Can You Avoid Religious Psychologists? February 21, 2009

Can You Avoid Religious Psychologists?

It’s always scary when you find out someone in whom you place your trust (a doctor, a lawyer, etc.) turns out to put his/her trust in superstition.

A reader send me this email. I’ll let him speak for himself:

Something just happened that I’d like advice on (from you or your readers). My son has been diagnosed with ADHD by his pediatrician and I figured we’d go to a child psychologist for more info (an idea the pediatrician encouraged). I picked the closest one on my insurance’s coverage list and set up an appointment.

Luckily, we got an informational packet in the mail from this psychologist (actually a Licensed Professional Counselor) before we actually went to meet with her. Let me quote some of the things that were in her packet.

“The counselor’s reponsibilities are:
* Spending personal time with the Lord
* Praying for the client
* Studying scriptures
* Listening to client concerns, facts, feelings, faith position
* Sharing scripture and personal walk appropriate to client concerns
* Praying with the client, acknowledging God’s available presence with him/her

She holds a Master’s degree in Religious Education from a Baptist theological seminary (in addition to other more valid sounding degrees). She signs off by saying, “I have already begun to pray for our times together…”

I was dumbfounded by this. I mean, I do live in the Bible Belt, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I am still dismayed that this person appeared on a list of medical providers supplied by my insurance company!

I guess my question is, how do I keep this from happening again? (I cancelled the appointment, of course.) Do I need to call and explicitly ask each psychologist (or whatever other health care specialist) if their practice is based in reality or superstition?

Any advice for the reader?

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  • Awesomesauce

    As the LCPC code of ethics may very well be different than those for Social workers / Drug counselors, I wouldn’t be able to speak to that directly.*

    However, I do know that we as counselors across the disciplines do need to be prepared to deal with spiritual/religious issues provided that the client wants to go there.

    In this case, it sounds like that part in the packet stems from her responsibilities as a Master in Religious Education and not from her LPC duties.

    *Next time I’m at work, I’ll ask one of the LCPCs.

  • Caryl

    I’m not any kind of expert, but I am a patient, and I have had a similar experience. The therapist who has been treating me off and on for 10 years, and who saved my life 10 years ago, is very religious, and apparently her religion is increasing.

    Yesterday, I returned to her office after about 2 years away in order to work on some deeper issues that we hadn’t touched on yet. It took me months to make myself call her — because I couldn’t stand the idea that someone who could help me deal with life was herself using magical thinking.

    She is a brilliant cognitive therapist, and when I began seeing her I was still a Christian. She is very upfront about her faith, but sometimes a bit pushy with it too.

    So now I’m in an odd position — I trust her because she has helped me so much in the past, but I’m not sure what to do if she starts it up again.

    I guess I’ll deal with it as honestly as possible if and when it happens.

  • Steve

    I would complain bitterly to my health provider, and to the counselor in writing. You might want to approach the Freedom From Religion Foundation ( for advice on forming an appropriate response. You might even want to become a member – if you are not one already 🙂

  • It’s always advisable to check a practitioner’s credentials if you have any concerns that they may put more stock in religion than science. (You can call or check online with the state board to see if they’re licensed and what their specific credentials are.)

    I know all too well the dangers of so-called psychologists/psychiatrists who hawk things like “ex-gay” programs and treating mental illnesses with prayer because they got their degrees at a religious college rather than an accredited university. Sadly some don’t realize they’re not getting genuine treatment and that their practitioner knows nothing of actual APA standards and guidelines, or even outright rejects them.

  • Miko

    Do I need to call and explicitly ask each psychologist (or whatever other health care specialist) if their practice is based in reality or superstition?

    Simply put, yes. Government licensing typically means nothing other than payment of a fee to the appropriate bureaucracy and should not be mistaken as an endorsement of competence. Likewise, getting on the insurance company list simply means that the insurance company feels that that individual provides a cost-effective way of dealing with the claim (incidentally, this is why some insurance companies pay for pseudo-medicine: they know that it doesn’t work, but hope that some people will go for it instead of for more costly real treatment).

    Responsibility for determining the qualification of those you barter with lies not with the government and not with some corporation, but solely with you.

  • Amazing. I’d notify your insurance company that they DO NOT want to cover for this person, especially if her background has nothing to do with psychological counseling. If they’re like any other insurance company, they’ll see her as a liability.

  • stephanie

    I think it’s actually very lucky that such a blatant issue came up first.
    Of course you need to ask a psychologist about their practices. Are they nutters for god? Are they firm believers in the vacation the pharmaceutical company sends them on each July? There are lots of things you need to know first, because this is someone you’re trusting with the well-being of your child. Call me a skeptic, and in my world that’s a compliment, but I never trust someone’s ability just by seeing their name listed somewhere.

