New Research Links Spiritual-Not-Religious to Mental Disorder

British psychiatry researchers recently stirred the roiling religious affiliation and identification pot with a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that concludes that “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.” This week, the news swam the pond to appear in a number of US news outlets.

The research, led by University College London professor Michael King, reveals a population of “spiritual but not religious” Brits that generally tracks to the US population of “Nones” identified in a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion in American Life. Some 35 percent of the more than 7,000 Brits surveyed indicated that they had “a religious understanding of life.” The majority of these identified as Christian. Nineteen percent self-identified as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), while 46 percent described themselves as neither spiritual nor religious. American “Nones,” however, seem less inclined to embrace the “spiritual but not religious” label, with fewer than half in the Pew population of the religiously unaffiliated identifying as such.

In the British study, SBNRs were found to be significantly more likely to be drug-dependent (77%) and to suffer from phobias (72%) or anxiety (50%). No wonder they’re significantly more likely (40%) than the religious to be being treated with psychotropic drugs.

Coming Soon to a Pulpit Near You!

As with periodic surveys showing relationships between levels of religiosity and well-being, this latest research is apt to find its way into many a sermon at declining churches across the U.K. and its former colonies. The gist (perhaps under a veneer of Christian pity): “There ya go! Your fakey-fakey, sage-burning, labyrinth-walking, church-of-the-blessed-ME ‘spirituality’ doesn’t make you happy.” Throw in some (largely inconclusive) studies on prayer and healing, an the result seems fairly obvious: Traditional believers are happier, healthier, and a heck of a lot saner. So there!

Not so fast. Like all research, the BJP study bears much closer scrutiny and, as its authors note, the relationship between religion and mental health—as with religion and happiness or religion and physical health—requires much deeper examination. (A very brief primer on the evaluation of empirical data might be in order at this point, but I’ll spare the reader a discussion of distinctions between correlation, causality, and selection. Really friends, though, since we’re all reading PewPRRI, and Gallup data on an almost daily basis now, it’s worth studying up herehere, and perhaps especially here.)

As Professor King confirmed, the survey data cannot tell us whether those who are already “vulnerable to mental disorder,” through genetics, psychosocial trauma, or a mix of both, are likely to feel comfortable or to be made welcome in traditional religious settings. Those suffering with psychological conditions, says King, “may reject organized religion, or they may seek existential meaning for their distress in spiritual matters. It is hard to assess causality.” The relationship, that is, may be a matter of selection, with those more vulnerable to psychological distress opting out of institutional religion.

After all, one person’s healthy “religious framework” might be a problematic constraint for another. Some such frameworks might be sufficiently rigid to comfort socially normative congregants while excluding those further out on the margins than the mere unfamiliar newcomers, single people, those without children, and so on who are often given a less than hospitable welcome in many religious communities. It’s fair to assume, as well, that even religious groups truly desiring to embrace all comers may be off-putting to people already predisposed to or suffering from mental disorders. The “organization”—liturgical, ideological, social—in organized religion may itself render the worship experience psychologically difficult even for those who might wish to participate.

In this light seems something of a stretch to suggest that disengagement with organized religion causes mental health difficulties. Someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder may avoid settings in which apparently random, spontaneous actions take place—as is often the case in praise- and witness-driven evangelical services. Or someone with one or another form of autism may struggle with enforced social engagements or chafe at ornate liturgies.

King does, however, indicate that forthcoming research from his team on a wider European population will suggest that “Spiritual people seem to be more likely to develop mental distress.” Could this be because the religious keep telling the SBNR cohort they’re narcissistic, egotistic, self-centered, boring, and just generally less mentally healthy sorts of people? Or, might it be because practices of spiritual nurture and structured psychological support that tended to be compartmentalized within religious groups or private psychotherapeutic settings throughout the modern period have not yet, under decompartmentalizing impulses of postmodernity, been restructured into wider fields of social practice?

