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Is It Better to Be Spiritual or Religious?

A new study explores the psychological benefits of nonreligious spirituality.

Key points

  • A new study suggests there may be fewer differences than expected between people in an organized religion and those who practice spirituality.
  • Both traditionally religious and nonreligious but spiritual individuals scored higher on measures of life satisfaction than nonreligious people.
  • This research may help reduce negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding non-traditional religious practices and affiliations.
 William Farlow/Unsplash
Source: William Farlow/Unsplash

A new article published in the journal journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice suggests that there are fewer differences between people who are part of an organized religion and those who practice spirituality on their own than might be expected—at least from a psychological standpoint. For instance, both groups show elevated emotional well-being compared to nonreligious individuals.

“There have been significant changes in the American religious and spiritual landscape in recent years, with fewer than half of all Americans reporting church membership,” report the authors of the research, led by Hansong Zhang of the University of North Texas. “According to Pew Research Center, about 27% of U.S. adults consider themselves as spiritual but unaffiliated with any traditional religious group, demonstrating an increase of 8% in just the past 5 years.”

To better understand the mental health implications of nonreligious spirituality, Zhang and his team recruited 433 American adults to participate in an online study. In the study, the researchers asked participants to denote their religious affiliation, either as (1) traditionally religious, (2) nonreligious but spiritual, or (3) neither religious nor spiritual. They then asked participants to complete a series of psychological scales, including:

  • Well-being, measured using the 5-item Satisfaction with Life Scale, e.g., “In most ways my life is close to my ideal."
  • Meaning in life, measured with the 10-item Meaning in Life Questionnaire.
  • Depression, measured by the 20-item Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression Scale.
  • Delusional ideation, measured by the Peters Delusions Inventory with questions such as, “Do you ever feel as if people are reading your mind?”

The researchers then tested to see whether any of the three groups (traditionally religious, nonreligious but spiritual, or neither religious nor spiritual) differed on the measures listed above. They found that both traditionally religious and nonreligious but spiritual individuals scored higher on measures of life satisfaction than nonreligious/non-spiritual individuals. (Traditionally religious people scored highest.) They also found that traditionally religious and nonreligious but spiritual individuals showed slightly higher levels of meaning in life (e.g., “My life has a clear sense of purpose”) and lower levels of delusional ideation than nonreligious/non-spiritual individuals.

There were some downsides to religiosity and spirituality: For example, the researchers found that depression levels were higher among traditionally religious and nonreligious but spiritual individuals.

“The main conclusion was that there were relatively few differences between people who identified with non-religious spirituality and people who identified as traditionally religious,” say the researchers. “Participants from these two groups showed similar patterns on all the major variables of depression, delusional ideation, subjective well-being, and sense of meaning. These findings provide evidence that, at least psychologically speaking, non-religious spirituality and traditionally religious participants may be more similar than different.”

The authors hope their work reduces negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding non-traditional religious practices and affiliations.

“Sometimes people can have negative stereotypes toward people who practice non-religious spirituality (e.g., thinking they are in a cult),” says Zhang. “I hope the findings from this study can help reduce stereotypes toward religious minority members and help create a more accepting environment.”

References

Zhang, H. (Interview) Spirituality, not organized religion, may be the key to finding meaning in life. Therapytips.org, November 9, 2021.

Zhang, H., Hook, J. N., Hodge, A. S., Van Tongeren, D. R., Davis, D. E., & Jin, L. (2021). Nonreligious spirituality, mental health, and well-being. Spirituality in Clinical Practice. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000279

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