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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.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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 • Spirituality • United States

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soundoff (1,269 Responses)
  1. kurtinco

    This isn't a study, it's a survey. BIG difference.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Please define the difference.

      It is unquestionable a study. The data studied was the result of self-identified answers to a survey.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Rolph

      Isn't a survey a meta-analysis of a group of studies?

      January 9, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • L.H

      A study is a scientific survey based on a controlled environment and a controlled situation, it is based on accurate percentages being represented, not a random survey sampling of people.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  2. JMT

    Interesting article...oddly though, I know of a few religious church going people who smoke pot on a regular basis. How can the author say that lack of church leads to mental disorders? Mental disorders are difficult to detect before onset and diagnosis takes even longer. Seriously, how many religious figures in history who saw things or heard things that others could not were possibly mentally imbalanced? Was this a divine experience or schizophrenia?

    January 9, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "How can the author say that lack of church leads to mental disorders?"

      They don't.

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

      Restated, many of the people who search for spiritual answers without a deterministic conclusion also struggle with metal disorders.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  3. TheAntiChrist

    Well from my own observation religious people are just plain crazy anyway.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

      BINGO!!!

      January 9, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  4. palintwit

    That guy in the photo is facing Alaska and praying to Sarah Palin for guidance.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  5. Mark S.

    Religious people, by definition, are crazy. They believe in myths, fantasies, and invisible creatures (god & devil). More evil done in the name of religion then....etc etc

    January 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  6. Sam

    I was raised by an aethiest and a non-practicing christian. I've never gone to a religious service in my life, and would definitely call myself spiritual but not religious – I don't have any cultural context to an organized religion. What am I supposed to do, shop around and pick one? The reason there are less people of the younger generation who believe in god or claim a certain religion when they fill out a form isn't because young people are self-centered. It's likely because demographics are changing, and just like there are more racially mixed people out there, there are also a lot of people like me.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Sam,

      do you believe in God or a universal spirit?

      The study observes that people who self-identify as neither spritual nor religious tend to fare better.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • niknak

      I guess you are in a tough spot Sam I am.
      But you could be in a better spot too, just how you look at it.
      Your average run of the mill fundie, in any religion, is only that way because they were born into that religion.
      So they had no choice.

      If you still want to cling onto the myth, then you get the chance to shop around and pick the one that you like the most.
      Kinda like buying a car.

      You can do your research online, like a car buyer would by going to Consumer Reports etc.
      Look at all the options, and models and what they will cost you.
      Then you can narrow them all down to one or two, then go to the showroom and take them for a test drive.
      After that, you can make your choice and drive it home.

      This way, you get the model that is the best fit for you, and not the handmedown old beater from your folks.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  7. Reilleyfam

    Sure = tell that to someone just sodomized by a priest.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  8. Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

    Christians & Jews..please note the OT is a fraud...........
    .
    "Various themes, plot elements, and characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh have counterparts in the book of Genesis, notably in the stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah's Flood.
    The parallels between the stories of Enkidu/Shamhat and Adam/Eve have been long recognized by scholars. In both, a man is created from the soil by a god, and lives in a natural setting amongst the animals. He is introduced to a woman who tempts him. In both stories the man accepts food from the woman, covers his nakedness, and must leave his former realm, unable to return. The presence of a snake that steals a plant of immortality from the hero later in the epic is another point of contact.
    Andrew R. George submits that the flood story in Genesis 6–8 matches the Gilgamesh flood myth so closely, "few doubt" that it derives from a Mesopotamian account. What is particularly noticeable is the way the Genesis flood story follows the Gilgamesh flood tale "point by point and in the same order", even when the story permits other alternatives.
    In a 2001 Torah commentary released on behalf of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, rabbinic scholar Robert Wexler stated: "The most likely assumption we can make is that both Genesis and Gilgamesh drew their material from a common tradition about the flood that existed in Mesopotamia. These stories then diverged in the retelling."
    .
    The roaming Jews stole ideas from the region they loitered in. They created their own God to bring order to their tribes. Jesus was clearly delusional thinking he was a demigod and died as a result. The Christians are a cult derived from the Jews.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  9. Reilleyfam

    BIASED STUDY = This is untrue and insulting. It's unbelievable CNN would publish such a bogus and biggoted article. If something like this was done about Jew, Muslims, Christians or any other group it would be a national scandal.

    SHAME.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Matt

      Being a beliving Jew, Muslim or Christian is a MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE...anyone in the right mind who is rationale, has the access to educate themselves and understand just a little bit of logic can't possible be a Jew, Muslim or christian unless they are suffering from a large amound Cognitive Dissonance or Denial!

      January 9, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

      It is most def an illness

      January 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • JMT

      I know it. I am shocked too. This article is crap!

      January 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  10. Bustin Jeiver

    Spiritual but not religious = stupid but not psycho.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  11. Jim

    That picture is a hilarious example of a preconceived notion of what "Spiritual, but not religion, with a higher likelihood of chemical dependence" looks like.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      It's the Belief Blog's 'go to' stock photo for SBNR topics.

      We've seen it before.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  12. lionlylamb

    Psychiatric nomenclatures attenuations upon the conditionings of sociologic issues dare to manipulate the societal easing of patterned causes in Life's austerities' regulative rationalisms bearings.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  13. uos_spo6

    Funny, I always thought subscription to organized religion in itself was a mental health issue.

