Darrel Ray on the Therapist Project

In response to some of the comments on my post yesterday announcing the launch of the Therapist Project, Dr. Ray submitted the following guest post.


Reading some of the comments from JT’s post on our new initiative, The Therapist Project, I thought I would clarify its purpose and discuss the greater issue of religion’s place in therapy.

Many people seem to think that religion, spirituality or superstition are important components for therapy. They are not. Spiritual therapies are based on the notion that there is a spirit in or around people or the world and people can tap into a non-material spiritual world somehow. As a non-superstitious person, the claim just does not hold water and has no place in psychology. If such therapy works and can be demonstrated empirically, the researchers would still have to demonstrate that there was a spirit involved in some capacity. How do you measure a spirit? How do you determine if the Holy Ghost assisted in the intervention and healing? How do you measure the shift in chi to allow better flow of energy? There is nothing evidential in these therapies.

“But,” you might be thinking, “Christian counselors can have good outcomes.” I have no doubt that a Christian counselor can have a positive outcome. What I would suggest is that they probably used secular methods developed by secular therapeutic pioneers – often in cognitive behavioral therapy – to achieve the result. The Jesus or spiritual part of their therapy was fluff. It also has great potential to confuse and even absolve people of personal responsibility. What does religion or spirituality add to the equation? It adds no more than praying for a person who is in heart surgery with a good surgeon. Pray or not pray, the surgeon and her training and technique are the deciding factor.

Back in my semi religious/liberal religious days, I taught ministers and chaplains counseling skills. The skills I taught were secular. The chaplains and ministers I trained wanted to learn secular counseling methods so they could help people. They knew that nothing in their bible taught them how do marriage counseling or treat depression. Unfortunately, they also wanted to “give the glory to god” when they succeeded. That is where I made my mistake and should have never trained them in the first place. They wanted to learn secular therapy methods so they could more effectively infect their followers with their particular god virus. Just as medical missionaries take secular Western medicine to other countries and then say the healing was god’s work, these ministers and chaplains often claimed that people were healed through the power of god, not from the great tools and techniques I taught them.

A good psychotherapist does their work with excellent technique, none of which was ever developed by Jesus, a priest, a minister or bishop. If religion was an important key to mental health, then religion would have solved the problem of mental health 2,000 years ago. Jesus’s approach to mental illness was to cast demons out of a mentally ill person, into a herd of swine, and have the swine jump over a cliff. That was the state of mental health knowledge until secular psychological science came along 150 years ago.  Only with the advent of science have we learned how to treat depression though talk therapy and drugs. How to understand mental illness and much of its chemical basis in the brain. How to diagnose autism and schizophrenia among many other conditions.

The evidence for religious or spiritual based therapies is entirely unconvincing. More along the lines of homeopathy. The fact that there are researchers investigating superstition as a therapeutic technique, is not surprising. Religions have tried to usurp science for hundreds of years – that is what Scientology and the Church of Christ Scientists did among others. In my book The God Virus, I explore how religion is always trying to use science to further its own ends without giving credit to secular science. Subtract the spiritual and superstitious from the equation, and the therapy would be just as effective, or more so. Religion adds nothing, and often subtracts from the effectiveness by adding an unnecessary variable. The less people depend on Jesus, Allah, spirits or Holy Ghosts, the more they learn to rely on themselves and think clearly about their condition.

There is no doubt that religion makes people feel better. Alcohol and opium make people feel better. That is why Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. Religion sedates the mind and reduces curiosity about root causes. Causes that can only be found in biology, relationships and cultural conditioning not in demons or Jesus. Religion encourages fuzzy headed thinking about getting right with god or praying for help from Jesus or balancing your energy. Sure religion makes people feel better, but it has done that for thousands of years. Only evidence-based science has made real progress in helping people cope with and conquer mental illness. Which religious technique has cured depression? Which has made the life of a schizophrenic livable?

A recent tack by those espousing a spiritual approach, is to latch on the the notion of mindfullness or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and claim that it is based on Buddhism. MBCT is just another iteration of cognitive therapy. It is a good technique and has some evidence behind it. Whether it has any ties to Buddhism or not is irrelevant. MBCT does not espouse any of the mystical ideas of Buddhism.  It does not posit any existence after this one, no nirvana, no energy, no spiritual level, no reincarnation. It is simply a good cognitive approach to dealing with many mental health issues including depression and relapse. AND most important, it can be scientifically tested against other forms and combinations of therapy.

