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Spiritual Not Religious

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.


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I don't understand why some people make such a big thing out of being spiritual but not religious. Aren't their spiritual beliefs their religion?

But I think one thing this study shows is that materialism is a religion.

I think there is a difference between having spiritual views and having a religion, so I can see why people would identify as spiritual but not religious. For example, that label would probably fit most people who follow/practice New Age spirituality. I think probably many people who identify as SBNR view religious as too dogmatic for their liking - although they may agree with some or a lot of their teachings - and so by developing their own spiritual views which are not attached to an organised religion, they feel, in a sense, more free?

I suspect religion is beneficial for those who can comply with it,but for those who cannot, I can see it is potentially a source of great suffering.

I can't see how spirituality implies religion. For example, isn't religion about belief in a god of some form and worship of same?

I don't see how having spiritual beliefs implies either of the above, though it doesn't exclude it either.

Just a casual comment, for now, Rob: -

I could be being really unfair to the authors of the study in question. But this sounds hugely flawed to me.

Even off the top of my head, I can think of one massive factor that COULD be at work, although I would need more details of how the study was conducted to be sure: It is simply the case that, in my experience, 'religious' people (and I would include members of the Secular Humanist community) tend to be rather less forthcoming in admitting to such things as depression, or the other things that you mention. Why? because it reflects badly on the religion itself, of course, and weakens to an extent any idea that they may have of their 'way' as being socially more useful than the 'ways' of others.

Over at Religious Dispatches, Elizabeth Drescher has some interesting comments on this.

And @Steve, of all the people I have known who have not been forthcoming about admitting depression, the usual reason is that it is too difficult for them to talk about. Protecting the reputation of their religion has not even been an issue.

There are a lot of potentially good and correct answers, some already given here and some at N.E.B's link, based on the findings being a correlation as opposed to causal in nature.

So I'll add a possible causation. The SBNR crowd is moving beyond the prescribed societal formulas and questioning and searching and this is not without risk.

Yes, it takes a certain kind of personality, perhaps one that is more prone to mental health issues, to embark on a journey away from societal formulas, but the journey itself may increase the risk that an already susceptible personality will experience issues.

The myths of the ages, if read as metaphors for the journey of self realization/spiritual attainment (as Joseph Campbell says they are), are full of warnings and descriptions of how one can become a victim of the psychological hazards that are out there (or in there - depending on one's perspective).

I'm not saying that this is what is going on with all SBNRers - or even most - suffering from less than optimal psychological health, but I do think it might apply to a not completely insignificant subset.

There is a perfectly good explanation for this. People who are anomalously sensitive (ASP)(psychic)are BY FAR the most likely group of people to adopt a position of being spiritual, but not religious. Their sense of spirituality is so clear that they intuitively know that religion cannot address it properly. It is too restrictive.

Religion is basically the left brain tendency towards structure, trying to make sense of the right brain ability to feel connectedness and oneness. For people who are at home with that connectedness and oneness, (ASP's) no religion is necessary to bridge the gap.

This group of anomalously sensitive people is also at a much higher risk for mental illness. Part of this is social. They are outsiders much like gay people and suffer from being able to blend in, but not able to share their true identity. They don't have a place in society that allows them to be who they really are. Studies have shown that society does not acknowledge high creativity like it does high logical skills.

The other part of this is that very high sensitivity is just hard to deal with. A crappy childhood is far more damaging to an ASP than to an ordinary child. They are at far higher risk for Bi polar disorder, eating disorders and depression than the population at large.

Another factor to take into consideration (at least in the region of the U.S. that I live in) is the mental illness caused, or at least exacerbated by intensely dogmatic religions. A child with a reasonable I.Q., brought up with a hell-fire faith is bound to have emotional issues, especially when they start thinking for themselves.

Craig Weller's answer is brilliant.