Empirically speaking, we simply cannot say whether religion in itself has some special set of attributes that protect adherents from mental distress or if these qualities have tended to be culturally assigned to religious settings that are now increasingly unappealing to many. The issue may be one of culturally normed access at least as much as something psychologically nefarious in DIY spirituality or psychologically wholesome in conventional religious practice. The finding by King and colleagues that non-religious people did not show any greater vulnerability to mental disturbance than did the religious certainly suggests as much.

So, too, the researchers’  insistence that it is ad hoc spirituality “in the absence of a religious framework” [my emphasis] that correlates to mental disorder invites further exploration of SBNR practices. Is it an existential framework in itself—something that participants in 12-step groups find without necessarily referencing religion or spirituality and that the non-religious have sorted out in other ways—rather than its structuring in specifically religious terms that is psychologically beneficial?

An atheist friend put it this way:

“Maybe SBNRs are going nuts because, on one frequency, they keep thinking there’s got to be something else, and on another they kind of know there’s not. Religious cognitive dissonance. As an atheist, I don’t have that problem and I suppose neither do organized religion followers.”

How Often Do You Jog to Church?

Certainly, sustained, communal spiritual and religious practice can make remarkably positive contributions to mental well-being. Still, as the many people who are now spending their Sunday mornings playing soccer, flag football, or quidditch know well, so can sustained participation in team sports—only here regular practice generally creates a full trinity of psychological, social, and physical wellness. This, as the recent British study reinforces, has not been shown to be the case with regard to religious outlook, which “was not associated with health status to a significant extent.”

Indeed, a review of studies of the relationship between religion and heath by Marc Musick (University of Texas, Austin) and Meredith Worthen (University of Oklahoma) suggests a number of cautions that might well be applied to studies like that offered by King and colleagues. In their review, Musick and Worthen found no direct causal relationship between religion and health, with service attendance alone showing a meaningful correlation that extends to measured benefits in mortality. Going to church seems to be a good thing healthwise, but it’s not clear whether it’s the going or the church that produces positive effects.

Given such findings, Musick and Worthen indicate, highlight the need to separate elements of religiosity in studies of religion and well-being, distinguishing activities such as praying or attending worship services from ideologies expressed in terms such as “religious belief,” “religious outlook,” “religious worldview,” and so on that do not necessarily have any relationship to religiously-motivated activity. They argue that “to discuss the association between ‘religion’ and health is overly simplistic given the complex ways that people live their religious lives.”

Thus, at a minimum, we need to consider if psychological, social, and physical benefits correlated to religion have to do with believing in certain ways—having “a religious life-view.” Or, rather, are they more closely associated with behaviors such as getting yourself up and out of the house for services? Such religiously-motivated activities can be seen as psychologically and socially analogous to skedaddling down to the tennis courts for your regular league match on a Saturday afternoon rather than schlepping to the local church, mosque, or synagogue.

By contrast, it’s  worth noting that athletic activities can take on profoundly religious, spiritual, and ethical meanings—especially those with a particular engagement with nature, as University of Florida professor Bron Taylor has argued with regard to surfing and fly fishing. Zumba and Pilates classes in otherwise empty church halls notwithstanding, the reverse in terms of physical benefit is not typically the case with religious practice.

Musick and Worthen likewise question glowing findings on religion and well-being by highlighting often ignored negative effects of religion on health. Conservative Protestant beliefs in “the basic sinfulness of the world,” for instance, have been tied to lower levels of well-being. So, too, religious constructions of gender that map to issues of reproductive healtheducational equalitybody imagedomestic violencepoverty, and so on clearly undermine multiple dimensions of wellness in ways that are masked by studies that overgeneralize diverse, often contradictory notions and practices of religion.

There are plenty of good reasons to explore the web of connections between religion and health. But encouraging the sin of pride among religionists is surely not among them. Rather, one hopes that future studies will highlight both the positive and negative health effects of traditional religion, unaffiliated spirituality, non-religious activities and ideologies, and various in-betweens so that we might better understand the potential for human thriving in all its psychological, political, and cultural complexity.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com