Archives for posts with tag: Spirituality

I have been thinking about this recently.

The reflection was initially precipitated by a report earlier this year, which suggested that ‘spiritual’ people are at a higher risk of mental health problems [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9774259/Spiritual-people-at-higher-risk-of-mental-health-problems.html]. I have not read the original paper – from researchers at UCL – but seemingly those who have ‘a spiritual understanding of life’ are more predisposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, eating disorders and drug problems’ than ‘those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.’

The study was based on a survey of more than 7,000 randomly selected men and women in England. What is unclear from the brief report is how spirituality was defined, and also how the researchers came to separate ‘spirituality’ from ‘conventional religion’ or ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’.

I know many people who claim to be spiritual, but are also religious or atheist. The overlap between what people view as spirituality and some belief system, whether religious or non-religious or anti-religious, seems huge, and the notions are often inextricably bound together.

There is of course a significant problem with how spirituality is defined. As a teenage, when I emphatically renounced Catholicism, and shortly afterwards all religious beliefs, I announced myself (in hindsight arrogantly) as ‘not religious, but spiritual’, as if the label ‘spiritual’ conferred depth, and that I occupied a more-meaningful-areligious-but-holier-than-thou-world.

I abandoned the label some years ago, having become increasingly unsure what it truly meant, both to myself and in a wider context. Today, I remain an atheist, who attempts to live every moment as richly and as appreciatively as I can. Perhaps that equates with ‘spiritual’ for someone else.

Today, out of curiosity I did a mini survey at the office on how my colleagues view spirituality. The religious tended to equate the experience with things God-related. Others, who were no longer religious, viewed it as something outside and beyond themselves, something that connects to a way of being that is intangible, inexplicable, but present within.

I remain unsure of the label, and reluctant to attach it to my own way of being.

I am sure of very little. But the present feels important to me, how I live it, how I appreciate it, and how I can positively interact with those in my immediate life and beyond.

And kindness. I am a huge fan. Perhaps that is my ‘spirituality’, but I will stick with the original word.

CQ

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