Templeton-funded study shows that avoiding spiritual struggles worsens mental health

December 7, 2016 • 10:15 am

A new paper by Carmen Oemig Dworsky et al. in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science (reference below; only abstract available though I’ve got the whole paper) deals with the effects of spiritual struggle and its avoidance on people’s mental health. It’s a long read, but in short the authors surveyed 307 people (recruited from Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” work database) who were self-described as experiencing spiritual struggles. They were then surveyed for indices of mental health (anxiety and depression) and for their levels of “experiential avoidance” (EA), which the authors define as  “efforts to escape or avoid unwanted internal experience, even when efforts to do so are harmful or contrary to personal goals.”

Science Daily, which, as its wont, basically regurgitated Case Western Reserve University’s press release, gives a summary. The upshot, as the paper summarizes below, is that those undergoing spiritual struggles show poorer mental health if they’re also showing EA, avoiding dealing with the struggles:

The present study examined the relations between experiential avoidance and mental health in a sample of people experiencing spiritual struggles. The first hypothesis predicted that experiential avoidance (EA) would be negatively associated with indices of psychological, physical, and spiritual mental health. Consistent with the prediction, general EA was associated with poorer mental health in all areas. With respect to avoidance tied specifically to the struggle, similar findings emerged. It was also hypothesized that the relationships between spiritual struggles and poorer mental health would be stronger among people with higher than lower levels of experiential avoidance. Some support was found for the prediction that higher levels of experiential avoidance exacerbate the relation between spiritual struggles and adverse symptoms. These findings were particularly robust for the measure of struggle-specific experiential avoidance.

The paper concludes that therapists should help people recognize and embrace their spiritual struggles. Senior author Julie Exline explains in the press release, adding other implications of the paper (my emphasis):

An unwillingness to accept spiritual struggle could contribute to major social ills, leading to lost opportunities to engage with people of different faith beliefs and backgrounds and come to view them as threatening.

“This avoidance may lead to the rejection of whole groups of people based on their religious differences or perceived incongruence between, for example, their sexuality or gender-based identity and religious teachings,” Exline said.

Mental health providers may find it useful to help clients with spiritual struggles face their difficulties in a more proactive way.

“People seem to be more emotionally healthy if they’re able to accept troubling thoughts,” Exline said. “Looking at spiritual doubts in an objective way seems to help. You may or may not work through them, but at least you can tolerate having them.”

Avoidance itself is not a problem; rather, the behavior can become problematic when escaping becomes harmful or contrary to personal goals and sets a rigid pattern of experiencing and responding to the world.

“Regular spiritual avoidance can make it difficult to identify, work toward or experience the qualities that lend a sense of purpose to life,” she said.

Using emotional and cognitive energy to push thoughts away will not stop them from continuing to intrude over time.

“Continually being re-visited by these thoughts can create strains on emotional health, especially if a person sees this kind of questioning as morally unacceptable and dangerous,” Exline said.

One problem with this study, not mentioned by the authors in the “limitations, implications, and future directions” section of the paper, is that it deals solely with spiritual struggles. What they really need is a control group—people experiencing other struggles (perhaps relationship or job struggles)—to see if EA has the same effect there. It’s not clear why the emphasis is on spirituality.  Further, the conclusion about how EA could exacerbate interfaith disharmony and rejection of gays seems unwarranted by the data themselves.

Now, who do you think supported this research? Yep, you guessed it:


Templeton works in mysterious ways, so I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide how the study fits into Templeton’s agenda, which is to promote harmony between science and faith, as well as to show that science gives evidence for the divine.


Dworsky, C. K. O., K. I. Pargament, S. Wong and J. Exline. 2016. Suppressing spiritual struggles: the role of experiential avoidance in mental health. J. Contextual Behav. Sci. 5: 258-265

34 thoughts on “Templeton-funded study shows that avoiding spiritual struggles worsens mental health

  1. I downloaded the paper and scanned for every meaning of ‘spiritual struggle’. The authors essentially equate ‘spiritual struggle’ with doubt. More specifically religious or even spiritual doubt.

    Spiritual guidance, according to the paper is nothing more than self-ascribed ‘deep meaning’. It is essentially bootstrapping. This is equivalent to putting a mirror to nihilism and then stepping back and tell oneself: I need to put the meaning into all of this. There! I am happy again.

    How is this any different from someone like Hawking explaining to people that we find meaning through work?

  2. What criteria do they use to determine whether a struggle is spiritual or not? When it comes right down to it any “struggle” could be considered to be spiritual because peoples’ spiritual beliefs are usually the foundation of their worldview.

