Is New Age spirituality bad for young people’s mental health?

I recently happened upon an article entitled DIY religions: more harm than good, which opens with the following paragraph:

Meditation, crystal therapy, self-help books – think they’re making you happier? Think again. A Brisbane academic has found a strong link between new-age spirituality and poor mental health in young people.

While I contend that New Age spirituality and Eclectic Spirituality differ significantly, though there certainly can be some overlap, the title and the first paragraph were enough to capture my attention. Then I was completely drawn in — and put on the defensive — by the following observation:

“I had a look at two different beliefs – one was a belief in God, associated with traditional religions, and the other was the newer belief in a spiritual or higher power other than God,” Dr Aird said.

Wow. There are so many things wrong with that comment that I almost don’t know where to begin… First, Dr. [Rosemary] Aird seems to be using the Judeo-Christian God as the gold standard for Diety, as if those “traditional religions” were the only ones of merit. Second, she is assuming that belief in “other” spiritual or higher powers is newfangled and implicitly “lesser” than belief in the Old Guy with the White Beard in the Sky.

The article goes on to describe Aird’s research, which aims to compare the mental health of young people with non-traditional spiritual beliefs to those with conventional religious beliefs. The conclusion, according to the article, is contradictory and inconclusive:

…non-traditional belief was linked with higher rates of anxiety, depression, disturbed and suspicious ways of thinking and anti-social behaviour… However young adults with traditional religious beliefs enjoyed no major benefits. [emphasis mine]

The article proceeds to bash New Age spirituality through a variety of quotes from Aird, asserting that only conventional religion can provide a sense of tradition, community and social responsibility.

I read another, similar pop-culture analysis of Aird’s work and found it to be just as inconclusive. Finally, I decided to go straight to the source to determine whether the analysis reflected in the articles was accurate. I found this summary of her PhD thesis, Religion, spirituality, and mental health and social behaviour [sic] in young adulthood; a longitudinal study, which includes a 260-page pdf file of the thesis itself. (School of Population Health, University of Queensland, 2007)  In the interest of time, I didn’t read it word-for-word, but I did peruse it rather thoroughly.

As I suspected, the articles had presented a headline grabbing, sensationalized, watered-down version of Aird’s thesis, which I found to be well researched and documented. Yet, her premise and conclusions are fundamentally flawed and myopic.

In addition to her data and analysis of religion and spirituality as they pertain to mental health and behavior, the document includes lengthy academic segments on topics that I believe will be of particular interest to readers of this blog, such as:

  • The difference between religion and spirituality
  • Why certain individuals gravitate towards New Age and other non-traditional spirituality
  • Traditional and non-traditional concepts of the Divine
  • New Age beliefs and practices
  • Paranormal experiences and beliefs as they relate to New Age beliefs

Of course, try as we might to be unbiased, authors always bring their personal history, experience and biases to the blank page. My sense is that Aird’s perspective as an atheist who married a “New Age/Human potential entrepreneur” accounts for some of her sweeping generalizations about organized religion and New Age spirituality, not to mention her one-dimensional take on extremely personal and complex concepts like God and higher power. How could it not? As a lifelong seeker who is religiously and spiritually inclined by nature, I would have made very different starting assumptions and perhaps reached disparate conclusions had I set out to write a thesis on the same topic using the same resources.

I invite you to peruse Dr. Aird’s thesis and let me know your thoughts.

6 thoughts on “Is New Age spirituality bad for young people’s mental health?

  1. Susan

    Great post Judie, thank you! I always wonder myself why there has to be any delineation or decision. After all, isn’t it just energy and of ones choosing at the end of the day!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Judie Sigdel

    Thank you, Susan! You’re very welcome!

    That’s a beautiful perspective and you’re absolutely right. That’s exactly why I entitled my yet-to-be-published book Faith without Labels: a Guide to Eclectic Spirituality. Ultimately, I believe that we’re all talking about the same thing when we’re talking about the Divine, regardless of what we call it and how we choose to worship.

    Miss you!

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  3. Deborah

    My immediate reaction was “of course!” because it’s those who are thoughtful, seeking, searching, prone to self-analysis and doubt, who go looking for alternatives in the first place. The people who have no questions fill the pews every Sunday. My second reaction was “of course not!” because it’s not that questioning doubt that causes depression or anxiety, but the reverse. The depression and anxiety starts the questioning. In an ideal situation, the seeker finds the answers and learns how to feel peace with them. The real world is not an ideal situation, so some will always be agonized over questions of faith and belief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Judie Sigdel

      Beautifully said, Deborah! ❤ I had a similar reaction when I read the overview in the articles. Essentially, her conclusion was that seekers had mental issues — but that conventional religion was no protection against them. Hmmmm… I would like a follow up of the same people 10 – 20 years later. Did the seekers find what they were looking for and, if so, were they still "troubled"?

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  4. Interesting article. I’ll look through the thesis when I have a bit more time, and may be this question is addressed, but I would just like to comment that I wonder if anxiety and depression are caused by “new age” spirituality or rather if a search for something “higher” stems from certain feelings of anxiety? When I was a teen and started getting interested in non-standard spirituality (I wouldn’t label it as New Age though) I was pretty depressed, this search was in reality a search for a way out.

    Another point that I’d like to make is that with standard religion, we believe what we are told to believe. No questions are asked, so no need to “stress” and look for answers, no need to explore. Whereas when we make our own way in our spirituality, questions often arise, doubts, fears. We explore ourselves, both the good and the bad sides. Of course sadness and fear are going to surface, but this is not bad (as journalists often would like us to believe). I feel like in our society we shun that which doesn’t feel good, but sadness and happiness are two sides of the same coin. For me, spirituality doesn’t lead to happiness, but rather to acceptance of life and all that it entails.

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    1. Judie Sigdel

      Thank you, yevarants!

      I appreciate your feedback. I think that both of your central points are valid.

      Your observation about sadness and fear not being inherently “bad” is very astute. That’s something that I work on in my mindfulness practice: observing and accepting “what is.”

      ‘d love to hear your thoughts after you read her thesis. Please feel free to post them here.

      Like

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