In Search of Secular Therapists? April 12, 2012

In Search of Secular Therapists?

You’ve heard of Dr. Darrel Ray, right?  Author, speaker, psychologist, and founder of “Recovering from Religion” (R|R), an organization that helps people transition from a religious lifestyle into a secular one. 

Well, Darrel has begun another project with R|R and it’s something that many of us will find an invaluable resource.

This new endeavor, called the Therapist Project, will be a registry of secular mental health professionals; it aims to provide people with resources that use proven, state of the art, therapeutic methods — not supernatural bunk.

“Dear Dr. Ray, I am an humanist and atheist in a very religious community. … I have tried two therapists in my community and both eventually told me to go back to church or learn how to become more spiritual. … Can you help me find a secular counselor in this Bible belt community?” – Anonymous email to Dr. Ray

From my own experience, I can attest that it can be an exhausting challenge to find a secular therapist.  Word of mouth eventually led me to a professional who wasn’t religious and who could help with obsessive compulsive issues, but this wouldn’t have happened without relentless seeking.  The Therapist Project seeks to remedy that struggle.

If you’re an evidence-based, secular therapist and you would like to be able to reach out to non-theists in need, please register as a Recovering From Religion therapist today!  Registering is simple; they don’t want to know the color of your underwear — just your contact details, qualifications, specialty areas, and licensing information — pretty standard stuff. Once you register, spread the word to your peers.

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  • Sue Blue

    This is a difficult issue.  I’ve had a hell of a time trying to find completely secular grief support in our community.  Even at supposedly non-religious bereavement group meetings, I am bombarded with comments like “I know he’s with God and the angels” and “I know he’s with me, I feel his presence” and “I know we’ll be together in heaven someday”.  The talk almost always turns to messages supposedly received from dead children and sightings of their “spirits”.  I can’t say anything about how dead means gone forever and how my comfort comes from remembering my son’s life because they then get upset that I’m somehow belittling their experience or that I’m too “grim”.  All the therapists we’ve had as guest speakers seem to emphasize the importance of “spirituality” in dealing with grief.   I know atheist/agnostic therapists must be out there, but I haven’t met any.

  • I count myself as lucky – when I needed therapy, I was able to find someone who was strictly science based. There is an association of Humanistic Psychology out there and those practitioners should all be science based.  They also have a list of practitioners to contact.

  • Alexander Unwyn Cherry

     from their directory:

    “Mary Bell is a spiritual healer, teacher, author and channel who has
    been in private practice for over fifteen years. She is a graduate of
    the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, Awakening Your Light Body,
    Bioenergetic Analysis, and has been teaching her own work since 1995.”

    (Consider me skeptical)

    Still, thanks for the link. It doesn’t look like anyone in Arizona (from that list) might qualify as evidence based

  • Suzanne Sparks

    Thank you for this, so much. It will be an invaluable resource. I’ve wanted to find a non-theist therapist since I woke up from a car accident with no memory of telling the paramedics “no blood!”. It had been 3 years since I had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That was a wake up call to me that I needed help to get the last few bits of brainwashing out of my head. I’ve been looking for a non-theist therapist since then (2008) with no luck, since I also live in the bible belt.

  • ATL-Apostate

    This is excellent! I was in need of a secular therapist several months ago. Finding one here in metro ATL was so difficult. Many secular therapists here in the bible belt do not advertise their secular credentials. In contrast, you can’t walk 10 feet without tripping over a dozen Christian counselors.

    Long story short, I found one, but only through sheer luck. For those who are recovering religionists, I would add that the issue is even more complex. Those folks who were lucky enough to be born into secular families and not be poisoned by religion, really have no idea what it is like for those of us who are in the process of leaving toxic religion. This goes for counselors too, at least it did with mine. He tried to understand where I was coming from, but clearly he didn’t get it. I kept him because he was presumably better than the 50 other Christian counselors in my area.

    Luckily, I found Marlene Winell out of Berkeley CA. She does Skype sessions and accepts PayPal. She wrote an excellent book called “Leaving the Fold.” I recommend it to anyone who is leaving or considering leaving toxic religion.

    Also, I know of at least one other therapist in training who is a former evangelical. Hopefully he will be finished training and certified in a couple of years.

    Darrel’s project may be the “Ray”of hope that us recovering religionists are looking for. Marlene is awesome, but she can’t be everywhere at once.

  • How is it grim to be remembering the joy someone brought into your life?? I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry that you can’t find a reality based support group.

  • Great to hear this. When I came out as an atheist a year or so ago, my therapist (whom I’d seen for 15 years & was my rock through leaving my church, breakdowns, divorce, you name it) blanched. Her reaction was subtle but there, and I was annoyed. It’s true: we’re the last (?) group in this country it’s OK to look down on. That’s fine–I’ve always liked doing things the hard way.

