Saturday, January 12, 2013

Snake Oil for the Soul

A recent study conducted by researchers at London’s University College has shown that people who describe themselves as being ‘spiritual’ without being ‘religious’ are much more likely to suffer mental health issues and substance misuse than either those studied who describe themselves as ‘religious’ or those that were neither religious nor spiritual in their outlook.
This contradicts studies done in America (surprise, surprise) that state that ‘spirituality’ leads to greater mental health.
As someone who describes myself as ‘spiritual’, this is rather confusing for me! It leads me to ask the questions - what could possibly be going on and why the seeming contradiction between the American study and the British one?
It is quite clear that the number of people who call themselves ‘religious’ – those who follow a given religion in a textbook way – is decreasing. Or to put it another way, the number of people who say they do not affiliate themselves with a specific religious belief is increasing. This seems obvious, but actually is not so obvious if you factor in the people who sit-on-the fence.
Looking at an analysis of a survey done in the USA by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life it is obvious that the number of people in the ‘nothing in particular’ section shows the highest percentage rise. The number of atheists is on the rise too, but at a much slower rate.
It is the ‘nothing in particulars’ that interest me. Why not just declare yourself atheist or even agnostic? To this group do the modern day charlatans peddle their wares. To this group is sold the ‘snake oil for the soul’.
Strong religious affiliation has repeatedly been shown to improve quality of life and increase longevity. Even in the UC study, those who call themselves ‘religious’ are less likely to indulge in self-destructive activities. Why is this? Religion provides many things that we, as humans, crave. It provides us with allegiance to a group – important in evolutionary terms for protection. These days the group provides emotional protection. It provides ‘meaning’ and answers to the difficult questions in life like ‘why are we here?’. People who adhere strictly to religious dogma also have a daily guide for living. There is a sense of peace in the idea that even if you do not have all you want in this life, it will be given to you in the next.
People who do not follow a set religion do not have the comfort of the group, the answers to the questions or the plan for daily living. They do not have the promise of a greater afterlife. They may feel a void in their lives. I heard it recently described as feeling ‘emotionally and spiritually bankrupt’. Into this vacuum step the snake oil peddlers. The people trying to sell you meaning and happiness in a book, on a DVD, in an evening class, in the looking glass. The irony of living in the developed world is that by having everything we need we have the time to contemplate the ‘meaning’ that we lack. If we were busy merely trying to survive, we would not have time to ask such things. By giving up ‘religion’ we have left ourselves open to whatever else comes in its wake.
Any intelligent, sentient human being will ask themselves ‘what is it all about? What does it all mean?’ at some point or another; possibly quite frequently. If the answers to those questions is not easy to come by, if religion does not provide them, then some people will come to the conclusion that we are no more than molecular structures and chemical reactions and that there is no meaning – the happy atheists. Others may choose simply to drown out the questions in the grind of daily life. There is also an increasing group of people – the ‘nothing in particulars’ who may seek it in spirituality. Sadly, there are also those who may choose to shut the questions out with drugs and alcohol, or suffer anxiety and depression trying to find them, and this is the group reflected in the British study.
The seekers – the ‘spiritual’ – those who recognise that there may be ‘something else out there’ but are not finding the answers in conventional religion are fodder for quackery. The ‘enlightened’ offer their spiritual quick-fixes; pseudo-religions and culty beliefs in inner voices and spirit guides. I heard the expression ‘emotionally and spiritually bankrupt’ that I quoted above on a TEDx talk by a woman who obviously fell into the ‘nothing in particular’ group. She ended up misusing drugs. But then she had a ‘spiritual awakening’ and is now peddling her brand of snake oil worldwide with lucrative book deals, DVDs and endorsements no doubt. Well, I am sure she is no longer ‘bankrupt’, that’s for sure. She made me quite cross with her self-righteous talk of inner voices. Why didn’t her inner voice tell her to volunteer in a soup-kitchen or a cancer hospice instead of the self-indulgent nonsense we are so used to hearing now about ‘finding oneself’. I’m right here!
The shelves in book shops are creaking with the weight of self-help books. They promise you meaning and fulfilment in 250 pages. Yes, you too could live your dream and fulfil your promise – if you write a self-help book. Deepak Chopra is worth 80 million dollars. Ah…but is he happy? For, after all, happiness is the ultimate aim in all this. A panacea for the soul is no use if it leaves you sad.
The American study says that by being spiritual you can be mentally healthier. What the British study shows is that the quest itself might make you mad. Is it simply that people who question things more deeply are more prone to anxiety, depression and seeking release in illegal substances? I haven’t found the answer to this, nor have I found the meaning of life (it can’t be 42 surely?) but I shall keep asking the questions, even if it drives me insane. As for happiness, it’s there for the taking and I don’t believe it’s found in a book or a DVD or an evening class – it’s probably found in the looking glass.
Now, will you be buying my book…?

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