There is little agreement within the scientific community about how to distinguish spirituality from religion for research purposes. A number of studies have simply used measures tapping “religiousness/spirituality” when investigating mental health outcomes among the religiously and spiritually inclined. A few studies have examined religion and spirituality as separate entities.
On the basis of this latter set of studies, it seems that religiousness and spirituality might influence health and wellbeing in ways that differ from one another. These differences are important, not only for what they might mean for individual wellbeing, but for what they might mean for the wellbeing of society as a whole.
These days people seem to be fashioning their own individualised form of spirituality. In doing so, they are able to draw from countless sources for spiritual beliefs and practices that suit their particular needs. We now have a spiritual marketplace that provides a vast array of “spiritual” products. Specialty shops sell crystals and all sorts of other paraphernalia, and bookshops stock large numbers of books on spiritual matters.
Together, these provide all manner of means and methods to facilitate connection with the universal spirit, to unleash one’s inner potential, or to attain self-enlightenment, inner healing or personal transformation. Retreats, seminars and workshops that aim to equip individuals with the necessary tools or techniques to meet similar objectives have proliferated over the past few decades. Spirituality is a burgeoning industry.
The question arises as to whether do-it-yourself spirituality delivers mental health benefits. Does an approach that focuses on connectedness with the universal spirit, self-transformation and/or self-enlightenment make people happier and improve their relationships with others? Does it enhance their capacity to function effectively within society?
As part of my PhD research, I examined a range of outcomes among a large sample of young adults born in Brisbane between 1981 and 1984 according to whether they believed in God, believed in a spiritual or higher power other than God, their religious background, and whether they attended church services.
The findings from this research showed that young adults who believe in a spiritual or higher power other than God had higher rates of problems in the three domains of mental health examined. Both males and females who embraced this belief were more likely to be anxious and depressed, to have disturbed and suspicious thoughts, and to behave in an antisocial manner.
By contrast, belief in God, church attendance, and religious background appeared to have little connection with anxiety and depression or thought disturbance in young adulthood. Lower rates of antisocial behaviour were found however among males who attend church on weekly, and among females who were either unsure about God or believed in God.
The overall findings support the view that religious and non-religious forms of spirituality need to be distinguished from one another when examining their connections with mental health. Treating religiousness and spirituality as the same thing is to ignore fundamental differences in the worldviews of those who maintain beliefs tied to religious teachings and those who embrace alternative forms of spirituality.
The findings also suggest that alternative spiritual belief systems require more attention if their potential link to poorer mental and social wellbeing is to effectively explored.
Much has been written about disenchantment with religion as being a major influence in the shift away from mainstream religious beliefs and practices to alternative forms of spirituality within developed nations.
Anti-religionists often cite misuse of authority and power, constraints on personal freedom, hypocrisy, encouragement of personal guilt and intolerance towards others as going hand in hand with institutionalised religion.
It remains the case however that religion has also played a crucial role in promoting notions like empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and social justice. Religious organisations and individuals continue to play a key role in caring and providing various kind of support for the impoverished, the mentally ill, and other marginalised groups.
Comparatively little critical attention seems to have been directed towards the potential benefits and harms of new religious or spiritual organisations, their leaders, and the beliefs and practices they promote. Indeed, there has been a tendency for numerous popular and scholarly writings to presume that spirituality is somehow “better” than religion in terms of its potential to enhance wellbeing.
So far, there is little available evidence from which one is able to draw informed conclusions about the overall benefits or harms of spirituality relative to religion.
Clearly, religion has the capacity to divide and to unite families, communities and whole societies. To assume that spirituality does not involve this same potential is to ignore a fundamental common feature of both - people with particular beliefs and practices that hold repercussions for themselves and for those with whom they interact.
There is much to learn about alternative spiritualities, if we are to understand their connections with mental health. Some key questions that need to be answered include the following:
- To what degree does the belief that one is on a personal spiritual journey or quest reinforce prosocial values and attitudes?
- Does the belief that all things are connected at a spiritual level serve to strengthen one’s sense of connection with others at the everyday mundane level or instead serve to de-emphasise the overall importance of the nature of one’s daily interactions with others?
- Does an emphasis on self-transformation and personal growth help to reinforce or undermine notions like moral obligation, social responsibility and social justice?
- To what extent does the inner spiritual quest lead to improvement in wellbeing, and to what extent might it encourage an undue focus on oneself and one’s own personal problems, thereby exaggerating the importance of both?
It would seem no coincidence that the move away from traditional religion to alternative forms of spirituality has taken place at a time in history when consumerism and individualism have continued to escalate. The big question is whether this shift is serving to counter the consumeristic and individualistic nature of today’s societies or is inadvertently reinforcing it.