Robert during the Nineties into the Millennium when I was undergoing a particularly torrid phase of my own development I read a number of psychiatry teaching text books and one of the case studies used gives a pretty good example of how the psychiatric industry goes about defining mental illness.

It mentioned how one of the first dead give aways you're dealing with mental illness's if the patient believes in telepathy.

The situation becomes even more critical if the patient believes they've experienced telepathy or even worse're capable of employing telepathy on or in conjunction with others.

The textbook then mentioned how it was best never to leave any clues round about your private life such as family photos before mentioning a specific case where a new patient suddenly asked the psychiatrist how his daughter was?

Insisting the patient was merely fishing the account ignored the fact the patient then proceeded to recount how the psychiatrist's daughter'd been involved in a riding accident knew the horse's name and physical characteristics and was able to describe the girl's injuries and current state of mind.

At this point the author merely observed this's was one of the downsides of the career because many of "these people" seem able to pluck information "out the air" though the mechanism by which they do this "has yet to be established".

How about telepathy?

Oh silly me there I go again being mentally ill.


About your friend switching from Meher Baba to Christianity.

What counts there is was she exhibiting signs of greater compassion greater awareness less selfishness?

In other words did these switcheroos improve her character or deteriorate it?

A good example of the other side of the equation's the devout Tibetan Buddhist monk who spent twelve years in a cave flawlessly following the spiritual regimen set down for him until one day he suddenly went berserk and began smashing up the cave and all the religious accoutrements in it while railing against the Buddha and his teacher that for all his pristine efforts and ceaseless devotion he'd still failed to make any significant progress.

When he eventually calmed down though it turned out it was precisely his unwavering mechanical exactness which'd been holding him back and now he'd finally learnt to let go he made rapid progress.

Perhaps another reason could be that people who are SBNR may be more prone to ridicule and bullying than those who fall into the atheist and religious camps?

Organised religion has been around for centuries and while I think a culture is emerging that is very hostile to religion - and anything spiritual/paranormal in general - due to its long existence, individuals following a mainstream religion are possibly seen as more normal, more understandable, even to non-believers? They may think the religions themselves are nonsense, but they're used to people following religions and being one or the other - religious or atheist.

So as Craig pointed out, SBNRers may have to struggle to be who they are. And perhaps because believers and non-believers alike may see them as weird/different/non-mainstream, etc - perhaps they succumb to sneering and bullying and prejudice from both "sides".

"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]."

I'm sorry but this statement seems total nonsense to me. A key problem is the total lack of precision of the category. 'Spiritual but not religious' seems very vague, and could refer to almost anyone without a strong religious/atheistic view!

And in the context of psychiatry -- with the DSM V revisions, so many of us are supposed to be afflicted with various disorders that it would be surprising if such a vague group didn't interesct with some of these things.

So I'm afraid I'm rather sceptical!

I would just like to qualify my comment yesterday which was made, as I remarked, in rather an 'off the cuff' way. What follows may resonate, to an extent, with what others have said, especially RabbitDawg and Matt.

I would agree strongly with Elizabeth that people with depression certainly do, generally, still, have difficulty talking about it - whether they are 'religious' or 'SBNR' or of 'no fixed faith' with no obvious interest in spirituality. As an accredited healer (NFSH Healing Trust) of nearly thirty years experience, I have lost count of the number of people I've tried to help, who've suffered from all degrees of clinical depression - from mild/moderate (bad enough - I was in that category myself about 13 years ago for a short time), to truly heart-breaking degrees of severity. My partner is a BACP accredited psychotherapist of many years experience and, naturally, I know a lot of other psychotherapists of similar ilk. I know that all of them would agree with Elizabeth also, albeit (probably) with a few qualifications - I can almost hear the arguments starting as I type.

Whatever, as far as this study is concerned, I still have severe doubts about its conclusions having downloaded the paper.

