When Your Therapist Tries to Save Your Soul

Cross in handDon’t want a therapist who thinks the solution to your depression is Jesus? Here’s some advice from clinical psychologist, Dr. Caleb Lack.

More Americans than ever are leaving their religion. Many find the process liberating, but it also can bring social and emotional challenges. A husband and wife may find themselves unexpectedly on opposite sides of the faith divide, struggling with what to tell their children. A college student may hide her doubts at home for fear of being cut off emotionally or financially, and then feel like she is living a lie.

But trying to get help sorting things out can bring challenges of its own, like ending up with a therapist who thinks that the way to solve your problems is by returning to your old religion—or hers.

Clinical psychologist, Caleb Lack, is the director of the Secular Therapist Project. I asked him to talk about his experiences and how people who are questioning or leaving their faith can find support or mental health services that fit.

Valerie Tarico: I should start by asking you about the Secular Therapist Project. What is it?

Caleb Lack: The Secular Therapist Project was founded by Psychologist, Darryl Ray, in 2012 as part of Recovering from Religion. One thing religion does well is build community. It provides financial support, emotional support, and coping resources—and people who question or leave faith can feel isolated. Organizations like Recovering from Religion make sure people don’t just drop off the face of the earth. They say, there are other people out there who empathize with you, who share your story, who want to help you come through this and be a stronger person on the other side.

The STP specifically is focused on helping connect those who are nonreligious and seeking mental health services with secular, licensed, evidence-based professionals.

Tarico: What prompted you to get involved?

Lack: I’m a clinical psychologist specializing in evidenced-based treatment of emotional or behavioral problems. Being trained this way really helped me to see that we as a species need more questioning of our particular beliefs–just in general and, specifically, for those suffering from mental illness—and strengthen my commitment to scientific skepticism.

Luckily, unlike many people, I’m in a position where I can be open about my secular nature. This combination of being a mental health professional and a nontheist has led a lot of people to share with me negative experiences they have had when they sought treatment for mental health problems. These negative stories had two common themes. First, people weren’t necessarily getting the gold standards of care and treatment. Second, a disturbing number of people were being evangelized by the very professionals they turned to for help.

Tarico: Seriously? Evangelized?

Lack: Yes, seriously. A lady contacted me seeking a therapist to help with stress and depression. She had gone for an intake at her Community Mental Health Center—this is a public clinic—and the intake worker told her that if she would only accept Jesus into her life, then her problems would be solved. The client was told that she needed to stop thinking so much and trust faith—and her depression would go away. She was just trying to get help and she was being evangelized by someone who didn’t know her. She hadn’t even seen this person for 20 minutes yet!

Tarico: Ok, that’s egregious. And maybe I’m naïve because I live in Seattle, but something like that must be incredibly rare.

Lack: Sadly, I hear stories like that regularly, which is why, when I learned about the Secular Therapist Project back in 2012, I thought, “Yes, this is what we need.” For example, as a college professor, I am in contact with a large number of young folks. As you are aware there is a huge shift among young people, and large numbers are leaving religion.

Not long ago, I was approached by a young man who had come to the conclusion that he was no longer religious. His mother and father were very involved in the church, so he wanted to talk with someone about the family struggle and he scheduled a meeting with a therapist. When he arrived at the office, she was wearing a large cross necklace and had religious icons on the wall, and once he started explaining why he had come, she went into evangelical mode—questioning him about why did he lose his faith and saying here is what you need to do to get it back. She essentially told this poor young man that being nonreligious was the problem. All of this was completely unethical, of course, and he was totally put off therapy. He asked me, “Is this going to happen everywhere?”

Now, the majority of therapists who are religious don’t act that way. They practice ethically and don’t let their personal beliefs intrude into the therapeutic relationship. But a large enough number do, which is why there is a need for the Secular Therapist Project.

Tarico: You make dozens of referrals per month for people seeking secular, evidence

based therapy. Are there themes in terms of what people need? 

Lack: People often need help with the transition from being religious to being nonreligious. “How do I come to grips with the fact that for 10 or 20 or 50 years I lived in this particular way and now I realize it wasn’t true?” We see a lot of people that are very angry, especially after being within a highly fundamentalist background where they were—maybe abused is a strong word—but told they were going to hell if they didn’t do things correctly, or told they were a bad person because of their sexuality.

There’s lots of sadness too, because it’s a loss, it’s a grieving process for many people. There’s a reason people use the term “I lost my faith.” Often they lose the community they’ve been in for decades and they don’t know if another community even exists. They say, “I miss my church family.” “I miss the people I used to hang out with, who now shun me.” “I miss the comforting fallback of being able to pray and tell God my worries.”

