Most mental health professionals would agree that their religious beliefs should have little direct relevance in their professional interactions. Yet according to Dr. Darrel Ray, too many professional therapists are injecting religious and supernatural concepts into the care they provide clients. This problem is only getting worse, he says, as fundamentalist colleges produce more graduates who see religious proselytizing as an acceptable means of “treating” clients. Dr. Ray, an author whose books address the intersection of psychology and religion, has responded by launching the Secular Therapist Project, a web site that tries to connect potential clients with therapists who will adhere to secular, science-based treatment and avoid supernatural and theistic approaches. The following is a recent exchange I had with Dr. Ray.
Q: What is the Secular Therapist Project and why do you say it is needed?
Darrel Ray: After I published my books Sex and God, and The God Virus, I was overwhelmed with requests from people asking for help finding a secular therapist. I began helping people and soon found that it is almost impossible to determine if a therapist is truly secular and uses evidence-based methods. A therapist may be well-trained, he or she may have received advanced degrees from the best schools, but that does not guarantee they are not influenced by belief in supernatural beings or New Age ideas. Many people wrote me saying they went to a therapist for months only to have the therapist recommend that they pray, go back to church, or use some New Age method.
Q: Aren’t therapists trained to keep their beliefs out of the therapy sessions?
Ray: Not necessarily. Certainly, the best schools train therapists to avoid imposing their beliefs on the client, but right now there are hundreds of religious schools graduating thousands of Christian counselors, licensable in most states. Graduates from Liberty University, Regent or Oral Roberts University are taught to incorporate religion into their counseling. Regent University and others have Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology. How is it possible to get solid clinical training from a university that insists on teaching Pat Robertson’s theology to all students? This is the guy who thinks God sends hurricanes to punish cities for tolerating gays.
Graduates of religious schools look like any other Ph.D. or MSW to the lay person, yet they are an integral part of the evangelical right’s attempt to usurp the field of counseling in the service of their religious agenda. Graduates of these universities are highly unlikely to keep their religious views out of the therapeutic relationship. Do you think a gay or lesbian person will receive effective treatment from a Regent’s University Ph.D.? Could an atheist get evidence-based treatment from a graduate of Liberty University? It is possible, but why would you risk your time, money, and emotional health on someone who probably prays and reads the Bible more than they read professional journals?
Even someone who graduated from Michigan State or UCLA may not be secular. The school a person attends says little about their supernatural beliefs. Once a person is in practice, they may start using untested and non-evidence based methods. Methods that have not seen clinical testing and peer review.
Q: How prevalent is this problem?
Ray: Well, ten or twenty years ago, these religion-based programs did not exist. In the area of clinical psychology, most schools had clearly secular programs. They placed a high value on developing a non-religious relationship in the clinical setting. Those days are gone. While no one can really know how much religion influences a given counselor, we can say that hundreds of religious schools have developed counseling programs in the last twenty years, many in the marriage and family counseling area. It is hard to say, but there could be more licensable counselors graduating from religious schools than are graduating from secular programs right now. In any event, there are thousands of counselors who think Jesus or other supernatural approaches are the answer. There were far fewer only a few years ago.
Q: So how does the Secular Therapy Project address this problem?
Ray: Han Hills and I developed a process and procedure for helping people find secular therapists through our website, seculartherapy.org. It is free and confidential for the therapist and the client. It is like the popular dating sites OKCupid.com or Plentyoffish.com. The therapist registers and describes his or her practice on the public part of their profile, along with a checklist of conditions they are qualified to work on. The therapist can reveal as much or as little as they like. No other information is available to the client; no email, no phone, no address, no websites. We want to protect the identity of the therapist as much as possible.
Q: Why so much emphasis on confidentiality and protecting the identity of the therapist?
Ray: Imagine that you are a secular psychologist or social worker in Oklahoma City. Most clients that come to you are religious and many of your referral sources are ministers or churches. If you openly advertised that you are secular, half your clients would leave and many of your referral sources would dry up. One therapist that I know in a major southern city gets 75% of her referrals from local ministers and churches. She used to be a strong Christian. She taught Sunday school for sixteen years, but is now an atheist. She wants to wean her practice away from religious sources, so she registered with us. She needs to keep under the radar or she would lose most of her current patients.
Another therapist gets many referrals from the courts. The majority of judges in his county are very religious. In his state, judges are elected, so they often cater to the wishes of the religious community. If the community learned that a judge was referring people to a secular therapist, the judge could lose the next election. As a result, the therapist has to keep a low profile and cannot reveal that he is an atheist to the judges or to the community.
Many of my therapist friends in New York, San Francisco or Washington, DC, often say that it is not a problem in their area. I would beg to differ. While San Francisco may not have ten Christian counselors per square mile, like Atlanta, it does have therapists who espouse New Age and other “Woo Woo” methods that are non-evidence based. Therapists in those areas also get referrals from religious judges, ministers and quasi-religious organizations like Catholic hospitals. Being an “out atheist” might endanger those referral sources.
Q: If it is often problematic for a therapist to be “out” as an atheist or secularist, is there any danger that a client could game the system and “out” a therapist in their community?
Ray: I'm sure there is. There is no perfect system. At the same time, we are using a model that dating sites have used for a decade or more. Just like Match.com, we cannot be responsible for what happens, but we do our best to keep things safe for all parties. So far, we have seen no evidence of any “gaming of the system.”
Q: So you have a database of therapists, but how do you guarantee that they use evidence-based methods?
Ray: First of all, we can’t guarantee anything, but we do have a process in place to screen and approve therapists. Four very experienced secular therapists look at each application and vote on whether they appear to use secular methods. We can only go on what a therapist submits to us, what they have on their web page and any client recommendations. We really like getting therapist referrals from clients in the secular community.
Q: How do clients use the system?
Ray: The client can search our database and find a therapist close by and correspond through our system. The client’s information is confidential as well. The therapist can only know what the client tells them. Client and therapist correspond through the system a few times until they feel comfortable and think there is a good fit. Then they can reveal enough to make an appointment or arrange a phone call.
Q: How can mental health professionals and others help or get involved?
Ray: If you are a secular therapist, please register with us and tell your colleagues. If you are a patient of a therapist who seems to use secular and evidence-based methods, ask them to register. Finally, if you are looking for a therapist, look in our database first. Registering as a client is simple and confidential. Within minutes, you will know if there are any therapists close to you. If there are none close to you, many of our therapists will do distance counseling by phone or Skype.
You can also help by donating to the project. We run this on a shoestring budget and would welcome your donations. Just go to recoveringfromreligion.org and hit the donate button. You can then say that you want your donation to go to the Secular Therapy project. Secular Therapy is an outreach program of Recovering from Religion, which I founded in 2009.
About Dr. Darrel Ray:
Darrel Ray is the author of several books, most recently Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality (2012), and The God Virus (2009). He received an Ed.D. in counseling psychology from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in 1978 and an MA in religion in 1974 from Scarritt College for Christian Workers. He practiced in a clinical setting for 10 years working with children, adolescents and families. In 1986 he moved into organizational psychology and became a pioneer in the social psychology of teamwork and leadership development. In 2009 he founded Recoveringfromreligion.org (RR) with the mission of helping people over come the trauma of leaving religion. RR is now a worldwide organization headed by Jerry DeWitt, the first graduate of the Clergy Project, and Dr. Ray is the Chairman of the Board for RR. Seculartherapy.org is an outreach project of RR.
David Niose's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is available wherever books are sold.