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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. Vyradder

    Flaky people are flaky? Say it isn't so.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  2. Hank

    This "study" is more about introverts vs. extroverts than SBNR vs. religious.

    The idea of the individual making their own decisions about what to believe and how to act scares the hell out of the collective and it should. Therefore they will demonize the individual by linking them to social stigmas like drug use and psychosis.

    For more info google "the quiet power of introverts".

    January 9, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      WRONG.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • JeramieH

      Way to contribute there, Brown Note.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Shane

    This is probably the stupidest article I've read in years. Much to my surprise, after the first couple of paragraphs, I skipped down to the bottom to write this comment because I didn't even want to waste my time reading the rest of this narrow-minded BS about people who are spiritual, yet not religious. Seems like this is just another way of trying to bring people over to the "religious" side of things, because OH NO!!! If you are SPIRITUAL, YOU DO DRUGS!!

    Take your subliminal manipulation of a study and put in a pipe and smoke it. How's that for doing drugs?

    January 9, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Colin

      Like

      January 9, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Dan

      Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness. If it's just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor? That is part of the article that you refused to read, mr narrowminded.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  4. Wow, CNN

    What about this; These people already have mental disorders, and then do drugs? I second Aeria's remarks – "Another clear-cut case of correlation being confused with causation"

    January 9, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  5. shel74nf

    More likely the spiritual folk who used drugs had an experience which could not be explained by science or organized religion, so they choose to follow their own path. Definitely a threat to the status quo, isn't it? No wonder drugs are illegal. Can't have anyone thinking different.
    Btw I suggest meditation and looking inward for truth rather than relying on books or drugs.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Larry Hannah

      Logic, facts, and reason work well, too.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • shel74nf

      Logic and reason have their place certainly. But the mind is a tricky thing to follow when it comes to personal peace and contentment.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Larry Hannah

      Well I suppose you would have to define your use of the term meditation.

      If a person has a problem with themselves, are not content with who they are, and cannot find happiness with who they are, it would be bad advise to tell them to sit alone and think a while. I would rather refer them to a trained doctor that has a great understanding of how our 'tricky' minds work. I call em psychiatrists or therapists.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • shel74nf

      In the case of real chemical disorders, i would agree. But the fact is psychiatrists and so called experts don't even know how their own mind works and don't have anything close to inner peace in their personal lives, how would you expect them to help you, other than give you drugs to dull the pain? Every person can take the time to sit in silence and watch thoughts and feelings come and go on their own, and realize their impermanent nature. Its a proven system that's been around for 2500 years or so.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  6. d

    The hate, the intolerance, the love of your money. That is why Religion is on its ass. This article is just proof why people of all faiths are rejecting this dogma and are awakening to their truth, not somebody preaching from the pulpit. So obvious that this phony study was done by a major religion. What a total farce.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  7. Wayne

    The most disturbing part of this report was the complete disregard for a differentiation between "correlation" and cause. There might be a positive correlation between non-religious spirituality and mental illness, but where is the evidence the the former causes the latter? If I had to guess, I say the it would more likely be reversed, but then one can't just isolate two variables of the complex human condition and attempt to assign a simple cause and effect relationship between them...

    January 9, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • MarylandBill

      I have to agree. There are several different things that could be going on here. 1. Being spiritual but not religious causes the problems. 2. The problems make it more likely that one will choose to be spiritual but not religious. 3. There is an external cause that can lead to both results. 4. Its just a coincidence.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  8. fiftyfive55

    Spirituality IS a religion onto itself . I do however think this article is written to get the same effect as that old movie "reefer madness",used as a propaganda story.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • MarylandBill

      I don't think it is fair to say that spirituality, at least as they define it here, can be considered a religion. It has no set dogmas or practices or even community.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  9. Colin

    Wow this is stupid. These statistics are meaningless; they contain obvious selection bias amongst other biases. And then there's the fact that many religious people would be too afraid to admit to drug use. “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.” – Yea, that makes PERFECT sense. This dude is a moron.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  10. child of god

    So what if there is a god , heaven and hell think about it

    January 9, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Larry Hannah

      OMG what if Allah is actually the REAL god, or Zeus, or [insert any other 'god' here besides Yahweh or Jesus] ....think about it.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  11. Aaron

    What a steaming pile of stereotypical religious blather.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Seeker

      .... which has drawn forth a lot of SBNR cliches and bigotry.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  12. vijay

