The results of the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study were recently published in the very august, peer-reviewed British Journal of Psychiatry; and they suggest that if Mr. Stanley were hunting for the tirelessly devout missionary Dr. David Livingstone today, he could do far worse than to begin his search at Trafalgar Square, rather than the vicinity of the Congo River.
The NPMS is noteworthy for being the first general population survey in England to include questions which probe an individual's religious and spiritual beliefs. The survey's data (collected between October 2006 and December 2007) were weighed to account for potential selection and non-response biases, and are considered to be reliably representative of the English household population, age 16 years and older. The following definitions were employed by the investigators, to establish categories of interest: "By religion, we mean the actual practice of a faith, e.g., going to a temple, mosque, church or synagogue. Some people do not follow a religion but do have spiritual beliefs or experiences. Some people make sense of there lives without any religious or spiritual beliefs. Would you say you have a religious or spiritual understanding of your life?" If participants adhered to a specific religion, they were asked to name it. If religious or spiritual, they were presented with two separate, self-assessment sliding scales to measure the intensity of claimed belief and the importance of its practice. Those who identified themselves as "religious" were also asked to quantify the frequency of attendance at "services, prayer meetings, and places of worship."
As the authors of the report state, the data indicate that the expression of the Christian faith in the country of Wilberforce, Auden, Eliot, Waugh, Tolkien and Charles "Chinese" Gordon is unquestionably a "minority activity." While 53% of the participants lay claim to at least a nominal religious affiliation (86% of these were Christian), only about one-third (35%) of the entire sample had a "religious understanding of life." The remaining sixty-five percent were non-religious. Those who considered themselves "spiritual" in orientation, but spurning religious rites and practices, constituted 19% of merrie auld England. The largest group -- indeed nearly half of the sample in toto (46%) -- saw no practical value to religion or spirituality whatsoever.
Of interest, the "purely spiritual" were more inclined to suffer from eating disorders (including anorexia nervosa and bulimia), anxiety disorders and neuroticism, than the religious. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were least likely, of the three groups, to be taking psychotropic medication; with the most likely of the groups, being the ethereal anti-Incarnational "spiritual." This tendency correlates to an extent with the relative prevalence of mental disorder, among the groups. Speaking of which, the likelihood of mental disorder in the "non-religious and non-spiritual," was statistically no different from that of the "religious," for the most part. The one exception was uncovered in the area of substance abuse; here, the incidence of seeking solace in bottle or syringe is considerably more common in those rejecting religion. In the latter, "Hate the Prozac, love the Smithwick's" seems to be a dominating motivation. But again, the "spiritual" attitude significantly correlated the strongest with a history of any (ilicit) drug exposure, and drug dependency as well. So "I would that ye be hot or cold, rather than lukewarm" finds a validation in the mental ward. Psychoticism was consistently less prevalent among the religious than in the other two categories, but the trend did not attain a statistical significance. No inter-group differences existed with respect to clinical depression.
This last result is unexpected, I think, but the authors offer a passing speculation that the increasingly entrenched and worsening "minority status" of the religious, inside England, may be weakening the "social support" fabric's ability to counteract despair. There are some indications ... these are cursorily reviewed in the NPMS paper ... that within the United States, at this moment, a different outcome prevails. The USA is generally thought to be more "God-oriented" than the UK; but let the English experience stand as a warning. As Luther noted, the nourishing Gospel rains can migrate, as God wills and as people reject, and should not be taken for granted.
M. King et al. : Religion, spiritually and mental health: results from a national study of English households. B J Psych 202:68-73, 2013