What do counselors need to know about modern paganism?

New qualitative research published in the journal Open Theology provides some recommendations for counselors and psychotherapists who may encounter clients who follow one of the many Neopagan faiths.

The researchers interviewed ten Pagan college students about their spiritual life and their counseling needs. They concluded that while Pagan clients have many of the same issues as non-Pagan clients, counselors and psychotherapists still need to take a culturally-sensitive approach. Pagan clients, for example, may face issues related to their religious identity and stigmatization.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Kevin A. Harris of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Harris: I am an assistant professor and licensed psychologist, and most of my research (and a lot of my clinical work) focuses on the psychology of religion and spirituality — particularly on spirituality as an area of multicultural competency for counselors. During my doctoral program, I had to write a term paper for a class on “Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion,” and I was very surprised to learn that very little has been published on Paganism that’s intended for a professional audience of counselors or psychologists.

I made friends with one of my classmates who was a third-generation Pagan, born and raised by Pagan parents, and we decided to interview other Pagans about what Paganism is and what counselors should know in order to provide culturally-sensitive therapy to Pagan clients.

What is the main thing counselors and psychotherapists should take away from your article?

We found that the Pagan college students we interviewed view Paganism as an earth-based spirituality and religion, have a naturalistic view on religion and spirituality, have an open view on sex and sexuality, and generally considered Paganism to be a polytheistic faith, at least superficially – though many of the participants considered Paganism to be both polytheistic and monotheistic. They were less likely than non-Pagans to seek counseling or accept medication, instead preferring to seek alternatives such as meditation. Many had similar concerns about the stigmatization of Paganism.

Many of our interviewees also described “coming out of the broom closet” as being similar to the coming-out process described by people who are GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender). They emphasized, though, that no two Pagans are alike – that there is great diversity within Paganism, moreso than in most of the world’s major religions, and they expressed a strong desire to be treated as individuals.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our findings may only apply to college-aged Pagans in the United States — and are weighted heavily towards people who identify as both Pagan and GLBT. These findings may not apply to all Pagans. A national sample would be good. Our research was qualitative in nature, so a quantitative survey would logically come next.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would add that our findings should be viewed as a starting point for respectful dialogue with clients, not as hard-and-fast rules or a way to put anyone into a metaphorical box. It’s always important to get to know clients as individuals who may or may not share particular characteristics with the groups they belong to. This seems to be especially true with Pagan clients; it’s important to respect them as individuals.

The study, “Paganism and Counseling: The Development of a Clinical Resource,” was co-authored by Kate M. Panzica and Ruth A. Crocker.