  • Erp

    The pediatrician may be able to give some advice on choosing someone who isn’t going to push religion. Or be able to recommend someone who can give advice on finding someone.

    Note there is a difference between a counselor who is religious but doesn’t push it and one who pushes religion. I would also check to see what the standards are in your state for a Licensed Professional Counselor.

  • Shawn

    If i recall correctly, psychologist is a title specific to people with doctoral degrees in psychology. You can’t say, have a bachelors in psych and call yourself a psychologist. This person may not have called themselves a psychologist, but be careful of the terms you use. If your pediatrician said psychologist, look specifically for Ph.D’s in psychology. If a clinical social worker will suffice, go for that too.

    Though miko is right that govt licensing isn’t a full on recommendation style endorsement, it does provide a standard to which counseling professionals have to meet before practicing independently in your state.

    My recommendation is to first figure out what services you specifically want (medicine, behavioral counseling, etc) and research the specific name for the profession that will provide that service. A lot of people thing psychiatrist and psychologist are basically the same thing and they’re not.

    And it is totally okay/critical that you ask what theoretical background your potential counselor works with. Any counselor worth their spit will incorporate YOUR beliefs with therapy instead of making you comply with their beliefs. With ADHD you may wanna look at some behavioral style therapies, family therapies, and support groups.

  • Yes, absolutely, she needs to call and ask, specifically, if they are a faith-based or reality-based practitioner.

    I grew up near Salt Lake City. My family still live there. We’ve all gotten used to asking of doctors, shrinks, etc. — “Are you in any way affiliated with or influenced by or will you be incorporating teachings from LDSSS (Latter Day Saint Social Services)?”

    Especially in cases of mental health, it is important to get treatment started off on the right foot and there is no harm in asking if the doctor is going to be working with you, or against.

    This is no time to be diplomatic.

  • P

    I recently went through rehab. It was led by two psychologists; one of which was a youth pastor, the other, a (grown up?) pastor. The sessions involved roughly 9 other people. Consistently the conversations and ‘lessons’ turned to god (we even dissected the serenity prayer’). While being a little self-conscious about outing myself as an atheist, I made sure to make a (well worded) objection to each claim from the help of some ‘higher power.’ I would always revert back to neuroscience, chemistry, or some other form of wisdom not found in a fairytale.
    I’m also in the bible belt (OK) and realized most likely that any professional help would be from a Christian. My suggestion would be to make sure you interject your own thoughts whenever the psychologist brings up prayer. She can pray about your child if she wants(it’s her time she’s wasting, not yours), but make sure she’s doing something actually, I don’t know, worthwhile as well. If her treatment revolves around useless closed-eyed hoping, then I’d suggest looking somewhere else. Keep her on track. Best of luck. That’s a tough situation.

  • Having already cancelled the appt. it may be a little to go back and explain why, but in case it comes up again, I think you are totally within reason to explain, “I don’t believe you and I share a common worldview, due to your clear religious adherence and my own atheism, so I don’t believe you’re the right person to help me deal with my issues.”

    And you are also within your rights to go down the list of providers approved by your insurance carrier and make a point to inquire about these things in the future.

    I don’t think it would be useful to go into an attack mode challenging their religious views, but merely stating that such a drastic difference in worldviews makes them likely to be poorly qualified to actually hear my problems and thus respond to them in a manner appropriate to my own worldview based in rational reality. Sort of like asking a WindowsXP whiz to fix your Linux box.

  • Nicholas

    I’m currently a 2nd year medical student. In our small class (around 20 students), there is an insanely religious bible-thumper. He of course wants to become a psychologist, almost certainly because he enjoys preaching. Big surprise!

  • I started my Master’s degree in counseling, so maybe I can give some insights. What you want to do is try to get into a secular counseling agency as opposed to a single counselor. There are a NUMBER of crackpot theories not based in anything other than wishful thinking, and even not associating oneself with Christian/Biblical counseling specifically does not make one any more likely to be good. I don’t know where you live, but many of these agencies do work in the schools as well, and your son’s teacher would know who it is (and will also appreciate your effort!), or might also know where to find someone. Someone else already suggested a pediatrician, and while they will probably know some names, a ped may or may not know if the counselor actually gets good results because they don’t get to see the effects of counseling the same way a teacher who sits with your son 8 hours a day does.

