Here's an alarming finding: people who are 'spiritual but not religious' are more likely to suffer poor mental health than either atheists or religious folk (both these are equally less vulnerable). So says a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, based on more than seven thousand interviews. It concludes: "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]."
Does this make sense? It seems counterintuitive, considering how much spirituality supposedly has to do with healing, harmony, finding inner peace and so on. Does it mean all this practice - the meditation, affirmations, etc - doesn't really work?
I learned about this from an article by the Guardian's Mark Vernon, who offers some speculations.
The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.
Bishops and theologians complain that spirituality without religion is lazy, and insist that to be meaningful it must be pursued in a community, not privately. I've always thought that at least some of that was sour grapes. Clearly one can pursue spiritual goals privately and in one's relationships. Are not prayer and meditation intensely private? As an occasional church-goer myself, I can easily see how a religious framework might help, through the ritual and sense of belonging to a spiritual community, for instance. It's not so obvious that accepting Christian dogmas will do the trick. Still, this study clearly gives their argument some heft.
But it still seems odd, so could there be other explanations. Perhaps it has something to do with the way people identify themselves to pollsters. SBNR, as sociologists call it, is apparently skewed to young people - as many as 72% in a 2010 American poll - and if that's true in the UK too, then this study might actually have as much to do with demographic factors as with religious and spiritual beliefs. One could argue that the young as a group are more vulnerable to drug dependence and anxiety, etc, while the fact that they self-identify as 'spiritual not religious' is merely because they exclude themselves from the other two groups, believing in 'something more' while never having had any contact with religion.
The point is, for such people, spirituality could well be just a category, an idea, not a journey that they commit to. One might even argue that they more deserve to be called 'non-believers' than do atheists, many of whom are deeply committed to their belief and find comfort in the certainty it gives them.
So the study could simply be an aberration. Interestingly, this article in The Psychiatrist says that although some studies confirm the connections between religious involvement, neurosis and mental illness, the vast majority do not.
In fact, of the 724 quantitative studies published before 2000, 476 reported statistically significant positive associations between religious involvement and a wide range of mental health indicators. Studies published since 2000 have largely confirmed these findings, extending them to negative and positive emotional states, across geographical location, and demographic and clinical characteristics
Another rather different thought: genuine spirituality seeking involves opening oneself up to new ideas, a step into the unknown. It can mean identifying and facing up to inner conflicts that were previously unacknowledged - getting stuff out into the open, in other words, just as happens when a person goes into therapy, as Vernon points out. To make any progress at all a spirituality seeker might at some point experience - and probably should experience - a dark night of the soul. But I'm not sure that's what the study means by anxiety and neuroses.
As it happens I'm not doctrinaire about the alleged superiority of spirituality over traditional religion, or vice versa. Horses for courses. I can see that spirituality-seeking for some people may in fact be a sort of precursor to full-blown religious commitment, as part of some established communal worship. That's not to deny that a lot of the traffic is in the opposite direction, as people flee the dogmas that have been imposed on them by parents and teachers. But non-theist spirituality-seeking can also lead to traditional theism.
The case of a friend from my student days, dead for some years now, is much on my mind. I can't recall she had any religious interests when I knew her. However when I briefly caught up with her twenty years later I found her immersed in all kinds of New Age books. She then became a devotee of Meher Baba, and I thought she'd found her spot. But by the time she died - as I learned some time later - she had become a convinced Christian, to the extent that she'd even converted members of her own family.
Since at one time we seemed to be travelling on the same spiritual path I found her sudden conversion quite shocking. It had taken her somewhere I could not imagine following: would I one day be confronted with a similar choice? How would I respond? As I say, I can't reconcile myself to it. But perhaps that's where at least some people in the SBNR camp are headed - a final surrender in the context of the traditional theism they think they've outgrown.