Caleb W. Lack, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma, and the Director of the Secular Therapist Project. Dr. Lack is the author or editor of six books (most recently Critical Thinking, Science, & Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains with Jacques Rousseau) and more than 50 scientific publications on obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome and tics, technology’s use in therapy, and more. He writes the popular Great Plains Skeptic column on skepticink.com and regularly presents nationally and internationally for professionals and the public. Learn more about him here.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As the Atheist Republic audience is international and, therefore, highly varied, we have to lay the groundwork, though we've done this before. What is secular therapy?
Dr. Caleb W. Lack: Technically speaking, "secular therapy" is any type of psychotherapy that does not invoke the supernatural in the conceptualization, assessment, or treatment of various mental health difficulties.
This doesn't mean you'd necessarily ignore something like a person's religious beliefs, but you wouldn't resort to interventions which either involve some sort of religious component (e.g., praying for forgiveness, asking for a deity to heal you). However, just because someone is practicing non-religious therapy doesn't mean that they are actually practicing scientifically-informed, evidence-based therapy.
The Secular Therapist Project (STP) was designed to be a free service to help connect non-religious individuals who are seeking mental health care with non-religious psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and other therapists. However, what’s unique about the STP is that we aren’t just a database of therapists like you might find at Psychology Today.
Instead, we very carefully screen potential therapists who want to become part of the STP. We screen them to make sure that a) they are appropriately licensed in their state or country, b) that they are secular in nature as well as practice, and c) that they actually use evidence-based treatments, which have been shown to be effective at helping improve mental health problems in controlled clinical trials.
This means not only will our therapists not try to preach to you or convert you, but that they are also using the most well-supported types of treatment to help you.
Jacobsen: As the Director of the Secular Therapist Project, I suspect traumatic stories come to you. If I may ask, without breach of confidentiality, what have been some of the more tragic or emotionally moving secular therapeutic stories witnessed or experienced in your career?
Lack: Sadly, there are some pretty commonly repeated themes that we see. The most frequent stories revolve around abuse that stems from religious beliefs or from a loss of family and friends when someone becomes non-religious.
For example, people tell me very often about physical and emotional abuse they suffered as a result of their parents' fundamentalist religious beliefs. This has been regular, high level corporal punishment ("spare the rod, spoil the child"), witnessing their fathers beat their mothers, being emotionally abused via being taught about their own inherent evil nature and sins, and even sexual abuse.
The sexual abuse is often by members of the clergy or high level people in their churches, which then gets covered up (as seen repeatedly in the Catholic Church), or by being married into relationships where the husband treats the wife as property to be used (and abused) however he desires. This may include denial of educational opportunities, being told to stay in abusive relationships by church leaders, and so on.
The second major theme is typically a loss of community and support. Many churches are very good at community building, fellowship, and establishing social networks. You have a built-in friend group when you belong to a church, people who share your ideals and beliefs, who offer help and support when you need it, who you can turn to if you need a shoulder to lean on.
The majority of the religious also share the same religion as their families, which means for many that faith and family are highly intertwined. Often, when an individual steps away from a church, their friends and family in that church turn their back on that person, particularly for those in fundamentalist or evangelical religions.
As such, this can mean a huge loss, as people are rejected by formerly close or even life-long friends, by family members, and by the community which they have invested huge amounts of time, money, and energy into for years or decades. So, many people are literally going through a grieving process and have nowhere to turn to for support, because their support networks have abandoned them. They feel alone, abandoned, adrift.
This can even have an impact on one’s livelihood, most prominently for those pastors, preachers, and other clergy members who move into atheism, but also for others. I’ve heard numerous stories of people who were fired from their jobs after becoming more open about their lack of religious beliefs. That wasn’t, of course, the “official” reason they lost their jobs, but it happens.
Another aspect I should mention is that of religiously-motivated abuse under the guise of "therapy." This includes the so-called “conversion therapy” which aims to change one’s sexuality, which is so psychologically abusive that it’s been banned in most U.S. states, but also the threats of eternal damnation that are directed (often by members of their own family) towards people for something that is largely biologically driven. The LGBTQ community has borne a huge amount of abuse due to religious beliefs.