    Unless a counselor advertises themselves as a Christian counselor, it is a breach of ethics to bring prayer or religion into the room (except during an intake session where the counselor is trying to get to know you. Knowing how religious or not a person is can help in therapy. This should just be a basic “how important is religion to you” kind of question, though, and once you say “I am not religious,” that should be the end of that). An agency is far less likely to bill themselves as Christian, and therefore a safer bet.

  • Random Chimp


  • curious

    This issue keeps rearing its head EVERY time I try to find a therapist, a family doctor, or an ob/gyn. I’ve had some nasty experiences with doctors, the least of which was having a doctor tell me that prayer would cure PTSD, and it’s now second nature for me to be upfront about my own worldview before making any appointments. And you know what? It makes me angry!!! Why do I have to out myself to avoid being abused by those who are supposed to help? I have no problem declaring myself as atheist, but I wonder about what’s happening to those who do.

  • Tom

    Call the insurance company, explain to them what happened, tell them that you’re sure they didn’t really mean to discriminate against you on the basis of religion, and ask them very nicely if they could please help you find an actual psychologist who won’t push religion on you. Then at the end of the call suggest very politely that they really should remove this “counselor” from their list of providers, so somebody who isn’t as nice as you doesn’t come along and sue them.

    If you get an actual practicing licensed psychologist or psychiatrist who pushes religion on you, it’s a different story, because they’re supposedly a doctor; a very different thing from a “counselor”. If it happens, you can file complaints which could result in their license being revoked. A “counselor”, conversely can (generally, in most states) practice religion as part of their “service” if they want to, as long as they don’t actually turn you away on the basis of your religion (or in this case lack thereof).

  • Godfrey

    I sure am grateful that the sessions I have experienced over two of my son’s (who have ADD or ADHD) courses of development did not involve religion…in retrospect. My atheism didn’t come to admission until four years ago. I did, however, expect full medical competence, and my radar goes up quickly when people start talking “woo”.

    Note: many religious people have training in counseling. Catholic priests are an example. But, like all people, they are not perfect, and further may push an agenda…but may still be competent, whether the non-religious like it or not. That’s reality. Even so, as a former catholic, I’d be highly resistant to being counseled by a priest, due to the woo-factor.

    Let’s hope (not pray) that the emailer finds someone satisfactory.

  • Richard Wade

    I am a retired licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. The laws governing therapists of various kinds differ from state to state, so I can only speak for my knowledge of California practices.

    This person seems to be primarily what would be called a Pastoral Counselor. In some states, pastoral counselors licenses do not require much education or supervised experience in mainstream psychology or psychotherapeutic methods, and in some states they are more broadly qualified. Often, they have only enough of those skills to be able to recognize a seriously disturbed patient and to refer them to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. The additional more valid sounding degrees that you mentioned may or may not qualify her to provide the kind of service your son needs, but by her printed materials she is apparently specializing only in pastoral, spiritual counseling. That might be appropriate for adults or teens with religious or spiritual concerns, but who do not present primary psychological/neurological symptoms such as ADD/HD. That is apparently out of the scope of her practice.

    Since this is an important diagnosis, it is perfectly appropriate for you to ask for a second opinion from a different pediatrician in a different clinic. There should be no offense taken because you are being a conscientious consumer of medical advice. In addition to asking the diagnosing pediatrician for specific referrals to competent therapists, I would recommend that you also contact such organizations as the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) at and Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHAD) at and ask for their advice and for referrals. They may be able to recommend an appropriate local provider who has specific experience with children with ADD/HD, someone who is a licensed Marriage Family and Child Therapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a Clinical Psychologist or a Psychiatrist.

    The treatment of ADD/HD is changing rapidly, and many of the traditional methods of treatment such as the use of Ritalin are being seriously questioned, re-examined and revised. Your son has a much better chance for successful adjustment than he would have had only ten years ago. Ask about any controversies in the field and about new modes of treatment and intervention. Educate yourself about it. You will be your son’s first and foremost resource for dealing with this challenge. He is very lucky to have a parent as aware and involved as you. Find the right providers and both you and he will benefit.

    Just in case you need the reassurance, ADD/HD is not a catastrophe, it is a challenge. There are various forms and levels of intensity. Many happy, successful people have found ways to cope with it, master it, and to live productive and creative lives.

  • Dave Huntsman

    I’ve known and been a patient of two separate counselors over the years. Both happened to focus mainly on being a “Christian counselor”, but, once they found out that that was not for me, they from then on were one hundred percent professional – and, good for me, as it turned out.

    If that person was on a list for either insurance or as a general counselor, and did not have it noted that they specialized in pastoral counseling, I believe that is very unprofessional. And you don’t want someone who is unprofessional.

