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)
  1. OrganicManLives_N_anOraganicUNiverSE

    ridiculous! Next thing you will say is having a religion makes you over-weight, drink too much coffee and obsess over other peoples things. oh wait it does... HA HA HA

    January 9, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  2. Ana

    Nevermind, just found the link.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  3. Larry Hannah

    "Hey if your and alcoholic or are addicted to any number of drugs, just come to my church where you can just trade one addiction for another!" no thanks

    January 9, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • BlueSox

      The churches I've been to direct alcoholics or addicts to rehab or AA/NA.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Larry Hannah

      AA and other 12 step like programs have very strong religious undertones.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  4. Steve

    If I believe Christ is my savior, the son of God, that doesn't make me a Lutheran or Catholic or what over. Christ didn't have a religion, he is the spirit in spirituality.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  5. Ana

    "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?"

    Umm, because it's the right thing to do and I don't need anyone to tell me I should do it?

    CNN, is it possible to get a link to this study embedded in the article? I'd be interested in reading it and finding out whether or not they asked the question "Were you previously part of a formal religious practice?" and "At what point, did you begin using drugs?"

    My experience has been that people who do not participate in formal, organized religion but label themselves spiritual, became so after having gone through a detoxing of their bodies from drugs and alcohol and realizing that many of the pressures they felt being part of organized religion led them to using the drugs and alcohol in the first place. Hence, the reason they do not participate in it anymore.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • El Flaco

      That's not what the study found. The study found that spiritual non-religious people tend to use drugs more than those who belong to a church and are not so spiritual.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  6. zeke

    so non-religious folks smoke more pot. that's a shocker? and so what if they do? are these studies intended to scare people into becoming religious? cuz they already have been trying that for thousands of years. only works on the weak minded. This just in: religious people are more likely to be able to be brainwashed.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • grokker

      Is this another study to add yet another disorder to the list of 297 fake disorders in the DSM-IV? All psychiatrists need to be locked up and the key thrown away.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • Pete

      "so non-religious folks smoke more pot. that's a shocker? "

      It' means spiritual people smoke more pot.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  7. d

    Research of near death experience studies show that those that died and came back became more spiritual and rejected their previous held religious dogma. Did not matter if they were catholic, muslim, or any other religion. Did not matter if they are man or woman or what part of the world you live in. Religion is the opium of the masses. Your article is pure propaganda.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  8. Live4Him

    @ME II : You have [not] given any basis for your "givens", a or b.

    So, you're free to challenge them. What do you see wrong with them?

    January 9, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • ME II

      There is no basis for those statements. What else do I need?

      January 9, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  9. Please God grant me the wisdom to be an Atheist

    People can use statistics to back up any like-a-bunghole opinion, 83% of people know that.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  10. Clifton

    This "study" and its conclusions are fundamentally flawed. This is a survey demonstrates that people who are spiritual but not religious are more likely to use drugs and have a mental disorder than those who are religious. First of all, the conclusion that being spiritual but not religious causes these problems is absurd as there is no attempt to establish that substance use and psychiatric illness occured after developing these beliefs. It may be that people who use drugs and develop a psychiatric illness are less likely to accept the doctrines of organized religion. Second, there is only a 4% elevation in incidence of psychiatric illness for those who are spiritual but not religious which seems likely to be within the poll's margin of error. Third, being spiritual but not religious may be more likely to lead to occasional use of substances, but this does not translate into a difference in problems with substance dependence (1% difference likely within poll's margin of error). Those who are spiritual but not religious have a different world view and are not going to be bound by the strict ideology of organized religion that presupposes drugs as immoral. As a result, they may be willing to try drugs, but the poll demonstrates that they are no more likely to get addicted and therefore are unlikely to have some fundamental flaw associated with their lack of organized religion.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  11. El Flaco

    There is no reason to believe that joining a church will change any of that. It might, if the person can find a church that is the right fit, but most of these folks are already turned off by church activities.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  12. Larry Hannah

    The phrase "atheists who believe in a higher power" is contradictory and just plain stupid.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • Akira

      Could it mean that they just don't think the higher power's name is God?
      My eye caught that one, too.
      Perhaps it's just shoddy writing.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • ME II

      Buddhists are often considered atheist, I think.
      No deity, but still a religion, if I understand correctly.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Larry Hannah

      Atheism only refers to the "god" claim (or what ever name you give it). I would say Buddhists are spiritual and could be labeled as atheist because the do not believe in a higher power (Buddhists feel free to correct me on that). As long a person says "I believe there is a higher power", they have left the realm of atheism and are now theists, or deists, but not and atheist.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  13. Science


    Stephen Hawking: 'There is no heaven' – Under God – The ...
    by Elizabeth Tenety – in 624 Google+ circles – More by Elizabeth Tenety
    May 16, 2011 – There is no heaven... that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” Hawking told the Guardian.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Live4Him

      Is Hawking your priest?

