Those leaving religion can face emotional challenges. When their therapist pushes religious solutions, the challenges are multiplied • Fortunately resources exist to find secular therapists

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Leaving religion can be a very challenging undertaking, particularly in the US, and especially in communities outside of large urban centers, where unbelief is rarely the norm.

Given the often daunting psychological challenges that can accompany the task of deconverting, psychiatric help can be very important.

But despite what one might expect and hope for, such help can offer its own challenges, especially if the very person you are relying on—the counseling confidant—has a different worldview that they want to impress upon you.

Professor Caleb W. Lack has a fascinating background teaching how to deal with pseudoscience, avoid cognitive biases, and employ critical thinking in one’s psychological outlook. The book he co-authored with Jacques Rousseau, Critical Thinking, Science, and Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains, is a testament to that.

An atheist psychologist with expertise including anxiety and mood disorders, OCD, and other psychological conditions, Lack is also involved with The Secular Therapy Project, “a platform that allows people seeking mental health services to search for secular therapists who use research-supported, evidence-based, state-of-the-art therapeutic methods that do not involve supernatural or religious elements.”

People should be able to see a psychologist who is secular, who doesn’t push their own belief system onto their patient—an unethical practice that is far from uncommon.

“Recently,” Dr. Lack tells me, “a colleague of mine (Steve Byrne) and I published the first paper looking at the experiences of the nonreligious in therapy. That’s where we got this data showing that very large numbers of them—about 12%—had had experiences that were highly unethical in therapy involving religion: the therapist trying to push religion onto them, or telling them to go to church as an intervention, despite people saying, ‘I’m not religious and that’s not a thing for me.'”

Is this breaking any ethical codes?

“Yes. It very clearly is,” says Lack. “The American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, every major large-scale association has ethical codes…that you do not push your beliefs onto your clients. Religious beliefs are part of those. It can be religious beliefs, political beliefs…”

Dr. Caleb W. Lack. Image via YouTube

Part of the problem here is perhaps that, in the US, atheism or humanism aren’t taken seriously enough as identities. By this, I mean religious people have traditionally not only had really low opinions of atheists, but haven’t entertained them enough as being a significant group that deserves equality of rights. Although it has improved, in 2019 the Pew Research Center found:

Americans feel less warmly toward atheists than they do toward members of most major religious groups. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans to rate groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 (as cold and negative as possible) to 100 (the warmest, most positive possible rating). U.S. adults gave atheists an average rating of 49, identical to the rating they gave Muslims (49) and colder than the average given to Jews (63), Catholics (60) and evangelical Christians (56).

Back in 2012, Scientific American reported in the article “In Atheists We Distrust“:

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

So what constitutes a belief?

“Beliefs that I hold, that they don’t hold, that I am trying to convert them to. I don’t proselytize to them,” Dr. Lack explains. “Let’s say I have, and I’m not religious, a religious person come to me for therapy. I don’t say, ‘We can treat your depression. But, also, God isn’t real.’ No, that’s not what they are here for. So there are codes against that.”

For example, the National Association of Social Workers states that “social workers should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others to further their personal, religious, political, or business interests.” (National Association of Social Workers 2017.)

But Lack, Byrne, and Taylor’s research is a testament to the fact that there are problems with religious psychotherapists and counselors doing this. Their 2021 paper “Experiences of the Non-religious in Psychotherapy: Implications for Clinical Practice and Therapist Education” found that “clients expressed that 36% of therapists reportedly engaged in either unwanted or unhelpful religious discussion, with 29% explicitly suggesting a religious intervention for their non-religious clients, such as prayer or attendance at church services.”

After discussing the bias and prejudice that the non-religious have to deal with, right across American society, the authors observe that this religious engagement from practitioners can lead to early termination of the therapy. This is obviously counter-productive, not to mention potentially expensive for the client.

Given how prevalent prejudice toward nonreligious people is, it should be unsurprising that there is evidence that these biases can pervade the therapeutic relationship as well, even though best practices have long dictated that MHPs be open and accepting of the spiritual and religious views of their clients, even when those views may differ.

Experiences of the Non-Religious in Psychotherapy: Implications for Clinical Practice and Therapist Education, p. 4-5.

There are often particular challenges for people who might be taking that potentially very difficult journey into deconversion. (It is worth checking out the excellent Recovering from Religion organization and website.)

[T]hose who are non-religious may have aspects or the impact of their non-religious identity be interwoven into their presenting concern….

