Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Actually Bad For One's Mental Health?

I love these kinds of optical illusions because they help remind me reality is not necessarily what I think it is.

A couple of weeks ago I book marked an article from the Guardian UK that discusses a recently released British study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The article is based on a short abstract of the full study but I was not going to pay $15.00 for a 24 hour look at the full study to get a better idea of their methodology.  However, the abstract was written by the authors and they do state as their conclusion that: People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.  That is a very strong conclusion since the authors give no indication in the abstract that they bothered with any in depth interviewing which might indicate if the mental health issues existed prior to becoming 'spiritual but not religious'.  I have published the entire Guardian article below and the author of the article, Mark Gordon,  suggests a different conclusion, that it's the fault of churches for failing to meet people's needs. 

Spiritual, but not religious? A dangerous mix

The prevalence of mental disorders among those who 'do God' alone is an indictment of churches' failure to meet their needs

Mark Gordon - Guardian UK - 1/9/2013
People who are "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. "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]." The work supports evidence from other studies too. (Actually it only supports a correlation.  It says nothing about causation.)

All the usual weaknesses associated with asking individuals about religion are at play here, as the authors acknowledge. Nonetheless, the study prompts a number of 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.(Operative words are 'healthy spiritual tradition', which is true of religious traditions as well.)

This raises another question, though. Do religious organisations in the UK today take enough notice of the insights of psychology and, conversely, do schools of therapy treat spirituality seriously? As the Cambridge psychologist and priest Fraser Watts explored in a recent talk, American therapists, for example, seem to be far happier talking about their clients' spiritual concerns than their British counterparts.

This must highlight broader cultural differences. In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche. (Now there seems to be a qualifier in that some forms of Christianity are demanding and exalted status in this equation of religion and freedom.)

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.

Other results from the research are striking too, though similarly not determinative. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were significantly younger and more often white British, but were less likely to have qualifications beyond secondary school, perhaps challenging research purporting to show that atheists are more intelligent. (Or that main stream religions have abandoned the lower economic classes.)

Another finding of this work was that those who were neither religious nor spiritual had just as good mental health as those the religious. This contradicts a notion widely held in positive psychology that religion is good for happiness (though that positive correlation typically derives from North American evidence.)

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can "do God" on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it.


I'm never quite sure what to make of these kinds of survey studies. I'd really need to see the survey and get a better feel for the methodology, consequently I take these results with something of a grain of salt.  I've actually read far more studies linking severe mental illness, at least in terms of psychotic delusional content, with fundamental religious interpretations. There are also more than a few studies that link increased sexual and physical abuse and major depression with being raised in fundamentalist families.  Even then, I'm not sure I would be so quick to establish causation with the correlation.  When one is talking about demonstrated changes in neuro chemistry it's hard to separate nature from nurture.

There's no doubt that some 'spiritual but not religious' tend march to their own drum and eschew communal spiritual experiences.  Although in general it's never particularly healthy to isolate in your own little world, I'd have to see more data to conclude the isolation was a product of the spirituality and not a precursor. On the other hand  I would hardly be shocked if a similar study done with video game players found that all that isolation wasn't particularly good for their mental health as well.  It just seems when the topic is spirituality or religion, negative correlations generate more media interest which all too often slides into causation.

My clients want me to teach a group called "Psychotic or Psychic'.  I have not done so for a number of reasons and one of them is the fine line between the two experiences.  Most of that line has to do with one's ability to live with the knowledge that the real world is mostly set in stone in terms of our experiential reality, but not always.  A person almost has to be super sane to seek out those experiences which transcend normal reality.  In other words they have to truly hold to a world view which can encompass seeming 'impossible' changes in otherwise stable aspects of time/space/matter reality.  In my experience those who seek out these experiences are generally unprepared for the consequences, both emotional and intellectual, of actually having these experiences and that includes those who seek out these experiences from a religious or spiritual framework.  In some respects, those who approach these experiences from a religious or spiritual framework are at a disadvantage because when the fear hits, and it will because our egos are vested in this reality and not other realities, their framework for dealing with the fear is to go right to the devil card because fear is cognitively linked with bad/threatening/evil.  Jesus was certainly aware of this because His first words to His followers after his Resurrection were 'Be not afraid' and when Thomas intellectually doubted, Jesus allowed him to touch the reality of his risen body.  Thomas found out Jesus was not a visual hallucination or an ephemeral group psychotic experience produced by desperate wishful thinking.  He was the real deal.

I don't know with any certainty whether being 'spiritual but not religious' is bad for one's mental health.  What I do know is that seeking out non ordinary experiences without meditating on the potential consequences, and this includes drug use, can be bad for one's mental health.  Maybe the moral of the story is 'be careful what you wish for because it may not be what you expect.'


  1. Glad you can comment again. I had the advantage of not having to use a captcha on this blog, but when I did, I too frequently misread the captcha.

    Balance is a good word to use for this topic. I use reality testing in a different sense. One of my definitions for a 'real' other wordly experience is that it leaves demonstrable changes in this reality. Healing is the prime example, but there are other ways to reality test other kinds of experiences. Pyschosis rarely leaves objective changes in actual reality.

