This post was inspired by my conversation with an atheist who felt that religious therapists are categorically dangerous:
Religions offer their followers many things besides the false promises of salvation, eternal life or miracles. They offer community, identity, education and for some, sanctified therapists. Before discussing the sanctified therapists within religious organizations, let’s talk about secular therapists.
Some of our best psychological therapists are family or friends or kind strangers. But some do therapy for a living: psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counselors and more. Shopping for a therapist is difficult — we either take the recommendation or someone else or trust that the therapist has been screened by the our educational education system and the law. We trust the “sanctification” of the education system.
People often rather naively trust our education systems to make reliable products. Many do not question the social stamp-of-approval. Such blind trust almost places the education system in a sacred position. This is the ugly side of “sanctification” — not open to question (see my post on the “Cloak of Sanctification“). But everyone reading this post knows how to question and certainly would not wander into any therapist blithely excepting brilliant shining wisdom. Most of us would ask for a referral from people who know this person, even then we would go in expecting the therapist to slowly prove their trustworthiness and not rely on the degrees on her/his wall.
Well, before there were institutions cranking out psychiatric therapists, we had priests. People trusted religious institute to produce these counselors. The religious counselors are usually trained by other in-house counselors who usually share the values and worldview of their clients. Many atheists may look down on the counselor roll of religious specialists, but I think we should acknowledge that screening of secular counselors should always be suspect also. Though I agree that a religious counselor has the potential to the pitfalls of ridiculous magic talk and false hopes, they are nonetheless perhaps more free of the secular therapists pitfalls of income-driven therapy and self-righteous “scientific” justifications.
All to say, I see no reason that a religious counselor should be any worse than a secular one. What makes a good counselor is a very complicated set of conditions: relationship, self-insight, other-insight, investments, wisdom, agendas and much more. Who is to say that insightful skills are best achieved in ivory towers? Likewise, who’s to say that the secular therapists are no less vulnerable to the short-comings of religious therapists? We have to pick carefully and understand well the quality, training and skills of a therapist.