By Alan Miller, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Alan Miller is Director of The New York Salon and Co-Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas at London's Barbican in October.
The increasingly common refrain that "I'm spiritual, but not religious," represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society. The spiritual but not religious "movement" - an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect - highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society.
Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.
It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.
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Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent - by choosing an "individual relationship" to some concept of "higher power", energy, oneness or something-or-other - they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that "feeling" something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more "true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.
The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.
What is it, this "spiritual" identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?
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The accusation is often leveled that such questions betray a rigidity of outlook, all a tad doctrinaire and rather old-fashioned.
But when the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist "truths" and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one "feels" and even governments aim to have a "happiness agenda," desperate to fill a gap at the heart of civic society, then being old-fashioned may not be such a terrible accusation.
It is within the context of today's anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate - in combination with a therapeutic turn in which everything can be resolved through addressing my inner existential being - that the spiritual but not religious outlook has flourished.
The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.
Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.
A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament.
So what, one may ask?
Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.
Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses - an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity.
Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.
The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world.
Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.
At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.
But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is "something out there," so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions - and for the future.
Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.
Science too hard for you? Then, try religion. At least the "spiritual but not religious" crowd are a step up from the supplicating morons of religion.
It's a shame that religion has attenuated so much in recent centuries. Religion used to be challenging when expression of a new idea either led to increased status or in being burned at the stake. Jesuits used to fear but engage in meditation on topics where a logical slip up could lead to damnation. Scientists don't risk so much.
Atheism is a form of religion. While religion accepts what is, atheism accepts what is not, with conviction. True spirituality is not a mere "feel good trip". It is realization that G-d is beyond what is and what is not.
@Ted – Atheism is NOT a form of religion. No more than anarchy is a type of government.
@Ted – the absence of belief does not make Atheism at religion. By definition Atheism is the absence of belief, the basic tenet of a religion. Your reasoning skills need a bit of work.
Whether Atheists want to admit it or not, it most certainly IS a religion. Spend a little time with Google and you'll learn that the argument for this is quite strong.
...but you don't even need to do that. Just observe what goes on here. As far as I can tell, no group spends more time commenting on articles about religion and spirituality at this site than the Atheists. Within minutes of any religion article being posted, the Atheists turn-up to start preaching their position. It's not a stretch at all to say that those folks are "proselytizing" which is an act common to many religions. And isn't it true that they even have their own set of prophets? Dawkins being the high priest?
No Mr. Mark Lewis;
Begging your pardon but atheism is not defined as the absence of belief. That is a rather recent re-definition. However, atheism derives from the Greek and represents a stronger declarative. A = no, none, etc. Theism = God, therefore, there is no God. However, the newer definition is a retraction of the traditional statement in its objective form and now simply refers to the subjective context of the non-believer. A simple declaration of lacking belief is actually more suited to an agnostic definition which in Latin is pronounced: Ignoramus. That, is what they teach in the university.
the·ism/ˈTHēizəm/Noun: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, esp. belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal...
so you are wrong..theism = belief in god...atheism=no belief in god
More info »Wikipedia – Dictionary.com – Answers.com – Merriam-Webster
There is no such thing as absence of beliefs. The statement "I do not believe in God, or any story about God" is a belief.
Thus atheism or nihilism, are by definition a doctrine because they have a total conviction in their beliefs. Only spirituality may transcend the beliefs by mindful awarness and perfect faith in what is and not.
Are you a poe, or just idiotic. Are you saying that you are dogmatic about everything that you don't believe in? Is not believing in ghosts a religion? How about the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot, or aliens?
"The best way to make sure you end up irrelevant, and wrong, is to be right, & stand in an absolutely correct position, and not budge. Then the world will shift underneath you".
Yah, these people are really intimidated by us Millennials who just don't care about their bullsh1t anymore. It's the theme of quite a few pompous-a'ss books and articles these days. The thing is, they just don't get it. they think the ONLY legitimate outcome of "serious" study, is to come to THEIR belief systems.
Belief in god(s) is really a "mega-belief" of support structures, which is simply no longer in place. Neuro-science, and Neuro-psych has debunked belief, and exposed it for what it is. They can't stand it, that they are becoming irrelevant.
This particularly self-righteous edition of Christianity is a manifestation of Modern American Protestant Fundamentalism. Traditional Christianity has always maintained a healthy respect for non-belief. ("No one shall come to me, unless the Father draw him", and "Many are called, but few are chosen".) This version, in 21st C. America does not account non-belief as legitimate, (they think it's "sinful rebellion"), or allow for the good faith of non-believers.
