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Religiousness, Spirituality, and Psychological Distress in Taiwan

Abstract

Most of the previous research on religion and mental health has focused solely on Western, predominantly Christian societies. Using a 2004 national survey of 1,881 adults in Taiwan, this study investigates the relationships between multidimensional measures of religiousness/spirituality and psychological distress in an Eastern context. Our findings differ from previous studies in the West, showing that: (1) religious-based supernatural beliefs are associated with more distress; (2) daily prayer is associated with less distress; (3) engaging in secular-based supernatural activities like fortune-telling is related to more distress; and (4) the frequency of religious attendance is unrelated to levels of distress. Broader theoretical and empirical implications of these findings are discussed.

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Notes

  1. We acknowledge that this response rate is less than ideal. Indeed, obtaining good response rates is becoming increasingly difficult in this type of research. According to the TSCS summary report, only 12% contacts personally refused to participate in the survey. Others were not available for interview mainly because of random events such as natural disasters, migration, prison, marriage, death, missing, disease, outside-town work, outside-town education, outside-town business, travel, and other affairs. The 2004 TSCS data were weighted to reflect the population parameters in the 2003 Taiwanese census data. According to Yinghwa Chang, Principal Investigator of the TSCS project, TSCS is the most important general survey with a representative sample in Taiwan (personal communication). In addition, Chiu Hei-yuan, former Principle Investigator of the TSCS project, indicates that there is no significant difference between the weighted 2004 TSCS data and the Taiwanese census data (personal communication). More information about the validity and representativeness of the 2004 TSCS, as well as contact information, can be found in the official summary report of the Taiwan Social Change Survey at http://www.ios.sinica.edu.tw/sc/cht/datafile/tscs04.pdf.

  2. All items to measure psychological distress were carefully considered in the cultural context of Taiwanese society. The validity, internal consistency, and factor structure of these items have been established in previous research (Cheng and Williams 1986; Chong and Wilkinson 1989; Cheng et al. 1990). Translation and back-translation procedures were performed on all items by bilingual scholars familiar with this type of research.

  3. Although in preliminary analyses we had combined these to create an index of religious/spiritual practices, a more fine-grained analysis revealed that only one item (daily prayer) is associated with distress. Therefore, in the analyses presented here, we decided it was more appropriate to report the results for each of these items individually. Analyses based on the index of religious/spiritual practices are available upon request.

  4. We also employed list-wise deletions for comparison, and results were substantively similar.

  5. Some readers may wonder whether or not each of these items in the supernatural beliefs index is associated with distress in the same way. To check this, we performed additional analyses that regressed distress on each item of the supernatural beliefs index (separately), net of the other conditions shown in model 1. Results reveal that the overall patterns are consistent. Each item in the index is associated with more distress. All coefficients range from .18 to .37 and are statistically significant at the p < .05 (with one exception: belief in karma and reincarnation is marginally significant at p < .10).

  6. The single item of “Giving thanks, repenting, or praying every day” combines three elements and cannot be examined separately. This limitation should be considered in future research, since each of these three components may represent different forms of religious practice—and each may have different implications for well-being.

  7. We also estimated a number of interaction effects to further explore relationships between religiousness/spirituality and distress. Three interaction terms were statistically significant. One was negatively associated with psychological distress: age * practice of fortune-telling (b = −.03, standard error = .01). It shows that the distress-reducing effect of practice of fortune-telling is more likely as they get older, while it was not significant for all ages combined (see Model VII of Table 2). The other two significant interaction terms are: folk religion * frequency of attendance (b = .29, standard error = .14) and folk religion * belief in divine control (b = .56, standard error = .25). Frequency of attendance may have stress-exacerbating effect for believers of folk religion, although this might not be the case for other traditions. The positive effect of belief in divine control is especially strong for believers of Chinese folk religion, which abounds in beliefs in violent gods and deities.

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Acknowledgment

This study was supported in part by a grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 70973132). Special thanks go to Rodney Stark at Baylor University, Christopher G. Ellison at The University of Texas at San Antonio, Yinghwa Chang and Hei-Yuan Chiu at the Academia Sinica of Taiwan, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on early drafts of this article.

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Appendix

Appendix

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Table 3 Correlation matrix and descriptive statistics of religion variables

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Liu, E.Y., Schieman, S. & Jang, S.J. Religiousness, Spirituality, and Psychological Distress in Taiwan. Rev Relig Res 53, 137–159 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-011-0011-8

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Keywords

  • Religiousness
  • Spirituality
  • Psychological distress
  • Mental health
  • Taiwan