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
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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 • Spirituality • United States

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soundoff (1,269 Responses)
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    May 24, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  2. Glengarner

    This is something different I came across. Thanks for sharing

    NYC Psychiatrist

    May 24, 2013 at 4:44 am |
  3. willspirit

    Did the researchers take into account the fact that 12-step meetings encourage the SBNR stance? If the 12-step group makes up a substantial portion of the SBNR group, that would explain the higher rate of admitted drug use and mental illness. So SBNR might be the *result* rather than the cause of addiction. willspirit.com

    April 29, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  4. lol??

    Sometimes you get what you pay for, however you might not know what you're buyin'.

    April 24, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  5. Shad0

    @Kenja- no kidding. The defining point of an Atheist is that they lack a belief in a higher being.

    April 24, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  6. tms therapy nyc

    Trifecta Health and Psychiatrist Dr. Fruitman offers Adult ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, Substance Abuse, Weight Management and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for depression in New York City.

    April 18, 2013 at 5:31 am |
  7. David

    alright, well maybe disgusting is a bit harsh... but its pretty messed up if you need that kind of incentive to do good in the world

    April 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  8. David

    anyone who has ANY experience with mental health or addiction AT ALL, knows all about self medicating. it has very little to do with religious beliefs. 6/8 of my family have G.A.D. 7/8 Christians. 2/8 drug users. my Sister is Christ crazy and shooting up, im a Deist and use medical marijuana. also people who might already feel out casted by religious beliefs would probably be more open, because a christian is more likely to feel their place in society is threatened by openly admitting drug abuse ect. as it is, many Christians in America are "closet SBNR" or "closet Athiests" and will not openly admit it.

    "If it's just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?"
    As a deist, i have to say..... DISGUSTING....where if your self pride? where is your conscious? WHERE IS YOUR GOD? because when im sitting in my room, me and MY god. i want him to see the best of me....

    April 16, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  9. Nancy Parris

    I am only going to say, I would like to know lots more about this study. I'm SBNR and this does not fit with my experience and some of the staetments/conclusions appear to be quite strange.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  10. three_tenner

    I was going to poke holes in this study, but I can't find the original and I don't want to rely on a CNN article which may or may not have its facts straight. So I'll have to offer my experiences instead. BTW, if you believe religious people would truthfully answer a study, anonymous or not, and admit they have mental health issues, or used drugs, etc, you don't understand surveys or religious people very well. These studies never account for the fact that religious people are less likely to admit to having mental health issues or using drugs in order to look good to whomever is performing the survey for fear that if they admitted these things somehow someone will find out. They can't admit it to themselves; why would they admit it to anyone else?

    The recent attention paid to SBNR by the so-called religious clergy is clearly a reflection of their fear of losing social control and the power that goes with it, which has been dwindling for many decades now. As individuals begin to wake up to the idea that adherence to dogma in any form is ultimately far more harmful than helpful, many of us feel it is our moral imperative to reject organized religion and seek out our own experiences of the divine.

    As someone who has identified as SBNR for well over 20 years, it is clear the researchers' bias is showing. I was raised in a strict Mormon family within a strict fundamentalist Mormon community and was ostracized from them more than 30 years ago because I was experiencing emotional and mental problems that no one could explain except to say it was of the devil, or accuse me of having a character flaw or moral weakness. In reality it was because of the beatings and other abuse my father inflicted upon me. So in my case, the mental illness preceded the loss of my social group and religious support, and was the direct consequence of persecution by religious people. They did not try to help me, or keep me in the fold, but instead ostracized me and convinced me I was headed to hell. Naturally I felt persecuted, depressed, anxious, and alone, so I moved away, left the church and eventually they excommunicated me. This study is making the assumption that being SBNR preceded the onset of mental health issues when clearly it could just as easily be the other way around, and could in fact be a consequence of religion itself.

    The same could be said for drug use, as many of us SBNRs have discovered that certain drugs have spiritual qualities to them of which the majority are ignorant, including these researchers, so of course from their perspective we have a "problem". And let's be clear, many of us are drawn to certain drugs over issues of self medication in order to cope with the damage inflicted by organized religion. Their hands are definitely not clean, and they should stop acting like they had no part in harming others.

    Oh, and the idea that SBNRs (or agnostics and atheists for that matter) don't care about the poor, or are egotists, this is another BS idea meant to imply that we are less moral or ethical than religious folk, whom it seems only care about the poor because their god told them to, not because it is the right thing to do. In fact, this poor immoral, self centered, agnostic SBNR sinner decided to go back to school about 8 years ago, when I was in my mid 40's, and earned a masters degree in social work in order to be in a better position to help the poor, disabled, and elderly simply because it is the right thing to do. So don't try to tell me SBNRs are complacent and self-centered. Me thinks the religious folk are protesting a bit much. Projection, anyone?

