The first study examining young adults’ religious and spiritual thoughts, behavior and feelings in Australia has found those replacing traditional religious beliefs with trendy, self-focused religions and spirituality are not the happier for their attempts at self-transformation.
Rosemary Aird conducted surveys of 3,705 21-year-olds in Brisbane as part of her Ph.D. studies at the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health.
“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,” Aird told the Brisbane Times.
Her research found the newer non-traditional beliefs linked to higher rates of “anxiety, depression, disturbed and suspicious ways of thinking and anti-social behavior” – results, she suggested, arising from New Age beliefs focused on self-transformation, self-fulfillment and self-enlightenment to the exclusion of community.
“Traditional religion tends to promote the idea of social responsibility and thinking of others’ interests, whereas the New Age movement pushes the idea that we can transform the world by changing ourselves.
“The downside is that people are very much on their own and not part of a community, which may lead to a kind of isolation,” she said.
Aird, a 51-year-old agnostic, said individualism was the common thread in the shift away from traditional religious thoughts to non-religious spirituality.
In Aird’s study, eight percent of respondents attended church once a week, a practice linked to a reduction in antisocial behavior among males, but not females. While those with traditional religious beliefs enjoyed no major benefit in the study, their New Age counterparts were twice as likely to report higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Those coming from Pentecostal backgrounds were less likely than other religions to adopt non-traditional beliefs in adulthood.
“People who are into the New Age spirituality tend to shop around and will often borrow from all sorts of old beliefs, like Wicca, witchcraft or Native American religions,” said Aird. “It’s a whole mish-mash and changes all the time, where they’ll do something for a while before doing something else.
“If there’s no sense of any kind of tradition, it means you’re kind of cast adrift and means there’s no fundamental basic thing to hang on to.”
Aird said popular culture has fed the trend toward non-traditional beliefs with a popularization of “spirituality.”
“Religion and belief has kind of become mixed up with popular culture,” she said.
“Look at television and the kinds of shows that we’ve got, like ‘Supernatural,’ ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Medium’. They promote witchcraft, special powers and spirituality and the general population and young people especially are exposed to these things and could see them as very attractive.
“People want to find some way of embedding these things into some sort of belief system.”
Aird also singled out popular self-help books for creating a do-it-yourself approach to matters of faith.
“My generation was about social responsibility and collective interests compared to the Me Generation,” Aird said. “‘New Spirituality’ promotes the idea that self-transformation will lead to a positive and constructive change in self and society.
“But there is a contradiction – how can one change society if one is focused on oneself?”
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