The bottom line is this; if religion works, then go to your minister, priest, imam, scientology auditor or guru. If psychotherapy works, then go to a secular psychotherapist trained in evidence based approaches and/or go to a psychiatrist trained in good drug therapy. There is no valid reason to mix these two. Religion had its shot for 3000 years or more. The best it could do was find demons everywhere.

My purpose in starting the Therapist Project was to help people with no superstitions find a therapist with no superstitions. If a therapist is spiritual, by definition, they are superstitious.

There are thousands of people graduating with degrees in psychotherapy who advocate spiritual methods, who believe that clients do better if they have a strong faith in Jesus. At the same time, many secular therapists have to hide the fact that they are secular or face the prospect of losing many clients. Christian counseling centers are popping up all over the world. They use secular methods to infect people with religious ideas and keep them infected. A secular person can have great difficulty finding a truly secular therapist because both have to keep a low profile in this crazy religious world. Liberty University can graduate Master level people who qualify for licensure in marriage and family counseling, Imagine an atheist going to such a counselor. Needless to say, the therapy would include a Jerry Falwell version of mental health. Hundreds of religious schools are graduating degreed therapists, flooding the market with people trained to use secular methods to get you into and keep you in religion. That is why we need The Therapist Project.

I hope you will help us get the word out. If you know a good, therapist, tell him or her to register at our website. If you know of someone in need of help from a secular therapist, tell them to search our website for someone in their area. If there are none available, we have several therapists who are willing to do distance counseling. Let’s support our community with secular, evidence-based therapy and make it easier to find secular therapists.

  • Russell Pyle, LMHC

    Dr. Ray,

    Although I couldn’t disagree with you more about the importance of a “spiritual” side of our health, I truly appreciate your opinions and willingness to address the issues I brought up. I’m afraid that those of us on opposites sides of this fence will always come to a stalemate because of faith. Faith is the bottom line. I have it, you and many others do not. I don’t pretend that faith is something that one can be convinced into or out of. That’s kinda the basic point of it: it’s belief, not knowledge. This argument becomes problematic when one or both parties does not acknowledge this, and one purports their ideas to be morally superior to the other. In my practice, I use all faiths to assist my clients with healing, and I meet them where they are at. If they reject spirituality, I don’t judge them or deem them hopeless because of it. I do, however, try and broaden one’s understanding of what spiritual practice is, and I try to pull it out of the box of religion. Do you write in a journal? That’s a spiritual practice. Do you play music? That’s a spiritual practice. I feel that what is or is not a spiritual practice is defined by its intention: to provide meaning. As a clinician, I view meaning to be a stalwart in healing.

    Regarding your views on MBCT (or MBSR, or MBRP): In Vipassana meditation and Theravada Buddhism, I’m sure you know that insight is a step on the Eightfold Path. So is correct thought. Was Beck influenced by this? I don’t know, but probably not. My point is that there is a connection between CBT and Buddhism, and it was there way before Kabat-Zinn started really rounding out his ideas on MBSR.

    Once again, thank you for taking the time to continue writing. I feel that this type of dialogue is certainly beneficial. I agree that no therapist should impose their personal worldview on a patient, and I wish to assure you that I strive not to. I appreciate your challenge to me and I will work towards being even more aware of my own intentions while in session.

    • http://www.ipcpress.com Darrel Ray

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I continue to maintain that spiritual = supernatual and supernatural has no place in the science of psychology. We have no need to such hypotheses in science and the more we learn about the brain, the more apparent that is.

      Of course, the therapist works from the position of the client, that is the only place to begin. At the same time, a therapist that holds supernatural beliefs, will be influenced by those beliefs in therapy, and sooner or later, will go down the superstitious path with the client and fail to challenge the crazy thinking that goes along with that. As with many therapists, I find your definition of “spiritual” about as effective as nailing jello to a wall. It can not be quantified and changes as often as a mirage. I have strong ethical concerns with therapists that use such nebulous and undefinable concepts as “spiritual” and base a therapeutic approach on them. I am sure you, as well as many other therapists can largely separate your supernatural beliefs from therapeutic technique, but it is a complicating and unnecessary variable from the therapists side. It is even more so when dealing with someone who is non-superstitious. That is why I started the Therapist Project. I simply want to match non-superstitious clients with non-superstitious therapists. If you can keep superstition out of therapy with a non-superstitious client, then go to our website and fill out the form. We don’t automatically disqualify therapists like yourself, but we are very cautious on this count. If not, then all the best in your practice.

