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Our Search for Religion and Spirituality

New Agers are returning to church -- but keeping meditation and yoga classes on their schedules.

A Need to Help Others

Indeed, the "feel-good, me-centered spirituality" of recent decades seems to be evaporating, says Harold Koenig, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center.

"When we are in charge of our own ships, we fool ourselves," Koenig tells WebMD. "There's no responsibility to care for one another. You only care for yourself. There's no 'thou shalt not' -- it's all 'do what thou wishes.'"

However, "self-focused, self-satisfying behavior is bad for human nature," he explains. "It is not good for us to be greedy, to overeat. It doesn't make us happy. It just increases our appetite for more. And it leaves us feeling unfulfilled. That's why religious people are healthier. They're not under so much stress. The focus is off themselves. There is accountability outside of themselves."

Until you direct your attention outside yourself, life does not have meaning, says Koenig.

"Poets throughout the ages have written about this," he explains. "Every religion and spiritual tradition emphasizes the need to love thy neighbor. The 'higher way' of Buddhism says that compassion is the ultimate road to Nirvana. Gandhi emphasized peace and love rather than hatred. The Koran says that the hereafter is based on good deeds here and now. The Golden Rule is all about doing good."

A Need for Purpose

Religion and spirituality were indeed the most common coping mechanisms after Sept. 11, says Koenig. Nine out of 10 Americans turned to religion in those dark days.

For many others, cynicism launched their trek to traditional religion -- as science and medicine failed to live up to their expectations.

"People are seeing the limits of medical care," Koenig tells WebMD. "People do get sick, they do die, and sometimes there's nothing medicine can do about it. Insurance costs are going up. People are worried about their jobs, the economy, whether they can pay for insurance. There is no way to make sense of it all, to derive sense and meaning from it."

When you feel you're fighting these battles alone, that's when you feel great stress, he says. "But if you are part of a faith tradition, a church, if you feel like other people are supporting you, you feel that you're not in it alone. You begin to feel that God can use this crisis to create some good -- that you can turn this crisis into something good."

We've become a generation of seekers -- looking for purpose and meaning in life's tragic events, says Koenig. We're also heeding advice from science itself. "Research has made an impact on people. We have data that shows that religious people do seem to cope better, do have more purpose and meaning in life, do take better care of themselves."

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