militant atheist psychotherapists are not as rational as they think

I was first introduced to Darrel Ray through an interview with him that I heard on the David Pakman Show. He was talking about something called “The Therapist Project” which describes itself as “a nationwide effort to match secular clients with secular psychotherapists.” Phrased another way, it is a resource to help people who are specifically looking for a therapist who will not introduce religion (or mysticism) into the therapy process.

The Therapist ProjectOn the surface of it, this seems like a great idea. I think it is harmful when someone who does not believe in God is brought into a situation where the therapist tries to “convert” him, or demands that he believe in spirituality as part of the treatment. Also, being an atheist myself, I don’t believe that mental health can be directly affected by supernatural influences, whether in the form of intervention by Jesus or the alignment of chakras or any other such thing. As a result–and I want to make this point emphatically clear–I began listening to Darrel Ray with a predisposition toward liking him, and agreeing with his project and its intentions.

A few minutes into the interview, that changed.

He did not come across as a person who wanted to help those who happened to want secular therapy and make it easier for them to find a secular therapist; rather, he came across as someone who despised religion and thought that all mixing of religion with therapy should be completely stamped out.

His extremism was manifest in some of the downright irrational things that he said. For example, he argued that since religion has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, if it could help people “it would have worked by now” and solved everyone’s problems.  A direct quote from him: ” If religion was an important key to mental health, then religion would have solved the problem of mental health 2,000 years ago.” This is not a rational argument. You cannot assume that just because spiritual approaches (as a general category) haven’t made every single person mentally healthy, therefore there is absolutely no benefit to spiritual approaches.  That would be like arguing that because “science” (as a general category) hasn’t cured all mental illness already, therefore science (as a general category) is useless in psychotherapy. It’s a dramatically non-scientific argument to make.

He doesn’t just do this in the interview, either.  He posted a full article about the Therapist Project on the Free Thought Blogs website. He begins making good, materialist points about the fact that there is no evidence for spiritual or supernatural intervention in the course of therapy: “How do you measure a spirit? How do you determine if the Holy Ghost assisted in the intervention and healing? How do you measure the shift in chi to allow better flow of energy? There is nothing evidential in these therapies.”

These are comments that I am on board with; however, he ends up concluding that no religion should ever be mentioned in any therapy session, ever!  For example: “Subtract the spiritual and superstitious from the equation, and the therapy would be just as effective, or more so. Religion adds nothing, and often subtracts from the effectiveness by adding an unnecessary variable. The less people depend on Jesus, Allah, spirits or Holy Ghosts, the more they learn to rely on themselves and think clearly about their condition.”

Yes, this kind of statement is vitriolic, but I don’t really care about that.

This kind of statement is insulting to religious people, but I don’t really care about that.

What I care about is this: from a purely scientific and therapeutic perspective, it’s wrong.

Dr. Ray has become so emotionally wrapped up in his crusade against religion and mysticism that he’s forgetting a pretty important aspect of mental health and theoretical approach to psychotherapy: narrative self.

A huge driving factor in people’s mental and emotional lives is the stories that they tell themselves, both about themselves and about the world they live in. People construct stories to explain things that happen to them, they construct stories to explain why they do the things that they do. Stories are used both to regulate people’s emotions and to drive their behavior. There are a number of strong traditions in psychotherapy that focus on the importance of finding (and sometimes changing, when necessary) the narratives that a person uses to define himself.

For anyone who is interested in a good lay-person’s book that talks about this issue, I’d recommend Narrative Truth and Historical Truth by Spence Donald. Donald spends half the book going through a scathing critique of therapeutic processes that supposedly uncover the “roots” of psychological problems in memories and earlier traumas. He argues that the stories people come up with are often untrue, or at the very best their veracity can never be accurately determined.  In the second half of the book, however, he turns around and argues that ultimately it doesn’t matter, because whether or not the story is “historically true” is completely unrelated to whether or not the therapy works.

Yes, most “explanations” that connect a person’s current fears, relationship issues, and anxieties to past events are probably fictional. They are just stories that we tell ourselves to try to make sense of the world we live in. But the fact is, in therapy, telling stories that make sense of your life is one of the ways you can gain control over your own mental health. The stories that you create can be therapeutic, whether they are “accurate” or not.

This argument also applies to religious and spiritual beliefs. Nobody should be forced to believe in religion, of course. But if belief in a higher being or a spirit or anything else is part of a patient’s self-story–that is, if it is part of the narrative that the patient uses to understand and control his emotional world–then it also can play an important role in recovery.  More than just “making people feel comforted” (Ray makes the now-standard patronizing analogy between religion and opium), the patient’s religious beliefs can actually form an integral part of his psychological narrative and can contribute to the patient getting better.

To claim otherwise, is to ignore a long history of theory and research on narrative self-psychology.

Denying the importance and power of religion as a narrative in some people’s lives is just as irrational, and is just as unscientific, as believing in demonic possession.  What is worse, is that in this case it seems so obviously driven by an emotional anti-religion agenda.

And it would be a shame to allow your emotions to cloud your scientific judgement, wouldn’t it, Dr. Ray?


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  1. jason albetort says:

    Once again, a great article, Greg. Everything in moderation, the people who hate religion over all else are as controlled by it as the people who love religion over all else.

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