I was pretty shocked to hear the results of this study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry recently, on religion, spirituality and mental health (http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/202/1/68.abstract?sid=8d0ecbb5-0c71-4852-93cb-8babb1525759).

The study analysed data obtained from interviews with 7403 people in England. Overall, 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious, and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. The results suggest that those with a spiritual understanding of life without a religious framework are ‘vulnerable to mental illness.’

I have not read the entire paper, so a critical analysis is impossible. I do not know, for example, how spirituality was defined, or what constituted a ‘religious framework’. But over 7000 participants is a pretty impressive number. As a devout atheist and someone who considers herself a spiritual being, the results are certainly interesting, and just a little shocking.

I listened to a Radio 3 Night Waves programme on the topic, and the participants included one of the paper’s authors, Michael King. The study raises the question inevitably whether the possible association between spirituality and mental illness is causal or consequential. King mentioned an ongoing longitudinal study of ‘well’ spiritual people who are not religious, and who appear to demonstrate an increase in mental illness over time.

Spirituality, the discussants suggested, is now big business, lying within the consumerism framework. It’s providers attempt to tackle the most serious of issues, include mental and physical ill health, reflecting perhaps an increasing dissatisfaction with what religion can provide.

There is nothing new about spirituality. Originally embedded within organised religion, it now seems to have evolved into an entity in its own right. A contemporary phenomenon of sorts, current notions of spirituality and leading a spiritual life can feel more reactive than constructive, and as a result, it is perhaps also weighed down by the needs of those who seek alternatives and a new way of being.

Life is challenging, increasingly so, and society’s expectations of entitlement are often hard, if not impossible, to meet. Organised religion has floundered in the midst of this. Spirituality, as one of the discussants suggested, is a potent force, and by definition therefore capable of conferring both harm and good.

I am intrigued by the fact that spirituality always seems to be discussed within an ‘either/or’ religious context. For me, atheism and spirituality feel quite separate, albeit connected, but only in so far as all my beliefs are in some way interwoven, and ultimately define me.

It is good to have such issues openly discussed. Whether a scientific approach can define the norms of religion and spirituality, and where they might lead, I have no idea.

But my (non-defensive) spiritual instinct currently says, probably not…

CQ

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