I had a recent, not-so-fun surprise: my appendix suddenly decided to freak out and ruin my week. I’ve never had to “listen to my gut” more acutely, when, within an hour or so, I went from thinking, “Is this just gas?” to wondering if I was actively dying. Fortunately my wife and I were both working from home that day (and we own a working car, and we have health insurance, and many other privileges), so off to the emergency room we went.
Now, if you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of visiting an ER, you know that it can be, at least on the front end, a very non-emergent room, and more of a sit-around-and-wait room. Understaffed hospitals just don’t have the space for everyone at once. So, even though I was experiencing something on par with labor contractions, after triage it was time to sit and enjoy the lovely waiting room for a few hours.
Oddly enough, an hour or two into this agonizing eternity, something emergent actually did happen. An older gentleman walked in and collapsed onto the hard floor with a startling THUD. All eyes were suddenly – understandably – focused on him, and half a dozen hospital staff came rushing to his aid.
And as they did, I noticed a woman, across the room, gently rocking back and forth in her chair while chanting, “JESUS. JESUS. JESUS. JESUS.” She wasn’t shouting, but her voice was loud enough that I could hear her 15 feet away. No one else in the room, as far as I could tell, batted an eye. And as I sat trying to ignore my pissed-off appendix, I entertained myself with a hypothetical: What if that lady had been chanting a different name? “SATAN. SATAN. SATAN.” Or, “XENU. XENU. XENU.” Or maybe, “ELON. ELON. ELON.” I silently chuckled and imagined all of the confused, horrified looks and sideways whispers that would have resulted. But none of that was happening, of course. Apparently, repeating the name of one specific ancient Palestinian is entirely unremarkable.
The US is supposedly a country of religious freedom, but the dominant paradigm is Christianity. It is the privileged mythology and any given person is assumed to be Christian or Christian-adjacent, until indicated otherwise. This lady must have known that her Jesus chants wouldn’t cause too much of a stir, because while a little unusual, her behavior still endorsed the beliefs of the cultural norm. If the hijab-wearing mom, sitting with her two kids across from Jesus Lady, had started chanting in a language other than English, she would have received, at minimum, some uncomfortable looks. And if Jesus Lady had instead been saying something like “HADES” instead, the others’ reactions would have been apparent. She might have even gotten herself fast-tracked to a psych eval, unwarranted though it may have been.
This weird situation – Jesus Lady’s chanting, her assumption of social safety in doing so, and everyone’s general nonchalance in the ER waiting room – highlights why we need secular-identified therapists in our society and local communities. Christian beliefs permeate the cultural water we swim in, so well that most people never even see it. As a result, non-religious people have reported experiencing, in therapy, advice to pray, read religiously-influenced books, or “trust god’s plan.” This is just an extension of mainstream American cultural mindset, unexamined and unquestioned. This “should” not happen, but it does. Every time I write or talk about this issue, someone new tells me it happened to them. (Has it happened to you? Drop me a line to tell me your story.)
LGBTQ+ folks often reach out to work with me for parallel reasons. Even when the therapist is aware that a client is LGBTQ+, the cisgendered, heterosexual therapist may not be able to grasp what that difference means in terms of experience or culture. Many BIPOC folks have similar valid concerns and understandably prefer to see a BIPOC therapist. While there are very important differences in how these varying identities impact the individual, at least two aspects are similar; we are existing outside of a default “norm” that people in the majority rarely question, and we simply want to feel safely understood and seen by our counseling professional.
As an atheist, agnostic, or humanist, your orientation to life, your worldview, and your approach to problems or losses may have some fundamental differences from the average person. If you’re looking for a therapist who understands those differences and why you’re not into religion, theism, or woo-spirituality, let’s chat.