    • Richard

      Oy. To google “define:belief” and you get-> An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. / Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.
      To google “define:knowledge” and you get -> Information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject./What is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information.

      Both are an idea that is considered true. This is where they intersect, and as such beliefs and knowledge overlap in many instances. I believe that gravity works, and there is evidence to back that up.
      “Do you write in a journal? That’s a spiritual practice. Do you play music? That’s a spiritual practice. I feel that what is or is not a spiritual practice is defined by its intention: to provide meaning”
      All things of beauty and understanding do not belong to spirituality, they are not your monopoly. Claiming that they are something does not make it true, it just makes you wrong. Atheists have plenty of music and impassioned writing without an ounce of spiritual mumbo jumbo. JT is one of the best examples of that.

      The whole point of this project is there are far too many therapists that push spiritual crap on those that want none of it, who want to live a better life and get help and are denied it for simply being who they are. Your statements argue that you do push spirituality on people, by taking meaning away from meaningful activities like music or journals and giving it to unknowable spiritual bullshit. This is a problem for many of us on here.

  • Gen Fury, Still Desolate and Deviant #1

    Dear Ray.

    Thank you so much for this, and the work you are doing. It really means SO much.

    To Russel Pyle, @1:

    In my practice, I use all faiths to assist my clients with healing, and I meet them where they are at. If they reject spirituality, I don’t judge them or deem them hopeless because of it. I do, however, try and broaden one’s understanding of what spiritual practice is, and I try to pull it out of the box of religion. Do you write in a journal? That’s a spiritual practice. Do you play music? That’s a spiritual practice. I feel that what is or is not a spiritual practice is defined by its intention: to provide meaning. As a clinician, I view meaning to be a stalwart in healing.

    Thank you for making my points for me. Though I by no means disagree with everything you said, I do have some serious concerns over the quoted and highlighted part.

    You may think that you are helping, but if you treated someone like me, you’d actually be making things worse. Just FYI.

    • Gen Fury, Still Desolate and Deviant #1

      Well don’t I look like an idiot. I meant for the first part to start with “Dear Mr. Ray”.

    • http://www.ipcpress.com Darrel Ray

      I totally agree, there is no use of the term “spiritual” that is not superstitious. His effort to “broaden understanding,” does not change that simple fact. Try as they will, one cannot divorce the concept of “spiritual” from religion. They both rely on the supernatural at their root. Mr. Pyle has a clear bias for the spiritual and to the notion that non-spiritual people are missing something important in life. There is no rational or material basis for that assumption, only in supernatural beliefs. If there is no basis for it, then it can be dispensed with from the therapists side of the equation. Why add a superfluous and undefinable variable to an already complex process.

      • Dustin

        Dr. Ray,

        This whole project is incredible. I spent last summer as an intern in a mental health facility in Arkansas. The majority of patients had schizophrenia, Bipolar disorders, schizoaffective disorder, etc. A good portion of wall decorations had messages of faith on them, and 100% of the patients were Christian. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how much their faith slowed recovery. I was appalled to see that people had been in “treatment” for 30+ years! I havent graduated yet but even to an undergrad, it seems fairly obvious that someone suffering from delusions shouldn’t be surrounded by posters that inspire more delusionary thinking. I’d like your thoughts on this, if you have time of course. Once I’m licensed I’ll be on that list.

      • Russell Pyle, LMHC

        Dr. Ray,

        I am trying to comprehend how you can make a generalization about my biases through anything I have said. I clearly value spirituality, but I also work with atheists where they are at. I don’t see a lack of spirituality as being a component of mental illness, I merely see the value of spirituality as an intervention. From what you are saying, your definition of spirituality as well as religion sounds awfully close-minded. That’s fine with me, I just ask you to own that. Calling someone who is spiritual or religious “superstitious” is an arrogant act of someone who clearly views themselves as morally and intellectually superior. If this is what you are trying to communicate, once again that is fine as long as you are owning that.

