The study may encourage reflection
SEARCHING: Many people now embrace spirituality
Matters religious have always generated interest and this may vary from enthusiasm to outright hostility. A scientific paper published in the January issue of the 'British Journal of Psychiatry' is no different.
'Religion, spirituality and mental health: results from a national study of English households' by psychiatrist Michael King and colleagues from the University of London deals with the relationship between religion and spirituality.
For centuries, religion and spirituality were seen as inextricably bound to each other, with spirituality seen as the more reflective and prayerful element of religious practice.
Over time, this changed and by the 20th century the two had separated. Apart from a minority of deeply religious people who still clung to the belief that each was bound to the other, the public viewed them as separate constructs.
Ask the question of most people in the Western world today "Are you religious?" and they might say that they are spiritual but not religious.
Occasionally, they could tell you that they also attend church and engage in personal religious activity, such as prayer, fasting and so on, but for most there is no connection to formal religious practices.
Indeed, in the minds of many, spirituality is viewed as superior to religion since it is self-determined and is inwardly driven, as distinct from religion which is seen as institutional, as stemming from sources external to the person themselves and as having constraining doctrines. Because the impression has been created that spirituality is more holistic than religiousness, there are assumptions that it is also more beneficial psychologically.
The study examined the responses of over 7,403 subjects selected from the general public between October 2006 and December 2007 across England. Information on whether the respondents viewed themselves as religious, as spiritual but not religious or as neither was gathered.
Thirty-five percent described themselves as religious, meaning that they attended the church, mosque etc. regularly; 46pc were neither religious nor spiritual and 19pc were spiritual.
The study found that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual or than those who were religious.
Overall, the spiritual group had more mental disorder including depression, anxiety and phobias and had greater use of mental-health treatments in comparison to the other two groups.
Additionally, those who were religious were significantly less likely to use, or be dependent on, drugs or alcohol. The study concluded that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.
One possibility suggested by the authors is that members of the spiritual group were engaged in an existential search that was driven by their emotional distress.
Another possibility is that the practices and injunctions that are laid down by most religions are associated with a lifestyle that reduces the risk of mental-health problems.
In a world that is increasingly cynical about the value of religion and adulatory of spirituality, the study may at least encourage a moment's reflection on what the positive ingredient might be and, for the person who is doubtful, whether it is worth trying it again.