Does Being 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Make People More Prone to Mental Problems?

Every so often as a science writer I run across research findings that I just know are going to become controversial. This is one such instance.

Much has been written in the popular press about the growing tendency for people to self-identify in census surveys or public opinion polls as “spiritual but not religious.” Such people identify more with “SBNR” (as the phrase tends acronymized) than they do with either being traditionally “religious,” or with being “neither religious nor spiritual.” Polls have indicated that in the United States at least a third of the population now identifies themselves as SBNR. In the European Union, the percentages are even higher.

Given those numbers, a study just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry may raise some concerns. To quote the lead author of the study, Professor Michael King of University College London, “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.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s just that the study participants are British

The study itself – and this is important to bear in mind while reading about it – was a retroactive study analyzing self-reported data from 7,403 Britons selected at random and interviewed as part of the third National Psychiatry Morbidity Study. 9 out of 10 of the participants were of British nationality, and the average age of participants was 46.

Of the participants answering a series of questions about their spiritual or religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) and their corresponding mental states, 35% described themselves as “religious,” meaning that they regularly attended a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or some other form of traditional religious practice. 46% of the participants described themselves as “neither religious nor spiritual,” with only 19% self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious.”

After analyzing all of the data, what somewhat surprised the researchers was that the group that identified itself as “spiritual but not religious” had the following characteristics:

  • They were 50% more likely to have some form of generalized anxiety disorder.
  • They had a 37% higher risk of having a neurotic disorder.
  • They were 72% more likely to suffer from some form of phobia.
  • They had a 77% higher chance of being dependent on drugs.
  • They were 40% more likely to be receiving treatment based on antidepressants or other psychotropic drugs.

Interestingly, these “spikes” of increased mental problems were found in neither the participants who self-identified as “religious” nor the group that self-identified as “neither religious nor spiritual.” Also interestingly, this particular study deviated from similar American studies in that none of the three self-reported groups were found to be significantly more happy or fulfilled than the others.

Again, we caution readers to remember that “correlation does not imply causation”

The study authors wrote, “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.” They then cautioned, “The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research.” I think, having read the study, that they should have stuck with the second statement and not made the first. Other conclusions can be drawn from their findings than the one they made.

As several commentators on the study have already pointed out, there may have been an element of “self-selection” in the study participants, in that those who identified themselves with “spiritual but not religious” may have sought solace in some form of non-traditional spirituality because they already suffered from the mental problems they reported. This is a phenomenon possibly found less often in those who identify more with traditional religions, or with no religion or spiritual practice whatsoever. So those who self-reported as “spiritual but not religious” may have arrived at those beliefs already “carrying the baggage” of minor or more major mental problems.

Another factor to be considered is that self-reported survey results are often less than accurate. People who are overweight or obese tend to chronically underestimate how much they eat when surveyed on their dietary habits, even though they don’t do it consciously. Similarly, those who identified with a particular religion (and thus wanted to protect its image) may have been tempted to underreport any mental problems they might have had. Whatever the problems with the study data may be, its findings are still interesting, especially in the light of so many people self-identifying these days as “spiritual but not religious.” I pass the study and its findings along simply because it’s interesting.

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