A significant shift away from religion is going on in Western society. Though this is patchy, and some aspects of religion are being abandoned more than others, many people still have a general belief in ‘something more’ (whether or not they call it God) and in an after-life; many also continue to engage in spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation. On the other hand, formal religious allegiance and participation is declining, as is adherence to specific religious beliefs.
This is leading to a significant group of people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, or at least ‘more spiritual than religious’. We don’t yet know much about such people, and research is still coming in. One interesting question is about their mental health. In general, religion is associated with good mental health. However, it is a complex relationship and depends on the kind of religion concerned.
One distinction is between those whose religion is the dominant force in their lives (‘intrinsic’ religious people), whose mental health is generally good; and those who are involved in religion but less committed to it (‘extrinsic’ religious people), whose mental health is less good. I summarise the data on that in my recent book on Psychology, Religion and Spirituality.
How good is the mental health of those who are spiritual but not religious? There are beginning to be indications that it is not so good. Jeffrey Vittengl recently examined data from the United States Midlife Development survey, summarised in a recent piece in Psychology Today, and found that the spiritual, but not religious, tended to be more depressed.
Other surveys have also found convergent evidence. Willard & Norenzayan found that the spiritual, but not religious, tended to have higher scores on schizotypy; that is not a mental health problem in itself but marks a vulnerability to mental health problems. Miguel Farias at the University of Coventry has found that the related group of people who regard themselves as ‘new age’ can be somewhat narcissistic and self-preoccupied.
It is too soon to know what is going on here, but this line of research may help us to get to the bottom of which aspects of religion are good for mental health and which are not. Religion seems to be fragmenting, with more people being religious in some ways and not others. That should help us to explore whether it is beliefs, public practices, private practices or experiences that are particularly associated with good mental health.
We also need to look out for differences between the generations, and in religious backgrounds. Older people who are spiritual but not religious tend to be on their way out of religion. Younger people (such as the Toronto millennials who Galen Watts is studying) are more likely never to have been religious. My hunch is that it may be the former rather than the latter who have mental health issues. I am hopeful that all this will soon get clearer. It will be intriguing to follow the story as it unfolds.