For many clients who aren’t religious, like Drexler, this concern has been a reality for some time. “Their entire lives have been wrapped up in religion, and they were raised and socialized to have that be everything,” says Patricia Guzikowski, a licensed professional counselor based in Wisconsin. “It is hard for them to make a transition.”
Guzikowski provides distance counseling for clients throughout the U.S., many of whom identify as atheists living in religious communities. She’s spoken with women who are afraid of losing custody of their children during a divorce, as a result of losing their faith. She’s counseled ex-Mormons and former Jehovah’s Witnesses secretly over the phone or through email conversations, so that their families and friends do not find out.
Reddit threads are filled with similar stories of people seeking guidance after religious renunciation. An atheist teenager, whose dad is a preacher, asks for help on how to cope with a loss of faith. In Alabama, one person searches for a non-religious therapist to deal with depression. Another, in Dallas, seeks a secular trauma counselor for PTSD.
And then there’s “Grief Beyond Belief,” a support network on Facebook for people who have lost a loved one and want to grieve faith-free. “If you’re grieving without a belief that you’re going to be reunified or that your loved one is somewhere better, your needs are really different,” Rebecca Hensler, the group’s founder, says.
Hensler started the page shortly after the death of her infant son in 2009, and was surprised by the response. She saw stories that read like her own: parents who weren’t comforted by the idea that their baby was now “in Heaven,” or that death might be anything other than death itself. Today, the page has nearly 20,000 likes. Users post daily about what it’s like to mourn alongside pressures from family, friends, or their counselors. “I couldn’t count the number of posts from people who share stories about being in therapy, and then the therapist offers to pray with them or talks about Heaven,” Hensler says. “It’s so profoundly harmful to that therapeutic relationship.”
What groups like Grief Beyond Belief ultimately hint at is a basic ideological divide in the way Americans deal with their problems: Some people are comforted at the thought of a higher power, while others are repelled by it. Applying a similar logic to therapy, people want counselors who share their beliefs and can understand their struggles. Perhaps that is part of the reason faith-based counseling has garnered strength in recent years: For religious patients and therapists who’ve felt underrepresented in a traditionally secular therapeutic community, these programs represent an invaluable part of their identity.
“I identify as a female, wife, daughter, aunt, and Catholic,” says Jill Duba Sauerheber, a licensed clinical counselor in Kentucky. “But I’m also very careful about advertising that I’m a Christian counselor, because I'm a counselor—that’s what I am. … When you label yourself as anything, you automatically begin to narrow your client pool, and potential clients can make assumptions about you.”