    A wise man once said, religion is the belief in another persons experience of the divine; and spirituality is the finding your own. If you are too cowardly or brainwashed to seek your own experiences of the divine, that is your choice, not mine, and I can do no more than pity you. If god truly exists in any form, he/she/it won't care what religion you were, only how you treated one another. If religious people want to save people, they should begin with themselves. So please leave me out of your religious BS. Just because religious people are incapable of critical thinking doesn't mean others are not capable of thinking for themselves and making their own spiritual decisions. I think this is what frightens them the most, and is the true motivation for ignorant studies such as these. So take these studies with a grain of salt. They were obviously attempting to validate their own beliefs rather than find the truth. Typical.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
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  12. Brandon Frye

    I believe that spirituality can be interpreted differently for different people. For me it is a way of life. Here's my story on spirituality. Thanks for reading.

    March 24, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  13. terri

    blessed are the merciful, for they shall see god

    March 6, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • terri

      "It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure." bart e.

      ’“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

      thanks russ

      March 6, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • terri

      blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

      March 6, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • lonny

      atheism is ridiculous. no evidence exists in the world to support it.

      March 9, 2013 at 2:19 am |
  14. Chantel

    Hello 🙂
    I am spiritual but not religious. I understand why people may label us the way they do. We are a new energetic movement. For us we view life very differently from the older generations who were raised in the structure of a church and a society where certain behaviors were expected and if you did not conform then family, friends and members of the church would step in to see if changes could be made. I see nothing wrong with this. Just like I see nothing wrong with a toddler crawling around on a floor. I agree living a life without those supports can be taxing, for many reasons. Many people judge us especially parents and family. So yes at times we are more prone to depression or anxiety. At the same time this isnt a bad thing, it is a sign that we are evolving. Because we can only evolve when we experience hardship. Before attempting to walk the baby must crawl, religious people are crawling, we are starting to stand and yes we will fall. I forgive us though, I hope you do too. Because we are the next generation and we are leading the world into a new way of being, thinking and loving. I hope that one day you can join us or at least respect that we are trying to free ourselves of our previous need to have support. We are only toddlers attempting to walk while other toddlers judge us for not staying close to the floor.

    Much Love ~Namaste~

    March 3, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  15. Dawn Shafer

    I can't believe the post in response to this article. Having been raised Catholic, I was taught that we humans have no right to judge our peers. God is responsible for this process upon our demise. I have also learned that this is true of most organized religions. So why is it that so many of the religious responders here have taken it upon themselves to declare that any percentage spiritually-hearted people are cigarette smoking, alcoholic, drug addicts, who are most likely to be led into occultism? Sounds pretty judgement to me. As a spiritual being myself, I choose to love my neighbors and pray for your awakening and understanding of others. And, I don't need a written commandment to tell me this is the best way to respond to all the negative energy in som many of these responses.

    February 25, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  16. Name*alamim


    January 22, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  17. Chedar

    Practicing without reasoning leads to cultism.

    January 22, 2013 at 7:52 am |
  18. Grimble Grumble the gnome

    Atheists have the most mental problems because of how immoral they are. Most of them are chain smoking drunks like one of their leaders Christopher Hitchins

    January 15, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • Pete

      "Atheists have the most mental problems because of how immoral they are. Most of them are chain smoking drunks like one of their leaders Christopher Hitchins"

      More lying xtians – 107!

      January 15, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Considering the fact that you took the name from a Pink Floyd song, and the members of Pink Floyd were well known drug, alcohol and tobacco users, we can see just how disingenuos you really are troll.

      February 25, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Shad0

      There are many different types of Atheists like there are many different types of religious and spiritual people. You don't need t believe in God to practice common decency or have a sense of morality. You need to go back to your bible and stop trying to do God's job. Judgment is God's right alone.

      April 24, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
  19. laststonecarver

    I am saying that everyone has a decision making process, and that some folks choose to invest in a belief system.
    Whether anyone is a believer or not, they will still have to decide on what they want to think about.
    Believers choose to think about God and heaven, and also Satan and hell, to complete that thought process. And some non-believers choose to spend their time thinking about believers.
    The maps and instructions for your space ship and time machine, could be found in religious works, but that is not the only option. The maps and instructions are not just found in books, and more than likely are found outside of your Self. The obscure ones can be found in the most unusual people and places. And some will never be found, because of who you are, because of your heart, because of your conscience.
    Remember when you were a child...., Ope time travel alert spoiler...
    That is my point. You can time travel back to your childhood, and even to a God or heaven, if that is how you want to invest your thoughts.
    When travelling it is best to come prepared. You are gonna need a map. You are gonna need instructions. What is happening where you wander, and how do you get back in case of emergency, or at all.
    We are the many eyed creatures. When you were a child, you had those eyes wide opened. You used your space ship and time machine, every day. And then you became an adult, and forgot how to use your spaceship and your time machine.
    How do you want to invest your thoughts?
    Use your Imagination.
    I remember when you used to smile... but wait that's impossible, isn't it?

    January 15, 2013 at 7:13 am |
  20. akorage

    Lunatics are stockpiling guns and ammo. Are we wondering where the next shooter will come from? This is not rocket science. Don't look in the crystal ball. It's all in your face right this minute. Yes the next will come from another registered gun or one that is in the process of registration. Darn ! Why are we so SPACY

    January 14, 2013 at 2:11 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.