Dr. Theresa Zolner asks whether an atheist psychologist can accept that his faith-filled clients are not delusional.


Dr. Theresa Zolner asks whether an atheist psychologist can accept that his faith-filled clients are not delusional.

May 13, 2013

The psychologist needs to understand who you are and where you come from in order to deliver competent services, maintains Dr. Theresa Zolner, a clinical researcher and professor of psychology in Edmonton.

"If a psychologist does not understand or accept who you are as an individual or who your family is, or your faith and your life in Christ, then that psychologist cannot deliver services to you competently or with true empathy," she said.

Speaking at the inaugural conference of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association of Canada May 4, Zolner said she is grateful when she hears psychologists say they can't work with people of faith.

"I'm grateful not because they are discriminating against persons of faith and not because they, themselves, have rejected faith but because they are not competent to work with people of faith, so they shouldn't."


Almost 40 psychotherapists from several parts of Canada, from B.C. to Nova Scotia, attended the conference at Newman Theological College in Edmonton.

Zolner said practitioners who do not understand or who reject Catholic teachings are not in a position to counsel those of the Catholic faith.

"Psychologists have a primary duty to cultural competency in practice, and this includes competency in understanding at least the fundamentals of a system of faith and accepting the client's belief in it.

"Lack of acceptance means lack of competency. So, now I understand when people acknowledge that they are not the people who should be working with persons of faith, and I respect their decision."

The role of parents is to instill the remembrance of God in children's lives and teach them to struggle against egoism and impulsive behaviour.

"Parents are, despite their personal weaknesses, bearers of the Spirit for their children, even as they, themselves, are spiritual children on their own journey of theosis," she said.

"Psychologists who fail to understand this responsibility will fail in adequate service delivery to Catholic families because they will fail to understand the basic role relationships between family members and between the family and the entire family of God."

Zolner said if she were to receive services from a psychologist, that psychologist would need to understand that "I have never been alone. I might have been by myself, or I might have felt alone or lonely, but I have never, actually been alone. Also, I talk to invisible beings every day, and sometimes I think they respond to me.

"Now, before you call a crisis line on my behalf, those of you who are Catholic will understand exactly what I am saying: God is with me, and I pray - no, I am not delusional and possibly hallucinating."

Psychologists working with children and families need to decide what they think and what they should be educated in when working with those families.

"Can they be atheists but believe that their faith-loving clients are not delusional? Can they understand the responsibility and vocation of a Catholic parent? Can they do something more than ignore, compartmentalize or tolerate the family's faith?"

Zolner said psychologists who have competency with regard to knowledge of Catholicism are in the best position to help Catholic children and families and the best position, ethically, to do the least harm to their Catholic clients.