Researchers led by Professor Michael King at University College London have found that people who profess to hold "spiritual" rather than conventionally religious, atheist or agnostic beliefs are more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
Nineteen per cent of the 7,403 randomly selected men and women in England surveyed by the researchers stated that they had spiritual beliefs without belonging to a particular religion, and members of that group were found to be more likely to suffer from mental health issues, including drug dependency, phobias, anxiety disorders and neurotic disorder.
The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, concluded:
"... there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.Of course, that last sentence is key, but it is nevertheless interesting to consider the possibility that there is a link between spirituality and mental illness, particularly in light of the fact that those who are "spiritual" are one of the fastest growing belief groups in the UK.
The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research."
While the 2011 census results, published last month, revealed a fall in the percentage of Christians alongside a rise in the numbers selecting "No religion" (which is now up to 25 per cent of the population in England and Wales), some observers countered atheist triumphalism by pointing out that "No religion" does not necessarily equal atheism or even agnosticism.
Many profess a belief in something unknown or unknowable, beyond scientific understanding, without identifying with a particular religion, and this kind of belief is often expressed as "spirituality". As the sociologist Linda Woodhead pointed out in her interview with us in our November issue, belief in the UK is not necessarily declining, but rather transforming and becoming more difficult to identify using traditional religious labels.
So what does this mean for atheism? Well, while taking into account the limits of the UCL study, if you are an atheist you could perhaps take it as evidence that your beliefs are good for you. But should those who are "spiritual" be thinking about ditching the transcendental stuff and joining the godless? Maybe, but there is another view – as this blog post at the Spectator points out, conventional religion comes out of the study looking pretty healthy too.