As I’ve developed my presence and approach as a secular therapist, I’ve had others ask me, “Do we really need secular therapy? Isn’t all therapy and counseling secular?” Well, no, not exactly. It’s true that nowadays many therapists are trained to use secular, research-based methods in therapy. In fact, my own masters in counseling education at a traditionally Catholic university was entirely secular. Some universities, however, teach their students a Christian-based perspective on counseling. And there are troubling stories of counseling students bringing their own religious views to the therapy process in a way that is potentially very harmful to clients.
I want to say here that I am not criticizing faith-based counseling. If therapists and counselors practice Christian counseling, or serve another religious community, it should be described on their website and other marketing. Then those clients who prefer a religious approach can seek out those practitioners.
If spirituality is important to you – wonderful. I am absolutely accepting of others’ spiritual and religious beliefs. I hope you find the right therapist for you, be they spiritual or secular. Indeed, I successfully work with clients from all religious backgrounds and faiths.
What is problematic is when a client finds a therapist expecting a research-accepted approach to therapy, and instead receives unwanted religious instruction or spiritual guidance.
In the private practice setting, I have heard therapists who have an otherwise secular approach talk about the importance of spirituality in therapy. I’ve also listened to numerous stories from colleagues and others who have had a negative experience with a counselor who attempted to invoke religion in sessions.
Many people who seek help prefer to leave religion out of therapy. When a therapist invokes a higher power, or even spiritual attunement to something greater than oneself, it can feel like a disconnect from the challenges the client really wants to deal with.
In particular, I’ve seen the importance of secular therapy for certain presenting concerns.
Recovering from religious abuse.
Abuse comes in many forms. Sometimes children are shamed for normal behaviors under the guise of religious belief. They may be punished for expressing their sexuality or identity. Religious abuse can result in a significant amount of trauma, which persists into adulthood. Additionally, there may be guilt and shame for leaving the religious community. If you’re recovering from religion you deserve a safe space to process your experiences and move forward to healing and building the life you want.
Related: Recovering your Sexuality.
Loss of a loved one. Chronic or terminal illness.
When there is a loss or illness, well meaning friends and family may say “God has a plan,” or “Things happen for a reason.” Often they don’t know what else to say. Yet, these statements can cause a lot of harm to the hurting person. Sometimes terrible things happen to very good people for no good reason. And there is a lot of sadness, anger, and devastation that deserves to be heard and acknowledged, without platitudes.
Recovery for substance abuse and addiction.
Many classic 12 step programs invoke a higher power which can be a big turn off to people who don’t believe in god. In fact some of these individuals don’t get the help they need because they refuse to attend religiously-based meetings. For that reason, I often recommend Smart Recovery. If you’re struggling with recovery please don’t give up – see if you can find secular counseling and meetings in your area.
Some counselors may be inclined to focus on the importance of a spiritual connection for a couple’s wellbeing. They may send the message that if a couple has strong faith, it will keep their marriage going through tough times. But invoking religion in therapy should not be a substitute for providing actual research-based marriage counseling. Good couples therapy is based on family systems theory; with goals for each partner to understand their own role in the relationship, learn to communicate better, and develop skills to reduce and manage conflict.
Finally, there are people who are grappling with their beliefs. Over the years they may have come to the realization that they no longer have faith. But they are not sure what they are. Agnostic? Atheist? Ignostic? Or simply a secular humanist. Secular-based therapy can help with exploring all those identities and views towards the goal of greater awareness and self-understanding. When one gives up a belief in god it can in fact be more difficult because we’re creating our own meaning and value system.
As the client you deserve to have what you want. If you prefer a secular therapist see if you can find one in your community through the secular therapy project. If you’re not sure if a therapist practices secular therapy methods call and ask them. Finally, if the therapist brings up religion and spirituality in therapy sessions feel free to give them feedback about what you want, and don’t want.
Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002
Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.