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God in Therapy: Heresy!


At* the first definition of heresy is: opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, esp. of a church or religious system.

The fourth definition is listed as any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc., which is how people often use the word.

In the case of heresy (though not with every dictionary listing), the primary definition is the original definition. The English word comes from a 12th century Greek term meaning, “to choose”, but the concept is rooted much earlier, in the Hebrew Bible. For many years the term was most closely associated with those who opposed the Catholic Church’s doctrines.

Heresy doesn’t have a positive connotation, though oddly enough, its synonym, unorthodoxy, often does—it is considered exciting to think outside the perceived mainstream and unorthodox is the preferred term.

Today, it can be considered heresy to hold a wide range of less-than-popular viewpoints about many non-religious subjects. For example, espousing the view that sexual abstinence before marriage is a good thing; believing the scientists who say we’re actually in a global cooling epoch; supporting nations that deny women the vote; and so on, might elicit dirty looks and cries of “heresy,” depending where you live and who you know.**

So what does this have to do with therapy? Well, in our first book, Therapy Revolution, we wrote that a competent therapist doesn’t believe that psychotherapy/psychology is not “an overarching, flawless religion.” Yet, as we get involved in deeper conversations about therapy, it appears to us that there really are two fiercely oppositional (even religious), camps when it comes to all matters psychotherapeutic!

Here are some of the divides, as we see them:

Orthodox– Focused on the root causes and past

Heretical-Focused on behavior and future

Orthodox-Focused on self and relationship with self

Heretical-Focused on self’s place in the world and relationship with others

Orthodox-Identifies pleasure and fear as man’s driving forces

Heretical-Identifies search for meaning as man’s driving force

Orthodox-Focus Statement: We must get to the root of the problem, shattering all belief constructs, even if it means digging for years.

Heretical-Focus Statement: We must move towards changing flawed beliefs and behaviors, but nobody’s perfect, so moving quicker might be an option.

Addiction treatment also has some interesting contrasts.

It used to be that alcoholism and addiction was considered a moral failing. When it was first labeled a disease, or brain disease, that was heresy. Now, there are some who consider it simply a moral failing once more. Which viewpoint is heretical? (See our poll about this subject).

As for addiction treatment, some say it is impossible without 12-Step programs. Others vehemently disagree, and say therapy is the answer. Others say medication is the most effective treatment tool. Heresy!?!

We say to psychotherapists (and to patients/clients), “Therapists should use what works with each individual, whether heretical or orthodox. You might only make certain gains—nothing is perfect.  Therapist should develop a thorough understanding and facility with the techniques they do use, but should try to be comprehensive. Be open to exploring complementary evidence-based techniques. And, if all else fails, the therapist’s mission is to help the patients get the help he or she needs—they should refer out if a reasonable amount of time has gone by without substantial improvement. Remember—psychotherapy isn’t a religion and therapists are not priests and change isn’t heresy.

*Heresy. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: August 04, 2010).

**We chose these as examples because these are considered to be non-mainstream viewpoints in the media. Naturally, the converse of all these viewpoints may also be considered heresy, depending on your circles.

God in Therapy: Heresy!

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2010). God in Therapy: Heresy!. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from


Last updated: 5 Aug 2010
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