So there’s lots of grief and anger and also lots of relational issues. Picture, for example, a wife who has become an atheist while her husband is still in the church. 

Tarico: What do you say to people trying to live in a mixed marriage? 

Lack: Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Even when people care about each other enough that they still want to be together, it presents some unique challenges. You have to come to some kind of decision about parenting. What are we going to tell the kids about holidays like Christmas? Then there’s social life. If the wife is going to church does the husband get to be open about his nonbelief or will she be shunned? There are lots of minefields to be navigated. Last year, Dale McGowan came out with a great book for couples in this situation called In Faith and in Doubt. I often recommend it to those in mixed marriages.

Tarico: Books can be great tools for healing. McGowan wrote a great book about secular parenting as well, and Greta Christina has one called, Why are You Atheists So Angry? I’ve given away more copies than I can count of Marlene Winell’s book, Leaving the Fold, and Chris Johnson’s book, A Better Life, which is about finding joy and meaning in a world without gods. My interview with Winell about the pattern she dubbed religious trauma syndrome is one of the most trafficked articles at my website. But if someone needs more than a book, how can they get a referral to the Secular Therapist Project?

Lack: Seculartherapy.org has two giant buttons, “Click here to find a therapist. Click here to register as a therapist.” You can search geographically after you register, although some of our folks do engage in distance counseling as well. It’s anonymous up front, so you don’t see the name of the therapist you are messaging with until you are both comfortable doing so. We do that because of continued stigma against people who are nonreligious. Many of our therapists would, unfortunately, face discrimination and likely lose clients if they were openly secular. To date, almost 7,500 clients and about 250 therapists have registered on the site. That’s a bit of a size mismatch, so I encourage people to spread the word that we need more therapists on there!

Tarico: So if nobody on your list is available, how can a person screen a therapist so that they don’t end up getting evangelized once they walk through the door? Nobody needs that.   

Lack: First, seek out someone who practices evidence-based psychology—those things that have been shown to work through controlled clinical trials and research:

  • Ask “What is your primary therapeutic orientation?” Listen for words like “cognitive behavioral,” “interpersonal,” “dialectical behavior therapy,” or other therapies that have been shown to be effective.
  • Ask, “How do you know that the type of therapy you do works?” Listen for talk about “research” or “meta-analysis” and avoid someone who only talks about their personal experience or how long they have been doing therapy.

Then, to make sure that your therapist doesn’t attempt to push their own personal values, you can say over the phone that you are nonreligious and are looking for a therapist who is comfortable with that.

Another option is to reach out to your local secular community and ask for recommendations. In my experience the secular community is very supportive of seeking mental health services, especially for people who are struggling with leaving religion. You could even try to connect through a local branch of Recovering from Religion’s support groups.

Tarico: Assuming the worst case, what can a client do if a therapist pushes their own values or religion?

Lack: You can give them a warning by saying that is offensive, that it makes you uncomfortable, or that it doesn’t work for you. If it happens again, let them know that you will be reporting them to the state licensing board. That is an entirely appropriate thing to do. Our state boards are usually good about acknowledging those kinds of ethical breaches.

Tarico: What a rough situation to be in as a client, though. After hearing the painful stories, it must be gratifying to help people find a different kind of experience. 

Lack: As a mental health professional who has spent the last 10 years training mental health professionals to be ethical, competent providers, when I hear the stories like I talked about earlier, I get angry. Imagine being homosexual and growing up in a Southern Baptist household where you are told you are going to hell, or being trans and kicked out of your family, and then seeking help and someone telling you to pray away the depression. It’s a complete betrayal of trust. A therapist is supposed to create a nonjudgmental safe space.

For someone leaving their faith to get hit with that betrayal is unacceptable. Whether it’s a life transition or a mental illness like OCD or psychosis, people should be able to get the treatment they deserve without someone preaching at them and making them feel like there’s something wrong with them because they are not theistic.

Once a person has had one of these bad experiences, it’s incredibly rewarding to see them get the help they need. To see them actually get better and enjoy their life to a greater degree. That is why I do what I do.

