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The spiritual but not religious likely to face mental health issues, drug use, study says
January 9th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

The spiritual but not religious likely to face mental health issues, drug use, study says

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) - Can being spiritual but not religious lead to mental health issues? The answer is yes, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry, says spiritual but not religious people, as opposed to people who are religious, agnostic or atheist, were more likely to develop a "mental disorder," "be dependent on drugs" and "have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia.

“People who have spiritual beliefs outside of the context of any organized religion are more likely to suffer from these maladies,” said Michael King, a professor at University College London and the head researcher on the project.

Thirty percent of respondents who identified as spiritual said they had used drugs, a number that was nearly twice as much as the 16% of religious respondents who said they had used drugs, according to the study. Among the spiritual respondents, 5% said they were dependent on drugs, while 2% of religious respondents identified as dependent.

On mental health issues, the study said spiritual but not religious people were more likely to suffer from “any neurotic disorder,” “mixed anxiety/depressive disorders” or “depression” than their religious counterparts. Overall, 19% of spiritual respondents said they suffered from a neurotic disorder, while 15% of religious respondents responded the same way.

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The practice of being spiritual but not religious is difficult to define and has a number of gray areas. The phrase is generally used to describe people who do not attend church, atheists who believe in some sort of higher power, free thinkers and the unaffiliated. It is also used for people who blend different faiths.

In short, King writes, “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.”

King, who said he has received a substantial amount of hate mail over the study, defended his findings, “If you take drug dependency, they are about 77% more likely than religious respondents, 24% more likely to having a generalized anxiety disorder. These are quite obvious differences.”

Opinion: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out

The study was conducted with the government of the United Kingdom, which asked the questions as part of a larger psychiatric study.

With a sample of 7,403 British people, the study found that nearly 19% of England’s population is spiritual but not religious. That number is higher in the United States, where, according to a 2002 Gallup Poll, in a sample of 729 adults, 33% of Americans identified themselves as "spiritual but not religious.”

Past academic studies in the United States have come to similar conclusions, said Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor at Stanford University. Most academic research about religion and well-being, said Luhrmann, has found that religion is good for you.

According to Luhrmann, organized religion provides three outlets that benefit churchgoers' well being: social support, attachment to a loving God and the organized practice of prayer.

“When you become spiritual but not religious, you are losing the first two points and most spiritual but not religious people aren’t participating in the third,” Luhrmann said. “It is not just a generic belief in God that works; it is specific practices that work.”

People who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious push back against the notion that they have no community to fall back on or impetus to help the poor. In an interview with CNN in June 2010, BJ Gallagher, a Huffington Post blogger who writes about spirituality, compared spiritual but not religious people to people who complete 12-step programs to beat addiction.

“Twelve-step people have a brilliant spiritual community that avoids all the pitfalls of organized religion,” said Gallagher, author of “The Best Way Out is Always Through.” “Each recovering addict has a 'God of our own understanding,' and there are no priests or intermediaries between you and your God. It's a spiritual community that works.”

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Heather Cariou, a New York-based author, identifies as spiritual instead of religious. She told CNN last year that she adopted a spirituality that blends Buddhism, Judaism and other beliefs.

"I don't need to define myself to any community by putting myself in a box labeled Baptist or Catholic or Muslim," she said. "When I die, I believe all my accounting will be done to God, and that when I enter the eternal realm, I will not walk though a door with a label on it."

Younger people identify as spiritual but not religious more frequently than their older counterparts. In a 2009 survey by the research firm LifeWay Christian Resources, 72% of millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) said they are "more spiritual than religious."

The phrase is now so commonplace that it has spawned its own acronym ("I'm SBNR") and website: SBNR.org.

Traditionally the words "religious" and "spiritual" were closely linked, but over time the latter word began to describe an experience disconnected from the traditional confines of religion, particularly organized religion.

A widely discussed survey of adult Americans by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released in October found that the religiously unaffiliated both believe in God and define themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Sixty-eight percent of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God and 58% say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the Earth, in a spiritual way. Additionally, the study found 37% classify themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious" and 21% say they pray every day.

As expected, the practice of being spiritual but not religious has been roundly criticized by those who participate in organized religion. Jesuit priest James Martin told CNN in June that the phrase, "I’m spiritual but not religious," can boil down to egotism.

"Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness," said Martin, an editor at America, a national Catholic magazine based in New York. "If it's just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?"

