According To Study: Does Being Spiritual Actually Make You Mentally Ill?

The words 'according to a study' can be used to justify any old garbage, and the average reader has seen enough bullshit 'studies' reported in the media to be suspicious about them all. So this is a new series for TheVine. So far we've looked at whether cute cats actually increase productivity, and whether bacon actually causes cancer. This week: does being spiritual make you more likely to have psychological problems?


I was reading books written by Richard Dawkins years before he released The God Delusion and reading Dawkins became cool. Perhaps you should call me a hipster atheist. Considering this, it's fair to say that people who make a big song and dance about being 'spiritual' are often not my kind of people. So when I saw the newspaper headlines saying things along the lines of "spiritual people are more likely to be mentally ill" (see the Sydney Morning Herald or the Daily Mail), my initial gut reaction was "Ha, people who are like me are awesome and people who aren't like me are less awesome!" Judging by the comments on the SMH article, I was not the only one thinking this way: 'How can a belief in the benevolent sky pixie and his son the zombie king be considered sane?' asked one troll. But you know what? I was being a jerk, and that troll's response to the article is amazingly wrong.

Firstly, the troll totally gets wrong what the original research was about. This isn't necessarily our troll's fault; as is often the case, there's been a game of Chinese whispers in between the researchers doing the research and the subeditor coming up with the headline. The researchers had a particular aim and findings. Journalists read a press release about it and tried to translate the bits they thought might be newsworthy and controversial. Subeditors came up with a title for the article based on the journalist's column like the one our troll responded to, obviously before reading the article. Inevitably the point of the original research was lost in a sea of misunderstandings. 

Psychology, like any other profession, often has its own jargon. Because psychology is about the human mind and behaviour, people sometimes think "Well, I'm human, I have a mind and I behave, how hard can it be to understand this jargon?". So words from psychology creep into everyday use and the meanings get twisted. People say things like 'he has a big ego' or 'I'm a little bit OCD' without really knowing how terms like 'ego' or 'OCD' are defined in a psychology textbook. But it's not so simple. In some ways, the atheist SMH troll going on about the "benevolent sky pixie" is a classic example of someone thinking they know what psychology words mean, and being wrong. Our troll is somewhat aware that delusions are related to mental illness. And they are, to some extent; people with schizophrenia do have delusions. But we all have some sorts of delusion - as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman makes very clear in his book Thinking Fast And Slow, having delusions is entirely normal for humanity. Belief in God may or may not be a delusion, but believing in delusions doesn't make you mentally ill on its own. Our troll commenter is also probably not aware that 'sanity' is more a legal concept than a psychological concept. You can be mentally ill without being judged insane, and you can be judged insane without being mentally ill. Sanity has more to do with your legal responsibility for your actions, whereas mental illness has got to do with how healthy your mind is. Technically, the troll is actually suggesting that religious people have an excellent defense if they are found guilty of murder - 'you can't hold me responsible for killing those children - I'm deluded enough to think that there's an old man in the sky!'

Secondly, quite a lot of previous research has shown that religious people generally are happier, and have lower rates of mental illness. So believing in a 'benevolent sky pixie and his son the zombie king' is actually quite good for your mental health! 

However, in fairness to troll dude, there's one important caveat to my previous paragraph about how religion is awesome for you. It sometimes seems like most psychology research comes out of the USA. And most of the research on the relationship between religion and mental health is also from the USA. The USA has cultural history and language in common with the UK and Australia, but I don't have to tell you that some things about the USA can seem pretty weird to Australians. One thing in particular that makes the USA different to the UK or Australia is that the US is much more religious. In the US, about 20% of people in surveys identify as having no religion. In Australia, the equivalent rate is 30%, and a 2009 survey of social beliefs by researchers at ANU found that less than half of Australians actually believe in life after death. About half of Brits have no religion. Where it would be a huge scandal in the US if it turned out that Obama was godless, Australia has had several non-religious Prime Ministers, and mostly nobody cares. I mean, as far as Australians are concerned, Bob Hawke sculling a whole beer at the cricket is much more interesting than him saying that he was "struck by this enormous sense of irrelevance of religion to the needs of people."

The US research seemed to show that what made religious people less likely to have mental illness was the sense of community that the religious had, and that the non-religious didn't. It's probably a bit of a lonely life for atheists in places like Alabama, and that lonely life makes it easier for you to become depressed or anxious. But in the UK or Australia, being non-religious isn't much of a danger to your social life or career (See: Bob Hawke). So it'd be interesting to do research on mental illness and religious beliefs in the UK or Australia compared to the US. You'd probably expect there to be less lonely atheists. And this is exactly what the research you saw summarised in the papers with the headline 'spiritual people more likely to be mentally ill' was aiming to do.

