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Lower Self-Control among ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ Young Adults

Lower Self-Control among ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ Young Adults  Baylor University researchers have discovered young adults who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” are more likely to commit crimes.

Individuals were especially prone to committing property crime, and to a lesser extent, violent ones.

Comparisons were made among those that identified as either “religious and spiritual” or “religious but not spiritual,” according to the researchers.

Researchers discovered that when a young adult calls themselves “spiritual but not religious,” they appear to be reflecting more of an antisocial characteristic than a religious connotation.

The sociological study, published in the journal Criminology, showed that those who say they are “neither spiritual nor religious” are less likely to commit property crimes than the “spiritual but not religious” individuals.

But no difference was found between the two groups when it came to violent crimes.

“The notion of being spiritual but not associated with any organized religion has become increasingly popular, and our question is how that is different from being religious, whether you call yourself ‘spiritual’ or not,” said study leader, Sung Joon Jang, Ph.D.

Jang is lead author of the study, “Is Being ‘Spiritual’ Enough Without Being Religious? A Study of Violent and Property Crimes Among Emerging Adults.”

Until the 20th century, the terms “religious” and “spiritual” were treated as interchangeable. Previous research indicated that people who say they are religious show lower levels of crime and deviance, which refers to norm-violating behavior.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from a sample of 14,322 individuals from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They ranged in age from 18 to 28, with an average age of 21.8.

In a confidential survey, participants were asked how often they had committed crimes in the previous 12 months — including violent crimes such as physical fights or armed robbery — while property crimes included vandalism, theft and burglary.

Past research shows that people who report themselves as spiritual make up about 10 percent of the general population, Jang said.

In their study, the Baylor researchers hypothesized that those who are spiritual but not religious would be less conventional than the religious group, but could be either more or less conventional than the “neither” group.

“We were thinking that religious people would have an institutional and communal attachment and investment, while the spiritual people would have more of an independent identity,” Franzen said.

Theories for why religious people are less likely to commit crime are that they fear “supernatural sanctions” as well as criminal punishment and feel shame about deviance; are bonded to conventional society; exercise high self-control in part because of parents who also are likely to be religious; and associate with peers who reinforce their behavior and beliefs.

Researchers discovered that people who are spiritual but not religious tend to have lower self-control than those who are religious.

They also are more likely to experience such strains as criminal victimization and such negative emotions as depression and anxiety. They also are more likely to have peers who use and abuse alcohol, Franzen said. Those factors are predictors of criminal behavior.

“It’s a challenge in terms of research to know what that actually means to be spiritual, because they self-identify,” he said. “But they are different in some way, as our study shows.”

In their research, sociologists included four categories based on how the young adults reported themselves. Those categories and percentages were:

  • Spiritual but not religious: 11.5 percent
  • Religious but not spiritual: 6.8 percent
  • Both spiritual and religious: 37.9 percent
  • Neither spiritual nor religious: 43.8 percent

Source: Baylor University

Hands holding a cross photo by shutterstock.

Lower Self-Control among ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ Young Adults

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Lower Self-Control among ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ Young Adults. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 14 Jun 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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