This past weekend I got into an interesting discussion with my brother and sister-in-law regarding counseling and specifically Christian counseling. I'm not entirely sure how we got on the topic only that my suggestion that one of my good friends needed to do some marriage counseling was met with a harumph and a "I'm not convinced that marriage counseling actually works." After all, they have several anecdotal experiences in which people they know went to marriage counseling and they still ended up divorced. This, of course, made me want to know the actual statistics because anecdotal evidence is not exactly the most reliable source of information. According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, families and couples who have attended family or couples counseling have indicated high levels of patient satisfaction. Over 98% report that they received good or excellent therapy and over 97% believe they got the help they needed. Counseling is not an indicator of whether a marriage will hold together though. Of the couples who go to counseling, almost a third will end up divorced. This does not mean the counseling didn't work. Most couples go into marriage counseling/couples therapy because they are having relational issues already, some bordering on collapse. I would say that the fact that two thirds of couples end up staying together after seeking therapy tells me that it works.
Their argument went further than this though. Try to follow me on this logic. If you are going to go to a therapist it should be a Christian one. Non-Christian/secular psychologists and therapists don't care if your marriage stays together. They are more concerned about the individual and meeting the needs of the individual within a relationship. Therefore, they encourage divorce. Christian counselors at least understand the sanctity of marriage and will encourage couples to stay together. And if the person isn't a Christian, why do they care anyway? Why even bother getting married? Marriage is a gift from God and is holy. If you are already sleeping and living with someone, what is the point of getting married? And if it isn't working out, why would you bother to salvage that relationship? Without God, marriage is pointless, which is probably why marriage counseling doesn't work (according to them).
I did at this point try to point out that marriage existed long before Christianity or even Judaism. Job of the Bible-fame is described as being married and it is believed that this story was written before Abraham. Nevermind that people of all religions and philosophies have gotten married for a long time. "But it was just a contract," my brother said. "They're only getting married for the tax benefits and a piece of paper." I wanted to reply with something like, well if all marriage is is a holy exchange with a god, then why did you get a marriage certificate? Shouldn't your vows in front of a pastor have been enough for you? But I held my tongue. As for people living together and then getting married...well, we live in a western society in which the way that we show our love for someone is to eventually make a lifelong commitment to them through something called marriage. Not everyone does this and in my mind, that is fine, but marriage is usually seen as the goal in a relationship, healthy or not. Why would someone who is Buddhist not want to make that commitment too? I was a Christian when I got married, but even if I hadn't been, I would have married my husband because I loved him and wanted to spend my life with him.
The conversation then deviated from coupes counseling to therapy in general. Sister-in-law has two cousins who are currently seeing the same therapist and have both declared that they are gay. Since sister-in-law and brother believe being gay is unnatural and a sin, they are automatically assuming that it is the therapist who has somehow convinced them of this deviant lifestyle. They don't actually know anything about the therapists religion, but have assumed that if she encourages homosexuality, she must not be a Christian. Also, oldest cousin is now admitting that she likes guys too and is very confused about this since she believed herself to be a lesbian. There are several explanations for this revelation in my mind though. 1) Both girls are gay. The fact that they have the same therapist and both came out as lesbians is purely coincidental. 2) Oldest cousin is bisexual and being sixteen is still trying to sort it all out as she ages and matures. 3) Both girls are seeing a bad therapist who has planted ideas into their heads about sexuality that they aren't really struggling with. 4) Both girls are gay, but are seeing a bad therapist who isn't helping them walk through this minefield of sexuality.
I know there are bad therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists/counselors out there. We all do. They are humans and some bring way too much of their personal opinions into the job, rather than approaching it in a clinical and scientific way. My son's bio mother had a therapist write a note to the court stating that she shouldn't have any contact with her son for her emotional well-being. Who writes a letter like that? I know bio mom lies. A lot. And it is possible she has lied out her ass to her unsuspecting therapist. It is also possible she has a crappy therapist who actually encouraged the idea of a mother and son (a minor mind you, who had no say in it) never talking to each other again. It was with this knowledge that I challenged my brother and sister-in-law with the notion that Christians make better counselors. What about pastors? Ones who took one course in college and are now doing marriage counseling? Or a psychologist who firmly believes divorce is a sin and so she would encourage someone in an abusive relationship to stay married, just because she has such an issue with it? (coincidentally, this is the kind of advice that brother and SIL give all the time) "Well," my brother huffs. "Abuse is different. We're not talking about such extremes here." I mentioned Marc Driscoll, the ex-pastor of Mars Hill church and best-selling author, who used to give marriage counseling. He is such a misogynist though that the "counseling" turned into him telling the woman that everything wrong with their marriage was her fault and that she was demon-possessed. He also accused her of having an "affair of the heart" because she was having a hard time having sex with her husband. All of this while her husband sat in the room with a smug expression on his face. In the end, she got a divorce. It wasn't because she didn't go to a Christian counselor. It wasn't because her pastor didn't believe. It was because her pastor had such strong opinions that ended up making him a fucking awful counselor. Christian does not equal good counseling. All it means is that they may share your values. That's it.