– CNN’s John Blake and Richard Greene contributed to this report

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Faith Now • Spirituality • United States

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soundoff (1,269 Responses)
  1. RN

    I thought mental illness was a chemical imbalance. All this time we have been treating w/ medication. All they need to do is to join a church. I'll remember that. We should change the DSM.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Begone

      RN,

      Yeah, they'll change it to be the "Demon Suppression Manual" :twisted:

      January 9, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Candice

      why do you think taking a pill is a better answer than going to church?

      January 26, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  2. Ed

    People who break free from the tyranny of organized religion are also more likely to be honest about their drug and mental health issues. Consequently, this study is flawed because there are many religious respondents who simply will not admit the truth.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  3. Deelee82

    "atheists who believe in some sort of higher power" – Atheists are defined by their LACK of belief in some sort of higher power. Not sure the researcher has a clue what he's talking about.

    Also, where did he control for people who came to spirituality BECAUSE of drug use? "Can being spiritual but not religious lead to mental health issues?" No more so than believing that the devil can make you do bad things.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Robert

      "No more so than believing that the devil can make you do bad things."

      It's the Christian out...the devil made them do, then they don't have to be accountable for their behavior.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  4. Robert Brown

    They are spiritual enemies: Spiritual wickedness in high places, or wicked spirits, as some translate it. The devil is a spirit, a wicked spirit; and our danger is the greater from our enemies because they are unseen, and assault us ere we are aware of them. The devils are wicked spirits, and they chiefly annoy the saints with, and provoke them to, spiritual wickednesses, pride, envy, malice, etc.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bob

      You must be possessed by the ego devil. ;-) LMAO!

      January 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      It was foreknown by God that antichrists would arise, and antichristian spirits oppose his Spirit and his truth; it was foreknown also that one eminent antichrist would arise, and make a long and fatal war against the Christ of God, and his inst.itution, and honour, and kingdom in the world. This great antichrist would have his way prepared, and his rise facilitated, by other less antichrists, and the spirit of error working and disposing men’s minds for him: the antichristian spirit began betimes, even in the apostles’ days. Dreadful and unsearchable is the judgment of God, that persons should be given over to an antichristian spirit, and to such darkness and delusion as to set themselves against the Son of God and all the testimony that the Father hath given to the Son! But we have been forewarned that such opposition would arise; we should therefore cease to be offended, and the more we see the word of Christ fulfilled the more confirmed we should be in the truth of it.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Bob

      "But we have been forewarned that such opposition would arise; we should therefore cease to be offended, and the more we see the word of Christ fulfilled the more confirmed we should be in the truth of it."

      That's why for Centuries Christians like you continue to spew this nonsense, and nothing happens and nothing is actually fulfilled. You are just making crap up so you can feel justified in your choice to believe in your imaginary friend.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      the spirit of error working and disposing men’s minds for him

      January 9, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • Pete

      "the spirit of error working and disposing men’s minds for him"

      Another lying xtian- 14!

      January 9, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  5. Dr. K.

    Where were the peer-reviewers on this study? "In short, King writes, “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.”" Are you kidding me? Correlation does NOT equal causation. This "study" should have never been published.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  6. Margin of error?

    One major flaw in this study could be that this is all based on participant testimony. You could argue that many religious people are not willing to admit drug use or mental instability due to possible reprecussions as a result of their religious affiliation. That's not to say that "spritual" individuals are not also capable of lying on surveys.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Saraswati

      True, but for financial reasons mist studies are done this way.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • SImran

      If you read the link provided with this article, you would realize that this study was the National Psychiatric Morbidity Study, which must have looked into multiple parameters other than religion, which probably will be published elsewhere.
      If religious are likely to lie about their mental health, why not spiritual or agnostic/ atheists?

      January 9, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Saraswati

      @SImran, It wouldn't likely be a direct relationship to the religion, but to the fact that more religious people generally have a lower education level. It's already well-established that people with less education are less likely to recognize mental illness or to accept it as a diagnosis. Unless you account for this in the study, you don't really know what you're measuring.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  7. William Demuth

    Few understand one simple thing

    Religion IS a drug, designed to help one avoid reality

    It has been refined for centuries, and has destroyed the minds of BILLIONS of people.

    Do as Mr's Reagen suggested, and just say "NO"

    (Then kick the preacher type in the nads)

    January 9, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Candice

      few understand your opinion?

      January 27, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  8. ted

    you have to love this tripe. Without knowing the number of ppl involved in this study and the numbers involved in this, one could agrue that the 2% of 16% was a larger number than the 16% of the 30%. Total trash reporting effort.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @ted,

      the internet is your friend and the article provides links:

      "Method

      We analysed data collected from interviews with 7403 people who participated in the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England."

