What are the benefits of being religious? Will it make you happier? Will you live longer? Or does it depend on what kind of religion or spiritual practices you follow? These are key questions for researchers in the area of psychology of religion and mental health.
Recent research claims people with higher levels of religious involvement have better mental health.1 This includes better coping strategies for dealing with illness, physical disability, depression and negative life events.2,3 Controversially, some researchers have even claimed that those who identify as spiritual, in the absence of the institutional framework of organised religion, have worse mental health both than those who are religious, and also than those who identify as neither religious nor spiritual (page 71).4
But what do these categories of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ actually mean? If we can’t define our terms clearly, how can we trust measurement tools and research claims? In this article, I want to explore some of the challenges in defining religion and spirituality for research purposes.
There’s no real agreement among researchers about what ‘spirituality’ is.5 Within religious traditions, spirituality has been understood as a particular devotional path, designed to deepen one’s relationship with God.6 Outside this context, spirituality has been understood as the search for the sacred,7 for transcendence,8 for meaning and purpose in life, for spiritual connection, wholeness and integration,9 in a way which involves non-ordinary levels of consciousness.10 But for research purposes, these terms can be difficult to pin down or operationalise. It can also be difficult to isolate them from more generic measures of human flourishing or wellbeing.5,11 Monod and colleagues warn that ‘no definition of spirituality is universally endorsed and no consensus exists on the dimensions of spirituality within health research.’12
Defining ‘religion’ is complex too. Religion can be seen as the doctrinal teachings, beliefs, values, and ceremonial practices of a specific institutional world faith, such as Christianity or Islam.13 This definition sounds straightforward enough. However, open a book on anthropology and religion, and things get more complicated. In cross-cultural studies, for example, anthropologists have often focused on what religion ‘does’ by observing social networks and practices, rather than what religion ‘is’ in terms of beliefs and doctrines.14 By contrast, psychologists have tended to focus on defining religion by beliefs. But is someone ‘religious’ if they believe in God, but don’t go to church? Do we define a religious person by the beliefs they hold, or the practices they engage in? Or is it a mixture of both? Some researchers have argued that research in this area has suffered by over-emphasising individual beliefs, and ignoring the wider psychological impact of participation in religious communities, cultures, and practices.3
Spiritual, but not religious?
In a book exploring contemporary religion in the UK, the sociologist Linda Woodhead argues there has been a shift in recent years away from ‘religion’, towards ‘spirituality’.15 This shift is mirrored in recent research in psychology. In a systematic review, for example, Monod and colleagues note that over the last 15 years there has been a move to measure spirituality and health, rather than religion and health.12 This shift has led to attempts to make a demarcation in research between participants who identify as ‘religious’ and those who see themselves as ‘spiritual’. Some argue it can be helpful to have even more categories, which distinguish between those who are ‘religious’, ‘religious and spiritual’, ‘spiritual but not religious’, and ‘neither spiritual nor religious’.9
This approach can result in religion and spirituality being defined negatively against each other.8 So, for example, for some researchers, spirituality can be seen in a positive way, concerned with meaningfulness, the search for transcendence, and focused on personal experiences; and is contrasted with religion, seen in a negative way as authoritarian, institutional, restrictive, and legalistic.16 Alternatively, others will see religion in a positive way as a communal and ethical tradition, which generates social cohesion; and contrast this with spirituality, viewed as an individualistic practice that has become commodified in the market-place.17
But can religion and spirituality be distinguished so easily? Can the two phenomena be disentangled? The philosopher Charles Taylor argues that any spirituality that searches for the transcendent is in fact born out of religion. In his seminal work, A Secular Age, Taylor is not interested in the ‘truth’ of religion, but in exploring the conditions of belief in modern society.18 He charts how Western society has moved from what he calls a premodern social imaginary, in which belief in God and an enchanted world is taken for granted, to a modern secular social imaginary, with a disenchanted world in which belief in a transcendent God is hard to sustain. But for Taylor, our consciousness is still haunted by the premodern social imaginary. We therefore want to believe, but the conditions of belief are untenable. Instead, we ‘mourn’ and ‘search’ for the transcendent in different ways. If Taylor is to be believed, then attempting to define the spiritual without reference to the religious that went before, is a failure to understand the social and cultural contexts of secularised modernity.
As researchers and practitioners, we need to be cautious of any research claims about the benefits or harm that religion or spirituality cause, without scrutinising carefully what precisely is meant by religion or spirituality. As Loewenthal argues, ‘because of the range of ways in which religion has been defined and measured, we cannot make general inferences about the relationship between religion and mental health. We need to know which aspect of religion is under examination when considering findings and conclusions’.13
In research, as in therapy, asking critical questions is always a good place to start.
Jane Hunt is a programme leader at Metanoia Institute. She is also a member of the BACP Spirituality Executive. Jane’s research interests lie in exploring the relationship between psychotherapeutic theory and religious constructs, as well as considering how therapeutic training programmes equip therapists to work with spirituality, religion and belief.
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