The spiritual but not religious likely to face mental health issues, drug use, study says

I wouldn’t quite call this good news for those of us involved in organized religion… we want the best for all people, including those who aren’t religious. But this certainly is interesting:

A 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.

Read the rest of the story at CNN here.



  1. I’ve understood people who are “spiritual-but-not-religious” to be in a position which I call “negative ambiguity”. Without a degree of commitment to and specificity in belief and practice, such people usually find themselves intellectually and emotionally adrift in a sea of ambiguous “spiritual possibilities”, none of which they can ever settle into in a way which meaningfully enables and ennobles their souls. So, although I’m saddened to learn that this approach tends to be detrimental to its practioners because it fosters emotional and moral instability, it doesn’t surprise me.

    “Positive ambiguity”, however, can and often does emerge from commitment to specific belief and praxis. This is a space in which a person feels free and confident to explore and challenge his or her belief-system in dynamic, creative ways while tethered to a solid spiritual foundation, like a dog on a very long, elastic leash, which nevertheless doesn’t reach to the freeway.

  2. I am glad that the CNN article mentioned twelve-step spirituality. Not a few people in recovery struggle with the notion of a higher power. To compound the issue, Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery literature in general often directly reference God and provide prayers. I find the researcher’s conclusions to resemble circular reasoning only because some in recovery might accurately describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”. This is possible within twelve-step philosophy.

  3. The category and the conclusions are perhaps a bit more complicated than the CNN story would indicate. The comparison point might be the studies that find that church-goers are more likely to also have attitudes of racial prejudice. The latter is quickly nuanced by we church-goers with the “correlation is not causation” meme; in the latter case there may be some underlying tribal sensibilities that cause some people to hew more blindly to both altar and clan.

    So, consider that the “just spiritual” claim probably has a variety of underlying reasons or causes, sometimes chosen (a principled rejection of organized religion is not unreasonable) and sometimes more a manifestation of an underlying disposition, which may be due in whole or part to a mood/chemical/emotional/psychological disorder (mental illness in its many forms).

    All of which is not to say that we church-going types can’t go ahead and make the case for church-going against the “I can be spiritual anywhere” attitude. But I get very nervous when people make overly broad finger-wagging claims about things that will make hair grow on your palms.

  4. I’m in the “correlation is not causation” camp on this one. One can hypothesize the direction of causality running in both directions. Lack of strong religious affiliation could increase the risk of these behaviors, but these behaviors may also cause people to become estranged from families and from regular religious practice.

    I don’t have access to the full-text article, but from the CNN write up states that atheists were pretty similar to religious people. It was the SBNRs who were more likely to have the adverse symptoms/behaviors. This makes it hard to claim that it is the lack of organized religious practice, per se, that is driving those symptoms/behaviors.

    1. @J. Peter Nixon – comment #4:
      J. Peter Nixon – agree. This is so cursory – read Fowler’s study, The Stages of Faith….study any research on the development of morality and faith….it is much more nuanced and avoids this simplistic duality approach.

      In fact, using Fowler, you find six stages of faith development. Stage three is equivalent to what this study describes as *religious* but which Fowler describes as the moral/faith stage of a late grade school/early adolescent….*organized religion* provides security, rules, a fail-safe organization where questioning is minimized. Your faith matures when you internalize *organized religion* (doesn’t mean you stop church-going – let’s not confuse the two). Stages four/five of faith are defined by individuals who question, search, understand that life’s journey is mostly *gray*; increased tolerance for differences, diversity, religious beliefs; more of the von Balthasar *Kenosis* approach to your faith life.

      (Jordan – agree, this is the sense of 12 Steps and the Blue Book – you turn it over to a higher power (it doesn’t have to be equated to some denominational belief. It is closer to Fowler’s faith stage development. A recovering addict needs to safety/security of a structure/support until they have enough recovery time/ability to move to the next stage).

  5. I know from my experience with a charismatic Catholic community, that a structured religious community of this type rescued a goodly number of its members who were living their lives in a variety of addictive ways by providing support, community, prayer, laying on of hands, and rigid accountability. For many this is a weigh station for a particular time in their lives until they are able to live more normal lives. Protestant Pentecostals seem to have the ability to provide this stability for those truly living disordered lives on many different levels.
    I suspect if one only relies on being “spiritual” and whatever that means and disconnected from community that is loving and demands accountability with clear direction and support, then one could well remain mired in the muck of a variety of pathologies.

  6. From the study abstract:

    Religious participation or belief may predict better mental health but most research is American and measures of spirituality are often conflated with well-being.

    Aims: To examine associations between a spiritual or religious understanding of life and psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses.

    Method: We analyzed data collected from interviews with 7403 people who participated in the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England.

