Pulling Away From Religion: Religious/Spiritual Struggles and Religious Disengagement Among College Students

Julie J. Exline, Daryl R.Van Tongeren, David F. Bradley, Joshua A. Wilt, Nick Stauner, Kenneth I. Pargament, C. Nathan DeWall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


What types of religious and spiritual struggles do people experience when they disengage from religion? We examined college students (N = 3,598) who had pulled back from religion, either by no longer identifying as religious or spiritual (Dones) or by disengaging from organized religion while maintaining an identity as religious (Disengaged but Religious [DBR]) or spiritual but not religious (Disengaged but Spiritual [DBS]). Our aim was to examine the religious/spiritual struggles these students reported, both compared with each other and compared with those with more stable identities as religious (Religious) or nonreligious (Nevers). As predicted, DBS and DBR students reported higher levels of current religious/spiritual (r/s) struggles than students in other groups. Specifically, DBR and DBS students scored highest on ultimate meaning struggles, interpersonal struggles, doubt struggles, and emotionally oriented divine struggles, whereas intellectual questioning about God’s existence was highest among the DBS and Dones. DBRs scored similarly to the Religious group on struggles that correlate positively with religiousness (demonic and moral struggles), consistent with the notion of a religious residue effect. Retrospective reports of lifetime r/s struggle confirmed that the Dones reported substantial struggle in their religious history: The DBS scored highest, followed by the Dones and DBRs. Supplemental analyses of students identifying as spiritual but not religious revealed considerable diversity in terms of religious engagement and struggle. Taken together, these findings confirm that religious disengagement, either by pulling back from organized religion or shifting toward a nonreligious identity, is often associated with a wide range of r/s struggles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)300-311
Number of pages12
JournalPsychology of Religion and Spirituality
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 American Psychological Association


  • Religious deidentification
  • Religious disengagement
  • Religious dones
  • Religious struggles
  • Spiritual struggles

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Religious studies
  • Applied Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Pulling Away From Religion: Religious/Spiritual Struggles and Religious Disengagement Among College Students'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this