        Please correct me if I am wrong, but the other point I have gathered from some of your comments is that one cannot be an effective clinician if one espouses a spiritual belief. I find this to be an offensive attack against those of us who have belief in the transpersonal side of existence. In the same manner that a lack of belief or skepticism does not indicate some type of illness, neither does the presence of belief. Please do not treat it as such.

        Thank you for your time.

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  • Moe

    Darrell Ray is not a Clinical Psychiatrist and he has a potty mouth.

    • satan augustine

      This is a lie, Moe.

    • Gen Fury, Still Desolate and Deviant #1

      “Potty mouth”?

      o.O

      I mean… Really? That’s what you’re going to go against as Dr. Ray’s great Crime Against Humanity (TM) or somesuch?

      LOL!

  • http://kamakanui.zenfolio.com Kamaka

    Spiritual: Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

    Superstition: An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.

    So, Mr. Pyle, unless you can come up with some, y’know, evidence for something like a soul or spirit or ghosts or angels or anything else that extrapolates from “spiritual”, it meets the definition of superstition.

    Mind/body dualism is an illusion of consciousness.

  • Gen Fury, Still Desolate and Deviant #1

    I clearly value spirituality, but I also work with atheists where they are at. I don’t see a lack of spirituality as being a component of mental illness, I merely see the value of spirituality as an intervention.

    That is not what you said in your previous post, that I quoted. I’ll quote it again, emphasizing the relevant bits.

    In my practice, I use all faiths to assist my clients with healing, and I meet them where they are at. If they reject spirituality, I don’t judge them or deem them hopeless because of it. I do, however, try and broaden one’s understanding of what spiritual practice is, and I try to pull it out of the box of religion. Do you write in a journal? That’s a spiritual practice. Do you play music? That’s a spiritual practice. I feel that what is or is not a spiritual practice is defined by its intention: to provide meaning. As a clinician, I view meaning to be a stalwart in healing.

    Why is it SO important for you to make so very, very certain that every single person under your treatment, including atheists, be made to undergo “spirituality”? It’s so important to you that you even expand the definition of spirituality to include things like keeping a journal and appreciating music! Just so you can call it spirituality!

    I mean, you say that you view spirituality as anything that gives meaning, but that’s not what the word means and we all know it.

    So why are you so adamant that “spirituality”, specifically, is “a stalwart in healing”? Is it THAT important for you to make sure that “spirituality” is incorporated? SO important that you’ll torture the word into brand new definitions or even into “any thing that gives meaning” as a definition just so you can continue to use the word “spiritual”? Why is that?

    I don’t think we’re the ones with the bias here.

    And how can you then continue to say that you think this is an appropriate route to take, to FORCE some atheist or skeptic (who would probably use words the way the rest of the world does, in other words assign to a word its real, defined meanings, not “this word means whatever I want it to mean” kind of meanings) to include “spirituality”, regardless of the actual meaning of “spirituality”, just as long as it’s called spirituality, as a necessary part of their recovery?

    As to your other question, I’m going to restate what another poster said:

    I havent graduated yet but even to an undergrad, it seems fairly obvious that someone suffering from delusions shouldn’t be surrounded by posters that inspire more delusionary thinking.

    I’m going to expand hir use of “posters” in this quote to also include “therapists and treatments”.

    • Gen Fury, Still Desolate and Deviant #1

      Good grief! This is the last time I’ll post before my morning coffee, I promise.

      The above is addressed to Russell Pyle, LMHC‘s comment number 2.2.2

  • Laura M

    I am so thankful to have this resource at this time in my life. I have finally started seeing someone regularly, partially due to JT. It didn’t occur to me that it would be an issue until I was about to make an appointment with someone. Thankfully, some friends in the SSA group on my campus gave me a recommendation. However, I didn’t get in to see her, I ended up with the first available appointment. It was all right. She did the normal double take when I mentioned the atheist thing, but she recovered quickly and it was fine. My current compulsion is a prayer that I came up with back in the Dark Ages and she sort of latched on to that, as I expected. Thankfully, I was able to actually convince her it was not a Fear of God type thing, just a I Can’t Stop Saying This to Myself thing. And now when I go to grad school I’ll have a whole list of secular therapists and I won’t have to take such a gamble. Thank you!! :D

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