Is Spirituality Dangerous?


According to a recent (January 2013) article published by the British Journal of Psychiatry, and based on a government survey of mental health, it seems that the 19% of the British public who describe themselves as being “spiritual but not religious” also are significantly more apt to suffer from various mental, or even physical ailments, including drug and/or alcohol addiction, emotional distress, or even eating disorders.  The article, written by a team of researchers at the medical school of University College of London, would also seem to imply that not only those who belong to established religions, but even agnostics and atheists, are generally more stable.

Rather predictably, this article is bound to generate controversy, not just in the UK where eccentric opinions and behavior are almost considered an art form but in the USA, where people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” reportedly form close to 33% of the population. 

However, based on my own experience of fifty-some years in the priesthood, which include a fair amount of pastoral experience, some grad school study of psychology, and even having taught and written at least one book on the subject of the psychology of religion, I think I can hazard at least several comments on this study and its implications.

One of these, based primarily on my own observations, is that if one is going to wander off into the wilderness of eccentric behavior or personal craziness, it more often or not will center on the subjects of religion or health, or very often, both together.  (This personal craziness should be distinguished from the collective craziness of politics.)

Second, that maybe the descriptive phrase “spiritual but not religious” has a somewhat different meaning in the UK where the “Anglican” Church is still the official state-supported religion, yet whose parish churches are very poorly attended compared to the USA where an amazingly high proportion of the population still attends various churches on weekends.  Taken in these different contexts, “spiritual but not religious” could mean (in the UK) being politically antiestablishment (regarding the Church of England). But except for a distinct lunatic fringe where else but in the UK do you have people claiming to be Druids? the phrase describes that segment of the population that has become suspicious of organized religion.  On the other hand, in the USA, I suspect that the same turn of phrase (“spiritual but not religious”) more generally describes seekers of self-fulfillment through a deeper meaning in life than they seem to be able to find any church or religious denomination, which in the USA, having no official state church, tend to assume the form of competing business operations.

Third, and last (at least for now), taken in either context (the UK or the USA), it is my guess that whatever ailment, be it physical, emotional, or psychological, that might accompany so-called “non-religious” spirituality, is really a symptom of a deeper search for meaning that too often our churches, offering what seem to be only memorized formulas, have failed to address in any way that satisfies those who are not content with pat answers.  So, it could be that those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are simply more honest than most church-goers or even those self-described agnostics or atheists who have apparently given up on trying to find any ultimate reality or meaning.  And in that case, can we really blame these seekers for turning to drink or drugs, or anything else that seems to fill the existential vacuum?


R W Kropf   1/12/2013                                                       Spirituality&Danger.doc