For instance, if a MHP [mental health provider] suggests that the causes or remedies to a client’s mental health concerns are rooted in their lack of religious beliefs, this creates a point of disconnection between client and MHP. Further, this flies contrary to some of the most basic counseling skills taught to graduate students, such as empathy and unconditional positive regard (Rogers 1951). To either not acknowledge a client’s worldview and culture or to express one’s disagreement with that (via microaggression or macroaggression) violates what Rogers termed “the necessary and sufficient” principles of counseling. As such, the possibility exists that these slights, whether purposeful or not, can lead to early termination, worsening symptoms, or lack of progress in therapy.

Experiences of the Non-Religious in Psychotherapy: Implications for Clinical Practice and Therapist Education, p. 7-8.

The Secular Therapy Project seeks to correct these problems. Dr. Lack confirms the need to address these issues: “This is something we really need to make sure that programs are training people in and making sure these are beliefs or positions that MHPs respect. It shouldn’t just be things like ‘Oh, this person is gay, I’m not going to try and convert them to being not gay,” but also things like, “Oh, this person is not religious; I should respect that,” as opposed to seeing that as being the problem.”

“36% of therapists engaged in unwanted or unhelpful religious discussion, with 29% explicitly suggesting a religious intervention for nonreligious clients, such as prayer or attendance at church services.”

lack, byrne, and taylor. “Experiences of the Non-religious in Psychotherapy: Implications for Clinical Practice and Therapist Education” (2021)

The Secular Therapy Project has run workshops, released publications, and worked as an organization to right this wrong and to raise awareness that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with in training programs.

“If a therapist does this to you, this is something you can report them for to their licensing boards because that’s a clear violation of these ethical codes,” Lack advises.

I wonder whether there is a similarity to the famously quasi-religious (or even overtly religious) nature of the 12-Step Program for treating alcohol addiction. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in the US were Christian and their literature was heavily influenced by their beliefs. The twelve steps are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. 

Is this not similar mission creep? Is this not a God-shaped wedge being jimmied into place in the minds of the psychologically vulnerable here just as it can be in unethical therapy and counseling?

Lack points out an important difference, however.

“It’s very similar and it’s highly problematic, from my point of view. But those aren’t being led, usually, by therapists. They are peer-led, so it’s just like a community support thing, as opposed to a therapist practicing this, and trying to make you have this or that belief. The 12-Step Program is not something where you have an ethical code that you are practicing. No, you’re just someone who got roped into this cult and now you’re roping other people in, for the most part.”

At a time when there is growing irreligion in the US, there are still so many negative stigmas attached to the nonreligious, as previously mentioned. This is where a platform like OnlySky is looking to have an impact: We seek not only to give a voice and representation to the nonreligious, but to normalize the “nones.” We want to eradicate this stigma and prejudice, we want to fight Christian nationalism that seeks to give superiority to Christianity, but also to theism in general over atheism and the nonreligious.

As Dr. Lack observes, based on reliable data, “A lot of people in America don’t like Muslims, but they really don’t like atheists. So any religion is better than nonreligion for a lot of religious folks, even if it is the ‘wrong one.’ That stigma is still there across large swaths of the US.”

The future is bright, because the future is the youth. A Pew Research Center survey found 29% of US adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016. Self-identified Christians make up 63% of the US population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago. And Millennials are leading the way, with 43 percent of those between 18 and 36 being either atheists or apathetic towards the existence of God.

When we look at trends and try making predictions, this sort of data is significant, and it should give the nonreligious hope.

The Secular Therapy Project is about supporting people fairly and ethically at a time when this trend is set to remain. The internet is not going anywhere, and I am fairly certain that this is a tool that is enabling the movement of younger people away from organized religion. After all, it’s presently bringing me to you, and OnlySky to the world.

Speaking of this snowball, Lack says, “The best way to break down these in-group/out-group boundaries and have better opinions of the out-group is what we call the ‘contact hypothesis’…If I don’t know anyone like that, then it’s easier to hate them. But if I meet someone who defies the stereotypes I have about that group, it breaks down those boundaries.”

Many people in the UK saw the Brexit vote as a referendum on the free movement of people and immigration, and the areas of the UK that were most notably anti-immigration and pro-Brexit were often the places with the least immigration. It wasn’t a case of pushing back against something they knew and had experienced, but pushing back against some imaginary foe that they had not experienced. They simply had not had much contact, relatively speaking, with the out-group.

And so breaking down the boundaries for the religious norm in-group in the US is about normalizing atheism and nonreligion, about getting us out there, in places of high visibility, letting our voices be heard.

This is a time for OnlySky, the time of the nonreligious to be a part of everybody, not a new in-group that seeks supremacy and exceptionalism. Instead, we want acceptance, equality of opportunity, and a sense of fairness. We strive for normalization, for a time when other people don’t think being an atheist would be the single worst property of a hypothetical US President, when we aren’t the least trusted members of society—and when a nonreligious person can go to a therapist and expect not to get preached to.

Come on, then, we’ve got work to do.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...