The Atheists Struggling to Find Therapists in the Bible Belt
The rise of faith-based counseling in America’s most Christian regions has brought the clash over religious liberties to the therapist’s couch.
Photo: Audience members at a Christian performance at South by Southwest Brian Snyder / Reuters
Mar 28, 2017
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, life in the town of Easley, South Carolina, was tense for Leigh Drexler. Pick-up trucks with airborne Confederate flags seemed more prevalent than ever before, and her grandparents—who had never voted in their lives—registered to cast their ballots for the Donald himself.
Drexler felt isolated. “My family has always directed their point of view at me, but it has been a million times worse than normal,” she told me last October. “Every time we’re in a conversation, it’s either about the election or religion.”
It’s a dynamic that led Drexler, who identifies as a democratic socialist and an atheist, to go online in search of a therapist—someone who would perhaps better understand her lack of faith. She scouted towns within a 20-mile radius, but only “faith-based” practitioners turned up. She resorted to distance counseling over the phone with a therapist a few states away. “I knew there would be Christian counselors here, but I didn’t think that was all I was going to find,” she said.
In the U.S., people are less religious than ever. Adults in their 20s and early 30s make up more than one-third of the country’s “nones,” or those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. Church attendance among young Americans has also declined, and most adults nationwide rely on internet research, rather than prayer, when faced with life decisions.
But for many non-believers living in the country’s most religious regions, namely the Bible Belt and parts of the Midwest, the idea that religion in America is somehow eroding seems foreign, if not far-fetched. Despite the overall decline in religiosity over the past decade, around 70 percent of Americans still identify as Christian, currently making the U.S. home to more Christians than any other place in the world.
So what does that mean for atheists, agnostics, secularists, and “nones” living in the country’s most faithful pockets? Well, historically, a kind of culture war, where the separation of church and state is hotly debated in places like restaurants, schools, and the workplace. However, in recent years, a more understated and intimate clash over religious liberties has been playing out—only this time, it’s on a therapist’s couch.
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Sigmund Freud once called religion the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,” setting the tone for a long-fractured relationship between psychology and theology. Although tensions between the two domains have softened over the past few decades, the tête-à-tête persists, in part because they are devoted to a similar purpose: explaining the intricacies of the human mind, and soul.
The degree to which “He” fits into the mix can vary. From Christian rehabilitation centers and biblical life coaches to religious private practices, spiritual counselors, and something as contentious as conversion therapy, Christian groups have been adopting mental health as a new frontier in recent years. And at the forefront of this trend are faith-based therapies, which have reportedly experienced a surge in popularity over the last decade.
Some practitioners point to substance-rehabilitation programs as the driving force behind this surge. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for instance, traditionally come to a close by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and six of the famous 12 steps cite “God,” “Him,” or “a Power greater than ourselves.” “The chemical-dependency field really began to integrate spirituality long before the mental-health field,” says Gregory Jantz, the founder of The Center: A Place of Hope, a faith-based treatment center in Washington that specializes in depression and anxiety. For Jantz, who is a licensed mental-health counselor, acknowledging the prospect of a higher power can be integral to a person’s well-being. “‘Why am I on this planet? What’s my purpose? Who am I?’ Those are questions that are often addressed by looking at faith,” he says.
“I’m also very careful about advertising that I’m a Christian counselor.”
Last April, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation that would allow psychologists and therapists to deny patients based on their own “sincerely held principles.” The controversial move prompted the American Counseling Association to cancel its annual conference in Nashville, on the basis that the law targeted the LGBTQ community. The gesture was political—something both therapists and Christian-counseling networks condemned—but it also exposed a growing conversation, or concern, about the presence of religion in the field of mental health.
For many clients who aren’t religious, like Drexler, this concern has been a reality for some time. “Their entire lives have been wrapped up in religion, and they were raised and socialized to have that be everything,” says Patricia Guzikowski, a licensed professional counselor based in Wisconsin. “It is hard for them to make a transition.”
Guzikowski provides distance counseling for clients throughout the U.S., many of whom identify as atheists living in religious communities. She’s spoken with women who are afraid of losing custody of their children during a divorce, as a result of losing their faith. She’s counseled ex-Mormons and former Jehovah’s Witnesses secretly over the phone or through email conversations, so that their families and friends do not find out.
Reddit threads are filled with similar stories of people seeking guidance after religious renunciation. An atheist teenager, whose dad is a preacher, asks for help on how to cope with a loss of faith. In Alabama, one person searches for a non-religious therapist to deal with depression. Another, in Dallas, seeks a secular trauma counselor for PTSD.
