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.