    But the issue the study addresses is clear. The false assurance and comfort from mental torment that 'acceptance' of a doctrine of organized beliefs, supported in 'believability' by a global community of millions of other like minded peoples, offers is a safe guard against the potential detrimental self-inflicted effects that a 'non-concrete idea' towards religiousness/spirituality offers.

    The idea is that a tepid commitment in one's own mind to a spiritual conviction leads to a continued process of potential doubt, skepticism and leaves doors in the mind open to other possibilities. Too many doors left open in the mind can lead some people with no clear direction. It's quite easy to drive oneself mad through thought if you're concentrating on the right thoughts.

    That being said, I'd rather be in the mad house than accept fallacy for the sake of mental stability. To me, the simple implication of the concept of divinity is insane whether you want to put it in the context of a rigid mass organized system of belief or whether you want to keep it loose and free in a 'spiritual' kind of way.

    To be fair, I don't self define as spiritual, I self define as Atheist, but Atheism alone is far from an answer to all the queries of spirituality, it merely addresses one small subject within, being the (non) existence of divinity. There's a lot more to spirituality than the question of a super being.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Saraswati

      All great points. And I think we need to recognize there are likely individual traits, both due to biological nature and upbrining, that make one individuals needs differ from another.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @uos_spo6,

      the study is clear that people who self-identify as neither spiritual nor religious have less mental health issues than those who self-identify as SBNR.

      So, atheism is just fine.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Steve

      I just want to point out some problems with the implications of this study. The author is presenting the findings in the form of cause and effect. The study itself looks like it is a survey or correlational study at best. Cause and effect relationships cannot be determined by this kind of study. I would not make a direct cause and effect link between anything mentioned. At best it may provide some support for the importance of being affiliated with a group, any kind of social support group, whether religious or not.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Steve,

      the study is purely coorelational. It does not address causality.

      It's conclusion is: "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder."

      January 9, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The idea that a group of people who search for 'meaning' without finding a deterministic answer, might have a higher incidence of mental health issues spanning drug dependency, eating and anxiety disorders, phobia and neuroses and anti-depressive medication, does not seem like a huge stretch to me.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  14. Lindy

    FYI, the Unity movement is Spiritual but not Religous. We believe there is only one GOD and all paths lead to GOD and we pray. I get it that there are crazies in all religions and places but our prinicples are very enlightening and accepting, is that crazy or depressive? I call foul on your theory.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Larry Hannah

      You don't find it crazy to talk to imaginary people? I don't see how those principles are any less crazy than any other religion or world view that includes gods, afterlives. and praying.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • nO POST

      You have the ONE GOD part right. But, your teaching of all paths lead to God is untrue. If you dismiss Jesus as being the only way to God the Father, than your doctrine is correct in your organizations eyes but not the real God's eyes. May you and all in your organization one day come to know that Jesus is the only path to God the Father.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Larry Hannah

      So which one of you is right? One, two, three, GO!

      January 9, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  15. Christiana Gaudet

    Oh, please. There's enough mental illness in the Westboro Baptist Church to balance out the rest of us. And, since Christians are trained to lie to save face in their community, how can we trust the results of a survey like this?

    January 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  16. L.H

    Religion can be very very healthy if its leaders simply encourage greater understanding and awareness of God and Jesus, or Abraham and Moses etc. It should not be about shame or coercion. Nor should condemning people be the mainstay of any religion. However, there is a base need for right and wrong and religious understanding of the scriptures, and a deeper connection with God.

    People must create their own connection with God, and learn to better themselves and be more soul based people. That is what religion is supposed to do. It is supposed to help people feel closer to God, mankind, and their soul and all creatures. It is supposed to offer a moral compass, and faith, hope, love and a great place to be encouraged to be a better person.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Larry Hannah

      How is believing in untrue things healthy at all? No matter what your understanding is.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  17. helicohunter

    The religious seem to think that only they are capable of caring about the poor. Nonsense! One doesn't need organized religion to have compassion, understand the difference between right and wrong, and want to make the world a better place. Plenty of spiritual and non-spiritual people volunteer or find other ways to make the world a better place. Lack of a support network can definitely be a problem, especially for young people trying to find their way. There are many places other than churches to find support. Also, plenty or religious (particularly ultra-religious) people are crazy as loons. Look at Andrea Yates, Brian Mitchell, and the BTK killer.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  18. Live4Him

    Findings of the study: Religious people are less likely to have ever used drugs and less likely to be a hazardous drinker than SBNR and non-religious people.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Geroge of the Urban Jungle

      Findings from the study: religious people are more likely to be mentally ill than secular people.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

      Very ill indeed

      January 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Enki

      You added the non-religious to serve your own vices. The study did not indicate what you've claimed.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • sam stone

      Depends on the drugs, Live4Him

      January 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  19. warm in Ak

    Clown boy in the picture shown looks like he is getting ready to sneeze.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  20. liz

    Let me get a shovel what crap

    January 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Spiritual and not Religious

      ditto liz ditto! this crap stinks. what utter morons; are they serious?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Spiritual and not Religious

      agreed! what a terrible article...can't even being to point out how ignorant this study is.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Take it up with the British Journal of Psychiatrics.

      They published the paper.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:41 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.