And then there’s “Grief Beyond Belief,” a support network on Facebook for people who have lost a loved one and want to grieve faith-free. “If you’re grieving without a belief that you’re going to be reunified or that your loved one is somewhere better, your needs are really different,” Rebecca Hensler, the group’s founder, says.
Hensler started the page shortly after the death of her infant son in 2009, and was surprised by the response. She saw stories that read like her own: parents who weren’t comforted by the idea that their baby was now “in Heaven,” or that death might be anything other than death itself. Today, the page has nearly 20,000 likes. Users post daily about what it’s like to mourn alongside pressures from family, friends, or their counselors. “I couldn’t count the number of posts from people who share stories about being in therapy, and then the therapist offers to pray with them or talks about Heaven,” Hensler says. “It’s so profoundly harmful to that therapeutic relationship.”
What groups like Grief Beyond Belief ultimately hint at is a basic ideological divide in the way Americans deal with their problems: Some people are comforted at the thought of a higher power, while others are repelled by it. Applying a similar logic to therapy, people want counselors who share their beliefs and can understand their struggles. Perhaps that is part of the reason faith-based counseling has garnered strength in recent years: For religious patients and therapists who’ve felt underrepresented in a traditionally secular therapeutic community, these programs represent an invaluable part of their identity.
“I identify as a female, wife, daughter, aunt, and Catholic,” says Jill Duba Sauerheber, a licensed clinical counselor in Kentucky. “But I’m also very careful about advertising that I’m a Christian counselor, because I’m a counselor—that’s what I am. … When you label yourself as anything, you automatically begin to narrow your client pool, and potential clients can make assumptions about you.”
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Regardless of approach, religious and secular therapists share a fundamental question: If the purpose of psychotherapy is to remain a theoretical “blank slate,” how much does a patient benefit from knowing a therapist’s personal beliefs? How much should a practitioner reveal?
These are questions my stepmother, Donna, raised two years ago when she hoped to find work at a private practice near her home in Dallas, Texas. At the time, she perused local counseling websites—none of which identified as being Christian—and noticed a common trend: During the application process, some employers wanted a “statement of faith,” while others asked what church she belonged to. “I was like, ‘What does that mean? I don’t understand what that has to do with counseling and my work,’” she says.
Caleb Lack, a clinical psychologist based in Oklahoma, has heard similar concerns. “We have lots of people—particularly in the Bible Belt or Deep South—who think, ‘If it becomes known that I am an atheist, there goes part of my practice,’” he says.
“According to our evidence-based practice guidelines, prayer for depression is not one of them.”
Lack is the director of the Secular Therapy Project, or STP, a program designed to connect non-religious people with mental-health services in their local area. As an offshoot of the non-profit “Recovering From Religion,” STP currently has more than 10,000 users who can search the online database for counselors around the world.
To join the website as a therapist, applicants must be secular, possess a state license, and employ what’s known as evidence-based practice in their work, i.e., base their psychological approach on scientific research. Lack says the scrutiny is to avoid any confusion between patients and therapists when it finally comes time to meet, especially in more radical cases. “I met someone who was suffering from depression and their therapist told them, ‘Well, the reason you’re depressed is because the devil is putting thoughts in your head. So we have to pray more now,’” Lack says. “It’s like, ‘Well, wait, I think according to our evidence-based practice guidelines, prayer for depression is not one of them.’”
As faith-based therapies have branched out of the clergy, they’ve taken on different approaches—and credentials. Biblical counselors, for example, reject the psychotherapeutic model, and claim their title simply by expressing a devotion to Jesus Christ and sometimes completing one of several available training courses. It’s a distinction they feel sets them apart from Christian counselors, who tend to employ secular psychology through a Christian perspective. Nevertheless, Christian counselors often do not have to obtain a degree or special certification to practice. Pastoral counselors, on the other hand, are often ministers, priests, or rabbis, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors only accepts people with postgraduate degrees from accredited universities.
It’s precisely this kind of gray area that secular therapists do not take lightly, yet it should be said that every practitioner I interviewed for this article made a point to clarify that there are, undoubtedly, qualified counselors who are privately religious but keep their personal beliefs out of the office—or who are openly religious but properly credentialed. In a similar vein, many patients do wish to talk about faith, and some experts have reported that a “spirituality integrated” clinical approach can be as effective as other treatments.
That is why programs like STP don’t intend to hamper faith-based therapy, but rather, draw a more distinct line for people in search of secular help. In any therapeutic relationship, regardless of belief, there is a certain level of betrayal in an absence of transparency. When a patient confides their innermost thoughts with a therapist only to later discover after many sessions (and dollars) that they are completely unfit for one another, the experience can be damaging.
It was for Tiffany Russell. Her decision to seek therapy wasn’t easy; she operated a trucking company in Oklahoma City and only had so many free hours. She had to find a practitioner who accepted her insurance—and had to confront years of emotional abuse for the first time.