    Out of the counselors, and one psychiatrist, I’ve known over the years, other than those two I have no idea what their religious beliefs are – which is as it should be. After all, their practice is not about them; it’s about their patients. Or, it’s supposed to be.

  • Raul

    I went to a counselor in the past, who was actually also a nun. When she first met with me she asked about my religion and I told her I was atheist. And the topic never came up again. In addition to this she was wonderful and really helped me out.

  • As a psychologist, I can assure you there are many psychologists and LPCs out there who are not delusional. It sounds like you stumbled across a Christian counselor. Usually their ads will identify themselves as such. Believe it or not, some people actually seek out that sort of garbage.

    My recommendation is to visit a number of professionals on your insurance list until you find one with whom you are comfortable. Not only is there nothing wrong with doing this, but competent mental health professionals generally encourage it.

  • I just wrote post expanding on my previous comment here:

  • Kate

    Having been a patient for many years now, I agree with Richard’s statement of getting a second opinion. ADD/HD is much more difficult to diagnose than most people think, and it is often a “coverall” diagnosis for other disorders or problems than manifest themselves in a way similar to ADD/HD. Having been misdiagnosed with ADD. I can tell you it can be frustrating. My parents, at the time, realized the therapist was a bit of a quack and quickly moved me to another therapy group.

    Do a thorough check of what exactly their credentials are before ever making an appointment. Also, if possible, ask them what their personal practice beliefs entail (what form of psychoanalysis and therapy do they prescribe to). I’ve been seeing a therapist now for many years that is well aware of my atheism and it has never been an issue. Her approach is from a strictly scientific end.

    The more research and information you arm yourself with before choosing a therapist will make you better off in the end.

  • Lilyana

    First of all, are any of those degrees a Masters in Counseling or Psychology or something along those lines? Because if not that alone violates the standards of being an LPC. Religious education does NOT qualify someone to be a counselor. In any event though, passing yourself off as an LPC instead of a Pastoral Counselor when your “therapy” is nothing but numerous variations “Praise Jesus!” is fairly unethical, at least in my book. I’m a student training to become an LPC and these people infuriate me. That is not the place to proselytize no matter what side of the fence you stand on. People don’t seem to realize that this is an application of a SCIENCE and that the license is supposed to be a reflection of having learned and operating within the bounds of those scientific principles.

    I would get in touch with the APA to see if there’s anything that could be done like suspending her and requiring her to take some kind of additional training in not being religiously biased in counseling or revoking her license entirely if she doesn’t actually hold the proper degrees, especially if the university is not accredited. It’s funny, I’m fully familiar with obtaining a license, but totally clueless about taking one away. I really should find that out myself.

  • Don’t psychologists have to read Freud. He had some strong opinions on religion and psychology.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds to me like the insurance company sent you the counselor who would cost them the least–the least qualified counselor 🙂

    Seriously, religious or not, who would send that sort of stuff out in their work packet? Do real estate agents do that sort of thing?

  • Pseudonym

    Don’t psychologists have to read Freud. He had some strong opinions on religion and psychology.

    Yes, much like how physicists have to understand Newton even though he turned out to be completely wrong.

    The dust hasn’t entirely settled on this, but it turned out that Freudian psychoanalysis, which Freud believed would fill the important psychological roles that the religions of the past played, was just another quasi-religion in disguise. In retrospect, that should have been obvious at the time.

    It’s the nature of pioneers that they are inevitably doomed to be wrong in some details. But we still recognise them for what they achieved, and in that respect, Freud was one of the greats.

  • James

    I am currently studying psychology. Psychologists do not have to read Freud and the comparisons to Newton are inaccurate. Freud exists merely as a history note in most modern psychology courses Newton constructed theories that hold true (to a certain level of precision) under most situations whereas Freud made stuff up. Freud never really tested his ideas because few of them were really falsifiable. He could explain any outcome, often with the same theory. This was part of his appeal, and part of his failing as a scientist.

    Anyway, as other have suggested, psychologist is a protected term in most countries. To call yourself a psychologist you typically need to complete 6 or more years of study (masters level) and most psychologists are registered with a professional organisation eg APA in USA.

    Psychologists are typically (universally, I hope) required to be familiar with the scientific method, research methods and statistics. Psychologists are required to, where available, administer treatments with established reliability and validity. It is considered unethical not to.

    A counselor is not a psychologist. Counselors are typically trained to administer a certain therapy or type of therapy. They typically do not have the same scientific training that psychologists do. Counselors with degrees in the area should, however, also be administering evidence based therapies. If you elect to hire the services of a counselor (or any medical professional for that matter), you should check their credentials and enquire about what sort of approaches they use (most will cite something like cognitive-behaviour therapy).

