Column: The Intersection of Pagan Religions and the Social Sciences

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Culture and CommunityThere are many intersections between a person’s profession and their spiritual calling. There are parallels that exist in the reasons that someone practices within a specific spiritual belief system, and what that same person chooses to do for a living. There are types of people that are more geared toward professions that are in the service field and others that are not; this is not something new within the way we understand the development of personality and the way we define an individual’s strengths.

When considering theories like “nature vs. nurture,” there are insights into the personality of those who find themselves in the field of helping professions. This is a subject very commonly discussed within the social sciences community. There are specific types of people and specific life experiences that lead an individual into this segment of the professional spectrum; a combination of nature and nurture. Whether that is as a social worker, therapist, psychologist, anthropologist or Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor; the work of facilitating change, distributing hope and advocating for the needs of others is a calling in and of itself.

[Free Therapy Picture / Flickr]

[Free Therapy Picture / Flickr]

As a social worker I find the correlations between the foundation of my spiritual practice and the motivation for my work in the field strongly connected. Many others identify their professional work as a part of their divine work, a manifestation of their calling to the Gods. The correlations between my own connection with the Gods and my passion as a social worker have always felt linked and relevant. While my own journey started as a counselor before ever started identifying and practicing as a Pagan, I have connected my work and my spirituality in many ways by using a comparable set of lenses.

There is an increasing amount of studies and clinical theories that are discussing the benefits of bringing client’s spirituality into the therapy room but there isn’t much yet about how the spirituality of the practitioner impacts their practice in the field.

In A Call For The Spiritual Dimension To Be Included In Social Work Educationsocial worker Stephanie Sullivan identifies the importance of spirituality as an intricate part of the person. She writes,“Spirituality is a concept that is not easily definable and because of that, many people shy away from fully understanding how one’s belief system can affect other factors in life. As a professional social worker, it is one’s duty to look at the whole individual because every system is intertwined with another. When pondering over whether or not aspects of spirituality is used in everyday social work practice, one must ask the question about the worker’s view on spirituality.”

In recognizing the impact of one’s spiritual beliefs and practices, we are expanding our ability to truly understand those who are being served, as well as those who are professionally delivering the services. It gives us an expanded view on the different skill-sets and varying levels of understanding around the different ways an individual approaches and integrates religious practice into life.

I spoke briefly with current PsyD student and Pagan Dave Christy, M. Div. regarding his thoughts on the topic. He shared his own feelings about the intersections that exist between the social sciences and Paganism. He said, “This has been on my mind in a big way for the past year. My dissertation project is focused on quantifying stigma due to religious identity (working in the minority stress model). Of the things we get stigmatized for, I think belief/use of magic and communication with non-human folk (deities, ancestors, elementals, etc) are the most misunderstood within the broader culture.”

Christy went on to say, “I’ve definitely run into psychology folks who pathologize these things too. Based on conversations I’ve had at PantheaCon and among the folks I’ve met in the Baltimore/DC area, there’s a big need for Pagan friendly therapists, social workers, chaplains, and other helping professions. In terms of how we can contribute to the social sciences, I think we’re better at sacralizing things than just about any other community. I think there’s a fair bit to explore here for folks studying the intersection of religion/spirituality, belief, behavior. Similarly, the diversity in types of belief within our community is also really interesting (devotional, existential, ecstatic, community-based, etc). I’m curious at the types of coping and resilience factors involved in each. “

Due to the depth of this topic, it could be discussed from several different angles, leading to a variety of different conclusions. How exactly do social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists feel that their spiritual practice correlates with their spiritual practice?

I asked several different professionals from different disciplines questions about how their work and their spiritual practice intersect and how they affect each other. How does their career influence their interactions within the Pagan community, and how does it change the ways they connect with their Gods, deities, and traditions?

I was interested in the correlations and differences found in the experiences of different people with differing types and levels of training (e.g., a social worker, a social work student, Psy D student, marriage and family therapist intern, and a licensed marriage and family therapist).

