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. Pete

    So hippies are more likely to take drugs. How is this new?

    January 9, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      that is pretty much the conclusion.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Geroge of the Urban Jungle

      And people who have imaginary friends who do magic for them are more likely to be nuts. No shock there either.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  2. Martin

    Religion is the easy way out. No doubt the social contacts and rituals help people cope. But that doesn't mean it's true, just a good coping mechanism.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • andrew.peter

      The article said spiritual but not religious people.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  3. flambeauxfire

    I'm 'spritual but not religious'.
    Folks like me who were scared away from religion do NOT have the rituals and secure belief systems religious folks do. Granted. This is hard. This is also something frustrating, cos we all wanna feel connection to the afterlife and the answers to the mysteries of life. So we are prolly a bit more likely to try and find it n other ways. Yes – I can see it.....
    I understand why humans need religions so Im no longer so hostile to them as I was in my 20's. And I'm trying to bring rituals into my own life more cos we need it. (I don't do drugs though, but I did in my 20's.)
    But the connection, outside of religion, that I DO have is so perfect it gives me a sense of euphoria. I am so happy with it. It is the expression of it I am frustrated with. Religion is like many things – a neccesary evil, responsible for holding us back a lot of the time, for if we had the courage to go outside of outdated and obviously contrdictory & illogical ideas about existence, then we would start working WITH it. So creating a report to say we are UNHEALTHY should not bother anyone who is 'spiritual but not religious'. It's a hard way ...... without a support structure etc, and it is lonely and sometime more confusing than if you have this big church around you, telling you you're right. It is righ to sek your own path instead. Religion has a bad track record. So do not fear too much. Excessive belief in many of our religions does NOT promote the evolution of our understanding, though some are better than others. (The Catholic faith is one of the worst.)
    Create your own way – even if it is hard. People who go a new route always get criticism and indeed have to FIND the way first.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • niknak

      I am not hostile to religious people, but unlike you, I see absolutely no reason to have religion in one's life.
      Be a stand up guy because you choose to be, not because some big brother is watching you.
      Let go of the security blanket.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  4. Ben from Iowa

    Sigh. This is all reported from the respondents. That means that it only shows religious people were less likely to report mental illness than those that self identify as spiritual.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • MandoZink

      Good observation. I recently dealt with a large number of people who were both highly religious (in their own minds) and cognitively dysfunctional. They were complacent enough not to recognize any shortcomings they may have had. I existed in a situation with these people which I had to adapt to until it ended. It was an eye opener.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  5. hawaiiguest

    Hmmm...no link to the actual study, the questions that they cited seem very vague, and the methodology is unknown. I'm disinclined to think that this study is not really a scientific study.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Live4Him

      I guess you didn't see the link 'The Study' in the first paragraph?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • niknak

      Pretty hard to have science even enter into the equation when one is talking about religion.
      I lived out in Cali, the hotbed of "spiritual but not religious," and I can see the drug use being an issue.

      Heaps of good, but lost, people end up out there thinking that somehow San Fran or LA will give them the happiness in life that they have been lacking. But there is no magic in those places, as they are just another place.

      So those people turn to drugs, alcohol and out there "churches" in a desperate attempt to feel better.
      The ones I knew pesonally were from fundie homes, and just could not bring themselves to let go of the god myth.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      it was published by the British Journal of Psychiatrics, which is a publication of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The author affilliations are:

      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

      January 9, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Click on the link. It's not the study, it's an abstract. It does not give the actual questions, or the numbers laid out plainly, and I'm not going to pay $15.

      January 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  6. vivian

    Let's see, the religious have killed millions of people over time. How many wars and death has come from the "spiritual sector". I have absolutely no room in my life for religion. None.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  7. anonymous

    I suspect the religious, as opposed to the spiritual, merely have a different flavor of mental health malady. My experience leads me to believe the religious have a more rigid personality style, and are more subject to cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking. Rigidity is just as dysfunctional as being disorganized.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Without separating out for education level this is pretty meaningless. I haven't paid the $15 to read the original article, but if all it offers is the bare statistics listed here it could just be restating the known fact that the less educated are less likely to recognize or seek treatment for mental illness.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  8. CL

    I don't know who they picked for their study or what qualifications they used for "spiritual", but what I can say is those people who are religious whom I know are so out of touch with how they feel that they would not recognize if they had mental issues especially the more conservatively religious. Every time they have a problem, they pray and think God will solve it for them which seems like it never does. But they smile and say 'God will take care of all' without realizing that nothing ever changes. Or they go to confession and say 'that's fixed' only to do the same thing over and over – and again nothing changes. That, to me, is a serious mental health issue – living in complete fantasy and denial. Also, giving over their own power to make changes within themselves to their minister, priest or their idea of God, is very dis-empowering. Everyone else has the power but them. All I know is that no one included me in the study and I am a very happy spiritual person with none of the above problems that this so-called 'study' is representing.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • flambeauxfire

      Well put! It seems the definition of 'sane' is the weird thing here!