Firstly: We are given inadequate information as to the flavour of the subjects' particular religious systems. For example, if they are 'Christian' then are they 'regular' C of E, Catholic, or do they belong to an evangelical branch of either of these or any other church? I have a great deal of experience of the latter type which includes having talked, at great length, to ex-members of churches who have stated quite categorically that they felt constantly pressured by church elders to conform to dogma and give an impression to the outside world that their particular creed held the answers to any and every personal and wider social issue. Two examples that spring to mind are a lady who was told to 'pray harder' to resolve her mental issues and a close personal friend (male) who was informed that 'God won't be interested in you until you get your hair cut, son'. The latter was forced, with his brothers, as a teenager, to put on a suit every Saturday and attempt to 'convert' people to evangelical Protestantism in Belfast at the height of the 'troubles'. He and his brothers did this in full knowledge of the fact that they did not actually buy into the dogmas they were espousing because they did not address their own psychological and social needs. This is an extreme example, and I have known evangelicals from milder regimes, who seek input from outside their church for help with personal issues - I encountered one last year. But, in my view, this factor, at least has the potential to skew the results of a study like this.

Secondly: What do we mean by 'spiritual' here? Of the people I've treated I'd say that SNBR's, as defined, constitute a significant minority. Of those, I've often found that their idea of spirituality is to distract themselves by burning a the odd joss stick and, maybe, sticking a few nice looking crystals around the home. The real core issues that have led them to be sitting in front of me have usually not been addressed, or they have often managed to get themselves into a situation where they have been running rings around a series of 'therapists' of some sort or other for a number of years. They are usually resistant to the idea of seeking help from a properly qualified therapist with firmer boundaries, who might guide them out of a 'situation' that they actually have little desire to escape from, in reality, yet. However, there are some who do have 'spiritual paths' and philosophies that appear to have been productive to an extent and have, at least, brought them thus far. But my experience of both types is that they are much more likely to be forthcoming about the fact that they have a particular issue than either of the other categories defined in the study. The former type will usually want to talk about nothing else (in therapy or out of it), and the latter will simply be congruent enough to be frank and honest in a manner that has no dogmatic constraints. Again, there is potential for the results of a study such as this to become distorted.

Even though the researchers have, as one would expect, used a variety of standard measures to glean data; to gain a better picture of what is going on here, I feel that one would have to dig a little deeper than merely sitting someone down in front a Psychosis Screening Questionnaire.

Although, no doubt, the study is well intentioned, it seems to have started from an initial position of some rather naive assumptions and may have benefited from input, at the design stage, from someone well versed in the sociology of religion. Despite the long list of references, I get no real sense that this happened.

We have to at least consider the dreadful possibility that this finding really is causation rather than correlation. What if spiritual ideas in general, in particular New Age, were fantasy, contrary to the real nature of the world, and (most importantly) just didn't work? I don't really believe this, but we are indulging in free speculation here. People drawn to the ideas of a spiritual path would always have an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance between their belief system that they want to be true because it is so positive and reassuring, and their actual experience of getting no results trying to attract good things through positive thinking, prayer, etc. And simply their observation of the sorry state of the human condition in the world seemingly conflicting with the spiritual teachings. They would always be trying to suppress the doubting part of their personality, creating tension and anxiety. This could at least account for the difference between the well being of SBNRs and atheists. With religious types, perhaps their greater well being could be because social conditioning gives them a greater capacity to suspend disbelief and simply not have any such cognitive dissonance.

Well said, nbtruthman. It also raises the intriguing possibility that all the posiitive thinking books are written purely for profit and may be chock full of dangerous misinformation -contributing to the ruination of countless lives.

I second Doccombe's praise of Nbtruthman's comment.
A humorous example of how emotionally unstable SBNR folks can be is found in this well written article in the Charlottesville, Virginia weekly magazine The Hook. It describes a reporter's first visit to The Monroe Institute.
Based on my own observations at local New Age bookstores, I doubt this reporter's experience was exceptional.

