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.

  • Savannah Johnston

    As someone who is in a social service work program looking to go into this kind of thing, this is something I’ve thought about before. In one of our classes we were learning about doing a “bio-psycho-socio-spiritual assessment”, and one of the classmates raised his hand to protest the “spiritual” part, because it implies the presence of spirituality/faith, as if its absence were a deficiency in itself. I’m inclined to agree, but unfortunately I’m normally too shy to bring up that kind of thing.

    • Tracie

      I understand what you mean. Because counselors, social workers, mental health professionals, and other members of these fields must be aware of the impact that spirituality can have on a person’s outlook, the BPSS assessment still works for some as a way to gather a comprehensive set of factors that may have contributed to someone’s current psychiatric situation. My problem with the BPSS assessment is not that the “spiritual” criteria exists, because I understand that religion affects its adherents’ views, but that the questions that stem from this model – such as, “How are your spiritual needs being met?” – suggest that atheists are somehow lacking in fulfillment with the assumption that everyone believes in the supernatural in the first place. In other words, the questions are biased. I would rather ask general questions – such as, “Do you subscribe to a religion or spiritual belief system?” – and go from there. In addition, I’ve often wondered if “Spiritual” should be renamed “Self” (or something similar) since therapists should also try to understand how their clients perceive themselves, how they interpret their purpose in life, and other existential matters that don’t necessarily require religious beliefs to meet and overcome.

  • Barbara

    Do not confuse spirituality with religion. We all have spititual lives, but that does not necessarily include belief in a deity. How does one “fill one’s own cup” at the end of a long day? What does one draw on as a moral compass. The answers to those questions can be found in a person’s spirituality, which may or may not include religion.

    • d Kim

      If what you mean by spirituality is an appreciation brought by self-reflection and gain of knowledge, then yes…we all should have spiritual lives. But, if what you mean is some sort of new-age nonsense about actual spirits and vague references to energies, then perhaps you should study more science and philosophy.

  • William Slagle

    Hi, I’m an experienced therapist. who has been the director of mental health services for several different programs. I supervised therapists, ensuring they always complied with ethical standards. I have been qualified in federal and state courts as an expert on such issues.

    I am sorry that you had the experience you described. You never should have been told the things you report by any therapist that was licensed to practice in any state within the United States.

    All therapists are ethically required to be respectful of any religious belief or non beliefs. Any therapist communicating as you described can (and probably should) be reported to their state licensing board. The therapist will be told to stop immediately and warned that such actions can and will result in disciplinary action to include lose of license to practice therapy. If the boards investigation reveals egregious actions or if the therapist has been previously warned, the therapist could lose their license to practice.

    All therapists are required to comply with all ethical standards of their profession. There is no debate about these issues. Here are the basic ethical standards required of all therapist regarding these issues.

    1. A therapist can only incorporate their religious beliefs as an element of psychotherapy if all of their professional marketing and presentation clearly states that their religious perspective is a part of their professional services. – Such a professional must represent themselves as a Christian-Therapist or a Hindu-therapist…etc. This must be made completely clear to any client prior to the onset of therapy.

    2. Unless a therapist clearly articulates this practice philosophy prior to the start of therapy, the therapist should make no mention of their religious beliefs.

    3. Regardless of what a therapist personally believes or how they represent beliefs related to their professional practice, all therapists are expected to be respectful to the religious beliefs of others, no matter how significantly they may differ from the therapists beliefs.

    4. Even if a therapist is properly proclaimed religious based therapist (i.e. “Christian-Therapist) no therapist should ever state that: Any belief system is wrong.
    Any belief system is the correct belief or is superior to another.
    Non acceptance of any belief is the cause of a problems.
    Non acceptance of a belief will make things worse.
    Acceptance of a belief is essential to feel or do better.

    5. A religious based therapist ,who has properly identified him/herself as a “Christian-therapist” would be allowed to suggest to a patient that following a religious belief might be helpful to the patient, but this should be presented as only one of many ‘possible’ options.

    If any patient states they believe differently the therapist should respect this and stop presenting these religious beliefs to a patient unless later asked to do so by the patient.

    A therapist should never criticize a patients religious beliefs, no matter how misguided the therapist may think the patient’s belief is.

    • wannabe

      William Slagle wrote:

      A therapist should never criticize a patients religious beliefs, no
      matter how misguided the therapist may think the patient’s belief is.

      It’s entirely possible that one’s religious belief system can be a cause–even the primary cause–of psychological disturbance. If addressing that is off-limits, the therapy process can only hurt, not help.

      I agree the therapist should be up-front about about his or her understanding, once the situation is known. The patient should always be assured that he or she is free to find a new therapist if addressing a religious issue is too painful.

  • Kevin

    I’ve had a lot of experience lately with therapists behaving like there is something fundamentally wrong with me for not believing in god. I feel like I need to succeed just to prove them all wrong.