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

    Most American studies define “spiritual but not religious” by asking people two questions Do you consider yourself religious? Do you consider yourself spiritual?” These are usually asked sufficiently far apart in the study. In the USA being religious and being spiritual are correlated such as in the 2005 Baylor study below (Pew 2012 results when available are in parenthesis)

    Religious 74% (only 65% in Pew)
    Spiritual 67%
    Spiritual and religious 57%
    Religious but not spiritual 17%
    Spiritual but not religious 10% (18% in Pew)
    Neither spiritual nor religious 16% (15% in Pew)

    Looks like about 8 to 10% of Americans switched from being “spiritual and religious” to “spiritual but not religious” in the last seven years!

    Essentially the British researchers decided that people could not be both religious and spiritual even though the majority of American say they are both.

    Moreover those in the USA who are neither spiritual nor religious (15% to 16%) are far below the 46% in the British study.

    The study is so different in methodology and in such a different national religious environment that its results are unlikely to apply to the group of people classified as “spiritual but not religious” in American studies.

    Strickly speaking the results of a British random sample study should not be generalized beyond the British population. Often even researchers will ignore this and assume the same results would be obtained in the USA. In this case there are such large differences that we should be very cautious.

  7. Two of the fastest growing groups in America are the Nones (Religious Unaffiliated) and the Spiritual but Not Religious. They are both defined largely by answers to questions that tell us what they are not. While the two groups overlap they are not the same.

    There is a great tendency of American media to project their greatest hopes and fears about religion unto these groups.

    Elizabeth Drescher who is doing research in this area, has some great articles over at Religion Dispatches on this topic. This one is a good starter:

    None Means None (Not Atheist, Agnostic, Unbeliever…)
    Religion commentators strain to define a demographic that, by definition, resists definition

    Actually both groups have a lot in common with Americans who say they are religious and spiritual and who have an affiliation, and are best understood in that broader religious context.

    As a German sociologist once said “My Russian colleague and I are both atheists except that he is an Orthodox atheist and I am a Lutheran atheist.”

  8. “Can being spiritual but not religious lead to mental health issues? The answer is yes, according to a recent study.”

    Interesting that the CNN article misconstrues the objectives of the study from the git-go. The study doesn’t make any claim to explore and define causal relationships, but to “examine associations between…” But the phrase “lead to” in the opening sentence of the article clearly suggests that the study establishes a causal relationship. The body of the essay is then colored, in the reader’s mind, by this false assumption. But this is very common in popular presentations of scientific studies, which generally tend to make greater claims than the studies allow. This is partially due to a misunderstanding of scientific methodology, and partially due to a complex, culturally-conditioned urge to establish closure.

    Also interesting that atheists and agnostics appear to be in the same boat as religious as compared with the SBNR. This could have something to do with (as I tried to suggest in my first post) levels of “ontological commitment”. I’m not using the phrase in the strict philosophical sense as originated by Quine, but in the more general sense of “concern for and commitment to ultimate things”. If atheism and agnosticism can be understood as “religious postures” in the sense of representing a commitment to matters of ultimate concern, then it’s an interesting idea (at least to me) that the causative nexus in the accrual of mental health benefits might have more to do with “commitment in matters of ultimate concern”.

  9. I think there is a massive problem with asking people to describe themselves as spiritual or religious. These days, to describe someone as religious can very easily be pejorative. “Religious” people are often seen not as regular practitioners of a religion, which is presumably what the report thought was the definition, but as pious, even prim or po-faced. The word “pious” itself has become a negative attribute in our times. Faced with that current understanding, I can quite understand why some (even many) would prefer to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious, and would respond “No” if asked “Would you say you are a religious person?”

    It would be much more enlightening to ask people if they go to church regularly (and why, remembering that many non-catholic or even atheist spouses of Catholics do so in order to support their spouses), if they subscribe to one of the mainline religions, if they actually believe all the tenets of that religion, if they consider that they have a spiritual side to their nature, if they ever meditate or sit and think about the higher realities, etc, etc.

    Surveys so often ask the wrong questions, or questions framed in the wrong way, that the results are almost inevitably misleading.

  10. Paul, good points. However, the National Psychiatric Morbity Surveys of Great Britain are admired for their rigorous methodology. They use standardized assessments of mental state, socioeconomic class, etc. I haven’t read their criteria for “religious” and “spiritual”, but they are no doubt rigorous and standardized.

    In other words, the suggestions you made in your next-to-last paragraph, or similar probes, would have been incorporated into the questionnaire to avoid confusion. In other words, the religious/SBNR survey would have made every effort to establish, sample and assess real groups of people who have real things in common.

    Assuming the results of the survey are valid on these grounds, I launched the query in my last post.

  11. As someone who spent 20 years doing research in the public mental health system, I am very sure that British epidemiologists like American epidemiologists are very good at measuring mental illness.