The UK researchers gave themselves the epic task of contacting almost fifteen thousand British households, hoping to get an interview with a member of the household. The researchers ended up with an impressive 7403 proper interviews. During the interview they asked a barrage of carefully considered questions in order to assess the household member's mental health and beliefs, asking questions about the most common mental illnesses, everything from anorexia to post-traumatic stress disorder to depression to schizophrenia to drug and alcohol abuse. The researchers also asked this exact question: "By religion, we mean the actual practice of a faith, e.g., going to a temple, mosque, church or synagogue. Some people do not follow a religion but do have spiritual beliefs or experiences. Some people make sense of their lives without any religious or spiritual belief. Would you say that you have a religious or spiritual understanding of your life?"

That they asked this question is important. The researchers were deliberately separating the religious and the spiritual into different groups, and for good reason. Spiritual people and religious people both basically believe in a 'benevolent sky pixie' of some sort, but it's only the religious - that is, people who go to church - who'll be tapping into an inbuilt sense of community that comes with being at a church and participating in its social life. It's only the religious who'll be able to tell their problems to and get advice from their pastors, advice which often turns out to be well meaning and sensible (though I for one would take issue with a proportion of the advice mostly to do with a few specific topics). This difference, then, between the spiritual and the religious was to some extent getting at the importance of community in the UK. So what did they find?

Honestly, despite the headlines, the researchers in the UK mostly found that there weren't huge differences between the religious, the spiritual and the nonreligious. Your religious beliefs generally don't have a huge effect on your mental health, according to this research. The researchers did make a big fuss over the differences that were there, but they mostly weren't dramatic differences (researchers have a tendency to exaggerate the size and importance of their findings sometimes - 'our findings were THIS BIG'). Believers (said they) were about as happy as non-believers on average. About 3% of each of the groups were receiving therapy or counselling at the time, so no difference there. Believers and non-believers alike had more or less the same rates of problem gambling, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and of psychotic symptoms (delusions and hallucinations).

Where they did find large, important differences was to do with drug and alcohol abuse. The spiritual had more drug and alcohol problems than the non-believers, and the non-believers had more drug and alcohol problems than the religious (once the researchers adjusted for age and gender and so forth in their data). So, the more accurate headline in the newspaper articles would be more like "PEOPLE WHO GO TO CHURCH LESS LIKELY TO TAKE DRUGS". Which probably wouldn't be much of a newspaper headline, because, well, duh. There was also a small difference between the spiritual, the non-believers and the religious in regards to neurotic disorders (that is, depressions and anxieties); 15% of the religious and 16% of the non-believers had symptoms that looked like clinical depression or anxiety, while 19% of the spiritual types had those symptoms. This 3-4% difference is small but reasonably mathematically solid, but I wouldn't pay it too much attention until there's more research backing it up.

Of course, there are also some limitations to the research discussed here. The research we're talking about looked at correlations between the things that people told interviewers. People who told the interviewers they smoked pot were more likely to tell the interviewers they were spiritual rather than religious, for example. But imagine yourself being one of the people that they interviewed. You open your front door, and some young university researcher says they want to anonymously ask you questions about, for example, whether you feel sad or experience hallucinations. Some things they're asking about are pretty private, and you might not want to tell the researcher about it - I mean, what if your mum is eavesdropping from the next room? Or maybe you have problems you don't really want to admit to yourself, let alone some stranger. And so it's eminently possible, for example, that it's not that the religious are less likely to take drugs, but instead that they're less likely to admit to researchers that they take drugs. Maybe a whole bunch of the religious Brits who take drugs said, "sorry, chap, not interested in your survey" before politely closing the door, because they're more ashamed of taking drugs than non-religious people.

This research is probably very useful for organisations like Beyond Blue, who'd want to know where to target their money most effectively to help the most people, but for the rest of the population it's not worth worrying too much about without more research. In secular countries, going to church doesn't make you any more likely to tell interviewers that you're happy or sad, statistically. It doesn't make much difference, really, to whether you're mentally ill or not, with the exception (perhaps) of drug and alcohol problems.  Then again, having drug or alcohol problems could makes you more likely to be spiritual, rather than the other way around. Maybe it's not that being spiritual causes you to take drugs; it could be that taking drugs causes you to be spiritual, and that taking drugs makes you less likely to feel welcome in church.

Mind you, many religions were never really about preventing mental illness in the here and now. Christianity isn't really aimed at stopping people from being depressed; it's more aimed at preparing people for Heaven (a distinction that Christian philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard have wrestled with at length). It's about what Christians perceive to be the right way to live, not the right way to avoid mental illness. If the right way to live causes you to be miserable, so be it - what's more important? Feeling miserable now, or the rest of eternity? Similarly, atheism is about what atheists perceive to be the truth; if that truth makes atheists more likely to be depressed, so be it, it's still the truth. So, even if it turned out that atheism or religion was terribly bad for your mental health, it wouldn't necessarily mean you should stop believing what you believe. In any case, whether you're religious, spiritual, or a non-believer, if you do have concerns about your mental health, there are some good resources at the links below. They're not going to care what you believe; all they care about is that you're trying to get help.


Beyond Blue


Tim Byron

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