Too bad Miller. If you asked what percentage of Seminary, and Divinity school faculties are secretly atheist, and agnostics, you would sh1t a brick.
the author presented two alternatives and encourages a choice. Re-read his summary paragraph:
""Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture* or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"
* A single theology, and not necessarily Christianity.
My point is that each generation goes through a period of religious rejection and reinvention. How different are the "millennials" from the hippies of the 60's? Of course, the M's are not as concerned about war, as they don't get drafted. Therefore there is more time to be "spiritual."
Why can't you believe in God but NOT scripture? Why do you have to believe in both or nothing? Some people may think there is a god, but think the Bible was some crap written by some ignorant ancient people. And with all the contradictions and enslaving your neighbor and whatnot, who could argue with them?
You asked: "Why can't you believe in God but NOT scripture? Some people may think there is a god, but think the Bible was some crap written by some ignorant ancient people.
Who said anything about the Bible? Yes "scripture" in a Western context usually refers to the bible but my interpretation here is not necessarily Christianity but a single theology. I see the choices here as:
1. Belief in a single theology, meaning pick one of: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, or
2. Disbelief in God (atheism)
The "spiritual but not religious" path is a bit o' this and a bit o' that, which, I think, like the author, is a cop out.
As a spiritual Christian it is sad that you think spiritual people are cop outs. We just prefer to follow Jesus and other spiritual leaders without the added burden of supporting some professional ministers ego. I love my neighbor as myself. The Apostles were spiritual but not religious too and so was the Master
according to the definition Alan Miller is using (whatever words you may use to define your beliefs) as a Christian who pursues his own path through the bible rather than attending services, you are in the religious camp.
Alan Miller uses 'spiritual but not religious' to mean something in between defined beliefs like Christianity, Islam. or Buddhism and athesim.
That is one of the problems with this 'spiritual but not religious' label. Everyone wants "in" and it means something different to everyone.
look at the last paragraph where Alan Miller says:
"Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"
Clearly you have taken your stand for a belief in God and Scripture. He's *not* talking about you, and nor am I.
Not spiritual or religious! Why?
Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????
Then there is the absurdity of hell !!
That is why it is called "belief." If it could be proven, it would be called a "fact."
I believe the author is talking about folks who use the "I'm spiritual but not religious" line to avoid actually examining the questions "Is there a God?" and if so, "What does that mean for me?" .... When he writes, "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either," I think he is talking to those people. ... It seems clear to me that many of the commenters do not fall into that group ... they have researched and pondered questions larger than the existence three feet in front of their faces, and whether or not I agree with their conclusions, I respect the process ... it would be fun to sit down with them and debate our beliefs.
As for this blog post, however ... I think the majority of people who say they are "spiritual but not religious" are just making sure they don't get interrupted while watching the next airing of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." ... http://www.oatmealandraisins.com
No, I don't follow Christianity because the Bible is the word of God...not some of it, all of it. Too many Christians believe what they want to believe and not what the Bible teaches. The Bible clearly says good deeds alone are not enough you must believe. Therefore, the majory of the world is going to hell because the majority is not Chrisitan. I tend to think that God is a peaceful, all knowing, loving God that judges people on they live their lives and treat others. Therefore, I don't think my God would appreciate me joining a religion which dooms the majority of the world for no other reason than because they don't follow a certain religion. I volunteer and help others everyday yet because I'm not "a good Christian" I'm going to hell according to Chrisitan belief. That is why I'm spiritual,,,because I do believe in a God,,,,,but not religious...because I don't believe the non-Christian doctor who saved my life and maybe oneday yours is going to hell.
Well, perhaps some say they are spiritual but not religious because it is somewhat better received by churchies than if we say that their god and church and everything they believe is one giant man-made power-grab delusional fantasy story that causes incredible suffering around the world.
But most of us are people who reflect and think and cannot reconcile the Christian idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful god who chooses to involve himself in the minutiae of our lives, and who gives us free will, but will send us to a place of eternal suffering if we tell a fib and don't confess. The idea that he created us as we are and knows we will break the rules, but punishes us for it, is too sadistic to contemplate in a loving god.
And of course, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God. Surely an all-powerful being that created the entire universe could get a Facebook account and let us know he's still around. In all seriousness, the lack of response to centuries of desperate prayers is deafening.
The world of fence-sitting, not knowingness could be used to describe science. Realizing that you don't know everything is one of the clearest signs of intelligence. Smart people know they do not know everything and are ok with that. Lesser intelligent people think they need to come up with an answer for everything, even the unknowable. Enter religion.
Is that what you believe? Because that's not what the author says. He's cast a large, generalist damnation on a term showing not a shred of nuance or true critical thinking. He's a fool, and religion is full of them.