    However if American epidemiologists decided they could measure religion and spirituality better than the people in the field here have been doing for some time, the chances are very high they would fall flat on their faces. American researchers outside the mental health field would not know what to make of their measures. It sounds very much like the British researchers have developed their own measures that are different from American measures of religion and spirituality.

    I have met some psychologists from Britain who study religion and spirituality. They came to the American Psychological Association because there are far more people who study religion and spirituality here than there. I found them interesting. They were far more likely to be familiar with research outside their disciplines than American psychologists. My research paper was on social capital; few American psychologists study or know anything about the topic. These guys knew what was going on in British universities in other disciplines on that topic.

    When researchers in a field develop new and better measures they are usually careful to show how these relate to prior measures in order to demonstrate how they are better. A epidemiological study is hardly the place to develop such new measures. But I could see how the different structure of British research networks might have led them to do that

    The end result is that it makes their research unable to be compared to the USA. However it probably would have been so anyway since Britain is a very secular country in comparison to the USA .There are many people there who seem to be neither spiritual nor religious. There are few of those here. Most of the people here see themselves as both spiritual and religious.

    If you see yourself as being only spiritual in the USA where most people say they are both spiritual and religious and few say they are neither, you are much more likely to feel at ease than if you are in Britain where almost half the people say they are not religious, and a third say they are religious. Betwixt and between and not part of two groups rather than somewhat like and somewhat unlike most people.

  12. A little aside on the study of religion and spirituality by psychologists and sociologists in the United States.

    There are very few psychologists or sociologists who hold positions dedicated to the study of religion.

    Most of the psychologists who study religion are counseling psychologists, or clinical psychologists, or social psychologists or community community psychologists. These people earn their living by teaching courses and educating graduate and undergraduate students in the above major areas. Occasionally they teach a psychology of religion course or graduate seminar.

    However both psychologists and sociologists have been very good at developing religious interest groups within and outside their disciplines which sponsor meetings, conferences and develop journals, etc.

    There are a large number of presentations on religion and spirituality at the American Psychological Association. In fact you can spend the whole convention going from one presentation to the next. They are spread over many subdisciplines of psychology.

  13. Jack, I was wondering, do you think the results of the study under discussion are valid? And if so, what do you make of the conclusion that religious, atheist and agnostic share a better mental health profile than SBNR? Do you think it significant and/or fascinating in any way?

    1. @Mark Emery – comment #16:

      Methodology and Validity

      There are different types of validity.

      The US methodology has more “face” validity. It is more like emic research in anthropology using the language of the people and their self understanding, not telling them how we define religious or spiritual. We make no assumptions about what religion or spirituality is or how they are related to each other. We don’t even ask people directly if they are “spiritual but not religious” nor make any assumptions that there is an “interaction effect”, i.e. that the people in the “spiritual but not religious” cell are different in a way that is not predicted by either the “main effects” of being religious or being spiritual.

      The British researchers define religion and spirituality for their respondents, and coach them into the researchers’ way of thinking. It is more like the etic research in anthropology designed to fit a universal language different from the culture being studied. These British researchers pride themselves in removing any vestiges that might identify religion with Christianity. Their instrument is being translated into other European languages.

      Both the American and the British studies have “construct validity” i.e. they are producing a body of knowledge that is consistent from study to study using the same methodology. However these bodies of knowledge are inconsistent with each other because they do not use constructs that can easily be compared and the research has been done in very different religious cultures.

      There has been a great evolution in USA over the last several decades among psychologists and sociologists who study religion toward a positive view of religion and its importance. The religion section of the American Psychological Association was once called Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues (notice the great arm’s length). It evolved to the Psychology of Religion and now the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Expression of religious beliefs and experiences in all shapes and forms are welcomed in convention discussions. There is no arm’s length. We are studying us in our diversity not them.

      Much of this positive view of religion has come from data. Religion is not going to disappear soon in America. Religion in America correlates with health, happiness, etc. The positive view of religious diversity is in line with our greater respect for diversity in general (race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation).

      Decades ago research here focused on things like “dogmatism.” No one asked people if they were dogmatic, or whether they thought it a good or bad thing. People were just classified as being dogmatic and shown to have undesirable behavior. This British research sounds too much like that old American research for my comfort.

  14. I’m late to this thread, but here’s a quote from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor from an article in today’s NYTimes:

    “I am a very spiritual person,” she said, though “maybe not traditionally religious in terms of Sunday Mass every week, that sort of thing.”

    “The trappings are not important to me,” she said…

  15. Interesting. Maybe she didn’t stop to consider that the “trappings” are precisely what can be liberating. Not to say that they always are…Ties in nicely with some of the ideas kicked around over on the thread with Audrey’s essay, and in the essay itself.