      January 9, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • ????????

      Sheldon Copper's on The Big Bang Theory CBS's number 1 show

      January 9, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Thoth

      @Live4Him –

      Hawking devolops theories, searches for evidence to support or disprove them, and then provides the results to the scientific community for global scrutiny.

      Priests, and other "holy men" simply repeat what they've been told, and/or offer their interpretations of a single source written by men during very different times, with far less understanding.

      One of the above is a seeker of truth; the other is bound in their thinking to a set of rules from a very different time.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • BlueSox

      'But God chose what the world considers nonsense to put wise people to shame. God chose what the world considers weak to put what is strong to shame."

      Hawking – genius when it comes to God. Not so sure about his understanding of God.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • BlueSox

      type alert++

      Hawking – genius when it comes to SCIENCE. Not so sure about his understanding of God.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • Science

      Science and facts I like his quot though.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  14. Heat Monger

    And those who are not religious and not spiritual are the most sane.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  15. Robin Bray

    Was alcohol considered a drug? If so the religious are telling a big fib.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  16. Emily

    *facepalm* Correlation is not causation, article-writer! Leaving aside the fact that this examines only one specific culture, the fact that more "spiritual/not religious" people have mental illness or drug problems (if true) doesn't mean that being spiritual/not religious _causes_ that. It could be the other way around, or they could both be caused by the same factors, or something else. 100% of murderers have drank water in their lives, but that's not evidence drinking water causes murder, or that murdering someone makes you drink water.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Shaggy

      Also, this is based of self-reported judgments. Religious people could just be lying to themselves, like with the whole belief in an invisible friend who solves all of their problems.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  17. sunflower2

    I'll take a spiritual person over a "religious" person ANY DAY!

    January 9, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • chuckie

      What is the big difference between the rligious and spiritual; the religious will eventually get around to asking for money.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • Larry Hannah

      A person who identifies themselves as "spiritual" still has thoughts that do not exist in a vacuum the same as any religious person so the results are just the some.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  18. ME II

    I wish I could see more of the study, but the full text is behind a pay wall at http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/202/1/68.abstract.

    Specifically, I'd be interested in what data from the original "National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England" was used to determine Spirituality and/or religiosity.

    January 9, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Live4Him

      If you read the article, it imples that SBNR is self-identified.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • ME II

      Yes, the article implies that, e.g. "respondents who identified as spiritual", but the study abstract states that this was a study of another study, i.e. not designed for this specific question.
      I just wanted more detail on what the determinate factor was.

      Was it a straightforward question?
      Are you spiritual? Yes / No
      Are you religious? Yes / No

      Or was it more of an inference from other questions, such as religious service attendance, social support networks, etc.?

      Often news releases of studies like this print the actual questions from the survey. That is what I would have liked to see.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • ME II

      From the abstract:
      "We analysed data collected from interviews with 7403 people who participated in the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England."
      hmm... perhaps they contacted them again after the first study. I'm not certain.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  19. Madtown

    spiritual but not religious people, as opposed to people who are religious, agnostic
    Isn't "spiritual but not religious" fairly close to agnostic?

    January 9, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • chuckie

      No. One can be un-churched and believe in God. Do you really believe that all church goers believe in God? There are many reasons other than believing in God that motivates church goers. One is peer pressure, especially in small towns. It is no accident that as our population becomes more urban and suburban that church membership declines. Christ said that "were two or three come together in my name, there I am. . . .' He didn't say anything about sects or organized religion. Actually he was not complementary about the professional religious. Organized religion is for the benefit of the paid clergy.

      January 9, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Nicodemus Legend

      Not necessarily, Madtown.

      I consider myself spiritual but not religious (didn't know the term existed until last year). I tend to be very science oriented but have my own ad hoc set of non-rational (spiritual) beliefs about the universe that don't fit any religious affiliation. I believe there is an underlying organizing structure to everything but nothing like a breaded man on a throne in the clouds meting out justice. I would think this is not an agnostic idea since I am leaning toward something greater than myself that organizes everything.

      January 9, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  20. Guester

    I suspect this is a chicken and egg scenario. Did being spiritual lead to the issue or are people with the tendencies more likely to be spiritual but not religious. My guess is the latter. .

    January 9, 2013 at 10:26 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.