Are the ‘Spiritual but not religious’ mad?

I’m aware that we can’t extrapolate the findings of a UK study, but thought this may be of interest nonetheless:

Two articles appeared yesterday in the media claiming those who are ‘spiritual’ but not practicing organised religion were more prone to mental health problems, than those practicing religion and those neither religious nor spiritual.

Daily Mail:

Being spiritual may give life deeper meaning, but it can also make you more susceptible to mental illness, new research suggests.

A study found that people professing to be spiritual, but not conventionally religious, were more likely to suffer from a host of mental challenges.

They suffered problems including abnormal eating conditions, drug abuse, anxiety disorder, phobias and neurosis.

They were also more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.


They are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists, found researchers at University College London.

They are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, have eating disorders and drug problems.

In addition, they are more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.

Professor Michael King, from University College London, and his fellow researchers wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “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.”

Before I move on I want to note that both articles concluded with this comment from the researchers:

The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research.

The study was published in The British Journal of Psychiatry:



Religious participation or belief may predict better mental health but most research is American and measures of spirituality are often conflated with well-being.


To examine associations between a spiritual or religious understanding of life and psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses.


We analysed data collected from interviews with 7403 people who participated in the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England.


Of the participants 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. Religious people were similar to those who were neither religious nor spiritual with regard to the prevalence of mental disorders, except that the former were less likely to have ever used drugs (odds ratio (OR) = 0.73, 95% CI 0.60–0.88) or be a hazardous drinker (OR = 0.81, 95% CI 0.69–0.96). Spiritual people were more likely than those who were neither religious nor spiritual to have ever used (OR = 1.24, 95% CI 1.02–1.49) or be dependent on drugs (OR = 1.77, 95% CI 1.20–2.61), and to have abnormal eating attitudes (OR = 1.46, 95% CI 1.10–1.94), generalised anxiety disorder (OR = 1.50, 95% CI 1.09–2.06), any phobia (OR = 1.72, 95% CI 1.07–2.77) or any neurotic disorder (OR = 1.37, 95% CI 1.12–1.68). They were also more likely to be taking psychotropic medication (OR = 1.40, 95% CI 1.05–1.86).


People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.

OK, the major problem with drawing any conclusion from this study, is the ‘chicken and egg’ question. Which came first, spirituality or mental illness?

Put simply, does being ‘spiritual’ without being religious cause mental problems? Or does having mental problems cause folk to search for spiritual understanding without wishing to practice religion?

The popular assumption will be that a spiritual outlook causes mental problems; however, it is equally valid to claim that those with existing mental health problems seek a spiritual understanding for comfort.

Another intrigue thrown up in this study relates to the mentally ill and the practice of religion.

Is it possible to infer that those not practicing religion have less social support, increasing vulnerability?

If this is the case, then the question must be asked as to why this group has a reluctance to be part of a religion.

Religion, was articulated as: “the actual practice of a faith, e.g. going to a temple, mosque, church or synagogue”.

Is it possible that the mentally ill feel their respective place of worship is uncomfortable for them?

If so, then searching questions must be asked.

Enhanced by Zemanta

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.