    1. When it comes right down to it any “struggle” could be spiritual if “spiritual” is defined in the loosey-goosey, feel-good, let’s-throw-in-the-kitchen- sink way it often is, so that morals, meaning, goals, ideals, and the way you react to beauty is classified as “spiritual.”

      1. Yes, the concept “spiritual” is so inclusive that it is meaningless to use it in a context that requires clarity and specificity. Which is probably just why the authors of this study used it.

    1. How much do hamsters and the spiritual have in common? You can keep yourself occupied for a lifetime spinning those wheels. 🐹

    2. Pretty much my reaction as well.

      It sounds like they’re telling people they should accept religion without questioning it and respond in a ground of being way.

      Therefore, even though Christianity says homosexuality is an abomination, and it’s clear that’s a load of sh*t, just accept the contradiction. Don’t go persecuting gay people because you think that’s what the Bible is telling you to do to try and find meaning. And don’t abandon religion for the spiritual desert of atheism. Being mentally healthy is having faith and being a good person despite your doubts.

      Move over Karen Armstrong! 🙂

      1. I thought it sounded more like they were trying to nudge people who are religiously conservative intto being religiously liberal. It’s a “spiritual struggle” if you believe that a lot of people you really like are bound for hell — and you don’t confront that.

        I think my analysis would benefit though if they gave some concrete examples. Who defines the “spiritual struggle?” The struggler — or the researcher? Coming to the conclusion that people who are say they are mentally struggling measure as less mentally healthy seems rather … pointless.

            1. It probably didn’t help that I used sarcasm in parts without making it clear that’s what I was doing. 🙂

  3. I think this is interesting: arguably a internal debate over faith etc. is such a struggle – or would be from a believer’s point of view. Yet we are told to not upset people (at any time). Maybe encouraging the struggle (in the right way) has other effects besides improving their world view?

  4. I’m sure Templeton get’s a tickle every time a paper with the word “Spiritual” in the title is published. Reason enough.

    There’s already a good way to cure such spiritual cognitive dissonance – take a reality pill manufactured by Eli Placebo Inc. The black and white ones are especially efficacious in cases of religiously induced apprehension. Avoid shades of gray. Swallow with a tall glass of Dawkins or Coyne.

      1. 50:50 ethanol and water, with minor impurities. Pure ethanol is a pretty undistinguished drink. And it almost evaporates before you feel the burn. (I also recall direct injection of a few ml of absolute ethanol as being a standard lab technique for preparing a stock of lab rats with stomach cancers. Probably not an experience to perform too often.)
        Since New Year is approaching, I suppose I might trot out the tale about the germ warfare lab and the “P-buffer” and “G-buffer”.

  5. I very much doubt that any human being has ever experienced a “spiritual struggle” since the implication is that there is really more than one “ghost in the machine” or that we can experience something similar to the old bicameral mind hypothesis.
    In reality a “spiritual struggle” is just a phrase imported into this sort of “scientific” paper from the world of Poetry to please the Templeton Foundation.

  6. I don’t know how many WEIT readers are aware of the fact that a lot of psychotherapy these days is imbued with an overtly “spiritual” component, especially cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and behavioral therapy. Wrapped into this is positive psychology and all of its offshoots (gratitude therapy, forgiveness therapy, happiness therapy, etc.) When I did some reading into these therapies, I was (naively) astounded by the fact that “spirituality” was an essential part of much (if not all) of of them. And these are the therapies du jour that are used to treat a variety of mental health problems, from depression to PTSD, even schizophrenia. If one chooses them on one’s own, fine; but these are therapies covered by Medicare and various state funded medical insurance programs, as Medi-Cal in California (in a related vein, I think of AA being mandated by the courts for DUI arrests.), so people who rely on government assistance for their health care and are in need of mental health services will most likely be referred to these kinds of therapists and many will be completely unaware of the what they’re getting into before they’re deep into it. Same for the clients of private insurers.

    How can a therapist demand that a person develop spirituality as a criterion for mental health development if that person rejects a priori that there is some dimension called “spiritual”? Then the patient is damned, and surely made sicker by all the badgering and bullshit they had to endure at the hands of one of these quacks.

    The more I read about these therapies the more uneasy I grow, not only because of the introduction of the spiritual as a therapeutic tool AND the adoption of spiritual development as a criterion for successful treatment; but also because of what I see as the crude Skinnerian, wholesale “cognitive restructuring” that people are subjected to in these therapies. And it is crude, reductive, mechanistic, ham-fisted, and hare-brained; and I think can be (and sometimes is) exceedingly destructive. But, hey, I’m no psychotherapist, so that’s just my opinion. But a pseudo-study such as this will only provide ammunition to this therapeutic movement.

