A recent piece of research found that people who claim to be 'spiritual but not religious' are more prone to mental illness than both the non-religious, and members of an organised religion. Echurch blog has the full abstract, including this conclusion:
People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.
'I'm spiritual but not religious' is an increasingly common phrase, the postmodern nephew of 'you don't have to go to church to be a Christian'. Both are nonsense, and, as the research shows, toxic. Christian faith is hard enough without isolating yourself from a supportive fellowship to practice it. Yes some organised religion is about as conducive to genuine spirituality as a crystal shop in Glastonbury, but what religious traditions carry, at their best, is accumulated wisdom, structure and practices for spiritual growth.
The Spectator comments
the survey might also go to prove the value of that least trendy thing: organised religion. It is a very strenuous thing for the psyche to accept the idea of transcendental power (or whatever you want to call it) without some structure and external guidance. In grappling the eternal questions with little religious routine, the spirtual-but-not-religious are putting too much strain on their subconscious. Organised religion, for all its flaws, does offer support to believers
Which makes our postmodern education experiment all the more concerning. Our schools encourage children to develop 'spiritually' but we are more and more rejecting organised religion as a way of expressing it. Religions are discussed as a form of cultural education, the main goal being to inform young citizens so that they can live in a mutually tolerant society, rather than to introduce people to ways of seeking God and living for him in the world.
So we open up massive issues of meaning and identity but carefully separate them from the religious traditions which take people on the ancient paths through them. A logical consequence of this research is that any exploration of 'spirituality' within mainstream education needs to be done within a faith context, or not at all.
Final thought: one of the factors in the research might be the continuing stigma over mental illness in our society. So if someone with depression is also trying to pray, they may shy away from opening up to others about their condition, for fear of what will be said. Mental illness is, in and of itself, isolating. Which means that churches need to work extra hard to be welcoming places for people who struggle with it.
update: for more on the benefits of good religion, see this piece by Ann Morisy. (thanks Simon M!)