“Where the hell can I find a secular counselor?”: Guest Post on The Secular Therapist Project

This is a guest post by Dr. Darrel W. Ray, founder of Recovering from Religion, and founder and project leader of the Secular Therapist Project. Conflict of interest alert: I am currently in therapy with a therapist I found through the Secular Therapist Project.


Thanks to Greta for providing me the opportunity to talk about The Secular Therapy Project. In 2011 and 2012, as I was speaking on our Sex and Secularism research and on book tour for my book, Sex and God, I had a steady stream of people coming to me and emailing me to ask about psychological help. Many of their stories were horrendous. Typical was a former Catholic man who said, “I was really depressed about my marriage and recent loss of my job when my wife suggested we go to a counselor. We searched and finally found one that seemed qualified and reasonably priced. I had recently stopped going to Mass with my wife and seriously doubting the whole Catholic thing. Needless to say, the counselor we chose was Catholic, her book shelf was full of Catholic counseling kinds of books. Within two sessions, I could tell this woman was more interested in our “spiritual” life than the issues we faced in our marriage. As we revealed more to her, I could tell her own biases from her expressions and the direction she tended to take in the discussion. My wife was perfectly satisfied with her, I was furious. I did not go to a counselor to get told how to make a perfect Catholic marriage. I’d been there and done that. We had done Catholic marriage encounter, among many other things in our 24 years of marriage. It always made her feel better, but ultimately drove me out. At my insistence, we dropped that counselor and searched for another. The new one turned out to be a New Agey kind of therapist that talked about energy and spiritual alignment. I was out of there in two sessions. The next one turned out to be evangelical, but he was somewhat better than the others. I lasted four sessions with him. Where the hell can I find a secular counselor?”

This story was all too common. I began to take it upon myself to help people find a secular counselor in their community. I soon realized, it was almost impossible to find a secular therapist based on the therapist’s website description, and I knew what to look for, most people don’t. Many counselors describe themselves and their practices in glowing terms that never mention religion, though they often mention spirituality. This tells you nothing about their training or methods of practice.

It was a bit embarrassing that I could not help these people find a secular therapist, after all, I am a psychologist. However, I had been an organizational psychologist for the last 30 years and was no longer in touch with the current climate around clinical and counseling psychology. In the last 30 years there has been huge growth in Christian counseling programs at the same time, many churches have been vilifying and condemning all things secular, including psychologists. If a therapist were to advertise that they are secular, no minister would refer to them, nor would many judges and hospitals. In other words, many sources of referrals would dry up. Consequently, it is near impossible to find a well-trained, secular therapist using normal search methods.

Another problem is that many people think that most therapists are trained in secular, evidence-based methods. This is simply not the case, many therapists graduate from religious schools that do not place a high priority on evidence-based methods or, just as bad, from schools that emphasize unproven or outdated therapeutic methods. The fact is, a lot of “Christian,” “spiritual,” or New Age counselors are well-trained to make you feel good, but they are not trained in evidence-based methods to actually help you with things like depression. A poorly trained counselor can be worst than nothing if they do not use appropriate treatment methods.

You can find a Christian counselor on every street corner in Atlanta or Dallas and you can find a New Age type counselor on many street corners in San Francisco, Seattle or New York. What you cannot find is a therapist that openly says, “I am secular and only use methods that have been scientifically tested and proven to be effective for particular conditions.”

As a result of this realization, with the considerable help of Han Hills, I developed a website for secular therapists and a way for potential clients to find them. It took us a year and a lot of volunteer hours, but we got the Secular Therapist Project up and running in May of 2012. Since that time, five volunteers have done a huge amount of work to ensure our database is the best possible. Dr. Caleb Lack (also professor of psychology at the Univ. of Oklahoma), Patty Guzikowski (also Vice President of the Secular Coalition), and Richard Wade (also writes for The Friendly Atheist), myself and Brian Fields (our tech and web support).

To date we have 184 approved therapists in our database and almost 4000 people registered to find a therapist. We are adding 200 or more clients and 6-10 therapists per month.

How It Works
If you are a secular therapist you can complete an application to be included in our database. Once submitted, our team of four very experienced, secular therapists examine your application and vote on whether to include you in our database. Sometimes we ask a few additional questions of an applicant if we need more information. We look for evidence you are secular and that you use evidence-based methods in your practice.

If you are in need of a good therapist, you can begin your search at www.seculartherapy.org. Fill out a simple form and search by your zip code. It is very similar to dating sites like PlentyofFish.com or OKCupid. If you find someone you like, email them through our system. No names or information are exchanged until you both are ready. If you don’t find anyone in your immediate area, you can search for someone who does distance counseling. Distance counseling uses Skype, phone or Facetime instead of an office visit. I have done distance counseling for decades and find that for many issues and conditions, it works just as well a an office visit. However, distance counseling is not for everyone or for every problem and many therapists do not do it.