“It took me awhile to get the nerve up, but my first couple of sessions were uneventful,” Russell says. “There wasn’t anything to suggest there would be an issue.” The therapist had a Ph.D. in counseling, and never identified her practice as faith-based, so she continued the sessions.
“I was comfortable seeing her, and we were getting more into the issues that I was having with my father. She stopped me at one point and goes, ‘Well, you know, your real Father loves you,’” Russell says.
She never went back.
How Atheists Seeking Therapy Have Responded to the Rise in Faith-Based Counseling
March 29, 2017
by Hemant Mehta
With the number of non-religious Americans growing every year, you’d think they’d have no problem finding a therapist who doesn’t suggest Jesus or Bible-reading as part of the road to healing, but that’s not the case at all. In many areas, Christian counselors — who may have limited scientific training — are the only ones available.
Angela Almeida does an excellent job in a piece for The Atlantic describing the problem for atheists seeking secular, evidence-based therapists and the solutions that have cropped up to deal with the situation.
While there are obviously professional Christian counselors who don’t proselytize to their clients, there are also faith-based therapists who don’t have professional degrees or special certifications. Almeida writes about the need for honesty and transparency in what therapists provide:
That is why programs like [the Secular Therapy Project] don’t intend to hamper faith-based therapy, but rather, draw a more distinct line for people in search of secular help. In any therapeutic relationship, regardless of belief, there is a certain level of betrayal in an absence of transparency. When a patient confides their innermost thoughts with a therapist only to later discover after many sessions (and dollars) that they are completely unfit for one another, the experience can be damaging.
That’s why the Secular Therapy Project — which has more than 10,000 registered counselors in the database — is such an important tool. That’s why groups like Grief Beyond Belief provide such a valuable service for those suffering the loss of a loved one.
Atheists needs these services as much as anybody else. But it’d be nice if the people helping us understood that we’re looking for real, practical solutions, not magical words or mythology.
Our Humanity, Naturally
Has Your Therapist Tried to ’Save’ You?
An interview with the Secular Therapist Project founder
Posted Nov 12, 2012
Most mental health professionals would agree that their religious beliefs should have little direct relevance in their professional interactions. Yet according to Dr. Darrel Ray, too many professional therapists are injecting religious and supernatural concepts into the care they provide clients. This problem is only getting worse, he says, as fundamentalist colleges produce more graduates who see religious proselytizing as an acceptable means of “treating” clients. Dr. Ray, an author whose books address the intersection of psychology and religion, has responded by launching the Secular Therapist Project, a web site that tries to connect potential clients with therapists who will adhere to secular, science-based treatment and avoid supernatural and theistic approaches. The following is a recent exchange I had with Dr. Ray.
Q: What is the Secular Therapist Project and why do you say it is needed?
Darrel Ray: After I published my books Sex and God, and The God Virus, I was overwhelmed with requests from people asking for help finding a secular therapist. I began helping people and soon found that it is almost impossible to determine if a therapist is truly secular and uses evidence-based methods. A therapist may be well-trained, he or she may have received advanced degrees from the best schools, but that does not guarantee they are not influenced by belief in supernatural beings or New Age ideas. Many people wrote me saying they went to a therapist for months only to have the therapist recommend that they pray, go back to church, or use some New Age method.
Q: Aren’t therapists trained to keep their beliefs out of the therapy sessions?
Ray: Not necessarily. Certainly, the best schools train therapists to avoid imposing their beliefs on the client, but right now there are hundreds of religious schools graduating thousands of Christian counselors, licensable in most states. Graduates from Liberty University, Regent or Oral Roberts University are taught to incorporate religion into their counseling. Regent University and others have Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology. How is it possible to get solid clinical training from a university that insists on teaching Pat Robertson’s theology to all students? This is the guy who thinks God sends hurricanes to punish cities for tolerating gays.
Graduates of religious schools look like any other Ph.D. or MSW to the lay person, yet they are an integral part of the evangelical right’s attempt to usurp the field of counseling in the service of their religious agenda. Graduates of these universities are highly unlikely to keep their religious views out of the therapeutic relationship. Do you think a gay or lesbian person will receive effective treatment from a Regent’s University Ph.D.? Could an atheist get evidence-based treatment from a graduate of Liberty University? It is possible, but why would you risk your time, money, and emotional health on someone who probably prays and reads the Bible more than they read professional journals?
Even someone who graduated from Michigan State or UCLA may not be secular. The school a person attends says little about their supernatural beliefs. Once a person is in practice, they may start using untested and non-evidence based methods. Methods that have not seen clinical testing and peer review.
Q: How prevalent is this problem?