Caleb W. Lack, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma. He blogs at Great Plains Skeptic.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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12 Responses to When Your Therapist Tries to Save Your Soul

  1. I wonder if there are therapists out there who have had experience in helping to de-woo the formerly religious.

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  2. rattyariel says:

    Wow – thanks for writing about this! I’m a culturally Jewish agnostic who has lived in the Bible Belt for 15 years. I suffer from treatment-resistant major depression, complex PTSD and anxiety disorder, and as well as being in therapy, I receive daily visits from a mental health support worker. I have had 4 such workers, and 3 of them got their degrees from a well-known fundamental, evangelical Christian college in my city, as did my therapist. The counseling program at that college is Christianity-based, as is every other subject there.
    Luckily, two of the Christian mental health support people, and my therapist, have been extremely ethical and never evangelize to me, but once in a while I wonder if sometimes they think, “Why am I wasting my time with her – she’s going to hell anyway,” or “Oh, if only she’d accept Jesus…”
    My first mental health support worker DID evangelize to me, first subtly, by playing Christian music on the car radio, even when I asked her to please change to another station, and then coming right out and telling me she’d been praying that I’d accept Jesus as my personal savior, and trying to convince me that America was founded as a Christian nation. I honestly didn’t know at the time that I could have complained to the agency about this and gotten another worker. Now I know better. (She ended up getting fired anyway)
    The vast majority of mental health providers in my city are Christian-based, and graduated from or are still attending, the above-mentioned evangelical college.
    Sigh, it’s lonely to be a non-Christian in this city…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t understand. Is it even legal that a therapist would mix religion with therapy? Can’t they lose their license or something? If one is looking for religious advice one would go to a priest, no?

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  4. John Smith says:

    I have problems registering. Would anybody help me? Thanks.

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  5. godfreydebouillon says:

    I grew up in a rationalist household without any religious training. I began to become a Christian in college and am still in process. I also carry on an ongoing conversation with a decidedly post-skeptic God. I also believe God stays with seekers after truth at least as long as they stay on that path and regardless of whether they say they believe or don’t believe.
    Isn’t part of a therapist’s job is to help such seekers and never hold them back? Isn’t that why the best therapists ask far more questions than make statements?

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  6. allanmerry says:

    Here @ around 215 PM on 1/23: Well, maybe there could be Separate Counselor Licenses and Standards (“Professionally Established and Accepted,” if not legally enforceable), for Secular and Religious. (Maybe for each Religion, for that Sector. :-) With, of course, an ironclad Disclosure Requirement. Regrettably, tho, there is not a single iota of actual, testable evidence that there exists any sort of “God-like Higher Power,” who/which watches consciously over humankind, assessing us, and wishing for us to find, and be guided by, her/him/it. Same for such a guy or gal watching over the rest of the natural world. (I.e. The Cosmos). Thus, since survival of this planet environment- upon which we depend for our “actual” life- is up to us alone collectively, I personally would advocate against licensing Religious Counselors. Already got plenty of them. Those who remain troubles with God, allow them to be assured of reality based counseling.

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  7. Dr Allen Sherman of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said: “When we took a closer look, we found that patients with stronger spiritual well-being, more benign images of God – such as perceptions of a benevolent rather than an angry or distant God – or stronger beliefs – such as convictions that a personal God can be called upon for assistance – reported better social health. In contrast, those who struggled with their faith fared more poorly.”

    His argument is probably the main reason why religion gets such respect and influence. It is the reason the governments of the world often give religion special rights and religious people get more respect than non-religious. It is the reason why people who see organised religion as crafty and divisive and bigoted are afraid to challenge believers.
    Whatever nature is going to do it is going to do. You can do your best but your best is not always enough to prevent terrible things taking place. With God, it is no different. What God is going to do God is going to do. No sane person thinks they can control a God or tell him what to do. A prayer then that is about trying to change what cannot be changed is an insult to God and yourself for you will be disappointed. The doctor’s argument talks about how praying for assistance is good for you but that turns prayer into a delusion and a placebo and not a real connection with God. His argument is an argument for idolatry not God. If people are happy that you are praying for them then it is the good wishes that are implied that benefits them not the praying as such. It is Christian teaching that any joy got without God will turn to sorrow and maladjustment and misery.

    If you read his argument closely, it fails to show that generally speaking belief in God is a good thing. It is not generally a good thing if most people tend to think God does not care or is angry with them. If the belief is untrue then people doubting it is understandable. It follows that those who told them that God exists are to blame if it is really the case that doubters do not do well in coping with the agonies of living. They are to blame for society mostly sees such doubt as natural and understandable. There is no mention of people who believe in a caring God and upon enduring terrible things decide that he does not care or is punishing them. Those who allegedly benefit from faith in a nice God could just be about to decide based on evidence and their experience that it is wrong and God is bad.

    Belief in a God who does not care or has it in for you is worse than simply thinking the terrible things that happen to you are down to random mechanical nature and not to any supernatural agent. However the person who is happy and believes in a God like that is far more heroic than an atheist!