  • Ape Toast

    After redressing the issue of my bi-polar disorder, (I prefer manic-depression, more descriptive) I found a counselor, at a regional public facility. Shortly after arriving in her cross strewn office (already uncomfortable) she went on a “Stephen King is Evil” tirade; responding to my list of favorite authors. My Atheism was just fuel for her fire. The remainder of the initial interview is fuzzy. (I was steaming – but in control) I never came back. After a few weeks my wife (A born again Christian) convinced me to call in a complaint. Apparently I was not the only person to be harassed by this psychovangelist. She had been let go shortly after I had seen her.

  • I had an experience where I sought counsel for depression. I signed up for counseling via my grad school health plan, and when I arrived for my appointment I noted the building was “faith and family counseling”.

    My counselor had a degree from a seminary. I told her that if she twelve-stepped me or told me to surrender my problems to a higher power that I’d leave. She told me she’d “put on her secular hat” for me. She wasn’t so bad, actually, but I think at that time in my life it was too complicated even for her to handle.

  • yes_affirmative

    I have to disagree with people who are suggesting vetting therapists with very specific “do you practice from a Christian worldview”-type questions.

    I disagree because that’s not going to weed out all the therapists who have a faith-based agenda to push. In my experience, you have to watch out for New Age-y therapists every bit as much as you have to watch out for the fundamentalist Christians. My husband recently quit a group therapy class because the ostensibly secular therapist wanted them to read “The Secret” and kept talking about, “how you have to believe in and draw your strength from something.”

    A far better way of getting the therapist you want is to ask about their take on evidence-based medicine.

    I don’t care what religion or spiritual woo-woo my doctor or therapist practices at home. I don’t really even care if they have a cross up on the wall in the office.

    I do care that they don’t proselytize and I very much DO care whether the treatments they’re prescribing are backed by science.

  • SarahH

    I think it’s actually very lucky that such a blatant issue came up first.


    The first thing I ask when I see a therapist/psychologist/counselor/psychiatrist is “Do you have any strong religious beliefs that influence your practice?” and if the answer is “yes” I’m out of there. I was sent to a Christian counselor for treatment by my parents when I began suffering from an eating disorder, and it was incredibly awful. I still considered myself a strong Christian at the time, and I was still horrified at his incompetent style – telling me that I needed to get closer to Jesus in order to get better, for instance.

    Just a year and a half ago, well after I realized I didn’t believe in God anymore, I saw a different therapist for treatment (again, for the eating disorder) and found out at the second appointment that she held some crazy New Age beliefs, including the claim that she “healed” a patient with ALS by teaching her to love her body. I wish, in retrospect, that I’d been more specific when I explained that we “weren’t compatible” to her secretary. “She’s a complete loon and shouldn’t be set loose on mentally ill people” would have been more accurate.

    Anyway, consider yourself lucky to have avoided this guy.

  • Marsha

    My partner has had a couple of appointments w/an specialist dentist who is a “Christian” dentist, and has the “Christian Dentist’s Creed” displayed in the waiting room. She’s dying to tell him she’s Jewish (she’s not)and ask him if he only treats Christians just to see what he would say.

  • Jenni

    I thank you all for this post and commentary, it has been enlightening. I was shocked by my child’s therapist bringing religion into session. I have never seen that before and when I was younger I was counseled by a lady who worked for Catholic Charities! I found this post by attempting to Google atheist psychologists, FYI. I was not sure what to do, it felt like it was a violation of some kind- I came away feeling like my trust had been violated. I am relieved to see I wasn’t expecting too much and feel good now (after reading this)about my decision to seek care elsewhere. Thanks to all of you!

  • jjj

    As a Christian, I do not appreciate doctors who let their religious beliefs influence their work, it’s unprofessional, and awkward.

    How ever believing in God, believing we are here for a dualistic reason, is not superstitious, it is normal. I would not trust my child in the hands of a genetic determinist who does not believe in free will, which is the position most atheist doctors take.

    So fuck that.

  • thought

    Having your cake and eating it too is not ‘scientifically’ possible. Look thoughtfully into the concept of free will.

    Jesus does not like the F-word btw (or so I’ve been told…).

  • An American

    Religious beliefs in an of themselves require a delusional mind to accept as truth things that are derived from pure fantasy and very much psychotic events such as hearing voices, etc.  So called christian counselors are not psychologists with PhDs approved by the APA. They’re religious con artists whose agenda is to perpetuate myth, blind faith, ignorance, delusion and a religiosity i.e. brainwash.  Children are most vulnerable and its child abuse to instill baseless fear and guilt into them. 

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