  • Annie

    Not exactly on topic, but I just want to add how important it is for parents to interview therapists before choosing who to send their child to.  I found this out the hard way.  Luckily, I was in the room when a therapist said something extremely inappropriate to my daughter (and was able to scoop up my child and fire the therapist on the spot).  After that, I always set up an appointment for me to meet with the therapist alone before sending my child in.  I don’t think this is uncommon practice, but just something I never thought of, so I thought I’d throw it out there.

  • natsera

    I just had an interesting experience with my therapist. I’m trying to deal with an eating disorder, and there are several 12-step programs available, like Overeaters Anonymous, and CEA-HOW. He asked why I couldn’t just ignore the religious part of the 12-step program and take advantage of the real substance in them. But the point is that I CAN’T ignore the spiritual stuff, because in order to do so, I would have to step out of my real self, and assume my disinterested religious anthropologist persona, which is exactly the opposite of what I need to do. I’m not sure he really got it, but he had the professionalism to back off and accept that it would NOT serve my needs to go to those meetings. And I think that professionalism is to be praised and respected. Meanwhile, I have found a program which is NOT spiritually based, but I think they only operate here in Reno. And I think there is a huge need for non-spiritually based recovery programs as well as therapists.

  • TCC

    I guess I’m going to be the first person to point out how utterly unfortunate the choice of domain name is. (I do, however, really, really support the idea of having a database of secular therapists available, as I was thinking about how I would find a good one for the depression that ensued from the response to my deconversion and coming out.)

  • Thank you for suggesting this. I’m currently looking for a therapist for my daughter & this is a good piece of advice. 

  • advancedatheist

    Albert Ellis back in the 1950’s developed a secular form of psychotherapy, which he called rational emotive behavior therapy. This merged in the 1960’s with the similar system Aaron Beck created called cognitive therapy, and the general approach now goes by the name cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), which promotes as its key idea that people upset themselves unnecessarily by reinforcing their irrational beliefs, for example that they should condemn themselves when they make mistakes, instead of learning nonjudgmental ways to think about their errors. Progress towards better emotional functioning comes from actively disputing these irrational beliefs, and we know that many of them come from religions which promote unrealistic standards about moral perfection.

    Ellis advertised his atheism, and I haven’t come across anything to indicate that the still-living Beck holds religious beliefs, so I have the impression that if CBT sticks closely to its origins, it promotes a basically this-worldly orientation when it comes to dealing with life’s problems.

  • Annie

    Good luck to your Melissa!  Even if they make you pay for the consult, I think it is money well spent.  The therapist I mentioned above asked my then 4 year old if she knew why she was in therapy. When my daughter didn’t respond,  the therapist told my daughter she was there because she was “bad at home and bad at school.”  This was obviously  not the case, and nothing I ever verbalized to her. My daughter was suffering from  severe anxiety and touch aversion most likely due to cancer treatment during her first years of life.  I requested a summary of treatment from the therapist, as I felt that I paid her a lot of money and wanted something.  She wrote that my daughter was on the autism spectrum (which she is not).  One of my biggest regrets is that I never reported her.  We were lucky to find incredibly caring  and well-trained therapists to work with my daughter (who is now 13 and doing great).  It just takes time, and I hope you find a good fit right off the bat.  If I had to go through the whole experience again, I would interview, google, and ask many people for referrals.  If your child has a specific issue, I would also try to find someone who has some experience with that issue.  Best wishes.

  • Trina

    It’s not the same as IRL support, but there is a ‘Grief Beyond Belief’ page on FB that you might find helpful.   I wish you all the best.

  • Trina

     It all depends on the therapist.  CBT is a very common method these days, in terms of the general method, but there are some ‘CBT’ therapists who let are religious and will let it intrude.

  • I definitely had great luck with my last therapist; She had no problem with my atheism and helped me cope with the mixed feelings I was having in the wake of my then recent divorce, etc.  She was a little woo-wooey but didn’t push it.  She was very insightful and I think it helped a great deal at the time; Unfortunately she has gotten married and is no longer practicing.  I found her through a recommendation from a former therapist of my dad’s that he really liked.

    More recently I consulted a psychiatrist about my mild depression, recommended to me by a psychology researcher.  In the end, I have to respect his medical judgement of not prescribing any medication and the reasons for it; Other psychiatrists always seem so quick to medicate and I’m glad this one showed restraint.  I wouldn’t have tapped this one anyway for any long-term counseling or whatever as I noticed immediately all the Jesus-y books on his bookshelf and probably rolled my eyes.

  • Alexander Unwyn Cherry

    Haven’t studies shown that the 12-step process doesn’t DO much at all (success rates about the same as natural recidivism), and there is no real substance in them? *sigh* 

  • Guest

    I know what you mean!  I’m not from the bible belt, but my area is just as filled with spiritual woo, who are just as unaccepting if you don’t believe their woo, and who insist that you can’t recover from anything unless you recover on a “spiritual” level. 