    I worked with one client quite a while ago that was treated for years for psychosis and delusional thinking, mostly in institutional settings. Unfortunately he wasn't truly psychotic, as a couple of psychiatrists experienced with a little telekinesis demonstration, but he also was far from 'balanced' in this reality. His trouble was he couldn't always make clear separation between the realities he was functioning in. Once he understood cognitively what was going on he was able to stabilize his experiences. He still takes a small dose of an atypical antipsychotic just to stay grounded in consensus reality, and yes he's a loner in his personal life, but a real treasure to have on our staff because of his work with his peers.

  2. I like your concept of a real other-worldly/religious experience: demonstrative changes in this reality. To me that suggests "grounding" - that true spirituality grounds a person more deeply. Thus stabilizing one's mental health as well. Your concept makes total sense.

  3. A lot to ponder and reflect on here. I recall the author of this blog bringing up the seeking out non ordinary experiences some time ago in other contexts, such as in the occult, and I agree it could be bad for one's mental health to venture alone into such domains. It could have perhaps been in a blog that referred to Sarah Palin's type of stage of religious development that dabbles into domains with delusional ideas in the framework of narrow perspectives and perceptions in their sense of the core message of Jesus and the Gospels.

    Since this is the age of information, the internet brimming with all sorts of websites for the spiritual and/or religious seeker, I have personally been very cautious about what I will buy into. I do believe in a healthy kind of cynicism which can be a protection of one's mental and spiritual health. I do suppose that there might be a fine line between cynicism and doubt too.

    I think that Thomas had a unique experience because for some reason he was not around to witness what the other disciples witnessed firsthand. It does seem to me in my own experience that God is unique to us all and will provide all that we need if we believe.

    As for this statistical analysis, I believe the author of this blog has a good grip on reality enough to know that there does not seem to be enough truth or substance to back the statistical claims & there is a need for further research. The report seems to be a judging from appearances only. However, there is a certain truth that the Churches have failed and one can see that by looking at the history of the Church & the pathological disorders in dogma handed down as truth and the way to salvation which keeps people unenlightened and their Faith and spiritual growth impaired significantly, resulting in the many divisions, political alignments with truly evil regimes and the religious sense of a Sarah Palin type.

  4. Colleen, please explain what you mean by this. "When one is talking about demonstrated changes in neuro chemistry it's hard to separate nature from nurture."

  5. TheraP, would you please elaborate on your blog post about St. Paul and which parts of those writings that you agree are Truth and which parts you believe are not Truth, if that be the case of your understanding. If we follow the "tradition" we might find ourselves replicating the problems of the past and going the route of the Roman way, imho, and that is why I ask you. For example, the issue of divorce, and the text which says that women can not speak in Church and are subservient to their husbands. Paul seems to make these a "commandment." Is it possible that these sections have been mistranslated or/and misinterpreted? And, if it is the case that other spiritual guides/Saints in the Church have elaborated on these things since those traditional writings that are in the Bible to make it clearer for us, please provide a source for that writing.

    As for doubt, I have no doubt of the spiritual experiences I have had which have come to me not by my own will and I hold them close to my heart. I do have great difficulty in the way that our Church is evolving via the internet. People will take a word or two and twist it around to suit their own agenda. To be honest, I want no part of it anymore. I find it to be more oppressive & confusing than enlightening.

  6. To add to that, when I said I want no part of it anymore, I find that I have needed to be a part of it nevertheless. Paul says somewhere, or rather asks, "Who are the debaters of this age" or who are the debaters of this time, I have found this blog and Bill's, NCR and most of the links on those sites to be part of and a place for that debate.

  7. What I mean is in schizophrenia, bi polar and major depression we see actual changes in the neurochemistry of the brain which is why drugs can be chemically created to target the neurochemistry. What we don't know is how much of the changes in neurochemistry are genetic or epigenetic or the result of a stress inducing environment or any combination there of.

  8. Thank you for your response to this, Colleen. The patient would be able to fill you in on whether the changes in neurochemistry from depression were epigenetic or the result of a stress inducing environment, imo.

    You say that "in schizophrenia, bi polar and major depression we see actual changes in the neurochemistry of the brain.." How do you see those changes? By a brain scan or some other way?

    You also said, Colleen, in your comment above: "Psychosis rarely leaves objective changes in actual reality." That does not make sense to me at all. Do you consider Hitler psychotic or not? Or, does the psychiatric profession not include someone like him or a mass murderer as psychotic?

  9. Also, at the time the telekinesis took place it might have changed since then to a more normal range with some rest or by the help of a friend who was caring enough and truly loving enough to just be kind to them.

    Lacking in this world is kindness. Not lacking in this world is stress. Many people are turned off by religion because it has a history of being hypocritical and prejudiced and too quick to judge people. People say they understand and have no understanding or very little of it. They want you to follow them and say they are first among equals, which is an oxymoron of a thing to say. There are elitist of all sorts and what I see now is that there are supposed spiritual and/or religious people who are also shrinks using whatever excuse they can find to diagnose and/or label people instead of just loving them and being kind to them.

    I don't know what TheraP's views of Paul are and I don't know what sort of Jesus that you know that you think you can Lord it over someone else and judge them and treat them with unkindness and respect.