  16. I paid the fee to see the study. As expected, it measures religion and spirituality very differently than the USA.

    Most USA research asks two straight forward questions producing a 2×2 table, a person can be both religious and spiritual, and most people report that they are both. The UK process uses six complex questions to help separate people into three categories (religious, spiritual and neither). There is no data distribution for the six questions nor description of how they are combined to get three categories. Maybe clinical judgment? Basically this makes it impossible to guess how their categories and results relate to our research.

    The Royal Free Interview for Religious and Spiritual Beliefs, a larger instrument which is the background for their questions, seems to have been developed with two agendas: 1) to remove the well established correlations between religiosity, well being, and health found in the USA, and 2) to quantify the correlation which these researchers saw between aspects of “spirituality” and greater morbidity in some of their patients. They have, of course, succeeded.

    The researchers bring up the issue that the UK results are very different than the US results since religion (as they define it in the UK) is not superior to nonreligion. The superiority of religion over nonreligion is repeatedly found in USA studies. They admit that this might have something to do with the USA being a far more religious country than the UK, implying that religion only works in a very religious country.

    Ultimately this study sees little value in religion. If you want to minimize your mental health and drug risks the best policy would be to avoid religion and spirituality completely. The next best thing is to be very religious. You can be sure those with a secular agenda will use this study as an argument to abandon religion and spirituality altogether.

    Too many religious people, including liberals, like to beat up on “being spiritual but not religious.” That is a strategic evangelization mistake. Many people are declaring themselves “Nones” and “spiritual but not religious” because religious people have already alienated them. Don’t alienate them further. If we end up with a secular America more like Europe it will be because religious people have alienated these two groups even more.

  17. Gallup on religiosity and depression

    To throw in another measure of religion, Gallup uses two questions to separate the very religious from the nonreligious. The first is a yes or no answer to the question of whether religion is important in daily life. The second is the frequency of church attendance.

    The Very Religious (about 41% of adults) consist of those who attend church weekly or almost weekly and say that religion is important in their daily lives, e.g. this eliminates the nonreligious who accompany their spouse, parent or grandparent to church.

    The Nonreligious (about 31% of adults) consist of those who almost never attend church and who say that that religion is not important in their daily lives, e.g. homebound people who are religious are not classified as nonreligious.

    Everyone else (28%) who answered the questions goes into a Moderately Religious category.

    Gallup has consistently found that the Very Religious turn out substantially better than the Nonreligious on a variety of health and well being measures.

    The Moderately Religious sometime turn out in between the Very Religious and the Nonreligious but sometimes they are worse than the Nonreligious.

    In an article on depression Gallup found lifetime clinical depression rates of 15.6% for Very Religious, 18.7% for Nonreligious, but 20.4% for Moderately Religious. All statistically significant because they are based on almost a half million interviews and statistically controlled for a wide variety of things! The Moderate Religious also report more negative affect in their daily lives than either the Very Religious or Nonreligious. Maybe the moderately religious are more honest about reporting socially less desirable behavior like sporadic church attendance, depression diagnoses, and negative feelings!

    The British researchers would probably fault Gallup for using church attendance regarding it as a measure of well being. The recent American Grace research has pretty well sunk that once popular argument since “religious networks” are much more effective than ordinary “social networks.”

    By downplaying the social, the British researchers make religion more a cognitive than a social phenomena. Such approaches may be popular with religious people who see faith and/or correct beliefs as central. My reading of the data is just the opposite; religion is more about relationships (to God and others) with cognitions playing a lesser role.

  18. Jack, you wrote: “Too many religious people, including liberals, like to beat up on “being spiritual but not religious.” That is a strategic evangelization mistake. Many people are declaring themselves “Nones” and “spiritual but not religious” because religious people have already alienated them. Don’t alienate them further. If we end up with a secular America more like Europe it will be because religious people have alienated these two groups even more.”

    Thanks much for this. I am always dismayed to see folks who describe themselves as SBNR dissed by organized religion. Having spent the last 20 odd years working as a “spiritual care provider” in a hospice, I am always dismayed to see how SBNR is discredited by instutionalized religious types. I wonder if the British study offers a definition of what they mean as spiritual and what they mean as religious. I have consistently found that folks are looking to validate the meaning of their lives, especially as their life is coming to an end here on earth, asking questions such as “Does my life has meaning and value? ” and other existential questions. For those who would say this has nothing to do with spirituality, let alone religion, I can only suggest that, especially if they are old enough, to remember the second question in the Balitmore Cathecism: Why did God make you? God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. If that’s not an existential question and answer, I don’t know what is. Of course we here on PrayTell are probably disappointed that the big pressing issue at end of life is NOT the value of the OF vs the EF of the mass, but sadly, it’s true. I think it’s important for us to remember as well, the beautiful story of Jesus coming on the clouds for the last judgment and we all being separated on his right and left. The characteristics of those who are welcomed into his kingdom are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, etc. Church attendance never makes the…

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