    Some questions – if a person of faith is seriously ill or dying how likely are they to be afraid to say if their faith is not really helping them? Don’t underestimate what people who fear meeting God after death are capable of saying.

    They could be mistaking the feeling of support and love from others for support and love from God. These are people going through a lot and confusion would be expected.
    The notion that God alone is a comfort is absurd. Nobody wants to spend their lives in isolation with only God for company. The comfort you experience in times of trial comes from a lot of areas. It is very complicated. You could say God is a comfort while meaning that the other things, the love and care from others is the important comfort.

    If you have gone through something terrible, any comfort will be seen as a huge thing. You will want to forget the pain and see the good so you are biased. You are not reliable on how effective the comfort has been.
    You could say you are comforted by faith and still feel comforted or even more comforted without the faith.

    How many will say faith in God makes them feel worse? Some do. But there are a lot more who don’t say simply because they are not asked. If you are worried about how your family and friends are coping as you suffer terribly you will want to give the impression that your faith is helping you even if it is not. It is about telling a lie to comfort them.

    It is interesting that with superstition, people think they can stop bad things happening when the bad things are not inevitable. But when death looms, it is a different story. Their superstitious faith does not help them then. It does not help with what matters most.

    Not all believers will feel that calling on God for assistance is a comfort. It is only a comfort if results start to happen. If there is no God there will be no results for many people. The others didn’t get results – they were just lucky. And luck is fragile.

    What about very sick or dying people who hope there is no God? They are left out of the picture.

    And if your faith helps you, you may never know if another kind of faith could have helped you better.

    People should be comforted by, “I am suffering. It may soon be time to go. I am willing to go so that others can enjoy life in my place.” That makes sense and gives meaning to suffering. It expresses a willingness to accept what comes and give your life for others. God does not come into it. There is more giving if you think death really is the cessation of existence than there is if you think you are merely going elsewhere.

    Believing that your suffering is somehow indispensable for the greater good in some divine plan though there is no way of showing how or even if it is the case might comfort some. But it contradicts the notion of an all-powerful God. If God is that powerless over evil despite being almighty then there is no way to be sure that any human being will fare okay after death. Believers who feel comforted by faith are confusing faith in the greater purpose with faith in God.

    Faith in a Christian God is a fragile crutch because what happens when one finds out that this God told his son to get murdered and commanded murders in the Old Testament? Gay people and adulterers were stoned to death. Jesus knew this and did not repudiate those murders. He went as far as to say that people who do little harm will end up in Hell forever unless they repent. In fairness, Christianity teaches that you have to live by faith not feelings and Jesus promised a cross in this world not a crown. Do you really want to meet a God who makes viruses to torment babies to death? If you want to meet this bad God, then it is not faith that is supporting you but arrogance. You are very sure he will not punish you or send you to Hell forever. You are very sure he will not send you back to earth as an animal or a child in a famine country. You are very sure he will not take the comfort you so desperately need away from you as a test. All that is arrogance and you think it is up to God to please you instead of you letting him do what he believes is right in the big picture.

    People in terrible trouble hope that something magical will happen to rescue them from it. The comfort they get is not worth the disappointment that is risked and that will come. And what if this false hope makes them lazy? If it does not then that is down to luck not design. They might refuse to build bridges with estranged friends and family for they no longer feel that they are dying though they are.

    The research that faith in a nice personal God helps vulnerable people is a disgrace for it is too anecdotal and does not take account of how complex each person’s psychology is. It does not regard the fact that the sick person will doubt God one day and hate God the next and love him the day after as worthy of thinking about. If there is any value in the research, it is that the placebo helps some people. If God is a placebo then it is not really God that helps but the placebo. The research is basically exploiting people’s pain to promote religious faith. It plays right into the hands of religious manipulators. Every religion from ISIS to Catholicism or Scientology to Satanism plays the same card. All these faiths cannot be equally beneficial, good, honest and sincere.
    The religious person is trained to say that things that happen naturally are down to divine agency. Thus when they say they are comforted by what happens they are talking about what can and should be seen as natural not divine. The religious person then is prone to exaggerate God’s role in her or his wellbeing.

    It is irresponsible to encourage faith in God for even if it helps some it is going to make others fear God or feel punished by him. It could make things worse in the bigger picture.