No doubt, most SBNR's are mentally healthy (whatever that means), but the backwaters of faith and politics will always attract the psychological fringes of society. Also, I doubt that psychologically confused folks feel very comfortable in mainstream church pews.

My whole point between my two comments (now three, my last one in this thread:-) is that:
1.) Rigid doctrines drive folks who think for themselves nuts (I put some atheists in this category).
2.) Many genuinely mentally ill people feel out of place and unwelcome at mainstream churches .

Where are they gonna go?

Quite! I couldn't have said that better myself RabbitDawg. Which is probably why I didn't!

Incidentally, I spoke about this to one of the guys I referred to earlier. When I asked him if he thought that any of the members of his church would have answered truthfully if they had been one of the subjects of this study, he was incredulous.

He was eventually expelled from the church for attempting to address a prayer meeting whilst drinking a can of lager. His brother left after he slipped into the back of a prayer meeting and, after listening to one of the elders, for about half an hour, ranting and raving to God to save an unfortunate soul who had strayed from the path of the righteous, finally realised that he was the subject of it all. All he'd done was go to the cinema and listen to a bit of rock music.

Neither are SNBR BTW. Although they do live in Devon now which, I guess, some may view as being a bit suspicious, being so close to Cornwall. And one of them has some bamboo wind chimes hanging inside his house - a bit irrational if you ask me (plainly an enemy of science and reason). So I could be wrong!

I saw this article referenced in one of the American versions of the British Journal about a week ago. At the time I didn’t think much of it as there are always studies in psychiatry that are full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. What really is the subtext of this study? Is there a hidden agenda? Is it that atheists are less likely to be mentally ill that spiritually-oriented people? Or is it that people who follow the structure and dogma of an organized religion are more mentally healthy than those who intelligently seek a truer understanding of and closeness to God rather than ceremony? I think that atheists find “spiritual but not religious people” difficult to attack and can only discredit them with a label of mentally ill. It’s easy for atheists to punch holes in religious dogma but not so easy to destroy the increasing evidence for the existence of a spiritual reality.

Most of us at one time or another could meet the examples of mental illness given in the study e.g., anxiety, depression. Consider the proposed diagnostic manual for physicians, coming out this year, which adds new diagnoses of mental illness and removes others that had previously been accepted as mental illness, e.g. homosexuality. Would anyone consider the followers of Jim Jones’s organized religion to be mentally healthy? Shall I say it; what about those who belong to the Church of Scientology or any other of many outlier religions? In all good sense are these followers of organized religion to be considered mentally healthy? Belonging to an organized religion does not give one a pass when it comes to mental illness. Mental illness is relative to the culture in which the diagnoses are made.

The same thoughts went through my mind when I first saw Rob's post. Atheists, of course, have biases just like the advocates of any other ideological view of 'God'. The whole thrust of my objection to this study is that many human beings are aggressively protective of any world-view belief and will resort to a variety of strategies to the maintain the ready supply of emotional rewards that come from being convinced that they are somehow special, or 'chosen', and everybody else is a bit deluded or thick. I could not think of a better example than the recent attempt on the part of some atheists to re-label themselves as 'Brights'. This the best example I can think of to illustrate the extreme and counter-productive lack of social self-awareness that religionists can be capable of. In this case, I find it hard to avoid the notion that it might even be oxymoronic.

Amos: I think you make a good point about people finding the "spiritual but not religious types" harder to attack. The downside of that is that it can make them even nastier in their attitude towards people like us. I understand fair and objective criticism of organised religion - although I think anyone who doesn't acknowledge the good that religions can do is not looking at the whole picture - but I don't understand why some people are so opposed to others having a general interest/belief in spirituality. There's no dogma or prejudice within basic spiritual beliefs like psi or the afterlife, spiritual types don't (generally) tend to try to force their worldview on other people. Spiritual types have never, as far as I know, done anything negative to non-believers. So why are some people so hostile?

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