Self-Focused Religious Beliefs — Poorer Mental Health?

Are young people taking up, or making up, new forms of spirituality uniquely concerned with self-fulfilment? Does this lead to individualism at the expense of society and their own mental health? Or is this a scare story which gets cause and effect mixed up?

A University of Queensland study quoted in finds that “young adults with a belief in a spiritual or higher power other than God were at more risk of poorer mental health and deviant social behaviour than those who rejected these beliefs”, with young men holding “non-traditional religious views […] at twice the risk of being more anxious and depressed than those with traditional beliefs”.

The researchers saw the common thread in the shift from traditional religion to a non-religious spirituality as individualism, with a focus on self-improvement and fulfilment which they saw as detrimental to our mental health, and which is strongly affected by the quality of relationships. Lack of social responsibility and collective interests were also cited as reasons for a more fragmented, anxious society, and concentration on personal growth was seen as contradictory to positive social change.

Young people were apparently mixing and matching traditions and influenced by media as certain religions with celebrity followers become “trendy”. Many of them probably fall between the categories of the study with its rather strange classification “one God” or “not-God” as if a couple of traditional monotheistic religions had a monopoly on God, and as if all other forms of spirituality could be classified as belief in “a spiritual or higher power”. Buddhism certainly does not fit anywhere in the scheme…but this is by the by.

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The point could of course be put the other way round, that those with poorer mental health and deviant social behaviour were likely to cast around for meanings and adopt unconventional religious beliefs. If they are anxious and depressed then something in the traditional framework is maybe not sufficient for them? It does not seem that their new religious beliefs can be proved to be the cause of anything. The study seems to me rather to describe the world we are living in today and then to take a rather misplaced moral tone about it.

Personally I see no necessary contradiction between self-fulfilment and care for others — it is hard to imagine self-fulfilment in a vacuum, without satisfactory relationships and a feeling of being active and responsible in society. Individualism in society may be an isolating trend, but it is surely down to many more factors, e.g. economic and cultural, than people’s spiritual beliefs.

The way out of this isolation may well be the forging of new kinds of relationships. Traditional religion will adapt, new forms of spirituality will develop, older ones be rediscovered. The important thing is for people to find meaning and use it to inform what they do.

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