      January 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  9. David Garrison

    Wow! Do you guys really consider this journalism? What a bunch of crap. Believing the Bible is gospel is some type of mental illness in itself.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I take it you would consider an article t'itled "Believing in the Bible is a Mental Health Issue" to be good journalism?

      January 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Blue Sox

      Believing that taking care of the poor, orphans and widows of the world is 'mental illness'.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • diamondmask

      No blue sox, you could call that liberalism.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  10. lionlylamb

    Dr. Robert,

    I take it your intentional goals are for and toward subversive issuances wherever they are compiled into becoming socialistic revenues within governmentally censored regularities? Are you sure I am senile and not just an apportioned individualist with mind altering characteristics of uncommon proposals?

    January 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • niknak

      Now that was funny Clion.
      Uncommon proposals?!?

      Where do you come up with this stuff?
      Did you drop some of that belladonna?

      January 9, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      niknak,

      My past is just that, a past and my futures flow by each and every day in presence minding ways. My flowing wordage is from dreamt of dreams in lines aplenty in socialized influences. In pleasures of the postage dare I shed my flow rates of wordage appraisals. Eat them all up my wordage usages and let them sink into one's brain-yard!

      Let Us Love,
      Lettuce Love.
      G.O.D.
      God's Oldest Dreamer

      January 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  11. mmcdill

    If religion is the Prozac of the masses, I'm not taking mine.

    January 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • eirnb

      I'd rather be a hopped-up looney tune than drink the kool-aid.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  12. mfmaine

    "Thirty percent of respondents who identified as spiritual said they had used drugs, a number that was nearly twice as much as the 16% of religious respondents who said they had used drugs, according to the study." So...the religious responders were twice as likely to lie.

    January 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Live4Him

      You're projecting your values upon others again.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • sam

      (Live4Him would NEVER do something like that.)

      January 9, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Do you have some evidence to the contrary? I suspect this study was deeply flawed, but the idea that deeply religious people do fewer drugs hardly seems like something you can know a priori as a falsehood.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  13. callmequirky

    The beginning of the article mentions "atheists that believe in a higher power." I am fairly certain that atheist means without god entirely. Wouldn't believing in some type of a higher power, but not subscribing to a religion mean agnostic?

    January 9, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Live4Him

      Humanist consider the goodness (i.e. care of the poor, etc.) of humans to be their higher power. So, higher power doesn't always mean a God.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @callmequirky,

      The section you quote defines people who fit the definition of 'spiritual but not religious'.

      The confusing reference to "atheists who believe in a higher power" in this case means ta subset of all who might self identify as atheists, and specifically those that don't believe in an anthropomorphic God, but do believe in a universal spirit. It would be better written as 'people who believe in a universal spirit'.

      The survey is clear that is speaks of those who are neither spiritual nor religious. These are atheists and agnostics.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Dharma, The Force, Infinite light...

      January 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  14. AGeek

    As opposed to the religious, who talk to imaginary friends? Who approves this crap for submission!?

    January 9, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Yankee Blade

      Actually, next to the Justin Beiber article, this one is an intellectual giant.

      The year is off to a very stupid start at the Belief Blog.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Blechh

      Eric Marrapodi is not showing any good judgement since Dan left. He must have been letting Dan do all the heavy lifting.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • niknak

      I was thinking the same thing Yankee Bladerunner.
      The BB has really hit the bottom of the barrel as to their articles.
      Maybe it is just that religion is so boring and runs out of stuff to write about.

      They have been beating jeebus' dead carcass for 2000 years now, so eventually they run out of new material.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  15. lunchbreaker

    I get quite spiritual after drinking an entire bottle of Robitussin.

    January 9, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  16. Live4Him

    So, why do you think that religious people tend to be more socially balanced than SBNR and non-believers (i.e. neither religious or spiritdual)?

    January 9, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • sam

      I have yet to see you act socially balanced, though. Whatever that means.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • niknak

      Where was that ever proven?
      All the fundies I know are some of the most socially F ed up peeps I have ever been around.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @L4H,

      what's 'socially balanced' when you know full well the study says: "Religious people were similar to those who were neither religious nor spiritual with regard to the prevalence of mental disorders"

      January 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • AGeek

      You're kidding, right? Fundamentalists (regardless of denomination) are some of the most sociopathic motherf&#%ers out there. "I'm right, you're wrong!" ..totally sociable and well-adjusted sentiment. o.O

      January 9, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • Live4Him

      @niknak:

      It was in the link 'The study' in the first paragraph.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Live4Him

      @I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV : what's 'socially balanced'

      I'm using the term socially balanced to mean ability to live in society without the need for drugs or heavy drinking.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Bob

      "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder."

