One of the coolest things I’ve seen come out of the secular movement lately is the development of the Therapist Project, which provides a list of mental health professionals around the country who use evidence-based methods rather than religious ones. David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association and a contributor to Psychology Today, interviews Darrell Ray, the founder of the Therapist Project. On why this is necessary:
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.
He also points out that it can be dangerous for a therapist to put his name on the list, which is why they’re careful to protect their identities.
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.
This is an incredibly important project.