That's quite a judgment in your second paragraph – one that is absolutely not true for me, my friends, and I believe the majority of people who say they are spiritual, not religious. I would bet that you haven't met any people who truly are spiritual, not religious. You must have a pretty shallow life, IMO.
A "happiness agenda"? Would that be "life, liberty, and the pursuit of HAPPINESS? This is NOT a christian nation. The founding fathers went out of their way to specifically say that NO religion would be favored over another. The idea that a 2000 year-old book is immutable is as stupid as continuing to believe that the world is flat. Humans learn. We grow. We EVOLVE. Our understanding of justice, fairness, freedom, and liberty must remain open to evolution. Or, we could just go back to believing that the sun revolves around the earth.
"Christian nation" = theocracy.
If THAT's what he wants, check out Iran.
@Mark Ramsey MD
I wonder if "spiritual but not religious" is a bit of a cultural transitional stage in which it is becoming clear that formal religious dogma is at best intellectually unsatisfying, and at worst not only false but dangerous; and yet we don't really know what to do with that part of our brain that seeks magical explanations for what we cannot easily understand.
I suspect many people are in a place of "while I'm not certain what is true, it is becoming abundantly clear that what is being peddled to me by religion is not. Still, I'm not quite ready to give up on magical explanations, or at least not ready to admit that I have."
that is exactly what I think.
Alan Miller says in his summary:
"Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture* or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?
And I have made my choice.
* I interpret "God and scripture" here to mean a single theology, not necessarily Christianity, as opposed to a bit o' this and a bit o' that.
they are nothing but modified version of hippies.
Define 'great' 'religion' and 'god'. Why are we limited to any religion? What's wrong with self-discovery? Again, you're thinking too small. And either/or in this arena at least is a fallacy.
there's nothing wrong with self-discovery. It is a journey. The point of the article is that in this case, the journey should eventually end up somewhere.
Why must it end somewhere?
It does end somewhere: death.
hippies are coming back.
Alan, I'm afraid you've got a bad case of tribalism and group-think. Either you're one of us, act like us, think like us, believe like us, or your one of them and deserving of our contempt. Why do you care what others think? Live your life assured you know best, and leave others to live their lives as they see fit. Too much to ask?
That's well said
That is one of the worst traps a person can fall into.
"Well I know whats for the best, may as well keep it to myself." That is probably one of the worst/disgusting things I could ever hear. If you know something that might be beneficial, you share it, you don't conceal it. I hope you don't think like that.
It doesn't matter if the news you have to share is beneficial or not. It advances someone's understanding.
"spiritual but not religious", denier of truth absolute, bubbles, corruption of Theen A, get bigger and bigger.....but in the end they all pop. Visit my blog FatMullah.com and click on SoapBubbleCalledTheenAllah to open file.
Suppose I could, say by ablating the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, very specifically wipe out someone's ability to feel spiritual or feel anything about the presence or existence of the supernatural ( like C.S. Lewis' the Nouminous ). Suppose this person is not in any way a believer before this happens. Could he ever have a relationship with God?
the question here isn't whether we find something inspiring and uplifting – beauty, art, the natural world, the cosmos, or religious beliefs, but rather it is purely a question of faith.
Like I asked @Bea below, is cherry-picking the great religions of the world a faith, and if so, what should people who are on this path believe in? Everything, nothing, a little bit of this, a little bit of that? Or are they deluding themselves?
I'm not a GOPer-
Just now I can't say that I find any religion valid. People may as well cannibalize them for their parts and build something new if they want. Perhaps they will come up with something that is workable and consistent as a basis for morality, or life in general – probably something unique to each person.
I think that this spiritual multiculturalism is part of the journey for many. That is consistent with this statement in the article:
"Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population"
With time on the journey the beliefs evolve in one direction or another. This may take a lot of time and will be influenced by relationships. It is my premise that many people who profess being "spiritual but not religious" are on the brink of accepting a disbelief in God, but cannot quite let go for three primary reasons:
1. It's scary to think of death as final
2. It's not socially acceptable to not believe in God
3. Where do all those non-physically measurable concepts (beauty, art, reason, etc) come from in the absence of spirituality?
"Where do all those non-physically measurable concepts (beauty, art, reason, etc) come from in the absence of spirituality?"
That really cuts to the heart of it. It's kind of chilling when you begin to suspect that such things are explainable as perhaps inevitable consequences of being the kind of creatures that we are – that we might point to some part of the brain and say it resides there as nothing more than a convoluted net of neural circuits. A lot of people would turn away and prefer to keep it all mysterious.
I wonder if that is the reason that Albert Einstein was attracted to Spinoza's God?