Ray: Well, ten or twenty years ago, these religion-based programs did not exist. In the area of clinical psychology, most schools had clearly secular programs. They placed a high value on developing a non-religious relationship in the clinical setting. Those days are gone. While no one can really know how much religion influences a given counselor, we can say that hundreds of religious schools have developed counseling programs in the last twenty years, many in the marriage and family counseling area. It is hard to say, but there could be more licensable counselors graduating from religious schools than are graduating from secular programs right now. In any event, there are thousands of counselors who think Jesus or other supernatural approaches are the answer. There were far fewer only a few years ago.
Q: So how does the Secular Therapy Project address this problem?
Ray: Han Hills and I developed a process and procedure for helping people find secular therapists through our website, seculartherapy.org. It is free and confidential for the therapist and the client. It is like the popular dating sites OKCupid.com or Plentyoffish.com. The therapist registers and describes his or her practice on the public part of their profile, along with a checklist of conditions they are qualified to work on. The therapist can reveal as much or as little as they like. No other information is available to the client; no email, no phone, no address, no websites. We want to protect the identity of the therapist as much as possible.
Q: Why so much emphasis on confidentiality and protecting the identity of the therapist?
Ray: Imagine that you are a secular psychologist or social worker in Oklahoma City. Most clients that come to you are religious and many of your referral sources are ministers or churches. If you openly advertised that you are secular, half your clients would leave and many of your referral sources would dry up. One therapist that I know in a major southern city gets 75% of her referrals from local ministers and churches. She used to be a strong Christian. She taught Sunday school for sixteen years, but is now an atheist. She wants to wean her practice away from religious sources, so she registered with us. She needs to keep under the radar or she would lose most of her current patients.
Another therapist gets many referrals from the courts. The majority of judges in his county are very religious. In his state, judges are elected, so they often cater to the wishes of the religious community. If the community learned that a judge was referring people to a secular therapist, the judge could lose the next election. As a result, the therapist has to keep a low profile and cannot reveal that he is an atheist to the judges or to the community.
Many of my therapist friends in New York, San Francisco or Washington, DC, often say that it is not a problem in their area. I would beg to differ. While San Francisco may not have ten Christian counselors per square mile, like Atlanta, it does have therapists who espouse New Age and other “Woo Woo” methods that are non-evidence based. Therapists in those areas also get referrals from religious judges, ministers and quasi-religious organizations like Catholic hospitals. Being an “out atheist” might endanger those referral sources.
Q: If it is often problematic for a therapist to be “out” as an atheist or secularist, is there any danger that a client could game the system and “out” a therapist in their community?
Ray: I’m sure there is. There is no perfect system. At the same time, we are using a model that dating sites have used for a decade or more. Just like Match.com, we cannot be responsible for what happens, but we do our best to keep things safe for all parties. So far, we have seen no evidence of any “gaming of the system.”
Q: So you have a database of therapists, but how do you guarantee that they use evidence-based methods?
Ray: First of all, we can’t guarantee anything, but we do have a process in place to screen and approve therapists. Four very experienced secular therapists look at each application and vote on whether they appear to use secular methods. We can only go on what a therapist submits to us, what they have on their web page and any client recommendations. We really like getting therapist referrals from clients in the secular community.
Q: How do clients use the system?
Ray: The client can search our database and find a therapist close by and correspond through our system. The client’s information is confidential as well. The therapist can only know what the client tells them. Client and therapist correspond through the system a few times until they feel comfortable and think there is a good fit. Then they can reveal enough to make an appointment or arrange a phone call.
Q: How can mental health professionals and others help or get involved?
Ray: If you are a secular therapist, please register with us and tell your colleagues. If you are a patient of a therapist who seems to use secular and evidence-based methods, ask them to register. Finally, if you are looking for a therapist, look in our database first. Registering as a client is simple and confidential. Within minutes, you will know if there are any therapists close to you. If there are none close to you, many of our therapists will do distance counseling by phone or Skype.
About Dr. Darrel Ray:
Darrel Ray is the author of several books, most recently Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality (2012), and The God Virus (2009). He received an Ed.D. in counseling psychology from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in 1978 and an MA in religion in 1974 from Scarritt College for Christian Workers. He practiced in a clinical setting for 10 years working with children, adolescents and families. In 1986 he moved into organizational psychology and became a pioneer in the social psychology of teamwork and leadership development. In 2009 he founded
Recoveringfromreligion.org (RR) with the mission of helping people over come the trauma of leaving religion. RR is now a worldwide organization headed by Jerry DeWitt, the first graduate of the Clergy Project, and Dr. Ray is the Chairman of the Board for RR. Seculartherapy.org is an outreach project of RR.
David Niose’s new book: Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans