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. { ! }

    In the old Genesis story, the first man began to Think for Himself. He promply turned himself into a drudge. A slave. It was a long time before any great thoughts followed. No need to think when you're simply trying to keep your belly full by sweat of the brow. In the next generation came the first murder. Cain killed Abel; reason unknown. Probably jealousy. In the 1960's, an entire generation of people rose up and proclaimed "we can Think for OUrselves". They threw off all authority and promptly stupified their vast mental power with drugs – and spread an AIDS pandemic in the bargain. Atheists probably fare best of all. Thinking machines are not subject to emotion and resulting mental issues.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  2. Liar T Kraz

    Does this make Buddha mentally unstable? The practioners of his teaching for purpose of true understanding are the most balanced people in the world. (I'm NOT talking about the hypocritical zealots that profess to follow his teaching/practice. This is rampant in all religions...(i.e.) When did Christ ever say to kill anyone for any reason?)

    This article seems like a justification for the author's lack understanding of inner growth and realization of higher truths. And certain drugs and experiences can give you a pointer to truth, but fade unless that truth is practiced...not theorized. Problem is, we all live in an ego-based mental world devoid of responsibility and dedicated practice. We pawn off our problems of compassioless and laziness to a sky person or his corrupt self-appointed representatives.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Liar T Krazo


      January 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  3. Greg Morelli

    Not religious or spiritual, I'm self-centered. God help me!

    January 9, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      According to the survey if you are neither spritual nor religious, you're doing just fine – though you may be more likely than the religious to drink or use drugs.

      Keep up the good work!

      January 9, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  4. nik green

    Sounds like the conformity police are working overtime... and CNN (as usual) is doing their dirty work.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  5. lovelaughscrafts

    This article is highly offensive to me. It doesn't prove anything... though I learned in college that statistics can always be bent to show "evidence" in whatever direction you are leaning. I myself am very spiritual. I believe in energy and I can interchange the word "God" with "Love" or "Energy".... I manifest daily... I do not have any mental issues nor do I – or have I ever – used drugs. This study is insulting. And to say that "Spiritual but not religious" is a cop-out, is very rude and highly un-true. No one should bash anyone's beliefs unless those beliefs are harmful to themselves or others.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • God

      Religion can be shown to have been extremely harmful to the world and society.... the dark ages come to mind.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • lisaspups

      This article is ridiculous in every way. The author was probably suffering from mental issues when he/she wrote it.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • JFCanton

      But would people who were less rigorous and did hurt themselves or others also offend you?

      This is the sort of sociological study whose results are quite obvious ahead of time whether or not they bake the input: an external structure is not something that everyone can replace internally, so a lack of that structure is always going to be associated with negative results.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      Although I am spiritually religious I am not very much religiously spiritual. It winds down to one's adjectively orientated placements doesn't it?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  6. Booker

    Even though "religious people" appear to be controlled, religion, spirituality or any king of irrational believes are just the first steps on the way to total mental illness !!

    January 9, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • mec

      So is the belief that one is better than an entire group of people. Remember Hitler? Sounds like you are on your way to that kind of elitism.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  7. Stan

    As an atheist buddhist (see Stephen Batchelor's books "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "Confession of an Atheist Buddhist"), I consider myself religious but not spiritual (RBNS).

    January 9, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • Blue Sox

      I have a Christian friend who practices Buddhism.

      He says Jesus asks him to "love God and love other people" and Buddhism gives him a way to do that.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  8. Bixy Keen

    Although priests like to confuse the two, belief and faith are opposites. Belief is idolatry whereas faith is the absence of idolatry. Faith is much more difficult. Maybe believers are more comfortable in their ignorance.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • ME II

      "Belief is idolatry whereas faith is the absence of idolatry."
      What? Please explain.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Akira

      I'm guessing because the RCC has lots of pretty statues in their churches, this is your line of reasoning?

      January 9, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  9. haha

    FYI all you so called conservative Christians you bible was written by folks who use Pot based incense and they was stoned stoned when they wrote your book.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  10. hal

    The sample size is too small to prove much of anything.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Your expertise on a sample size of 7,403 is based on what?

      January 9, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  11. Trebor

    I'm guessing SBNR people have been failed by mainstream religion, due to the very facts which the study implies are caused by SBNR-ism. People with "neurosis," or with a fondness for minor recreational drugs such as MJ, may find religion to be vacuous and non-helpful, if not downright mean and judgmental. And, would it be safe to assume that religious people abuse more alcohol, a curious omission in the study?

    January 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The only drinking data presented in the summary is that people who are religious are less likely than those who are neither spritual nor religius to be a hazardous drinker.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  12. lionlylamb

    So, according to this article, my being a 'closeted Christian' is viewed as being unhealthy due my non-associative practicing within manmade churches wherein such socialistic consistencies are the normalizations of bred religiously sociologic phobias commonwealths? Therefore my not getting with the socialized religious programming is somehow an irrationalized departure of psychic healthiness is pure, psychological socialist fantasia!

    January 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  13. brad

    I can believe it, religiouse people don't think as much, they follow what the leader says and that is that. The spiritual people and other non-religiouse people, see what religion is doing, see how it is being pushed on them from every directions, and it drives them crazy lol.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  14. Reality Check

    Say what? Why are articles like this even posted? Complete nonsense.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  15. Joe Keefe

    Saying "spiritual but not religious" is somehow a in anyway a group with commonalities is as ridiculous as saying "religious" people all have the exact same practice. The underlying premise is so biased its laughable. Those that would identify as SBNR range in a massive spectrum of what they believe reality to be, who they are as a being, and their relationship to a higher power/vibration. The study is silly as it comes from those that are insecure about their own beliefs. Live and let live.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • JFCanton

      It is something that the study should have addressed in the methods-no idea whether it did-but it is not necessarily a valid assumption that we have a 360-degree spectrum of ways to "be" SBNR. It wouldn't be more valid than assuming religiousness as a bloc, for one thing. And superficially it describes a particular behavior, if not a particular result: an a-la-carte approach that is frequently not coherent at all.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  16. mel

    oh please..CNN...not on the front page...this is an opinion piece...with a scientific stamp on it. i'm disappointed.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  17. jwarino

    These guys have it all figured out. Good job. So as long as were here can they tell us who god is and what religion actually knows him or her or it? Didn't think so. I will stand by my own belief that I just don't know. Good enough for me, the thought of being worm food does not take from my hope for eventual equality and universal love.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  18. Frame of reference

    The tendency of drug "medicine" use in spiritual people that don't recognize a spiritual organization are seeking something and those that are already so called found thus will not be inclined do something outside of the accepted doctrine because they believe this is the path to ultimate experience, no longer apart of the this suffering state. These medicines "drugs" open alternate energetic states that exist around us at all times naturally. If you think that altered states are not a part of the bible you would be mistaken. If anyone where out in the dessert for 40 days and 40 nights as Jesus was they would have visions. The trick is to understand what is happening and how to integrate the experience back into this world. If the energy is not kept in balance what you call mental illness will occur. Only through love and understanding can move forward.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  19. Jim

    This is total BS

    January 9, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  20. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    So, who wants in on the pool to guess how many posts this topic will accumulate over seven days?

    The last time a topic challenging SBNR was offered (SBNR is a cop out) quickly ran to 1000s of posts.

    I had some momentary of schadenfreude over this statement:
    "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""

    But nowhere in the article did it pick up on the idea that people adopting a deterministic position regarding religion have a clearer set of convictions (and by extrapolation with the survey results less likely to want drugs) as opposed to more wishy/washy SBNR beliefs. All the follow-on discussion focused on the benefits of religion.

    But at the end of the day, this is yet another SELF-IDENTIFYING survey – wholly dependent on voluntary responses and trust that the data is truly anonymous.

    Are religious people likely to be honest about their drug use?

    Furthermore, when you read the survey summary this staggering statistic is presented:

    "Of the participants 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual."

    Do we interpret that atheists and agnostics are 46% in Britain compared with 5.7% in the US. The behaviors of people self-identifying their religious beliefs in the US and Britain vary markedly.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      From the study:

      Religious people were similar to those who were neither religious nor spiritual with regard to the prevalence of mental disorders,

      except that religious people were less likely to have
      ever used drugs .................................. (OR = 0.73, 95% CI 0.60–0.88)*
      or be a hazardous drinker ................... (OR = 0.81, 95% CI 0.69–0.96).

      * [OR = Odds Ratio, CI = Confidence Interval]
      Spiritual people were more likely than those who were neither religious nor spiritual to have
      ever used drugs .................................... (OR = 1.24, 95% CI 1.02–1.49)
      or be dependent on drugs ..................... (OR = 1.77, 95% CI 1.20–2.61),
      and to have abnormal eating attitudes ... (OR = 1.46, 95% CI 1.10–1.94),
      generalised anxiety disorder ................. (OR = 1.50, 95% CI 1.09–2.06),
      any phobia ............................................. (OR = 1.72, 95% CI 1.07–2.77)
      or any neurotic disorder ........................ (OR = 1.37, 95% CI 1.12–1.68).

      They were also more likely
      to be taking psychotropic medication ..... (OR = 1.40, 95% CI 1.05–1.86).

      Curiously, most of the summary data presented contrasted SBNR with people who were neither spiritual nor religious. Little is made of this in the article above.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
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