The answer to these questions vary as much as the myriad of paths within our spiritual community.

I am firmly in the tradition that psychotherapy is a secular version of one of the forms of healing that religious and spiritual traditions offer. As a Marriage and Family Therapist whose specialty and passion is supporting folks who’ve experienced complex trauma, [I] see a connection to the type of soul retrieval work spiritual healers do (although I do not mean to put myself aside those healers).

I think that the practices of psychotherapy and witchcraft compliment each other well. Both require knowing that time is not linear, and the ability to navigate multiple (and at times contradictory) levels and streams of reality. The practitioner’s role is to be a container for the magic – the incredibly prepared, adept container, honed by theory and practice and guided by instinct – but a container nonetheless. To fully be a witch or a therapist, you must be aware of your shadow, you must be humble and at the same time aware of your power, and most of all to be in awe of the mystery that Is unfolding in your presence.

Being a therapist is a spiritual vocation for me, although I do not think this is the only form my vocation could have taken. At times I am frustrated by the secular nature of the work, but I also understand it helps to make the work more accessible to people. Above all, I feel so incredibly privileged to sit with people as they bring themselves into more wholeness.

Because of my spiritual experiences I am very aware that there are many, many real things that the larger culture would dismiss and call “crazy.” I am also aware that a lot of us seek spiritual experiences to heal ourselves, and that psychotherapy is not the only way to heal. However, I have at times seen things accepted in the pagan community that concern me, people who have need for help beyond just spiritual work, or concerning behaviors that can’t just be hand waved under the umbrella of “we’re an accepting community! We’re all weirdos!” Although I do not diagnose or clinically evaluate people outside of my professional role, I have spoken up about concerning behavior I have seen. That is not generally a popular position to take.

My spiritual practices ground me for my work as a therapist – grounding me and giving me a place to rest, to renew myself. I have also found that my work has put me in a position to receive more help than I would have thought to ask for. For example, there is a Goddess I first encountered in dreams, and over the years I’ve come to understand that She is connected to my work – in part because a lot of the client populations I work well with are precious to Her, but mostly because my role as a healer is to hold all our parts as sacred, as worthy of love, and She is very much about loving the parts deemed unloveable. I haven’t sought out spiritual help specifically for my vocation, but it’s been offered, and I’m grateful. – Rhiannon Theurer, MFT


[Public Domain]

I don’t know about others, but it was the spiritual work that I was doing that ultimately brought me to the professional work I do now do. My spiritual work had reached a place where I was able to hear the call, “go study psychology”. So I listened and I found a path that has reaffirmed many times that I can do this work, and that people are helped by this work.

The other areas where the two intersect are from the perspective of service to others. Both are major concepts that require one to address issues of self worthy, ego management, boundaries, one’s place in the universe, and how and why you use the gifts/powers that both training you to use. The skill of both fields are at work together, balancing and informing the each other, not against each other.

The last area that also intersects is in the arena of ethics. Which when you really look at them, they are very similar. The only difference is they’re isn’t a formal body calling attention to abuse of power, and keeping novices for falling prey to those who do.

There are times I am offering prayers for my clients well being and health, in accordance with the ethics of my profession and spiritual practice to help them. The work they do to fill those request, is part of the spirits nature, and our relationship. Correction, it has reaffirmed and developed our relationship. If there is one thing the spirits, would want people to know, is that they have now problem with working with mental health professionals, and would welcome people including it in their work with the spirits. The issue is in finding mental health professional who can work and understand the spiritual elements that are included in healing the wounds. I suspect those that turn people away from seeking mental health assistance, have had bad experiences with professionals who don’t understand the spirits.

