at life than those who have more socially approved or desirable beliefs.

Atheism and Nonspirituality Defined

Atheism is relatively easy to define; it is the lack of belief in God or gods. Atheists tend to subscribe to either strong atheism, the belief that God, or gods, do not exist, or so-called weak atheism, the lack of belief in a supreme being (Baggini, 2003). In either case, the atheist lacks the belief that any sort of supreme being or universal force exists. Note that nonbelief in God, gods, or universal forces does not include the belief that there is no good, no morality, no meaning to life, and no human goodness--just that there is no supreme being (Baggini, 2003).

Atheists' reality tends to focus largely on the natural world rather than on the supernatural world; things that are not physical, seeable, and touchable do not exist for them. They believe that, from the physical materials in the world come all the beauty, emotions, and moral values that make human life beautiful and worth living (Baggini, 2003). They are philosophical realists and, as such, generally believe that there is good and bad in the world, that how much of each a person experiences is largely due to one's own focus and efforts, and that what is not due to one's efforts is due to chance or luck.

Spirituality is more difficult to define because spiritual beliefs are so varied and personal. Some define spirituality as one's relationship with a higher power (Linnenberg, 1997); others define spirituality as the search for meaning and purpose and believe that value in life emerges out of one's relationship with a transient power (Clinebell, 1995). Still others experience spirituality through religion, the universe, meditation, or a feeling of oneness with the universe. One could even argue that the definition of spirituality is so broad and so personal that all people are spiritual in their own way. But for the purposes of this article, nonspirituality is defined as having no belief in any sort of higher power, life force, universal presence, or obligation to a spiritual soul or being.

Whether people are generally nonspiritual or specifically atheist, they share the lack of belief in a source or structure that dictates how they should behave in relation to others and the world. How then does a counselor begin to understand and help these clients to grow, change, fit into society, and feel better about themselves when they come to counseling? To what does the counselor ground the hopes and dreams of clients who do not share the dominant belief system of the society in which they live, work play, raise a family, and plan for their future? This article is not meant to include all these issues related to a client's lack of subscription to the dominant belief system; however, a few important areas for consideration are addressed, because they may be helpful for counselors to consider when they attempt to help these clients. These areas include meaning and purpose in life, morality, and death and dying. What follows is a brief description of how these areas might be viewed by atheist and nonspiritual clients and how counselors can maximize the therapeutic effect of their interventions while respecting their differences.

Atheism, Nonspirituality, and the Meaning and Purpose of Life

Atheists and nonspiritual individuals tend to subscribe to the idea that they alone are responsible for creating meaning and defining their purpose in life. Meaning and purpose emerge from how they experience and interpret the physical and emotional events in their lives, and these values are often extremely personal and not understandable to others. When negative events happen, for example, or a series of bad things occur, people with no religious or spiritual belief in a grand plan may view themselves as simply having bad luck or they seem indifferent about disturbing events. This is not to assert that people who do not believe in a higher purpose do not suffer from negative events--they do. The difference is not in whether or not they have feelings about the events, but in what they attribute to the events in terms of what they mean and why they occurred.

There is insufficient research on which to base intervention strategies on clinical findings; however, from a strictly practical standpoint, atheists and nonspiritual clients appear to be good candidates for therapeutic approaches that stress empowerment, personal responsibility, and self-understanding. In our view, open communication about intervention choices should accompany any discussion of therapeutic goals for counseling and should include all possible means of deepening the clients' understanding and awareness of the values and meaning they have created for themselves. Atheists in particular might feel alone in their search for what is meaningful and valuable, and assessing their connection to others is an important first step in understanding how clients see themselves in relation to humankind. If, on the other hand, clients are not connected to others, the counselor should not assume it is a problem--their preference for solitude might come from the difficulty of being different from others in an intolerant environment.

Active listening and guided self-exploration activities such as journal writing can help both the client and the counselor to uncover negative feelings that are related to changes in meaning and purpose, as well as foreground areas that are working well for the client. Problems arise for atheists and nonspiritual clients when their actions and behaviors have come out of alignment with their inner values; thus, we believe that counseling should focus on the clients taking responsibility for reexamining their current belief system and for making decisions and choosing behaviors that are aligned with what they believe is their purpose and meaning in life.

Morality

Amisconception about atheist and nonspiritual clients is that, because they lack belief in a supreme being and a grand plan, they have little or no basis for acting morally. This is not necessarily the case. Where religious/spiritual clients might rely on family, friends, ethnicity, or country of origin for customary beliefs, atheists tend to explore questions of morality and ethical behavior in the context of observable human emotions. To the extent that moral behavior emerges out of empathy, caring, and anger at the injustices of the world, rather than from fear of punishment, atheists maintain the same moral values that others do. Anyone, for example, who sees pictures of starving children, feels outraged at the injustice and will act morally, regardless of their belief about the existence of a supreme being (Baggini, 2003).