What I wanted them to understand is that marriage is marriage. Some people take it more seriously then others. Some Christians take it more seriously than others. It's also super tricky. This is all purely subjective. What works for one person may not work for another. And just because you are a Christian does mean you are qualified to offer advice or counseling nor does it mean that your counsel will be good. They are living proof of good Christian people with good intentions who are offering terrible advice. There are therapists and counselors out there who are just like them. This is not the movie War Room. Prayer is not going to magically make your marriage better or stop your husband/wife from cheating on you. Believing in a god isn't going to stop your significant other from hitting you or being a narcissist. And just because you believe divorce is wrong, doesn't mean it is.
Yesterday I found out that one of my friends died unexpedtedly of a drug overdose. I learned this through a text while just sitting down to dinner at a restaurant. Needless to say I wasn't good dinner company for the rest of the meal, just barely keeping it together, tears just barely held back. I still don't know about funeral arrangements or whether he overdosed on prescription medication (he was HIV+) or if it was something more insidious. He had had problems with substance abuse, mostly alcohol, for a long time. Despite this, it was unexpected and devastating.
Death is something I am intimately familiar with. I have lost so many people over the years that I no longer fear death. Everyone dies. Obviously the best way is quietly in ones sleep at 95, but rest assured, you cannot escape it. This is not meant to frighten anyone, but more just one of the sad aspects of reality on planet Earth. One can certainly try to create better odds of making it to 95, but there is absolutely no guarantee. As someone who has now attended twenty-five funerals, with an additional one coming up in my near future, I can also tell you that not all deaths are created equal. Losing someone who is old has often made me feel complete. I am sad they are gone, but the fact that they lived such a long life and did so many interesting things throughout it, make their death feel natural. It becomes a celebration of their life. Illness is it's own animal. Long drawn-out illnesses like cancer or althzeimer's comes with its own relief, but more because you are glad they are no longer suffering. That the pain that marked the last portion of their life is over. Losing someone to something like substance abuse or suicide is its own special hell, because you wonder if you could have done something more, something different. You wonder if you were a good enough friend. There is a world full of what ifs. Accidents, like someone being killed by a drunk driver or hit while riding their bike on the road, are jarring and rarely happen to the old. They come out of nowhere and often feel unfair. Their suddenness brings with it waves of grief that could swamp even the most steadfast people. Is there a worse way to die? Sure. But the sudden deaths, I have found, bring with them a level of grief that is difficult to describe.
Of course, being in a religious world, we are surrounded by the sentiments of the religious. You'll see them again in heaven. My prayers are with you. They went to a better place. God was calling them home. Even when I was a Christian I found these sentiments to be little comfort in the actual grieving process. Who cares if I see them again in the afterlife? They aren't here now and this is the place and time where I would actually miss them. There's a movie called The War that stars Elijah Wood and Kevin Costner. A fantastic film in which one of the characters passes away. Elijah Wood's character goes outside and yells, "Who cares about the stupid Lord. I needed him more than you did God. I needed him more."
As an agnostic atheist, I think death itself is probably a lot like it was before I was born. It didn't bother me to be pre-born and it doesn't bother me to be post-life. What does concern me is how I life this one life I have. That my funeral be full of people who, no matter how I died, will feel like it wasn't enough time. I wish people wouldn't believe in fairy tales in order to try and make sense of this very natural phenomenon. I wish they could celebrate the life that was lived rather than focusing on the mythical reunion they will have post-life. And I know that for some, this fairy tale is the only way they could survive the death of someone they love. It is what keeps them going. For me, my friend's life was well-lived because he was loved deeply. He may not be remembered a hundred years from now, but that is okay. It doesn't make his life any less important or impactful. His memory will live on as long as those who love him live on and then one day he will just be a part of someone's family tree. A distant relative with no children. And that's okay. Because while he was on this earth he mattered to someone and people mattered to him. I will never get used to losing the people I love and I will give myself time to mourn, but I am not frightened of death nor do I wish to assign meaning to it.
For the first time since I have deconverted and quit going to church, one of my Christian friends finally asked me how church was going. When I told her that I haven't been going, she seemed to not be surprised. I see this as good because I have been slowly trying to introduce these friends to the idea of me not being a Christian anymore.
