Background: The concept spirituality appears to be gaining increasing attention for its potential relationship to mental health, despite there being an absence of consensus on what spirituality is or whether it can be distinguished from religion (or religiousness) in operational terms. Spirituality is a term that is embraced within secular and non-secular contexts alike. As a consequence, spirituality as a concept encompasses forms of religiosity that are embedded in traditional religion and those that have little or no connection to traditional religious teachings. The emergence of religious/spiritual beliefs that depart from traditional religious thought represents one key feature of widespread religious change in contemporary societies. Nontraditional religious/spiritual beliefs need to be viewed within this context and thus be differentiated from traditional religious/spiritual beliefs when investigating connections between religion, spirituality, and mental health.
Aims: The current study seeks to compare the mental health of those whose beliefs are rooted in religious tradition with those whose beliefs deviate from traditional religious thought. The two main objectives of this study are: (1) to determine the extent to which religious background predicts endorsement of traditional and non-traditional religious/spiritual beliefs and church attendance in young adulthood; and (2) to determine whether differential relationships exist between current religiosity, religious background, and mental health in young adulthood, and whether any observed differences are attributable to other characteristics of respondents like sociodemographic factors and health-risk behaviours.
Methods: Data were derived from the Mater-University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy, a longitudinal, prospective study of maternal and child health from the prenatal period to 21 years post-delivery. Religiosity was assessed among the study children in young adulthood from three items measured at the time of the 21-year follow-up. Religious background was assessed from information provided by the study mothers in earlier phases of the study. Young adult responses to items included in the Young Adult Self Report (Achenbach, 1997) were used to assess cases of anxiety/depression and externalising behaviour, and delusional ideation was assessed from their responses to the 21-item Peters et al. Delusions Inventory (PDI) (Peters & Garety, 1996).
Results: Belief in a spiritual or higher power other than God was found to be positively related to anxiety/depression, disturbed ideation, suspiciousness and paranormal ideation, high total PDI scores, as well as antisocial behaviour in young adulthood, regardless of gender. These associations persisted after adjustment for potential confounders. By contrast, young adults who maintain a traditional belief in God appear to be no different to those who reject this belief in regard to anxiety/depression. Belief in God was found to have no association with antisocial behaviour for males, but was observed to have a weak negative relationship with antisocial behaviour for females. This association failed to reach statistical significance however, after adjustment for other religious/spiritual and social characteristics. No associations were found between young adult belief in God and disturbed, suspicious or paranormal ideation, although a positive relationship was identified for high total PDI scores. Weekly church attendance was observed to reduce the likelihood of antisocial behaviour in young adulthood among males, but not females. Religious ideation was found to more prevalent among young adults who attend church on either a weekly or infrequent basis. No long-term effects on anxiety/depression or antisocial behaviour were evident from maternal belief in God, church attendance or religious affiliation in the young adults’ early lives. However, maternal church attendance predicted religious ideation in young adulthood. Offspring of mothers affiliated with a Pentecostal church in the prenatal period appear to have a high rate of religious ideation and high total PDI scores. Paranormal ideation in young adulthood appears to have no association with maternal religiosity in a young adult’s early life.
Conclusion: The findings from this study suggest that young adults who endorse nontraditional religious/spiritual beliefs are at greater risk for poorer mental health and aberrant social behaviour than those who reject these beliefs. These results suggest that a non-traditional religious/spiritual belief system involves more than mere rejection of traditional religious doctrine. This system of belief may be a marker for those who question the legitimacy of established societal norms and values, and whose thoughts, attitudes and actions reflect this position. This possibility has implications for mental health and wellbeing at both an individual and a societal level and warrants further research attention.