Help Me In My Unbelief

An unbeliever's first steps into a faithless world

Why the Secular Therapist Project matters: An anecdote

Despite my advice on how to live in a mixed marriage, I cannot lie and say that I have everything figured out. I think my advice was sound, but I should note that none of it is a panacea, as my own marriage shows. My wife and I have struggled for a while, and it finally got to the point again where we both felt like we were at the end of our individual ropes. So we decided to go seek out a marriage counselor again, two and a half years after seeing one before my deconversion.

I was a little hesitant about the search for a new psychologist/counselor, in part because our previous one was really good (he moved to the Southwest, however) and in part because my deconversion had made me wary about the type of counselor we might find. I know the area I live in, and I know that the probability of finding a proselytizing or overly religious counselor is high, which I suspected would put me in an inequitable situation when discussing the different beliefs of my wife and I. I just wanted to find someone, religious or not, who would be willing to listen and counsel us without judgment about either of our beliefs.

I’m sorry to say that we did not find that.

We had an appointment this morning with a local psychologist who my wife found through an Internet search and who we had not really researched before going (although it’s unclear that our research would have yielded anything of use). When we got there and were escorted back by the psychologist, I did what I usually do upon entering a therapist’s office: check the walls for diplomas. I don’t necessarily judge psychologists based on where they attended school (our awesome former therapist had a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a former Baptist minister, and was still excellent and relatively impartial), but it does give me an idea of what to expect.

So I got worried when I noticed two diplomas from Regent University. Yes, this Regent University founded by this guy.

Once we started talking, the “mixed” nature of our marriage was the first subject. The psychologist (hereafter, “Dr. RU”) turned to me and asked me why I had stopped believing. I suppose this could have been innocent enough – perhaps my reasons were germane to the problems between my wife and I – but the request made me pretty uncomfortable. I tried to answer in general terms, saying that I had become interested in theology and philosophy after briefly attending a Christian college and then had been unable to find adequate answers, but Dr. RU pressed me on what exactly I had problems with, and when I stumbled uncomfortably (because I hadn’t wanted to have an argument about beliefs in front of my wife), Dr. RU said, “What about evolution?” This topic was easier to deal with for me, since, as I told the doctor, it wasn’t a factor in becoming an atheist.

Then, in what is probably the most unprofessional thing I’ve ever personally witnessed a psychologist doing, Dr. RU said, “You know, evolution is not an empirical science.”

I was flabbergasted. My first response was, “Uh, yes, it is,” and when the doctor reasserted the point, I said something like, “I am not comfortable with this conversation.” (For a lot of my fumbling, I was looking at my wife, giving her my best Are you hearing this shit? look. She didn’t visibly respond at the moment.) Dr. RU then told me that the questioning was merely to get me to feel the way that my wife likely feels about my unbelief and subsequently asked my wife why she believes in God. My wife, who is not the argumentative type, essentially said: 1) the Bible and 2) I don’t really know, it’s just “blind faith” (and I swear, those were her words). There was no badgering or outright challenge by the doctor at this point.

There are several reactions I have to this, aside from the “How on earth did this doctor think that was appropriate?” one. First, why did I need to understand how my wife feels about my unbelief in this way? She’s told me how she feels, and I recognize that even though I don’t take responsibility for it. Second, why was this method necessary? Did this doctor seriously think that I, as an atheist, have never had my beliefs contradicted by someone else in this massively Christian culture I live in? (I frankly wouldn’t be surprised; religious privilege is strong in a lot of people.) Third, why on earth would the doctor have made such an incredibly false claim if s/he didn’t believe it already? I’m not exactly shocked that a Regent University alumnus/-a would be an evolution denier as well, but an impartial individual wouldn’t have made such a bold assertion even in such an exercise. I think that the doctor simply overplayed the hand, so to speak, and essentially indicated the perspective that we would be getting on matters of belief. (Perhaps I should be grateful that it didn’t happen several sessions later.)

We ended up moving past this and getting on to other issues, but it was all I could do not to just walk out (and I credit it mostly to a willingness not to bail on Mrs. TCC). And near the end of the session, Dr. RU sort of apologized for the unorthodox approach (that’s my ultra-charitable interpretation of the doctor’s apology) and explicitly asked me if I was still willing to come back, putting me on the spot to either voice my disapproval (and thus show myself unwilling to engage with a third party, perhaps) or to immediately agree to further sessions. I initially said, “Maybe,” but to get out of there without much more conflict, I went ahead and suggested that we schedule another session. I have no idea if we’ll come back, but I have a horribly bad taste in my mouth. (For what it’s worth, my wife doesn’t exactly seem all that keen on the doctor, either.)

My initial response after that went to the Secular Therapist Project, a project of Dr. Darrell Ray which endeavors to collect a database of therapists who agree to use only secular therapeutic methods rather than incorporating supernatural or religious elements like prayer. If you’re not familiar with the project, you simply enter your information, including a zip code and distance you could travel. I entered my information, allotted a 50-mile radius (which includes two major cities, one with a population of more than 75K and another of more than 100K), and found…nothing. Not one single therapist has been signed up in my area at all. Expanding my search located a few therapists at the mere distance of 158 miles from my home, in a neighboring state. All because I want to find someone who I can trust to be more impartial than this Regent University quack.

I think this demonstrates why the Secular Therapist Project is absolutely necessary – and why it’s not yet enough. We need more therapists in more places that are willing to serve their clients without entangling religion into their practice. We need more therapists who will stick to science-based, empirical methods of treating patients, no matter what the problem. Without them, this is what we’re left with.

2 responses to “Why the Secular Therapist Project matters: An anecdote

  1. Howie June 25, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    That would have made me way uncomfortable, and if it was me I might have walked out! Good job on sticking it out…. it was a good choice. It would be interesting to see what a secular therapist would do – in other words would it be the complete opposite, or a little more balanced and focussed on the relationship rather than challenging beliefs. I guess you never know, but I would hope and venture a tentative guess that they would be more balanced. That guess might be due to my own bias though.

  2. Howie June 25, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Wishing you the best in finding a good therapist by the way! Hope things improve for you guys!

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