The first thing she said that brought us to the question was when I told her our future son is Jewish. I've written about this before, but apparently this is the first she heard of it. So I explained to her what a Messianic Jew was and some of the controversy surrounding gentiles converting to it. "Well, at least he has a foundation," she said. For those who don't know, this is alluding to the fact that he has a foundation of faith in which my husband and I could eventually convert him to Christianity. "We aren't missionary adopting," I reminded her as I have reminded everyone who mentions this topic. "He can believe whatever he wants. I have some questions for him regarding his faith, but more because I don't think he even knows what he believes and is using the religion as a way to stay connected to his bio mom." There was a pause. And then it came. "So how is church then?" When I told her I haven't been going she asked if it was because I needed a break or just didn't like the church or what. I told her as honestly as I could that I needed a break and when life gets super busy, it is really nice to spend a leisure Sunday morning eating brunch with my loved ones. I know she doesn't agree. At all. But she didn't say anything more about it and the conversation moved on.
Baby steps. Let her wrap her mind around the fact that I am no longer attending church. If she is interested in knowing more, she can always ask. I probably won't tell her the whole truth right up front, but then I can let her know I am having some doubts. That my problem isn't with the church, but rather the actual foundations of Christianity. It may be another two years before any of that happens.
The most interesting part of all of this to me is that when it comes to these kinds of Christians, the idea that you wouldn't try to convert a child to Christianity is what would make you question if someone was still going to church. My sister-in-law just took in a teenager that they used to take care of in foster care years ago. One of the conditions of him moving in was that he attend church with them. He is a nineteen-year-old grown person who is being told that in order to have a home with a loving family, he must subject himself to their brand of religion. And that is expected. My Christian friends and family do not question this at all. So the fact that we will get a child of any age and won't attempt to indoctrinate them, is almost unconscionable. Don't we care about their soul? Don't we care about their moral compass? How are we going to build a community of support without a church?
I kind of look forward to the day when they finally put it all together.
Last weekend I had to spend Saturday in a mandatory foster parent training where we were reminded once again that we aren't allowed to spank and there are reasons these kids are misbehaving. The class wasn't horrible, just pointless. Before the class began I was speaking with another couple who we know from our Foster Parent training classes. As part of all of our licenses we have to receive an additional 24 hours of training in two years. Six of these hours can be webinar, but the rest have to be done in person. This is not a problem. My husband and I will hit 24 hours in April because we have attended two adoption conferences, two medical training classes, one 'don't spank' class, and one teen parenting class. It is highly possible we will have double the amount of training hours because we think it is important to learn everything we can and build our adoption community.
So back to this couple. They have completed 2 hours of training. That's it. Where do we get these hours? they asked. We told them about the upcoming conference on connecting with children. Another woman near us chimed in about how awesome it was and I quickly forwarded them the email for signing up. "I should let you know," I said. "The material is straight psychology, but it is religious in nature as there is a prayer and worship service at the beginning of each day. " That didn't matter to them, but the woman who had chimed in asked me why that matters? "Because not everyone is religious and some people may be uncomfortable with it," I said. She looked a bit confused, but agreed that there was no mention of the prayer and worship in any of the material. She then tells me that she actually knows the organizers and perhaps that should be added. "Yes. They should probably let people know that. Give people an option of coming later if it makes them uncomfortable or just acknowledging that not everyone who is invited is religious." She nodded before turning around and writing something in her notebook.
Let's be honest here. There are only a few reasons why a Christian psychologist who writes material that is purely evidence based would not tell people that their yearly conference has a Christian prayer and worship service.
1. They are attempting a weak (and lazy) form of prothelitizing.
2. They assume that everyone who is coming to their conference is Christian and their particular brand of Christianity at that.
3. They know that not everyone attending will be Christian, but can't imaging not worshipping their deity in some way and other people be damned.
4. They see the worship and prayer as an act of defiance against perceived persecution.
Now, having grown up around these people and I think it is probably a combination of all four. They can't imagine not having a worship service, but do assume that people who are attending are more than likely Christian. And if they aren't, then they should just get over it because they will not be silences. If a bit of prothelitizing happens while they are there, then that is seen as good thing. Of course, all the scenarios are also incredibly presumptive and self-serving. They don't respect other people, not even other Christians. Based on last year I would say these people probably attend some kind of non-denominational Evangelical mega-church. They are therefore not being very welcoming of Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Quakers, Episcopalians, etc. It's rude and presumptive and yes, something that should be somewhere in the literature about the event.
Better yet...just stop. Stop with the prayer and worship service. Focus on the evidence based approaches that have been shown to work. Don't assume who your audience is. Make it more inclusive so that you can help more kids.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.