Melanie McDonagh

Churchgoing is good for you (even if you don’t believe in God)

Forget being ‘spiritual but not religious’. It’s much better to be religious but not spiritual

Churchgoing is good for you (even if you don’t believe in God)
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Few people, don’t you find, are as irritating as those who define themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious? There was a riveting  piece in the Sunday Times ‘Style’ magazine last week about them, featuring people who were both fabulously stylish and spiritual. Among the names checked was a shop called Celestine Eleven (‘when you buy a new dress, you’re buying into a beautiful piece of energy’) and a website called Numinous (motto: ‘material girl, mystical world’). So, you can be spiritual and design-conscious, as in Pamela Love’s pentagram ring, £1,500.

What this Gwyneth Paltrow-style combination of spirituality and consumerism involves, apart from the absence of any kind of discernible doctrine, and certainly nothing that might interfere with a full sex life, is the possibility of focusing perpetually on yourself. As opposed, that is, to engaging with the rest of the community as you might, say, at a coffee morning after Mass, where all comers descend on the free tea and biscuits, especially the lonely and the broke. Muriel Spark observed that ‘the irreligious environment of modern Europe embraces large numbers of intelligent aspiring souls who are nevertheless looking for a “religion” which offers all things beautiful and demands nothing practical.’ The seekers have since discovered that they’re spiritual instead.

So I was delighted the other week to hear Tom Shakespeare coming out as a member of the opposite tendency, viz, those who self-define as Religious But Not Spiritual. He’s an atheist Quaker. That makes two self-declared RBNSs I know of — the other being Julie Burchill. (I’ve always assumed Hilaire Belloc was one too; he loved the Catholic church but thought Christ was a milksop.) They are an under-studied group so far as sociologists are concerned, possibly on account of the difficulty of doing longitudinal studies on a group you can count on the fingers of one hand.

But one thing that is increasingly clear is that religion — though the studies don’t actually distinguish between the religious who believe in God and those who don’t — is actually rather good for you. There have been a number of interesting studies on this in recent years: one of the most famous was by Michael King of UCL, who suggested in 2012 that when it came to mental health outcomes, being religious was best, being atheist was second best and both were better than being merely spiritual. But for years the benefits of religion on things like depression was plagued by the inability of researchers to distinguish between the spiritual and the religious: the funniest instance was a World Health Organisation questionnaire which asked respondents whether they had any belief of any kind that might give them a bit of uplift: which put belief in extraterrestrials on the same basis as the Incarnation.

But gradually researchers are trying to establish what the effects of religion qua religion are on things like mental health. A study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry last year suggested that adolescent girls who attended church or religious services and who weren’t depressed at the start of the year-long study were much less likely to become depressed during that time than those who didn’t; the researchers put this down to something called ‘self-efficacy’. Boys who were depressed at the start of the study who attended religious services had lower odds than others of still being depressed a year later.

As for suicide, research published in April in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found that people who attended religious services at least 24 times each year were at a 67 per cent lower risk of suicide than those who did not. There were only two predictors of suicide: being male, which increases your risk, and attending church or whatever regularly, which decreases it. The critical point is, belief isn’t what matters; it’s what you do. In fact another recent bit of Canadian research, based on a national study, was quite specific: attending a service at least monthly has a protective effect against depression.

The real question, of course, is why this is so, which brings us back to our friends, the Religious But Not Spiritual. Is it a matter of the social support you get, the uplift from the liturgy, simple grace, the prohibitions on stuff like self-harm or the volunteering that churchy people do? A psychiatrist friend, Professor Patricia Casey, thinks being part of a church community is qualitatively different from say, football club membership, but we don’t really know. Anyway, if it’s the social connections you get from going to church that helps, atheist church attenders should be doing just fine. Let’s see more of them.