Dr Caleb Lack, Director of Secular Therapy Project, Interviewed

Caleb Lack is a good friend of mine. I have edited and published a number of his books on psychology. He has taken on a new role recently within the secular world, involving his sphere of expertise. Read this fascinating interview to find out more.

STP

1)      First of all, can you tell us a little bit about your new position?

Certainly. As the director of the Secular Therapy Project (STP), my role is basically two-fold. One aspect is to coordinate different groups of volunteers that contribute to the STP in various ways. For instance, we currently have a group of three gentlemen who are completely revamping the site on both the back- and front-ends, so I give them feedback and help guide them about what we need the website to do to make it optimally functional. Another group of volunteers are experienced, secular mental health clinicians who go over the applications of mental health clinicians who want to be listed in our database of providers. What’s really unique about the STP is that we aren’t just a database of therapists (like you might find at Psychology Today, or somewhere else). Instead, we very carefully screen potential therapists who want to become part of the STP. We screen them to make sure that a) they are appropriately licensed in their state or country, b) that they are secular in nature as well as practice, and c) that they actually use evidence-based treatments, which have been shown to be effective at helping improve mental health problems in controlled clinical trials. This means not only will our therapists not try to preach to you or convert you, but that they are also using the most well-supported types of treatment to help you.

The second aspect of my position is to help raise awareness about the STP and why it’s such a needed service. Despite the tremendous growth we’ve had in the past four years (we now have about 7500 clients and 265 therapists in the database), we’ve reached only a small portion of the non-religious who need or are seeking therapy. Likewise, only a tiny fraction of the potential providers who could be signed up with the STP actually are. Our goal is to increase the number of registered therapists in the database to 400 by the end of the year.

2)      What attracted to you to this position, and why are you well suited?

I initially applied to be a therapist in the STP a month or so after it launched in 2012, and was accepted. Having seen firsthand the huge numbers of people who go to a therapist seeking help for depression, anxiety, or marital problems and end up being preached to and told how all their problems would go away if only they would stop being an atheist, I found the STP to be an extremely needed service. A few months later, I saw that Dr. Darrel Ray (the founder of Recovering from Religion and the STP) was seeking applicants to be a member of the evaluation team. These are the folks who go over the applications of potential therapists, evaluating them to make sure they are licensed, secular, and using evidence-based practice with their clients. I put my hat in the ring and was chosen to join the team in January 2013.

Recently, Dr. Ray had decided to step back into a position as president of the RfR board and was interested in having someone else become the director of the STP.  I decided that the time was right for me to increase my level of involvement, talked to him about the position, and then was officially announced as the new director this past month.

As for why I’m well suited, it’s due to my combination of professional background, personal beliefs, and passion. Professionally, I’m a licensed clinical psychologist who has been training other mental health clinicians in how to do evidence-based practice (EBP) for over a decade. I teach about EBP on an almost daily basis at the university, do continuing education training in the U.S. and abroad for already licensed professionals, and extensively write on this subject on my blog, in books, and in journal articles. Personally, I’m a non-theist who both strongly supports a reason-driven life and supports the right of individuals to believe whatever it is that they would like to believe. That right, however, shouldn’t extend to trying to push it onto others. So, I think it is highly unethical for therapists to push their private agenda or belief (religious or otherwise) onto persons seeking help, who are extremely emotionally vulnerable.

Being quite open about my lack of religiosity, having a fairly strong presence in the local and national skepticism and secular communities, and being a clinical psychologist has placed me in a rather unique position of having many, many non-religious people contact me to help them find mental health help. Although I do have a small private practice, it tends to be focused on children and adults with severe OCD, tics, or related problems. So, I refer the overwhelmingly majority of people seeking services out to other providers. I very quickly learned, because they told me, that many of these individuals had seen therapists before and were unhappy with them for one of two reasons. One would be that the therapist wasn’t actually very helpful. In following up with people about what was happening in therapy, it turned out that the majority of therapists were not using evidence-based methods, were doing only what might be called supportive counseling, or were actively using pseudoscientific nonsense in their practices. Small wonder people weren’t getting better!

The second reason that many of the people contacting me were unhappy with their therapist was that many of them, when they found out that the client was non-religious, would start attributing the person’s depression, anxiety, OCD, or any other problem to them being an atheist. And not in a “Well, I can see how that causes conflicts with your religious family” way, but in a “If you only had god in your life, you’d not have these problems” way. Many of these therapists would openly evangelize to and try and convert these emotionally vulnerable, help seeking people! Not only is this, as I mentioned before, highly unethical, but it is extremely hurtful to the client. They come seeking a safe space in which to discuss their problems and proceed to be told how wrong and terrible they are for not believing in a particular deity!

So, the STP combines two things I’m passionate about: people seeing therapists who use our gold-standard, most effective treatments and people seeing therapists who will not act unethically and prejudiced towards someone simply because they are not religious. The STP connects the non-religious therapy seekers with the non-religious, evidence-based therapists. It’s a win for people all around.

3)      What is specifically bad, or problematic, about leaving a faith?

I would say that there’s nothing inherently bad about moving from believing in a particular religion to being a non-theist. In an ideal world it wouldn’t be any different than deciding to start having waffles for breakfast instead of pancakes. Unfortunately, in the world we actually live in, there tend to be two big issues when one “loses” their faith. First is the enormous stigma attached, across many parts of the world, to being an atheist. Atheists are widely seen as immoral, smug, and untrustworthy, are often banned from holding public office, and experience an enormous amount of discrimination. So, this can lead many atheists or openly secular people to start experiencing discrimination that they have never encountered before, simply because they changed their minds about something.