      January 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • OOO

      L4H,
      Even if that were true (religious people are more socially balanced) you can't jump to any conclusions about the existance of a higher power or the validity of any religion.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Enki

      And the study was based on in depth assessment of each participant on multiple occassions by professional Psychiatrists in the field of behavioral analysis, correct? Oh, a self-reported survey....hmmm....well we already know the religious lie to themselves about reality and you think a self-report form is going to provide truth......yep, ok.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Blue Sox

      Certain religions may encourage behaviors that are healthy.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bob,

      "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder."

      And those who are neither spiritual nor religious are doing just fine.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Live4Him

      @Enki : we already know the religious lie to themselves

      Correction: YOU already BELIEVE the religious lie to themselves.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Religious people report themselves as more mentally sound.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Enki

      Live4Him – actually, after 13 years of counseling I have enough anecdotal experience to safely say that I KNOW religious people lie to themselves. As I mentioned previously, if the DSM were applied without exclusion of religion, many religious would be assessed as delusional.

      Historically conservative Christians in the US have been raised in a culture where certain things are simply swept under the rug or handled "internally" (and ineffectively I might add). Child m ol.estation being second only to domestic abuse. So again, I can say with great confidence that yes, Christians tend to live in denial to preserve their naive realism.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Correction

      Live4Him”Correction: YOU already BELIEVE the religious lie to themselves.”

      I was raised in a good christian home ™ and attended many different churches and as an eye witness I can assure you that almost all the christians I have met clearly and obviously lie to themselves.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • ME II

      @Live4Him,
      "So, why do you think that religious people tend to be more socially balanced than SBNR and non-believers (i.e. neither religious or spiritdual)?"
      Perhaps the people in Britain, where this study was done, feel obligated to be members of a church because the state endorses religion and the SBNR folks are mentally stressed that they aren't active members. While the Atheist and Agnostics have gotten over it.

      January 9, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • Candice

      "I'm using the term socially balanced to mean ability to live in society without the need for drugs or heavy drinking."

      That's a pretty obscure definition of socially balanced

      January 27, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
  17. lionlylamb

    Drug and alcohol consumption? A part of spiritualism and not of religious accolades? Spiritualists are religiously affected and in the consumptions of drug and alcohol usages is as a passage of human rights even though governing laws reject such principalities of consumable issues.

    January 9, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • niknak

      Clion, that was a mess of rambling gibberish, even by your standards.
      You may want to show your psychologist that so she can adjust your meds.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Dr. Robert

      Unfortunately it's senility, and there are no meds that can bring back LL's mind.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      niknak,

      Your intentional means for my welfare issues are duly noted and filed in the 13th cupboard for furthering issuances to ever be reminded of your desires to be a helpful socialist of ill intents. May your prodigies in lively generational accolades be your fruited pleasurable necessities.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • niknak

      Thanks Clion, I think.
      Seemed to be a compliment, so I will take it as such.
      And I am concerned about your wellfare.
      I would feel terrible is you stopped posting here and I later found out it was because you had some serious mental breakdown and we all just sat idly by and did nothing.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
  18. Steve Smith

    This problem with the SBNR, is that they represent the future and a great threat to the religious "authorities". They same things were said about that dirty hippy known as Jesus.

    January 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Bippy

      The SBNR (Squirrels Babbling Naughty Rhymes) ARE the wave of the future!

      January 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • marginal

      lol, i've always said that jesus was a hippie. i dont think he would like the modern day organized religion, he was a pretty radical anti establishment type of dupe.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Blue Sox

      If you preach what Jesus preached in most churches people get upset.

      The religious people of his time hated him. That is why they killed him.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • niknak

      And they would kill him again too, if he came back.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Blue Sox

      And Jesus would still forgive them.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • niknak

      Maybe, but if he did come back, he would come strapped with an assualt rifle and hopefully take some of them with him.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Blue Sox

      Uh... no.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  19. Enki

    "Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness,"

    How arrogant coming from someone who is complacent with the notion that "god" can explain what we have yet to understand; and self-centered enough to believe that he has chosen the only correct version of god.

    January 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Enki,

      "Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness,"

      How do you argue that buffet-style or roll-your-own religion is not intrinsically self-centered?

      The notion is that organized religion requires work to adhere to the life of faith.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  20. M.E.

    Well that's not fair! That section has a higher than normal percentage of hippie-trippie idiots, of coooourse they're more likely to be scarfing shrooms and smoking a bowl or two! If for some reason all hippies were Catholics, suddenly Catholicism would appear to have problems too!

    January 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Snicker

      It's a good thing Catholicism doesn't have problems.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.