    Once an old UK college colleague told me that their church priests disallowed her to practice Yoga because it was dark stuff and harmful to her. In fact, it would lead that person to hell. I believe that the same kind of fuzzy thinking is used by college professors who are funded by churches to come up with religious promotion articles. No where in the study it states whether the candidates were already users of drugs and had mental disorders before they became spiritual. Perhaps a proper spirituality is in fact more beneficial than hurtful. I think it is about time we move away from promoting specific organized religion and move forward with reality.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  13. stefletcher

    Oh my here we go again.... The church is getting desperate isn't he?! I must say that being spiritual and not religious has not caused me to start using drugs, quit caring about humanity or stop believing in God. It would be quite interesting to take this category of spiritual and not religious people and ask them the specific reasons they choose not to affiliate with organized religion. The results would be certainly eye opening.

    The statement by Ms. Luhrmann, "organized religion provides three outlets that benefit churchgoers' well being: social support, attachment to a loving God and the organized practice of prayer" is absolutely ridiculous! There is social support and prayer involved in being spiritual. The "attachment to a loving God" is something each person identifies for themselves and there are many who choose the belief that there is no "God." If, during the time the Baptist church had my attention, they had introduced me to a "loving God" then maybe I would have considered staying - instead, we were threatened with God's wrath, the fire of hell (that we certainly would be going to) and sadly, the preachers and "men of God" were often committing "sins" they condemned others for .... and I suppose they didn't worry much since they constantly play that "get out of hell free" card - called "asking Jesus for forgiveness."

    Organized religion has failed in many ways and it has helped in many ways. However, to report that being spiritual and not religious leads to increased mental illness, drug use or anxiety/neurosis seems a bit over the top. It would be interesting to see how they conducted the study and the tools used to collect the data.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  14. Rod

    Slow news day, huh? Believing in the existence of a higher power is far different than following the tenants of whatever organized religion you happen to have been indoctrinated into. How you put your beliefs into practice is far more important than what religious group you belong to. In my opinion it is preferable to be a spiritual person sans a religion that seems to think it is ok to blow yourself up on a crowded bus full of innocents or kill doctors in planned parenthood clinics or scream obscenities at people grieving the loss of loved ones.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  15. Ken

    Boopy Dean says we enie gonna fix yer day. All hail Boopy Dean!

    January 9, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  16. THE BROWN NOTE

    DREADLOCKS.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • ME II

      stock photo

      January 9, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • chiarrai

      What a pile of crap! Who wastes their time and money on studies such as these? This blog has is as divisive as religion is. People have problems with many things, unrelated as to whether they are spiritual, religious, or not. We are human which is our commonality. Come form a place of love and not judgement and we will all be better for it.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  17. Chris Gose

    From a psychological and scientific perspective, you must necessarily question the assumptions in this article. The article draws it's conclusions from spurious, comparative statistical data derived from poorly operationalized terms and definitions. The article states "Overall, 19% of spiritual respondents said they suffered from a neurotic disorder, while 15% of religious respondents responded the same way.' Notwithstanding that there is no logical basis–from these numbers, to claim that by being spiritual vs. religious you will be 'more likely to develop neurotic disorders,' the so-called 'neurotic disorders' are no longer considered to be a valid diagnostic category in psychiatry: they aren't listed in the dsm-iv or dsm-v! So they have effectively slapped a couple arbitrary statistics on some sort of anachronistic, fuzzy, poorly defined concept of so-called 'neurosis,' without even telling us if the statistical discrepancy is statistically significant–or falls within the reasonable boundary of sampling error–and on the basis of this shoddy argument then makes the fairly ridiculous claim that by being 'spiritual' vs. 'religious' you are more likely to develop some sort of warm-fuzzy-fairey-pie-in-the-sky psychiatric conditions. As a statistician and professional psychologist, we have a word for this sort of pseudo-science: PIFFLE!

    January 9, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • ME II

      Not sure if this answers your questions or not, but the first study methods said this:

      "Psychiatric assessment was carried out by lay interviewers using the CIS-R. Subjects were also screened for psychosis, and screen-positive individuals were examined by psychiatrists using SCAN."
      ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9234456 )

      ps It was a British study and I don't know if the Brits follow the DSM or not.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • stefletcher

      Thank you Chris!

      January 9, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Chris Gose

      I'd personally have to go through and read the study myself to really and thoroughly make any sort of definitive statement about the methodology. It just seems on first glance, it's full of holes. Thx for the info me2 ...

