• Secular Psychotherapy and Counseling

    Brian Griffin in therapyIf I had a dime for every time I had a non-theistic friend, acquaintance, or student tell me a story about how they were made to feel uncomfortable or discriminated against by a mental health professional because of their non-belief, I would have a giant pile of dimes and would swim in them, Scrooge McDuck-style. The actual quote below is pretty typical.

    I actually had a therapist once tell me, “so you’re rightly rejecting your father’s way of treating you, but remember…you have another father.” Yes, she meant Jesus and knew I was a non-believer. After months of therapy w this counselor, I lost complete faith in the field and felt betrayed…. I still blame that woman for making me avoid therapy at a time when I clearly needed it.

    I could give example after example, but they break down into this basic form –

    1. Person is in treatment for something completely unrelated to his/her non-theism.
    2. Religious therapist finds out about the non-theism.
    3. Religious therapist blames relational problems, psychological symptoms, and maladaptive behaviors on client’s lack of belief in the therapist’s particular religious viewpoint.

    Now, not only is this completely unproductive and damaging to the therapeutic alliance (which is one of the most crucial parts of whether or not someone benefits from therapy), but it is 100% absolutely UNETHICAL. Therapists do not push their own belief systems on others, just as they do not decide to work on goals that they think are best, regardless of the client’s wishes.

    Don’t get me wrong: the vast majority of mental health professionals I know are religious, and of those the overwhelming amount would not engage in something like this. While they might engage in discussions about spirituality or religion if broached by the client, they do not attempt to change someone’s religious belief system. Still, it happens often enough in individual therapy that Dr. Darrel Ray (founder of Recovering from Religion, best-selling author, and psychologist) decided enough was enough, and founded the Secular Therapy Project.

    The purpose behind this website is simple: to connect those seeking mental health services with therapists (counselors, social workers, psychologists, and so on) who are expressly secular in their psychotherapy. This does not mean that they are non-theistic (although I suspect the majority are), but instead that they do not use religious-based counseling and in contrast rely on “proven, state of the art, therapeutic methods.”

    Therapists in our database agree to use secular therapeutic methods only. They promise not to recommend prayer or other supernatural methods. While a therapist may be religious, they promise to keep their spiritual / religious ideas out of the therapeutic relationship.

    Despite being active for a fairly short time, almost 80 therapists and 700 clients have already signed up (I’m on the list, because I see a small number of private clients as a clinical psychologist). I would imagine that the numbers will continue to grow, and I personally see this as a highly useful service to the community. Not just the non-theist, science-emphasis community, but the community of people seeking mental health services, since it will help to raise awareness of secular alternatives that are available.

    SOS logoWhile on this topic, I want to point people to another secular resource, this one for those struggling with alcohol or drug use – Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS).


    Also known as “Save Our Selves” (a bit of a jab at the whole “giving it up to a higher power” attitude found in the religious Insert drug of choice or behavior Anonymous groups), these groups are a way to gain support in beating addictive behaviors and gaining control of your life again. They have increased massively in size and geographic spread over the past few years, with chapters in every state and many foreign countries.

    Choosing a therapist?

    Since I’m often asked how I recommend choosing a therapist, here it is. The best advice that I can give anyone when choosing a mental health professional is to see someone who practices evidence-based psychology. Stated simply, evidence-based psychology (EBP) is a guiding principle that means a therapist, whether that person is a psychologist, counselor, social worker, or psychiatrist, is guided in the treatment and assessment methods they use by the current best practices as defined by scientific evidence. Unfortunately, many therapists have not been trained in these methods, and instead rely on intuition, what they think has worked well, or what they were trained in – regardless of the evidence or lack thereof for it’s effectiveness. Asking potential therapists what their primary therapuetic orientation is, and how they know the type of therapy they do works, are great ways to find out if therapists use EBP.