Counselors can assume then that atheist/nonspiritual clients who face moral dilemmas or other problems that arise out of moral conflict shale the same moral crises as anyone else. The difference, from an intervention standpoint, should lie in the focus of the solution, not in the source of the problem. In other words, effective solutions will focus on the personal value system of the client rather than on extrinsic "should" and "ought" solutions. If clients feel free to explore their belief systems with the counselor, solutions to problems that respect and honor clients' moral belief systems will emerge. As with any other minority group, this is crucial to a successful therapeutic process. The case example that follows attempts to illustrate how a diversity-sensitive counselor helped a client resolve moral issues created by the loss of a child.

Case Example

A 32-year-old female client came to counseling for complicated grief surrounding the sexual assault and murder of her 9-year-old daughter. The client reported having lost all belief in God when her only child was found dead. Rather than focusing on conventional issues around forgiveness and finding meaning in what had happened, the counselor helped the client to focus on how the event had affected the client's moral value system and what the client could do to re-create herself in a world that did not include her child. By validating the client's belief that she had lost her daughter through bad luck (wrong place/wrong time), the counselor helped the client feel free to process her feelings of hatred and revenge toward the perpetrator and then generate a moral code that allowed her to openly process the loss and negative feelings and emerge with a new set of values that she felt she had created and could control.

Success of therapy in this case was based on the counselor's ability to self-assess in the area of spiritual/religious beliefs and in his ability to help the client search for her moral code and to facilitate the client's personal journey through the grief process. If the counselor had tried to impose cosmic meaning on the event in the face of the client's clear opposition to the idea, the client might have felt disrespected, devalued and, in a psychological sense, harmed. Counselors can use a similar approach in helping clients with difficulties that involve end-of-life issues.

Death and Dying

It is rare in the course of therapy, particularly long-term therapy, not to touch on how clients feel about their mortality and what the end of life means to them. Even physically healthy clients think about becoming sick, getting in an accident, or how they might prepare to face death, and diversity-sensitive counselors know the importance of contextualizing their clients' beliefs about these issues. Although atheism more profoundly influences views about living than about dying, the issue of what happens after death is still likely to arise in the course of therapy with atheist clients.

When clients have no belief in heaven, a better place, or life in the hereafter, the counselor, particularly one who does not share the nonbelief, faces the challenge of not only understanding the most personal and hidden motivations for life itself but creating interventions that are at once respectful and effective. In other words, if clients believe they are here by accident, that they are essentially a random event on earth (Bennett, 1998), and that dying merely means the brain has ceased to function, how can a counselor help these clients with the weighty existential issues of death, dying, and the meaning of such without discussing God, the afterlife, spiritual existence, or other religious ideas? The answer seems to relate to counselors' ability to recognize their own countertransference and the effect it may have on the therapeutic process and on the degree and scope of the counselors' cultural appreciation and respect of diverse belief systems (Abernathy & Lancia, 1998). The following case study illustrates how one diversity-sensitive counselor approached a terminally ill client.

Case Example

A 48-year-old patient in the oncology unit of a local hospital was visited by a pastoral counselor. Seeing the counselor in his cassock and knowing he was coming to her to pray, she told him that she did not believe in God and had no connection to a higher power and asked him to please visit someone else; she did not want to pray. The counselor sat on the end of her bed and genuinely asked her what would become of her after death; the patient explained that she felt that she was part of the universe in life and would be transformed into the material the earth was made from and thus return to the universe after death. As days passed, the counselor would visit her room and just sit on the end of her bed. The client talked about her life and about the many difficult, as well as positive, events that led her to become atheist. The counselor, who held different beliefs, listened and learned from her until she was no longer able to carry on a conversation. During his last visit with her, the counselor again asked if she wanted to pray with him. She said that she did not but that she would appreciate it if he would sit with her in silence for a while. After an hour or so, the client simply said "thank you" to the counselor for being there and told him not to worry about her, that she would be fine where she was going, and that she did not need religion or spirituality to face nonexistence. The counselor thanked her for allowing him to be with her for her final moments on earth and left feeling that, although he did not share the client's views, they had connected in silent understanding--that the gift of respect had been mutually given and received.

Implications for Counseling

The importance of religious and spiritual themes in counseling clients' lives has been well documented. Clients' values and beliefs inform all their choices and behaviors, as well as how they deal with their psychological problems. How to intervene appropriately has been the topic of virtually hundreds of scholarly counseling articles during the past decade. For whatever reason, atheist and nonspiritual clients have been left out of the conversation. However, if small numbers, minority status, social isolation, and marginality determine the need for consideration and understanding, atheistic and nonspiritual clients certainly qualify.

It may well be that for atheist and nonspiritual clients, what a counselor does not do is more important than what they do, and for this reason, the literature has not been prescriptive. Generally speaking, however, in our opinion, therapeutic success with this group is heavily dependent on three areas of counselor competence: First, the counselors' capacity to recognize and assess their own reactions to a divergent belief system; second, the counselors' ability to guide introspection with validation and understanding of the client's worldview; and third, the counselors' willingness to use the client's values and beliefs to guide them on a path to a deeper understanding of what happiness is for them.

Suggestions for Working With Atheists and Nonspiritual Clients

Ask about celebrations. Atheists and nonspiritual clients may celebrate certain days or events that are important to them. A good way to convey understanding and respect is to ask what days they celebrate, what events are important to them, or what milestones they commemorate.

