It seems these days that most of the stories coming out about religion focus on people who are damaged and hurt. We see this through the various cults, the Roman Catholic scandal, and wildly inappropriate protesting by religious groups.
The number people identifying as particular religions is going down. Instead, more people refer to themselves as simply spiritual or non-affiliated than ever before in history.
But are they happier?
Several studies looked at this question and the answer might surprise you.
The Role of Spirituality & Religion In People's Lives
Religion and spirituality differ across many different cultures. In some places, religion, spirituality, and everyday life are so intertwined that where one begins and the other ends is completely indistinguishable.
Some religions, particularly Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, have a set dictate of practice, but religion can be completely separate from day-to-day life.
Others still, like Buddhism, encompass everyday life, prescribing the way someone lives rather than focusing on greater matters of the soul or afterlife.
What's universal across all cultures is that some form of religion or spirituality is at play. Even atheists, who do not believe in a higher power, soul, or afterlife, have atheism as a spiritual practice, letting those principles guide their life.
What is it about religion and spirituality that draws people in, making it something that so many people choose to have in their lives? Why are people comforted in the face of death by believing in a higher power? Why are all major celebrations religious celebrations?
For this, we need to take a little bit deeper look at what religion and spirituality are.
Religion And Spirituality Are Not The Same
Religion and spirituality are very closely related but different.
Religion is the practice, rituals, and edicts of a particular doctrine meant to guide somebody's life. There is often a belief that the practice of that religion is the one true religion.
Spirituality is the belief in something other than oneself and the adherence to a moral code that guides a person's life. However, unlike religion, spirituality is not defined as what this something other is. It can be other people, the universe, a higher power, or a particular deity.
A person can be spiritual without being religious. A person can be religious without being spiritual. A person could be both. Rarely, however, is someone neither, and they fall into the psychopathic range of mental health, which is far beyond this blog.
Can Religion or Spirituality Be Harmful?
Yes, and we've seen many examples of that. The Holocaust, the Crusades, protesting, lynchings… many people have lost their lives over religion. Many people have been destroyed mentally over religion.
Spirituality, on the other hand, rarely has that kind of focus. Most spirituality focuses on the single person, pushing for letting people live their life as they choose.
However, it can create isolation and mistrust. It can cause self-harm rather than harming others.
But neither requires harm. Many people live long, happy, and fulfilling lives steeped in religion and spirituality. The vast majority are people who do not want to harm another person.
How Can Religion and/or Spirituality Help Mental Illness?
Here's where science starts stepping in and looking at some of the things going on with religion and spirituality.
What the science says is religion and spirituality can be a great benefit, used to help guide moral principles and actions that benefit both the self and others. It can help remove the ambiguity surrounding certain decisions and provide guidance during stressful situations.
Many people find the idea of a higher power or connectedness within the universe very comforting to know they are not alone in grief and trouble.
Many religions and spiritual groups come together often, providing a sense of community and fellowship that can provide support and guidance.
Moral guidance, fellowship, and community are essential for people facing mental illness.
For people with anxiety and depression, they can find a support group that will help share troubles and provide comfort. In times of crisis, death, or serious illness, a religious or spiritual community may band together to help out, providing community supports, such as meals, cleaning, and the simple act of sitting together.
People with neurodivergent tendencies can find people who are accepting of those differences and even a community that shares similar values. As a result, the ostracization many feel can be lifted.
For many people, the simple idea of acceptance can provide safety and stability, helping to rebalance hormones such as acetylcholine, serotonin and dopamine.
In fact, science also shows that prayer and meditation, found in every religion, can help reduce depression, heart disease, cancer symptoms, pain, and so much more.
The Role Of Spiritual Leaders In Mental Health
This is where the role of a priest, rabbi, monk, nun, or any other leader within the spiritual community becomes important. They become interpreters of the religious or spiritual doctrine, helping to provide direction and guidance for decisions and actions.
These leaders are supposed to guide people towards making the best decision for as many as possible and keeping everyone safe. Most do aim for this goal.
You should watch any leader for whether their actions match what they're saying. Additionally, use your own inner moral code to decide if this religious leader truly does embody what you believe. For example, if you don't believe in hate, do not follow the leader that spouts hate. You should also not follow any leader that lays down strict guidelines and you are not encouraged thinking for yourself.
Overall, religion and spirituality, as different as they are, are essential. Discovering what works best for you can provide comfort, security, and a community. This dramatically helps any mental illness from grieving to depression, to any number of problems that may arise.