If 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 –
- Person is in treatment for something completely unrelated to his/her non-theism.
- Religious therapist finds out about the non-theism.
- 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.
While 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.