    I may be just another organism and I’m coming to reject the notion of free will; but that doesn’t mean that in certain respects I’m no different than a chicken doing math or a duck playing the guitar, and that I can be “cognitively restructured” at the whim of a therapist using techniques derived from applied animal behavior psychology. And Skinner’s disciples at the IQ Zoo http://www3.uca.edu/iqzoo/ don’t require their subjects to develop spiritual values as part of their training. However, saying that reveals a serious and embarrassing flaw in my fevered declaration that I am different from a trained chicken, because just as a chicken doesn’t need poultry spirituality to do tricks or just be a good, well-adjusted chicken (how ’bout a salubrious environment?), I don’t need spirituality to be a good, well-adjusted human being, but I could use a salubrious environment.

    1. For psychotherapy, the spiritual card can be a lifetime reward for the practitioner.

      It’s like asking a patient to consider examining the meaning in a blade of grass. When the patient figures the blade out, hand them another. There are an awful lot of blades. Deep ambiguous meanings equate to secure employment.

      1. It certainly does equate to secure employment! It’s also an eminently useful tool for deflecting attention away from external causes of distress — “the opium of the people.” CT, positive psychology and its spawn, from what I understand, locate the cause for mental problems solely within the person, and strategies are designed to change the perceptions of the person, effectually to desensitize one to negative stimuli and thoughts that the therapist disapproves of. Spirituality and religious belief in general is frequently used to inculcate quietism and passivity, to direct the person to engage in self-abnegation and to consider the afterlife and all sorts of transcendental hoo-ha (a la Mother Teresa or self-annihilating Buddhist transcendence), rather than getting out there and kicking some righteous ass when you need to. Just sit there and do mindfulness meditation, cultivate spirituality and learn just to be grateful that you have a roof over your head, forgive your enemies, and transcend your miserable squalor and the way you’re fucked over on a daily basis because your old or poor or both or otherwise marginalized.

    2. Jenny,

      Agreed. This is a real problem and unfortunate trend in psychotherapy (the suggestion that a practitioner’s ability to be effectively compassionate or achieve a clinical outcome must include some type of appeal to a client’s “spiritual dimension”). As you’ve pointed out correctly, it’s even worse if the client is unnecessarily pathologized for not being sufficiently spiritual. I see it as an unmitigated side-effect of New Age marketing, credulity, and indolence that has become ubiquitous. Fortunately, there is an extensive history of secular psychology (Ellis, Freud, Pataki) to counter such nonsense. We must never forget that Granville Stanley Hall (APA’s first president) was a Darwinist.

  7. Well if by “spiritual struggle” we are allowed to mean doubting your religious beliefs and ultimately abandoning them then I say EMBRACE THE STRUGGLE!

  8. The phrase “spiritual struggles” is a tendentious rewording for existential dilemmas that lead to unresolvable feelings of ambiguity that culture has, consequentially, labeled “spiritual.” Philosophy, evidence-based psychology (yes, I agree with Jenny above), and scientific inquiry are reliable methods of resolution. The fact that any of these “struggles” remain problematic is precisely because they are treated with nebulous (aka spiritual) solutions in mind. Unless we’re talking about the value of mindfulness, etc.

  9. What the hell is a ‘spiritual struggle’ and how would one avoid it anyway?

    (But I’m pretty damn sure avoiding them would be a Good Thing…)

    The nearest thing to a spiritual struggle I’ve had recently was taking my old ’87 Mazda to the wrecker, two days ago. (It took me two months since her Warrant of Fitness expired to muster the courage to do it). I’ve owned her for 16 years, she’s still comfortable and really nice to drive, she started first time (after 3 weeks inactivity) and ran perfectly on her final journey, but she’s so rusty she’d never get another warrant of fitness.

    I was unashamedly crying when I handed her over to the parts yard.

    That was a spiritual struggle, I think. My car has more meaning to me than somebody else’s holy book.


    1. I get that. My condolences. A few years ago I convinced myself that getting rid of a favorite motorcycle that I had been through a lot with was the responsible thing to do (I had 3 at the time). I was in a funk for weeks after the buyer took it away.

      1. Thank you, you understand. I’ve had the same feelings on selling a car. But at least your motorcycle lived on. As did my 1970 Cortina when I found a buyer who is intending to restore it.

        But in the case of my old Mazda, she was just too rusty to sell.


  10. I need prozac

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