    My second piece of advice is that you need to be sure that your therapist does not attempt to push his/her own personal values system onto you. While this is both an unethical and inappropriate thing to do, from my own experience with clients I can tell you that a large number of them report this happening, as mentioned above. While this does not mean that you need to find a therapist with your exact religous, political, ethnic, and cultural background, it does mean that your therapist needs to respect what your beliefs and values are and recognize that his/her job as a therapist is not to convert you. If you find yourself in a situation where this is occuring, I would recommend giving the therapist a warning that you are becoming offended by his/her actions. If he/she continues to push an agenda at the expense of your mental health, a report to the state licensing board would be appropriate.

    Category: Mental HealthPsychology


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

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    • Chas Stewart

      This absolutely essential information. My wife has been in therapy in the past and neither of us have any clue if that therapist was following EBP.

      Also, this weekend I was having a conversation with Darrell Ray and another Oklahoma Atheist member and that member told Ray that her daughter had experienced the same situation that you used as an example in this story. It’s such an act of betrayal, I just can’t imagine why the therapist would think that’s a righteous thing to do.

      • gps

        It’s terrifyingly common, Chas. My only guess is that their religiosity overcomes their ethical training (which absolutely shouldn’t be the case), or that they just cannot imagine how someone can be mentally healthy and not religious (their religion, in particular).

        • T

          I just want to add to this. It’s my story quoted (by permission, of course) and this experience is probably one of the main reasons that I am now a psychologist in training (being trained the right way!). I’m actually very open about the experience with my fellow psychology majors and profs because I want them to know what harm this can cause a person. I do not mind openly discussing it to improve the field of psychology in some small way.

          This happened at a time in our therapy where I had finally taken down some walls, exposed my scariest experiences, deepest fears, and was absolutely vulnerable. There was no religion introduced other than my saying I was not religious in our first interview. It is my opinion that this therapist knew that she had gotten me to a point where she thought she could change my life and convert me “for the better.” Instead, I felt as betrayed by her as I had in my previous life experiences. She manipulated me to vulnerability and the only lifeline she was offering was God. Making a client susceptible and trying to convert them is horrible. Moreover, a client that doesn’t have their own firm beliefs would have probably let her continue to play this mind game. It was as twisted and calculating as my father had been and it felt as if she played on my fears to try to convert me. She said more than I had mentioned above. She said that I had another father who would never betray me and would always listen and love me no matter what happened. I just had to have faith in him. He was right there, waiting for me to take his hand. That’s an outrageous claim to make to someone who needs visible, real help right then. And it scares me for those who didn’t choose her path and didn’t find another lifeline.

          I didn’t know there were more people like me until I got deeper into my training. Now that I know it happens so often, I will be an advocate for the rest of my career. A client should never be manipulated in this fashion. EBP is the only way I will ever treat anyone and it should be the standard for all aspects of the mental health field.

          Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. It deserves more discussion among professionals and those of us training to be professionals.

    • ERV

      When I had my post-qualifying exam crash, the therapist I went to was FANTASTIC.

      Because we are in OK, she said some generic things about religion/church/etc, and when I made it clear I was an atheist, she dropped it completely without a hint of shock/disapproval and worked with me in a different direction.

      And besides that, she was really terrific.

      I have no idea whether she is an atheist, or would feel the Secular Therapy Project was appropriate for her, but she was a great non-theistic therapist nonetheless.

      So, QUESTION: Since she was a psychology grad student doing her clinical rotations, I got to fill out a comment card praising her work. But in a non-university setting, is there a website or review page or something? I dunno, a Yelp or Urban Spoon for counselors?

      • gps

        That’s the sort of experience we WANT people to have!

        For your question, people do certainly use post Google reviews sometimes, as well as Yelp. Angie’s List has a category for mental health providers too.

        Unfortunately, though, there’s not really a great clearing-house of information on this (much like with physicians), and instead most places are just ads for people to see (Psych Today’s Therapy directory, for instance).

        It would be great to have an RateYourTherapist.com or something – anyone with time and mad phat webskillz want to do that? 🙂

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    • Great post ever.

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