    Today it is recognised that the problem with religion is that it idolises faith. Faith is a refusal to change your mind when new light and evidence comes up. Faith is the one bad thing that all religions have in common though the content varies. Faith is why religions that are polar opposites exist and even when their doctrines are proven to be contrary to fact the religions still persist. Opposition to truth is a high price to pay for the alleged comfort that comes from pretending you know what you don’t know. If anybody gets comfort from such faith, the comfort is fragile for the faith is based on the desire to loosen your grip on reality. It is not a virtue but a vice and vice feels good but brings bad results. Pointing to the people faith supposedly comforts, means nothing if faith causes passenger planes to be flown into skyscrapers or means approving of the murders of homosexuals that God commanded in the Bible. The comfort you get from faith in a loving God amounts for very little if you also have great fear of demons and evil magical forces.

    And what about the doubters? Are they suffering for they have tried God and it didn’t work and now they are made to feel bad about it? What about people who struggle to believe? Telling them that faith will help only makes it worse.

    What about the heretical and doubting friends and family of a dying person who has no faith? The message that faith comforts vulnerable people makes them feel they are to blame if the person died an unhappy death. They will think they had a bad influence.

    If faith is good for you, your influence and example draw people to faith and that could be bad for them.

    If faith is so great for comforting the afflicted then your message of faith blames those who say it didn’t do much for them. You blame those who suffer without faith for their suffering being made worse. Your insinuation and therefore your faith is a disgrace. Are you getting comforted by faith or your superior hypocritical attitude?

    If faith comforts though it is not true that does not make it a good thing. It says the truth should not comfort and does not comfort. It opposes truth. Opposing truth opposes not only truth but people who work for the truth. It undermines our right to get the chance to value the truth. Something being comforting does not make it true. What it does make true is that it shows we have the resources to make ourselves feel the best we can under the circumstances and can therefore do without religious faith. It shows then that there must be many ways to do that and faith in God need not be one of them. Faith in religion is certainly not an option for doing it.
    Using a doctor can be a sign of lack of faith. If faith comes first then it must be a sin to go to the doctor then! Real faith means you do things you dread in order to show and live a relationship with God. That is the “best” faith. You might say that doubters still go to the doctor. But what about what the principle says? What about that? You can’t just ignore a principle.
    Many religious pastors should not be allowed near sick or dying people. They may refuse to bully the sick with their nasty doctrines but they still represent and take responsibility for those doctrines. And many do bully. Christians have been known to terrorize atheists and heretics who are on the deathbed. It is the pastors’ beliefs that should disqualify him or her not the actions for human nature is often inconsistent and if you believe bad doctrines there is a definite risk that you will oppress a dying person in the name of faith.

    Most people believe you cannot try to correct the nonsensical or untrue faith of a dying person. Some religions believe in doing just that. Born-again Christians are notorious for it as were some Catholic “saints”. But if the dying person has been misled into depending on a faith that is wrong or implausible then there are no words of disgust fitting for those responsible.
    We conclude that those who are comforted by faith in God are comforted by countless things many of which they will not be able to put their finger on. Many lie about the religious comfort or exaggerate how important God is. The comfort is not without its risks. And religion cherry-picks the evidence for comfort in God – there is no mention of those whose agony and torment is made worse by belief.

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  8. Perry says:

    “…maybe abused is a strong word—but told they were going to hell if they didn’t do things correctly, or told they were a bad person because of their sexuality.”

    No, abused is not too strong a word. Call it what it is, spiritual/emotional/psychological abuse. Much religious dogma is spiritually abusive, and indoctrinating children with it doubly so.

    When I was finally diagnosed with complex PTSD due to my former life in a fundamentalist cult I was fortunate to be put on a waiting list for group therapy with a well known Canadian expert, a veteran military psychiatrist. While waiting for that, I was able to see a psychologist on a weekly basis at a hospital out-patient clinic. Cost of both was covered by the government health plan otherwise I would have had no mental health care to deal with my crisis. However, the psychologist was unable to offer me anything other than a listening ear, which was still a good thing. She actually told me she didn’t know how to help me and had no useful advice for me. In fact, I think I taught her more than she taught me. My accounts of horrific religious abuse seemed to unsettle her, so I suspected she may have been a believer and wasn’t sure how to handle me. At least she knew better than to use religion on me. To her credit, she asked to borrow a book I was frequently citing to her, “Cults in Our Midst” by well-known psychologist, Margaret Singer, as well as some video documentaries I had on the cult I was in. She was informing herself, so that’s a good thing, and maybe now she’s better able to help other similar patients.

    Btw, another good book by a psychologist that examines the harms of religion is “Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness, and Christian God-Talk” by Wendell W. Watters. While Singer’s book examines fringe religious groups, Watters’ book examines the doctrines of the mainstream Anglican church and their damaging effects on the health.

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