      January 9, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • ME II

      @Chris Gose,
      Agreed.
      Wish the article had more detail.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Chris Gose

      It actually wouldn't surprise me if there was a higher incidence of certain types of mental disorders in people who self-identify as 'spiritual' vs. 'religious.' However, the idea that by self-identifying as 'spiritual' you are then more likely to develop some sort of mental disorder seems like a ridiculous claim. Basically it would be good to know what mental-disorders they're discussing. I've read much of Freud–obsolete as he is, and all of Jung, so I appreciate the concept of the neuroses; however, the neuroses was just never all that well operationalized as a scientific concept. Are they talking about personality disorders? Are they talking about mood disorders? Are they talking about things like generalized anxiety disorder, or is it adjustment disorders like PTSD?

      I think as you stratify these disorders and compare religious vs. spiritual people, you will quite likely find that the landscape changes. I would venture a guess that histrionic personality disorder is more common in religious vs. spiritual people, I wouldn't be surprised if anti-social personality disorder is more common amongst the spiritual. I guarantee you schizotypal personality disorder will be more common amongst the spiritual. But, it would be absurd for me to claim that because you are religious, you will be more likely to develop histrionic personality disorder. In fact, we know that the personality disorders are largely genetic. So you can't really say that self-identify as EITHER religious or spiritual has a wholelot to do with the causal phenomenology of personality disorders, except by association.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  18. i'm confused

    I wonder why the conductors of this study didn't include statistics regarding the level of education that people who don't subscribe to organized religion but who still believe in a higher power have in comparison to religious folks... ha ha ha ha ha

    So the conductors of this "very scientific study" argues that people who don't subscribe to organized religion but still believe in God are more likely to use drugs. Ok they like to party, sounds to me like they're more likely to be fun than religious people...lol! =)

    The only other argument I noticed in this nonsense reporting was that spiritual but not religious people are not part of a church so they are "less likely to help the poor"... WHAT?!?!?!?!? Religious people are MUCH more likely to be Republican and WE ALL KNOW WHAT REPUBLICANS THINK ABOUT THE POOR!!!!!!!!!

    January 9, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      What you meant to say is "WE ALL KNOW WHAT WE THINK REPUBLICANS THINK ABOUT THE POOR."

      January 9, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      What you meant to say is "WE ALL KNOW WHAT WE THINK REPUBLICANS THINK ABOUT THE POOR." There, fixed it for you.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • i'm confused

      @ Bill Deacon – Actions speak MUCH louder than words my friend and the impact that gop policies have on the poor ARE IN NO WAY SUBJECTIVE (i.e. they ARE NOT just my opinion)!!! Just sayin...

      January 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  19. Aeria

    Wow. Another clear-cut case of correlation being confused with causation.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • Terrible "Science" Reporting

      Agreed. This is an absolutely terrible and grossly misleading article. CNN needs a decent science editor, and anything claiming to be reporting research results (even if being posted in their "belief blog") should be reviewed and approved by the science editor OR clearly identified as pure opinion and speculation.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Do you wonder if it is purposeful so that one side can claim it indicts the other?

      January 9, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  20. Ken

    One of the stupidest stories I have ever seen. People who have left the church due to the hate, fear, intolerance, and hypocrisy can be spiritual but not religious. I left the church, not my morals and common sense. I believe in God and live a spiritual life, just not religious associated with the church. This story was funded by the church as a guilt trip because they know they are going away.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • The Truth

      Some people leave the church to do the drugs.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I don't see any religious affiliation to the author of the study. Do you?

      Michael King, MD, PhD, FRCP, FRCGP, FRCPsych, Unit of Mental Health Sciences, Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London Medical School, London; Louise Marston, PhD, Department of Primary Care and Population Health, University College London Medical School, Royal Free Campus, London; Sally McManus, MSc, National Centre for Social Research, London; Terry Brugha, MD, FRCPsych, Howard Meltzer, PhD, Academic Unit of Social and Epidemiological Psychiatry, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester; Paul Bebbington, PhD, FRCP, FRCPsych, Unit of Mental Health Sciences, Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London Medical School, London, UK

      Correspondence: Michael King, Unit of Mental Health Sciences, Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London Medical School, Charles Bell House, 67–73 Riding House Street, London W1W 7EH, UK. Email: michael.king@ucl.ac.uk

      January 9, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • kenny

      Right on !!!!!

      January 9, 2013 at 11:50 am |
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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.