The second major issue is typically a loss of community and support. Many churches are very good at community building, fellowship, and establishing social networks. You have a built in friend group when you belong to a church, people who share your ideals and beliefs, who offer help and support when you need it, who you can turn to if you need a shoulder to lean on. The majority of the religious also share the same religion as their families, which means for many that faith and family are highly intertwined. Often, when an individual steps away from a church, their friends and family in that church turn their back on that person, particularly for those in fundamentalist or evangelical religions. As such, this can mean a huge loss, as people are rejected by formerly close or even life-long friends, by family members, and by the community which they have invested huge amounts of time, money, and energy into for years or decades. So, many people are literally going through a grieving process and have nowhere to turn to for support, because their support networks have abandoned them. They feel alone, abandoned, adrift. This can even have an impact on one’s livelihood, most prominently for those pastors, preachers, and other clergy members who move into atheism, but also for others. I’ve heard numerous stories of people who were fired from their jobs after becoming more open about their lack of religious beliefs. That wasn’t, of course, the “official” reason they lost their jobs, but it happens frequently.

This loss of support, of community, is why organizations like Recovering from Religion, Grief Beyond Belief, Camp Quest, Secular Sobriety, and others are so important. What they are doing is building a secular support network. While scientific skepticism or secular humanist organizations provide intellectual or philosophical support and do much needed “front-end” work such as activism or lobbying, the “back-end” organizations are helping to provide emotional, physical, and psychological support. Both are equally important for the secular community to grow stronger.

4)      I watched a film called A Walk Among Tombstones the other day, which appeared to be a very bad advert for the fundamentally religious program that is the 12 Step Program for Alcoholism. Is treatment for recovering from religion an atheistic version of this, or do you steer well away from evangelising non-religion?

Well, the main point of the STP is actually to help people with whatever particular mental health issue they are struggling with. While this can certainly be things like depression or PTSD as a result of emotional or physical abuse endured as part of their religious upbringing and life, it can just as easily be generalized anxiety, disordered eating, difficulties with parenting a child, or many other things not in any way related to religion. We don’t prescribe a certain treatment regimen for those who are leaving religion, by any means. The clinicians and clients work together to determine that is best for them at an idiographic level. There are, however, an increasing number of support groups dedicated to helping people recover from religious abuses. RfR runs monthly support groups, for instance, which are led by local volunteers across the U.S. and even abroad. There is also the RfR Hotline Project, which aims to connect people who are struggling with faith and religiosity issues with trained, peer support by phone. We will soon be launching a Live Chat line, so that people around the globe can connect with peers and get support as they work their way through becoming non-religious.

5)      You have an interest in pseudoscience, as something that you teach about at University. How does this help in your work with clinical psychology, and perhaps with this project?

For me, my interest in helping people think critically and being aware of what is and isn’t scientific is actually key to the work I do as a psychologist and the Secular Therapist Project. There is an enormous number of mental health clinicians, in the U.S. and globally, who are very well meaning and nice people, but who aren’t necessarily trained in or using evidence-based practice (EBP). This means methods that have gone through rigorous clinical trials and been found to be effective at treating particular types of mental health issues, from cognitive-behavioral therapy for numerous disorders to applied behavioral analysis for autism spectrum disorder to interpersonal therapy for depression. A significant number of mental health clinicians, though, have not been trained in EBP or even actively reject the notion that psychotherapy can be scientifically-informed and be evidence-based. That means their clients are not receiving gold-standard treatments for many problems. So, as a clinical psychologist and professor, a significant part of my time is spent either training people in EBP and helping them differentiate between those and pseudoscientific treatments.

In the STP, we require the clinicians in our database to use EBP with the clients as part of our three-pronged criteria (the other being that they are non-religious and that they appropriately licensed). Myself and my evaluation team go over all the therapist applications, which means we have to be familiar with what constitutes EBP and non-EBP. Often we will have people apply and list therapies which even I’m not familiar with, which requires me to go out and do research on them. Being able to apply those critical thinking skills which I team others about allows me to shift through the hype and fluff and actually find if something is based in evidence that is reasonable or driven by biases.

6)      At its extreme, what is the worst example of religious psycho-abuse you have encountered? And the worst case of poor, ideological therapy?

In terms of abuse of a religious nature, I would say that the most widespread overt abuse is that directed towards the members of our LGBTQ community. This includes the so-called “conversion therapy” which aims to change one’s sexuality, which is so psychologically abusive that it’s been banned in most U.S. states, but also the threats of eternal damnation that are directed (often by members of their own family) towards people for something that is largely biologically driven. More covertly, I have seen enormous numbers of females who were raised in highly fundamentalist religions – from various evangelical Christianity groups to Islam – who were essentially dehumanized simply for their being female. This included being denied education, being physically and emotionally abused by their husbands, being counseled to stay in such abusive relationships by their church leaders, actually being blamed for the abuse they were experiencing, and more. 

For poor therapy, one thing I consistently see is people who are licensed therapists that think that simply being an emphatic, caring person is being a good therapist. These person-centered or Rogerian skills are certainly necessary to establish a strong therapeutic alliance, but are not sufficient in and of themselves to go above what I call a “placebo therapist” level. Instead, good evidence-based practitioners use those as a foundation to then move into specific types of skills building, from changing how you respond to your thoughts to reducing escape behaviors to learning new ways to interact with other people.Of course, I’ve also seen just utter nonsense being passed off as therapy. This has included a licensed psychologist who used reiki, a pseudoscientific energy therapy, to treat panic attacks; the many therapists who use the so-called attachment therapies for those kids with behavior problems; and so many, many others. A good resource I’d recommend for anyone is Scott Lilienfeld’s book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, which provides a good overview of both EBP and the pseudoscientific treatments that pervade many mental health clinics.
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