The Atheists Struggling to Find Therapists in the Bible Belt

Audience members at a Christian performance at South by Southwest (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Audience members at a Christian performance at South by Southwest (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

The rise of faith-based counseling in America's most Christian regions has brought the clash over religious liberties to the therapist's couch.

By Angela Almeida

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, life in the town of Easley, South Carolina, was tense for Leigh Drexler. Pick-up trucks with airborne Confederate flags seemed more prevalent than ever before, and her grandparents—who had never voted in their lives—registered to cast their ballots for the Donald himself.

Drexler felt isolated. "My family has always directed their point of view at me, but it has been a million times worse than normal," she told me last October. "Every time we're in a conversation, it's either about the election or religion."

It's a dynamic that led Drexler, who identifies as a democratic socialist and an atheist, to go online in search of a therapist—someone who would perhaps better understand her lack of faith. She scouted towns within a 20-mile radius, but only "faith-based" practitioners turned up. She resorted to distance counseling over the phone with a therapist a few states away. "I knew there would be Christian counselors here, but I didn't think that was all I was going to find," she said.

In the U.S., people are less religious than ever. Adults in their 20s and early 30s make up more than one-third of the country's "nones," or those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. Church attendance among young Americans has also declined, and most adults nationwide rely on internet research, rather than prayer, when faced with life decisions.

But for many non-believers living in the country's most religious regions, namely the Bible Belt and parts of the Midwest, the idea that religion in America is somehow eroding seems foreign, if not far-fetched. Despite the overall decline in religiosity over the past decade, around 70 percent of Americans still identify as Christian, currently making the U.S. home to more Christians than any other place in the world.

So what does that mean for atheists, agnostics, secularists, and "nones" living in the country's most faithful pockets? Well, historically, a kind of culture war, where the separation of church and state is hotly debated in places like restaurants, schools, and the workplace. However, in recent years, a more understated and intimate clash over religious liberties has been playing out—only this time, it's on a therapist's couch.

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