Honor differences. Avoid making assumptions about how nonreligious clients act or see the world. Explore differences without assuming they are problematic; there can be more differences within nonreligious belief systems than between them.

Validate nonreligious experiences. A nonreligious/spiritual person might have difficulty holding their beliefs in our society. Validate that it is difficult if they express this concern. If the client has experienced fear, prejudice, or disrespect, a diversity-sensitive counselor will help clients cope with being politically and socially isolated.

Focus on personal responsibility. Approach problems from the point of view of reality rather than meaning. Ground therapeutic interventions in the context of empowerment, personal choices, and self-determination.

Respect privacy. Fearing judgment, nonreligious/spiritual clients may be reluctant to talk about their beliefs. Encourage clients to talk about their beliefs if they want to but respect that they might want to keep their beliefs private until they feel safe.

Engage in self-reflection. Counselors should explore their own religious and spiritual beliefs and values, and evaluate the extent to which they can help (or hinder) their client's growth.

Be sincere. Counselors have a right to their beliefs, too. If counselors have difficulty relating to someone whose beliefs are different than theirs, they ought to talk about that with their client. If the client feels their beliefs clash to the degree that counseling cannot be helpful, counselors should refer clients to another, more compatible therapist.

Seek consultation. Spiritual and religious content has the potential to generate strong feelings. Counselors-in-training are especially susceptible to counter-transference and should be encouraged to seek consultation with other professionals, supervisors, or clergy if they feel their judgments are getting in the way of the therapeutic process.

Conclusion

Recent literature on diversity issues in counseling has pointed to the importance of attending to the religious beliefs of clients during counseling and therapy. However, the majority of theories and research in this area focus on theist and spiritual clients, and very little attention has been paid to clients who hold opposing beliefs. Perhaps a first step in generating interest in finding clinically effective ways to integrate nonbelief into the counseling process would be to include nonbelief in the definition of diversity.

References

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Baggini, J. (2003). Atheism: A short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bennett, D. J. (1998). Randomness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ceasar, P. T., & Miranti, J. G. (2001). Counseling and spirituality. In D. Capuzzi & D. R. Gross (Eds.), Introduction to the counseling profession (pp. 208-223). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Clinebell, H. (1995). Counseling for spiritually empowered wholeness: A hope centered approach. New York: Hearth Pastoral Press.

D'Andrea, M., & Daniels, J. (2005, January). Promoting multiculturalism and social justice: A New Year's resolution. Counseling Today, pp. 32-33.

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Grove, P. B., et al. (Ed.). (2002). Webster's third new international dictionary of the English language unabridged. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Herzbrun, M. B. (1999). Loss of faith: A qualitative analysis of Jewish nonbelievers. Counseling & Values, 43,129-141.

Hinterkopf, E. (1994). Integrating spiritual experiences in counseling. Counseling and Values, 38, 165-175.

Hunter, P. (2005). Notes on the size of specific religions: Secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist. Retrieved March 3, 2005, from http://www.Adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents. html#Nonreligious

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Jenks, R. J. (2001). Perceptions of two deviant and two nondeviant groups. Journal of Social Psychology, 12, 783-790.

Johnson, C. V., & Hayes, J. A. (2003). Troubled spirits: Prevalence and predictors of religions and spiritual concerns among university students and counseling center clients. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50, 409-419.

Linnenberg, D. M. (1997). Religion, spirituality, and the counseling process. Journal of Reality Therapy, 17, 55-59.

McCullough, M. E. (1999). Research on religion-accommodative counseling: Review and meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 46, 92-98.

Miller, J. L., & House, R. M. (2001). Counseling gay, lesbian, and bisexual clients. In D. Capuzzi & D. R. Gross (Eds.), Introduction to the counseling profession (pp. 386-414). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Miovic, M. (2004). An introduction to spiritual psychology: Overview of the literature, east and west. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12, 105-115.

Richards, P. S., & Davison, M. L. (1989). The effects of theistic and atheistic counselor values on client trust: A multidimensional scaling analysis. Counseling and Values, 33, 109-114.

Schaffner, A. D., & Dixon, D. N. (2003). Religiosity, gender, and preferences for religious interventions in counseling: A preliminary study. Counseling and Values, 48, 24-33.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2000). Overview of race and Hispanic origin 2000: Census 2000 brief. Retrieved March 15, 2005, from http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/index.html

Weinrach, S. G., & Thomas, K. R. (1996). The counseling profession's commitment to diversity-sensitive counseling: A critical reassessment. Journal of Counseling & Development, 74, 472-477.

Williams, C. B. (2005). Counseling African American women: Multiple identities--multiple constraints. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83, 278-283.

Wolf, C. T., & Stevens, P. (2001). Integrating religion and spirituality in marriage and family counseling. Counseling and Values, 46, 66-75.

Livia M. D'Andrea and Johann Sprenger, Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Livia M. D'Andrea, Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology/281, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0213 (e-mail: livia@unr.edu).
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Title Annotation:Issues and Insights
Author:D'Andrea, Livia M.; Sprenger, Johann
Publication:Counseling and Values
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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