I tend to view those who identify under the banner of “spiritual-but-not-religious” (SBNR) with the same skepticism that I give to the claims made on late night infomercials for supposedly “magic” products. (Are you tired of obeying a higher authority because it keeps you from indulging in your desires? Had enough of paying homage to time-honored rituals or traditions? Do you feel like your beliefs are too special to identify you with any established organized religion? There’s a way to hold onto your need to tell people what to think without being obligated to join a life-affirming community! Why not try spirituality!) Truly, this label seemed to me like the worst of all possible worlds. There’s no sense of shared history if you’re the only one in on your beliefs. And spirituality still entails a cavalcade of cognitive distortions and unhelpful thought patterns, yet it’s seemingly impossible to challenge or think critically about the harmful aspect’s of one’s spirituality when someone’s beliefs are often fluid, contradictory, and idiosyncratic.
Indeed, the SBNR also seem to suffer higher levels of mental illness and substance abuse, according to a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Past academic studies in the United States have come to similar conclusions, said Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor at Stanford University. Most academic research about religion and well-being, said Luhrmann, concludes that religion is good for one’s health. According to Luhrmann, organized religion provides three outlets that benefit churchgoers’ well-being: social support, attachment to a loving God and the organized practice of prayer. But I challenge whether these three outlets are really so essential; especially the latter two of the three. There is no denying that some people derive great joy from their churchgoing experience. I do not intend to refute the fact that some people like going to church. Nor do I intend to argue that some people enjoy the act of prayer. Or that such happiness contributes to one’s well-being. I will argue, that religion is not the only way to achieve a high standard of well-being, nor is it the best means of achieving it.
Certainly, there is something to be said about the health benefits to social interaction. Scientific studies can back up the claim that social interaction is essential to combating the aging process and a supportive network of family and friends can extend the longevity of one’s life by years. Not just by providing care to the elderly when they become infirm, interaction with family and friends seems to inoculate people from mental health issues and contributes to the emotional resiliency of an individual as they age. Where I challenge this first claim is that churches are not the only place one can receive social support. A more subjective, self-reported measure, namely “religiosity,” has shown an interesting age-related difference: In a 12-year follow-up study (Kraut, Melamed, Gofer, & Froom, 2004), religiosity was associated with lower adjusted mortality for younger respondents and with higher adjusted mortality for a 55-year or older cohort, as compared with nonreligious respondents. One can find social support in just about any venue. Churches are convenient because they offer a predictable routine for devotees every Sunday. But so does a group of friends meeting up for happy hour. Or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Or a myriad of other situations. Churches do not have a monopoly on boosting one’s well-being, and so the SBNR crowd that shun church attendance need not suffer for lack of a devout clique.
Perhaps most objectionable of the three outlets is the second claim that one needs an omnipotent invisible friend to stay healthy. It seems obvious to point out that the populations with the highest standards of living are also the most atheistic. Living completely unattached from God has not slowed them down one bit. And besides, even those who regularly pray to God don’t necessarily view Him as loving. Many Christians may feel attachment to a stern God, one who condemns homosexuality and women speaking up in church. Others may see the deist God, an absentee parent; He said “Let there be light”, and then disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. I don’t think evidence would show that people who believe in one version of God over the other have a statistically significant higher standard of well-being because of their belief in a loving God as opposed to a vengeful one.
Finally, the power of intercessory prayer has been cast into doubt many, many, many times as a medical treatment option. Faith alone cannot heal people. At best it can provide a placebo effect. At worst it can provide false hope to a dying patient. To say that prayer treatment is no better than the placebo effect is to say that the effects of faith are indistinguishable from providing no treatment at all. Prayer is not essential to living a spiritually fulfilled life. Eastern religions can provide people with a spiritual outlet that does not require organized prayer to a benevolent God. It seems that prayer merely provides a practitioner with a reliable and familiar ritual. The act of praying reduces stress; who one prays to or how they choose to do it does not imbibe people with any benefit. One could improve their well-being by praying to just about anything,not just a loving God. Nor is prayer the only way to reduce stress and improve well-being. Scientific studies have confirmed that yoga and meditation can have a positive effect on one’s health and well-being, and yet neither one requires prayer to an omnipotent deity. Even regular acupuncture can be used to improve one’s well-being by treating symptoms of depression.
None of Luhrmann’s claims seem to ring true so far. What is it about faith that imbues followers with a better well-being? I contend that the benefits of organized religion come about through entitlement and one’s station in life. There are studies to confirm that how one’s society views them can have a tangible impact on their health and well-being. The religious are living longer because their self-esteem isn’t being bashed into the ground on account of their faith as much as the the SBNR crowd or the irreligious. They are privileged in our society because Christians are not ridiculed for their faith in the U.S. like other religious groups are. Slowly, though, I have come to take a different view of the spiritually-inclined. Their life expectancy takes a hit for their faith. I would have more tolerance for the devout if scientific evidence pointed to a trend between religiosity and a diminished life expectancy. Overall, the SBNR folks are alright by me, I guess. They tend to eschew megachurches and disagree with a literalist interpretation of the Bible. And while they are no more inclined to reason or rationality than anyone else on the street, they also tend to avoid proselyting their faith, too.