Dear Therapists: Check Your Bias, Not My Atheism
As a rehabilitation counselor and a nonbeliever, I have become increasingly concerned over the relative lack of awareness regarding the proper treatment of atheism in counseling. As humans, we atheists are no more exempt from the effects of life’s stressors than theists; in psychotherapy, however, the absence of belief seems to be met with shock and pity as our worldview is erroneously mistaken for the cause of our problems.
The root of this issue lies in the tendency of therapists to encourage the use of faith as a resource to assist clients in overcoming their barriers – an inevitable reflection of a society in which the majority of people are theists. There are peer-reviewed journal articles that discuss the usefulness of spirituality in overcoming life’s difficulties, and graduate textbooks that address the benefits of incorporating faith into counseling. In addition, there are a multitude of Christian-based licensed professional counselors (LPCs), and the propensity for theists to visit religious authorities for guidance further demonstrates the supposed benefits associated with integrating spiritual beliefs into psychotherapy.
While everyone certainly has the right to his/her own beliefs, the difficult part for the nonreligious comes when the majority view sets its own expectation. The assumption that everyone is a theist inevitably casts atheists into a negative light by default, and with the counselor often unaware that bias is present due to the alignment of his/her own beliefs with the status quo, atheists are often met with stereotypical perceptions that they have diminished morality, a poor quality of life, and/or are supposedly angry with a deity whose existence they also secretly deny. Rather than being acknowledged on an equal footing with theists who often do not have to defend their worldview, atheists may find themselves questioned about whether or not their lack of belief is contributing to their current need for psychotherapy, rather than being properly viewed as a valid lens through which the therapist can work to affect change.
As atheists, we know that operating outside of a religious framework empowers us to live in the present, rather than forecasting for a reward that will never come. We know our morals are an expression of empathy for our fellow human, rather than a divinely-inspired mandate or a fear-driven desire to escape eternal retribution. For us, self-efficacy comes from within; a belief in and supplication to a supernatural force is not needed in order for us to take charge of our lives and overcome its obstacles. That being said, the counseling professionals responsible for helping us need to remember that atheism should never be seen as a negative factor to be “addressed” or “cured,” but as an empowering foundation upon which life’s existential crises can be met and overcome.