The notion of God as a spiritual ent'ty in and of the fabric of the universe permits spiritualism in the context of a single coherent philosophy of non-material existence without resorting to cherry-picking beliefs or anthropomorphic deities smiting the mortals from the heavens.
Like a lot of people who work up close with the fundamental rules of the universe, Einstein was impressed by the beauty of the underlying mathematics. Beauty inspires people to think of a Creator of beauty. I mentioned C.C Lewis' Numinous. I think that's the spiritual reaction that people like Einstein feel when confronted by the beauty they see in the underpinnings of the universe.
"Everything, nothing, a little bit of this, a little bit of that? Or are they deluding themselves?"
All religion is is just self-delusion, so let's not look down our noses at these spiritual types for deluding themselves.
Just another justification for being one of the masses that sit and wait for someone else to tell them how to think, baa,baa. I rather think and investigate for myself and find my own spirituality rather than an already prescribed set. Sure there is history behind it all as you say but you failed to mentioned that any other form of "thought was banned, outlawed, forbidden" so the bible stories where the only allowed form of art,etc. but not by choice...
I would argue that spirituality and religion are entirely separable. People can enjoy the feeling of spirituality without subscribing to a religion. People can certainly act in every way as true believers in a religion without being spiritual.
Quite a load of defensive sanctimonious malarkey Alan? What authority made you chief judge?
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– The Second Coming (William Butler Yeats)
I suppose there will always be intuitionists thanks to some hard-wiring in parts of the prefrontal cortex. If such people want to act on and enjoy that aspect of themselves, then fine. When delusional thinking sets in and religion emerges we have cause for concern.
they have been left behind, yet again by cnn
Wow. Such a ginormous load of presumption (much of it highly faulty) and judging (again-faulty). Who are you to dictate to anyone what the right way to feel is? Gee, yet another presumption. You're not my daddy. You're not my master. You are not my better. Your authority is nil.
"Spiritual but not religious" is indeed a cop out.
More to follow.
People who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" are generally people who have rejected the Prix Fixe menu of the particular dogma they were raised with.
So they go on a spiritual journey and realize that there is a vast variety of interesting beliefs out there, so they reject the Prix Fixe menu and subst'tute buffet-style religion: a little bit of Buddhism (because reincarnation's such a nice idea), Jesus and the golden rule (because it's so obvious) and a smattering of Taoism, (because the imagery and tchotchkes are so lovely), etc. These are the people who get yin and yang or om tattoos.
This is all well and good – these beliefs are beautific ideas and are all suitable guidelines for living, so why do I say it is a 'cop out'?
At the end of the day these people need to ask themselves the hard question. Do they believe in God / supernatural / whatever? Ultimately this must have a binary outcome.
I think that most of the people who are self-identified as "spiritual but not religious" have come to the realization deep inside that they don't really believe in God, but they are unwilling to let go, for two reasons:
1. It's scary to accept that when you die, that's it.
2. In our society, it's so much more socially acceptable to say "I'm spiritual but not religious" than to say "I don't believe in God."
So yes. it's a cop out. Come into the light and say it with us: "I don't believe in God."
Again, but from the opposite side of the spectrum, you start with a faulty premise based on your overly simplistic presumption of what others think, feel, and believe. Actually, there ARE more options than your binary premise, nor is a god as the West understands the term necessary to a sense of spirituality. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. So stop scolding others based on your imperfect projections of what you think others believe.
I really enjoyed this piece. Your summary is very on-point:
"Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
I agree. Take a stand indeed!
I appreciated the fact that you included the megachuch phenomenon as being related to this trend. It is indeed.
"The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings."
There is only one area where I disagree.
"a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal inst'tutions."
There is a progression in drifting away from dogma. The ultimate conclusion is disbelief – but many find this concept too frightening and to far beyond the pale and hide in an imitation of 'spirituality'.
I find no fault with the study of comparative religions. The attempt to understand what others believe is noble and enlightening, particularly because with it comes the understanding that other cultures are beautiful too.
I ask you this. Is cherry picking the world's great religions a faith? Other than admiring the beauty of other traditions, what is it that someone who is on this path REALLY believes?
NotGOP, I couldn't agree more. Your thoughts are what I was trying to get at above, but mine is not as articulately worded. I should have read down first – good posts!
thanks. This trend is the reasons that one of the fastest growing self-professed religious affiliations* in the west is "Jedi".
"Jedi" as religion is no more than hipster irony applied to the fear of self-professing atheism.
* Docvmented where such things are required to be identified – like in the armed services. There was an interesting news report about a police force in Scotland where "Jedi" was on the rise.
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