  • greenspine

    That is an unfortunate URL.

  • Joannaa

    That’s interesting. (caveat: I live in the north east) I’m just finishing my degree in counseling, and we’ve been told a number of times that therapists tend to ignore religion during treatment, and that for a lot of clients it’s an important aspect, so we have to remember to be sensitive to that.

  • No ‘Arrested Development’ fans in that meeting. Hope there’s not an Analyst/Therapist Project in the works…

  • This could very well be a VERY useful tool for those of us struggling to find a decent therapist.  My last one was just fine with me until a root cause of my anxiety turned out to be how uncomfortable all the god woo-woo makes me at my in-laws’ home on holidays.  From that point on her only concern was to get me out of her office as quickly as possible.  Her idea of treatment was to just up my dose, whereas before we had talked about coping strategies to help and really explored how things were or weren’t working.  I started to show serious, negative side effects from the medication dosages (memory loss, brain fuzz, lack of coordination; serious stuff).  She ignored me and upped the dose again.  I left her office that day, tore up her prescription, and sought my GP to help me safely get off of all the crap she had me on.  I’m still on the lookout for a therapist who isn’t going to get all pissy if I express my feelings (part of the therapy) about certain things like religion as it relates to my life.   I’m just lucky to have a decent GP to help manage the problem in the short term while I search.

    So whoever thought this up?  Gold star!

  • curtcameron

    I’m surprised that people have had such a hard time with this. I’ve seen three or four therapists here in Texas, and I’ve never had any of them mention religious stuff (except for normal questions about my circle of friends, work associates, church associates, etc.).

    My wife is a licensed therapist here in Texas, and although she’s not an atheist, she’s not at all religious in her work, and uses primarily CBT techniques. I’ll see if she wants to sign up for this.

  • The link seems to be dead.  It also seems to be an attempt to bait me into making the old joke about The Rapist Project.

    Anyway, I do hope it takes off. I’ve had exactly this problem; I’m currently the only atheist (well, the only “out” atheist, anyway) in a support group that says it accepts me, but the constant prayer and scripture drive me nuts.  That’s not really their fault–they do accept me, after all, and their program had all that religious stuff in it before I showed up with my newfangled atheist ideas.  But I’d like to find something that fits me better.

  • Alysonleelmnop

     This will be an invaluable resource, especially in the field of addiction recovery, in which suggestions to turn to a “higher power” are inescapable. My experience with AA and NA were underwhelming at best, and at worst alienating and humiliating. Another common method of treatment is “acupuncture detoxification,” and expensive, unproven and frankly absurd technique (all that is required to be a “licensed practitioner” is a certificate from a 5 hour workshop). Institutions who offer this option are commonly given thousands in government grants to do so. Addiction is a physical and psychological affliction, and we need real doctors and psychologists offering proven treatments, not quacks hocking some spiritual and theistic snake oil.

  • Jason Foster

    As a counselor, I go both ways.  I’ve heard a number of people express their desire to explore their spirituality, and who aren’t satisfied with the answers their religion offers to their questions.  They may be considering leaving the Church (not just fundamentalist next-to-abusive organizations, but even relatively benign congregations), or they may simply want someone to talk to about the bigger questions that we all face, whether atheist or religious.  How can I be happy with a finite amount of time on this planet?  How can I be myself in a culture that tells me I should be this and that?  How can I connect to others? How can I deal with the suffering of existence?

    For many people, these questions are not immediately relevant.  Some people need someone to simply help them explore the problem at hand.  I think a good counselor needs to simultaneously work with where the client is at, and be attentive to what may be lurking under the surface.  Meaning, if existential despair is part of the problem, it would serve the client to become conscious of that.  The pitfall that many counselors fall into is immediately offering a solution, be it Jesus, Buddha, pharmaceuticals, or shopping.  I think that happens a lot of times because of their own discomfort with *going there*, with sitting with the client in their despair.  It’s too painful for both client and therapist, and yet it is where the work needs to be done. 

    This “going there” work may or may not be done, regardless of a therapist’s usage of evidence-based techniques, professed spirituality or religion.  This speaks to the difficulty of finding a therapist that works for you.  Much of the success of therapy is about the relationship between client and therapist.  Every client and every therapist has their own beliefs about life, the universe, and everything.  Our schema, whether it be religious-based or atheist, constantly influences our experience of life.  Some of us identify with these beliefs, as Christians, Buddhists, atheists, what have you.  Underneath that identity (which must be honored in a therapeutic relationship) is an entire world.  It is my intention to to hold my own beliefs lightly, and meet my client in the space of their present-moment experience.  For in the present moment, we encounter what is real.

  • Reason_Being

    This is a great idea.  Thanks to Dr. Ray for putting it together and thanks for calling it to our attention Emily.

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