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.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.