      January 9, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • CL

      And the reason I have fewer and fewer issues is because I realistically looked at what they were and worked on them. I grew up in a conservative and religious family and everyone was scared of doing the 'wrong' thing. Living in fear like that is crazy if you ask me. It creates anger, fear, depression, sadness, grief, you name it. But when you work on healing yourself with the help of gifted healer type people, you start to become your real self which is a lot more than you ever thought possible. Neither being religious nor spiritual works unless you do the healing and letting go of the old belief structures that prevent you from being your whole self.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  9. L.H

    I think this must be a study based on people who do not know any organized religious context and are possibly searching. Religious people have spiritual experiences all the time, and many people who are spiritual know at least some basic doctrines they believe in. But I think this is way way to broad of a survey to make it of any scientific value. Certainly Brits may have a religiou problem. I am unsure of what their real numbers are but the case can be made that some may follow spirituality because they are uncomfortable with religious doctrine, but they still want to connect with God.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  10. californiarestinpeace

    All this article is really saying: we need to be a part of a positive community to be mentally healthy. I'm still searching for that personally. Drug use is rampant in the church (in the form of alcohol and pill abuse) and I had to leave that group behind as the state was urging me to get sober. AA was ok but too cultish. You give up part of your self determination and intelligence when you join a religious or spiritual group. Religion is rigid, spiritualism tries to be more free-flowing but ends up rigid and controlling at some point. You lose your ability to think critically and rationally. And it is a lonelier road for sure. Those are the tradeoffs. But you can always join another group that fits your knowledge level better. Ocean swimmers, for instance.

    January 9, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • flambeauxfire

      Also well said.
      Create your own rituals.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Saraswati

      The evidence I've seen indicates AA works in just that way – by providing a group against which you compare yourself. The rituals of the group don't so much matter as seeing others in the group against which one can say "If that schmuck did it, so can I." Groups matter for a lot of reasons, but they are binding and constricting for many of us.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  11. palintwit

    Here are the top 5 American universities in the order of their ranking:
    1. Harvard
    2. Princeton
    3. Sarah Palin University
    4. Yale
    5. Columbia

    OK. I know what all of you are thinking. How did Yale get on that list?

    January 9, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Darw1n


      January 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  12. Jennifer K.

    This is just about the most ridiculous thing I've ever read. Come on, CNN!

    January 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Jennifer K.

      Take it up with Michael King, Louise Marston, Sally McManus, Terry Brugha, Howard Meltzer and Paul Bebbington and the British Journal of Psychiatry who published their findings.

      It's not about CNN.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • flambeauxfire

      Its ALL about CNN man!
      They've been following this silly line of reporting on this for a while now.
      Its wack!

      January 9, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      So the "SBNR are froot loops" narrative bugs you?

      My sympathies. Try being godless for a while and see what middle America thinks of you.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  13. pazke

    The conclusion is stated wrong. It makes it sound like being 'spiritual but not religious' (whatever that means) CAUSES these disorders. Did the authors stop to think that maybe they were already suffering from such illnesses and that is what caused them to pull away from religion in the first place? People who are happy all the time see no need to change anything. They don't ponder the hard questions, they tend to just accept whatever was presented to them first. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but I call bulls hit on this study.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The actual study conclusion says:

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

      It doesn't address causality.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Andre

      But the article does address causality:
      "Can being spiritual but not religious lead to mental health issues? The answer is yes, according to a recent study."

      Correlation does not prove causality.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      that quote is from Dan Merica of CNN – not from the study.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Andre

      Agreed. My point was that the comment was likely directed at CNN, not the underlying study.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  14. johnofgodchurch

    Whoa! What are those researchers smoking? I grew up with physically and mentally abusive alcoholic parents who were devout Catholics. After 40 years of service to Catholicism, I "outgrew" the church and became more spiritually alive than ever. And happier! and freer! I pray all day long! I have a community of like minded friends who get together regularly. I have never used drugs or alcohol thank you very much! My devout parents scared me away from that! I gave up meat! I have experienced true ecstasy! (and not the drug kind). I don't even take big Pharma "legal" drugs. The worst, most depressive days of my life were when I was Catholic. Understanding my own power as an individualted particle of God and that we are all one like drops of water in the ocean is a cause for celebration. Can't imagine how poorly done this study was, but I can see that people free of religion can really scare people in religions! Oh! and I help others all the time – poor people, homeless animals and the earth. If I believe we are all one, I must help everyone I can. Get it?

    January 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • californiarestinpeace

      Well said.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • blckwdw

      Got it! And I like the way you put it. Thanks for your perspective.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  15. curtmanda

    And how many Catholics are on serious anti depressants? In serious therapy? Abuse alcohol?


    January 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • JFCanton

      One problem with being a large, readily defined group.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  16. steve

    It's self serving crap

    January 9, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  17. dx2718

    Cause/effect? I'm betting that the same kind of neurotic issues that cause the problems (eating disorders, drug use, etc.) also create a need for "spirituality" even in the absence of religion (which may not satisfy the need because it is too structured). Either that, or the issues themselves cause the brain to malfunction, which people misinterpret as "spiritual" experiences. Either way, I'm guessing "spirituality without religion" doesn't CAUSE any of these issues.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Are you kidding, junk science

      Are you kidding, look at bar go'ers for people with no religion, gays and lesbians, 60% of kids have religion beliefs and those the the mostly likely to go bonging on the weekends. CNN crap false science news.
      Most drug users are non-whatever anything near normal, wacko opinions.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  18. kansascindy

    From a very young age, I turned to science. I remember thinking "this is all hog wash" as I sat in Vacation Bible School in 2nd grade. I have never had any desire to smoke cigarettes or marijuana. Never tried it, either. Not once. Never had any desire to drink alcohol, either, but used to take one sip of my husband's microbrew to satisfy his desire for me to see if I liked the taste. Don't even do that anymore. Just decline and tell him I never like it, anyway. In some respects, I guess I am lucky.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • ME II

      Like the name.

      January 9, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • pazke

      I agree.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Live4Him

      What facts influenced your decision?

      January 9, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      actually the survey finds that if you are neither spiritual nor religious, you are doing just fine.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  19. xirume

    Thia article is total B.S.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  20. CEL1

    hold on people, there will be a counter-study out soon that shows that religious people are knutz.........this study proves nothing and tells us nothing except that the religious group that paid for it, got what it wanted.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:49 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.