How much does it cost?
The short and long answer is – NOTHING. We do not charge clients or therapists for this service. We want to help you and want to ensure there are no barriers to finding the kind of help you need. It does cost to run the service, so we do accept donations and appreciate any help you can give us, but we ask and expect nothing of clients or therapists.

How to Find a Secular Therapist
Whether you use our website or not, here are some guidelines to follow when looking for a therapist. If you find a therapist follow these guidelines before starting work with them:

Guidelines for finding a secular therapist:

1. Ask if they are trained in and use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Other therapies are acceptable as well, but this would be the most basic evidence-based training that any secular therapist would know.
2. Ask them point blank if they are religious or spiritual and how their beliefs inform their therapy.
3. Tell them in the clearest terms possible that you are an atheist or agnostic and expect evidence-based approaches will be used in your therapy. This mean no spiritual, religious or New Age ideas will be involved. This also means no psychoanalytic techniques, Jungian psychology, past life regression, Adlerian or Logo therapy, or other non-evidence- based approaches.

Any secular therapist should be willing to answer these concerns very easily. If they waffle, be aware. You might also ask where they did their graduate and undergraduate work. If it is Baylor, BYU, Regents University, Liberty University, or some other deeply religious school, there is a good chance they are too religious to really practice evidence-based therapy. Ask these questions by email in advance, or at the first interview. Be sure you are comfortable with their answers. If not, it is no shame to say, “I don’t think your approach will work for me.” Then find another.

Get a Speaker for Your Group

If you or someone you know needs a well-trained, truly secular therapist, please visit us first at www.seculartherapy.org. There is no cost to clients or therapists. If you are a leader in your secular group, tell your group about this project. If you are looking for a speaker for your group, search our database and find one of our therapist in your area. Ask them to come and give a presentation. Many of our therapists can talk about mental health and religious recovery, or mental health and atheism.

Finally, everyone who works on the Secular Therapist team is a volunteer and receives no compensation. It does cost to keep the site running so if you appreciate what this service offers, I hope you will consider donating. In any case, please help us get the word out.

sex and god book cover
Dr. Darrel W. Ray is author of four books, two on organizational team issues, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, which explores the social-psychology of religion, and his latest book, Sex and God: How Religion Distorts SexualitySex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. He has been a psychologist for over 30 years, practicing counseling and clinical psychology for 10 years then moved into organizational psychology and consulting. He has been a student of religion most of his life and holds a MA degree in religion as well as a BA in Sociology/Anthropology and a Doctorate in psychology.

Coming Out Atheist
why are you atheists so angry
Greta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.

“Where the hell can I find a secular counselor?”: Guest Post on The Secular Therapist Project

6 thoughts on ““Where the hell can I find a secular counselor?”: Guest Post on The Secular Therapist Project

  1. 2

    Filled out the form, and it found none within 25 miles, so I changed it to 100 miles, but then I had to go to the special “search the database” page. When I did that, it gave me counselors that it said were 25 to 36 miles away, but apparently it isn’t using my zip. They appear to be in New York City and environs. (Long way from Southeast Texas!) I used the contact form to tell them of the error, so no need for Dr. Ray to reply here, but I thought readers might like to know that there are some bugs to be worked out.

  2. 4

    Followup: I contacted them about the bug, and they got it fixed right away. Got a list of 3 therapists near my workplace.

    Thanks, Dr. Ray — and the IT guy!

  3. 5

    Since I live in Springfield, MO I figured that the database wouldn’t have a therapist within 10-25 miles of where I live, but I gave it a shot anyway. Unfortunately I was correct; however, I will keep checking because I really would like to see a secular therapist who will: 1. Not encourage me to “reconnect” with my abusive family, and 2. Not tell me that “god will make it better.”

  4. 6

    Since I live in Springfield, MO I figured that the database wouldn’t have a therapist within 10-25 miles of where I live, but I gave it a shot anyway. Unfortunately I was correct; however, I will keep checking because I really would like to see a secular therapist who will: 1. Not encourage me to “reconnect” with my abusive family, and 2. Not tell me that “god will make it better.”

    charityrowell says @ #4: I don’t know if this would work for you, but I know that at least some of the therapists in the Secular Therapy Project work remotely (i.e. by Skype or other video calling technology). It’s less than ideal, but might still be better than no therapy or therapy with a therapist who foists their religious agenda on you. Might be worth investigating, anyway. Best of luck!

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