Study examines relationship between mental health and religion, spirituality

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

The Vineyard congregation worships in a refurbished French Catholic church.

Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Greater Boston

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Which group faces a higher prevalence of mental disorders: religious adherents, atheists and agnostics, or those who are spiritual but not religious? The answer may be surprising.

A study published this month in the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that “people who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.

According to the study, those who are “spiritual but not religious” are more likely than atheists, agnostics or religious people to “have ever used or be dependent on drugs and to have abnormal eating attitudes, generalized anxiety disorder, any phobia or any neurotic disorder.”

Lead researcher for the study Michael King, a professor at University College London, told CNN he’s received considerable hate mail due to the paper but nevertheless stands by the research.

He pointed to what he called “quite obvious differences,” such as the findings that “spiritual but not religious” respondents are 77 percent more likely than religious respondents to have a drug dependency and 24 percent more likely to have a generalized anxiety disorder.

The study analyzed the results of the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England, which involved interviews with 7,403 individuals. Of those participants, 19 percent were spiritual but not religious, 35 percent were religious and 46 percent were neither religious nor spiritual.

In a statement to Christian Post, Greg Stier, president of Denver-based Christian youth ministry Dare 2 Share, offered a religious perspective on the issue.

"Active participation in a local, healthy and loving church can do much to heal deep emotional issues," Stier said. "It is in the context of local churches where believers can grow in their faith, strengthen relationships with others (and) use their spiritual gifts to serve.”

According to an October 2012 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 20 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation, up from 15 percent just five years ago. Of these so-called “nones,” 37 percent describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, while about one-third describe themselves as atheists or agnostics.

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at dward@deseretnews.com.

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