By Dr. Darrel Ray, founder of RfR and the STP —
Shortly after publishing my book The God Virus I began to receive calls for help from readers. They needed help finding a therapist who was not religious or who would not bring superstitious ideas into the therapeutic relationship. I was a bit surprised and overwhelmed by the number of requests.
I kept getting stories like these:
“I have been depressed for several years and finally decided to go to a counselor. I found a licensed therapist that said he worked with depression. All seemed well until about the third session when he mentioned faith and prayer. I never went back after that. How do I find someone who can help me without getting all religious?”
I started trying to help people find evidence-based therapists and soon realized how difficult it is to find a good therapist who is well trained and uses recognized methods. My own clinical training (in the 1970’s) emphasized that it is unethical to bring your own religious views into the session. It took me a while to realize that many schools do not seem to teach those ethics, or teach them poorly. In trying to help people find a good therapist, I found far too many therapists who were openly religious and espoused spiritual solutions to mental health problems. What is worse, these mental health professionals were all licensed by their state and had agreed to abide by the same ethics I had been taught.
This led me to the realization that the general public cannot rely upon licensure to ensure basic ethical standards. No one seems to complain to the licensing board that a therapist does things like offer to pray with a client, tells them that their depression is probably related to them being an atheist, or even invites them to their church! Yes, I have heard all of these things many, many times. Secular people should not have to worry about their therapist diagnosing their atheism as the problem!
At the same time, I started talking to therapists to understand their problems. The one issue I knew from my own experience was in many areas of the US a therapist dares not say they are secular or are atheist and that they don’t use supernatural solutions. A secular therapist in places like Texas, Alabama, or Grand Rapids, Michigan must remain under the radar in order to receive referrals. If every hospital, every judge and physician in your community is religious, they will be very unlikely to send anyone to a secular therapist.
There was no easy way to find a well-trained therapist who abides by one of the most basic ethical standards. It took me about a year to fully understand the problem and formulate a plan to address the problem.
I came up with the idea of creating a website and database similar to a dating site. In the dating world, both sides want to remain anonymous until they feel they have sufficient interest to proceed to the next step. Similarly, I envisioned the Secular Therapy Project as a way for clients and therapists to safely and anonymously connect with each other.
I knew what was needed but I did not have the skills to develop it. I put out a call for help and fortunately, Han Hills answered the call. It took us about nine months to design and test the system but in May of 2012 we started with about 25 therapists whom I had already recruited, and a small team of highly qualified therapists to help me evaluate applicants. By 2016 or so we could see that the system needed an upgrade. Our then director, Dr. Caleb Lack put out a call for help and David Klinge answered. It took us another year to completely upgrade the STP website but we had a smooth transition to the new system in 2017.
I am happy to report that in May of 2020 we registered our 20,000th client.
It has been a long and bumpy road, but worth it when we get this kind of a story sent to us:
“I live in the bible belt of the bible belt in Texas. I’ve been to three therapists over several years. Every one of them brought religion, faith or New Age kinds of things into our sessions at one point or another. None of them helped me and I felt like I was wasting my time and money. I was a closet atheist and really didn’t feel comfortable or even trust my therapists to tell them I didn’t believe that stuff… I heard about the Secular Therapy Project on the Thinking Atheist podcast and decided to give that a try. There weren’t many secular therapists near me, but I did find one and was able to make an appointment. Within minutes after entering her office, I felt safe and certainly able to say I was an atheist. That alone was a huge difference from my previous experiences. It just got better from there. I can say she helped me even more than I imagined.”
This is what we often hear from clients who find a secular therapist through our database. The STP is a safe place for seculars to find evidence-based mental health support.
Many people have worked hard to make this all possible. We owe a huge thank you to David Klinge for the hundreds of hours he dedicated to upgrade our system and to Dr. Caleb Lack who guided and directed the STP for the last four years. And to our vetting team who works almost daily to evaluate new applicants. You can read all about them here.
The STP has big plans for the future and a great leadership team to implement the plans, but I’ll write more about that in the future. For now, please help us get the word out that the STP is here to help and that no therapist should bring faith, religion or superstition into therapy.
A press release about our recent milestone is available in PDF format.
If you’re interested in finding a secular therapist, head on over to seculartherapy.org!