Jacobsen: For international non-believer community, family members remain religious in unhealthy ways, e.g. fundamentalist interpretations of scripture enforced on the patient. What recommendations are standard for these difficulties of the patient?
Lack: Sadly, many people do lose long-standing relationships when they realize they are no longer religious. This loss of support and community is why organizations like Recovering from Religion, Grief Beyond Belief, Camp Quest, Secular Sobriety, and others are so important. What they are doing is building a secular support network.
While scientific skepticism or secular humanist organizations provide intellectual or philosophical support and do much needed “front-end” work such as activism or lobbying, the “back-end” organizations are helping to provide emotional, physical, and psychological support.
Finding a strong, caring support system is key. While this can be difficult, being able to join online groups and reach out that way has helped many people no longer feel so isolated, and is a great step towards building offline relationships.
Jacobsen: How big is the secular therapeutic “movement” -- for want of a better term? Where is the movement centralized? Are there areas of the world where the secular therapy is bereft, simply not an option -- even with access to a computer and internet connection due to state or community, even familial, oppression of the individual non-religious person?
Lack: I would say that depends largely on where you are, geographically. Here in the United States, many people on the coasts are fairly horrified when I talk about how therapists who do not overtly advertise themselves as "religious counselors" attempt to bring religious beliefs into treatment.
In the Bible Belt, though, we have large numbers of counselors and therapist who have been trained in overtly religious graduate programs, often at private religious institutions, that fail to make appropriate distinctions between doing "religious counseling" and other kinds of therapy.
I have had numerous people tell me that their therapist tried to convert them back to Christianity or blamed all their mental health or relationship difficulties on the fact that they were not "right with the Lord." And these are people who were NOT seeking religiously-inspired therapy.
Many people, especially the religious, hear the term “secular therapy” and think that it would only be something that a non-believer , an atheist would engage in. In fact, all of the evidence-based therapies that we have for mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and many others are “secular”, meaning they were developed without the use of supposedly supernatural aids and interventions.
Almost all therapists who are religious (as opposed to “religious therapists”) use secular therapy in their practice. In other words, they are not using prayer, or exorcism, or invoking some religious concepts to heal a person of their mental health problems. Instead, they are using our “secular” therapy techniques because they work.
To further complicate the issue, not all people who do "secular" therapy are also doing "evidence-based" therapy. In other words, I might use therapeutic techniques and orientations that are not actually based in scientific findings and it can still be secular in nature.
Things like psychoanalysis or attachment therapies fall into this realm -- they aren't religious, but they are also pseudoscientific. That's one of the reasons why our requirements for joining the Secular Therapy Project are threefold: our therapists are licensed, secular, and use evidence-based practice.
Jacobsen: How does a transition from religion to formal non-religion impact marriages, common law partnerships, and relationships?
Lack: Well, as I said before, loss of support networks is a huge issue for many people who transition out of religion. When one partner in a committed relationship has a major shift in their belief system, this often puts an enormous strain on the relationship, particularly if the religious partner has a very literal, dogmatic, or fundamentalist belief system.
If you believe that your partner is now condemned to spend an eternity burning in hell, how can that not? And on the other side, if you believe that your partner is wrong about something they are basing their entire life and behaviors on, how can that not?
Working through issues such as how children will be raised (in a religious faith or not, to what degree, and so on), what family will be told about why one person is not longer attending church services, and many other issues can be very stressful, often to the breaking point. That doesn't mean that mixed-faith marriages are impossible, they certainly aren't, but they do require a large amount of strong communication and commitment from both sides.
Jacobsen: Are there any cases where some people simply can't be helped?
Lack: Certainly some people find themselves in environmental situations where therapy isn't the best solution to their problems. It doesn't matter how excellent of a treatment I have for depression or PTSD if you are in an environment that's actively causing you to have those problems and you can't leave.
That's why a good therapist will work to conceptualize an individual's case globally, looking at not just how an individual thinks, feels, and acts, but how their environment (whether family, friends, work, or something else) may be contributing to or maintaining distress. This allows a good therapist to recommend interventions at a family level or a higher environmental level and not only need to focus on the individual.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Lack.