Being ‘spiritual’: it is bad for you?

sundial and one of the three Lichfield spires

“I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” How many times have you heard someone say this? I suppose, given the devaluation of the word ‘Christian’ with western culture, and the post-modern slide into an elastic pluralistic individualism it is one of those sentences that increasing numbers of us would use to describe themselves (as can be seen from the recent Census data.)

Despite my continued attempts to hold to the ways of Jesus, the idea of a religion-less spirituality appeals to me too; leaving behind all the baggage and rigidities of proscribed doctrine and setting off on my own spiritual adventure…

However, Sam Dawlatly kindly  sent me a link to a story in the Telegraph. Here are a couple of quotes;

People who said said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists, found researchers at University College London.

They are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, have eating disorders and drug problems.

In addition, they are more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.

Professor Michael King, from University College London, and his fellow researchers wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Our main finding is that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.”

…The researchers concluded: “We conclude that there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.

“The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research.”

What is going on here then?

Firstly, we must look at the numbers a bit more closely- the study is not huge even though statistically significant;

The study was based on a survey of 7,403 randomly selected men and women in England who were questioned about their spiritual and religious beliefs, and mental state.

Of the participants, 35 per cent described themselves as “religious”, meaning they attended a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Five in six of this group were Christian.

Almost half (46 per cent) described themselves as neither religious nor spiritual, while the 19 per cent remainder said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion.

Members of this final group were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They were also 40 per cent more likely to be receiving treatment with psychotropic drugs, and at a 37 per cent higher risk of neurotic disorder.

The interesting thing is that this study is in contrast with a lot of previous research about the impact of religious belief on measures of psychological and sociological health- which sees faith has having clear benefits, even if more recent research has suggested that some of the self esteem benefits depend on the wider societal norms towards religiosity.

Accepting that this research may simply be a rogue study, there seem to me to be a few possible reasons why those who consider themselves Spiritual (but nor Religious) (SBNR) might appear to be vulnerable as a wider group.

Self selection

The link may well not be causal, but correlational. Perhaps those of us who are spiritually seeking outside the edges of organised religion are doing so because life has driven us there. Perhaps even our negative experiences of church has driven us there. It is hardly surprising that we might be seen to be stressed, troubled and even unwell. These things are not necessarily measures of the futility of the journey, but more part of any real human experience- part of the process of changing, becoming, learning to inhabit our own skin. We learn far more about ourselves in crisis than we ever do in prosperity.

The question might remain as to why this is NOT also the case for the religious? Are they not also  being challenged, shaped and changed by their contact with scripture/teaching/existential challenge? All I can say is that in my experience in Churches, this is rather rare. The pews offer comfort more than adventure.

In this sense, the idea of spiritual travellers on the road, nursing wounds on the way seems not necessarily a negative- rather it offers hope for our humanity. Despite it all, we still strive for connection with the divine.

Belonging

A lot of the presumed benefit of religion at  both a sociological and psychological level seems to be the given sense of belonging, of inclusion and connection to a wider family. Even accepting that in-groups can have all sorts of other problems, this benefit appears to be rather universal. It should not be surprising then that those who are attempting spirituality without community do not experience this benefit.

I have written elsewhere about my conviction that we experience the divine through scripture, through revelation, but perhaps most through community. We humans were made to love- and this is not an abstract proposition divorced from the mess of human contact. Nothing strips us bare, opens us up, sustains us, breaks us down, wounds us, heals us, like community. I also beleive that our approach to theology should also be one of ‘small theologies’ (HT Karen Ward) worked out in community- in respect of ‘big theologies’, but not enslaved to them.

Having said that, it seems that there are surface benefits too in just demonstrating some kind of collective respectability- even if this depends on a wider societal respect for the religious badge that we wear. I confess to less concern about this kind of religiosity. It sounds too much like the stuff that Jesus had no time for.

The lesson here then might be to encourage our spiritual seekers to connect with one another. In these times of total (but fleshless) communication, the deeper community connection described above is a rare commodity, and where it happens it is a precious flame that we should nurture.

Believing

Finally, I have been thinking about the nature of faith itself. We have many models- faith as journey, as destination, as therapy, as national identity, as absolute truth, as means of rescue from hell. From the outside all of these organised expressions of faith appear rigidly codified, doctrinal, dogmatic. They seem to demand blind observance of rules and regulations often policed by male power. Small wonder that we would be suspicious about joining such an organisation. Small wonder that pilgrims remain outside the sites of pilgrimage.

However, I am reminded of this;

Spirituality requires context. Always. Boundaries, borders, limits. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ No one becomes exalted by ascending in a gloriously colored hot-air balloon. Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale. Askesis must be context sensitive.

Eugene Peterson

Under the Unpredictable Plant

Perhaps like others who are more comfortable with being SBNR I prefer to regard faith as a journey of engagement with the God-in-all-things. To look for the marks left by Jesus on the whole of creation. But in doing this, It has become clear to me that in order to journey we need a means to travel. We need a road, and shoes to walk it with.

Like it or not, this means of travel is religion.

It is the corrective to the self centred me-first spirituality that can often characterise SBNR journeying. You know what I mean- a pick and mix spirituality tailor made to make me feel better about the choices I have made, and the lifestyle I want to live. A situation where morality and love of strangers are elasticated around our own comfort zone. (Not that these characteristics are not to be equally found in churches of course!)

It challenges us towards connection to others who have journeyed first.

To all of those SBNRs out there- I think you are the hope and the conscience of our generation. The depth and meaning you find in the mess of western civilisation will be recorded in art, law, history and handed on to the generations to come- so may you journey well…

journey's end

3 thoughts on “Being ‘spiritual’: it is bad for you?

  1. I agree with you Chris – personally I think people with mental health issues, small or large, can often seek solace in spirituality. How that relates to organised religion I am not sure. Like yourself I am less inclined to align myself with organised religion and all its baggage…

  2. Lots of food for thought. It makes me think of a man I once heard who had been a Jesuit for 40 years then was released from his vows to get married. He said spirituality without religion leads to a place where we are too focused on ourselves. Religion without spirituality leads to a place that lacks love. We need both (Only he said it better than that).

    I also remember James Finley saying that there is an enormous amount of room for self-deception in the spiritual life. You have a profound experience of God and then the ego pops up and says “Oooh, aren’t I a spiritual person!” This is not unlike St Ignatius of Loyola, who warned people to be careful after they had had the kind of experience that comes out of the blue- a pure gift from God. If we start to think this gift must be something to do with us being ‘spiritual’ then we are on dangerous ground.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that God has put a desire for him deep in our hearts. When humanity response to that desire we call this ‘religion’. Yet some would call that ‘spirituality’. Words sometimes get in the way of understanding one another.

    Community is essential. It is so because the Trinity is a community of total self-giving love. Community allows us to be caught up into that love.

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