I also ask in my own work with spirits, the question of how is that relationship affecting my wounds and work. This include make sure the traditions practiced aren’t doing more harm instead of healing. – Orpheus L (MFTi)

My professional and spiritual work are facets of the larger whole. They intersect through the idea of service to humanity, and, for me that also includes the well-being of the whole of nature, the web of life on which our species depends. In my spiritual tradition, (Tuatha de Danaan), we are enjoined too, metaphorically, “bring light”. I have always understood this to mean cultivate understanding, transformation and service – both individually and serving in whatever way, to bring about the same for others with knowledge and experience we each visit possess.

When I made the decision to become a clinical therapist, I choose to do so through the field of social work, in part because I appreciate the integrative vision of social work, in that it looks at all aspects of a person, their environment, their culture their individual strengths, their needs. The pagan part of me wants to expand this even further to add those elements of eco-psychology and spirituality that are only now beginning to enter the the lexicon of my profession. There’s also strong support for me as a feminist in that both my spiritual tradition and my profession are built on the labor of strong women. Also, a feminist perspective is a large part of both. At least for me.

My profession has certainly provided more support for the way that I engage with the pagan community, if anything it’s strengthened some attitudes that I had before, by giving me better ways of articulating them. The short version is : I have little tolerance for bullshit. Or we could say ego manipulation & grandstanding. At the same time I understand and I’m touched by all the ways in which people in our community are drawn to what we do spiritually because of the need to heal wounds they have experienced growing up. I do feel we need a lot more awareness of mental health issues and how they present themselves in the community.

I really miss Judy Harrow, Who did some great work bridging this for the non-therapists among us, to make psychological information more available and useful. There are a few others who are continuing this work in various ways and that’s a good thing. I think looking at the larger culture we can see the dangers of people taking unhealed and unexamined wounds into a spiritually charged environment.

Becoming a therapist, particularly in a practice that is as “evidence-based” as most social work training is particularly at the Masters level, created some distance for me for a while from my more intuitive and spontaneous self. This was a change that I had anticipated, although it certainly was a bit more radical and experience then I had counted on. On the one hand, it was great to get the intellect out for some exercise and put it to work creating all those papers and justifying my positions and doing research, etc. And I still enjoy those things.

But I’ve been out of school and working in the field for five years now, and I started to miss my magical self, my more intuitive creative and spontaneous self, so I’m beginning to call that back to me and integrated into my work. This is been my intention from the beginning, but our culture and our education system or so strongly oriented towards the intellect, the rational and the “proof”, that it can be a challenge to re-integrate these elements together. – Elizabeth TigerRose, ACSW

Yes. The new path I’m embarking on – getting a degree in social work – was a directive from spirit. I believe that the outcomes will be spirit-lead too. The areas I intend to put my focus on as I proceed into this new world are definitely imbued with spiritual meaning and importance for me.

I think having a profession outside Paganism will no doubt shift how I engage in the community, but so far there is a lot of crossover as much of my spiritual community works in the world of social work. – Lasara Firefox Allen (Social Work student)

Courtesy: Wikimedia


There are many different areas to explore in how our spirituality shapes the way we see, interpret, and practice within the social services professions. The evolution of social work and psychology-based theories have evolved beyond the classic psychoanalytic understanding that proposes therapists should be a “blank slate” when in the rooms with our clients.

How does being Pagan impact the way that we are able to be authentically ourselves in effective, therapeutic engagement with those we serve professionally? These are some of the questions not yet explored on a larger macro scale within Paganism or within the field itself.

In this work we continue to move more toward evidence-based theories that identify the importance of the whole person and the variety of intersections that coincide within any given experience. Social Work theories like PIE (Person in Environment) or Systems Theory are already working from a model that our environments, communities, beliefs, society, and personal cultures influence us in all areas of our lives.

This crossover isn’t a foreign concept but one that hasn’t yet reached the modern Pagan world, the Pagans who seek therapeutic support, or the Pagans who deliver that support. But there is one thing that is clear: our spiritual connections impact the way we see our role in the world and, while mileage may vary, how we identify and practice as Pagans inevitably plays a role in how we see ourselves in the work of the social sciences.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.