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My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out
The author notes that more and more young people are rejecting traditional religion and taking up a variety of spiritual practices.
September 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out

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.

By Alan Miller, Special to CNN

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: My Take • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. Cindy

    Excellently put!! You can't cut and paste your way through life. Pick a path and follow it!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  2. jomar11

    Wow this article is full of whining. These people are disgusted with the current religions available to them because they are slow at change. History show religions need to change in order to survive. Something will come along and swoop these people up in another "Enlightenment"

    September 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  3. opwernby

    Let's put this in context: Religion is a cop-out: a method of being controlled and of not having to take responsibility for one's own life. Religious people are cowards who should be killed and eaten like the herd animals that they are.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Kam

      Totally! If anything being "spiritual but not religious" is a cop-IN. People don't want to abandon their thoughts and ideas of a god or a divine creation/ existence.... They are trying to hold onto that...They want to keep that while shedding all the hypocrisy that is clear as day in the church and written in that book of old stories they believe God typed up himself... How silly! The established religions have no serious "explanations" that the author of this article suggested.. And that's why people reject it....(as well as the blatant hypocrisy). Following bs in an old book blindly is what I would call dangerous...

      September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  4. DarkDrew

    Religion IS the problem in this world. Its through religion that most of the unspeakable acts visited upon humanity have come to pass. Your path to your higher power is yours and yours alone.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      believing in higher powers when there are no evidence of such is just as much of a mistake as falling for religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  5. A in Pa

    It's not a cop-out, because I have no obligation to participate in a religious program, to declare my affiliation to or submit myself to some religious self improvement program run by religious organizations.

    An accusatory comment such as “I’m copping out” is bait - to put me on the defensive and put me in the position of having the explain myself and my decision to YOU, as soon as I do that, I have given you some authority over me. Typical religious tactic, designed to suck someone in.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. mddong

    Maybe I am 'spritual' but not 'religious' because I cant risk my kids being molested by sick priests. Maybe this is a 'cop out' per this author.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • L2S

      Don't be naive! My sister is molested by our own brother. Priests are not the only child molester out there. There are boy scout molesters, mothers who molested their own children, teachers who molested children. You are putting your children at risk the moment they are out of your sight and into someone's else care.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Susan

    People who are spiritual but not religious are simply trying to get past the trappings of man that get between us and God, and connect directly to God. Taking bits here and there from other religions is, contrary to your criticism, a very good idea. There is God in most religions, the same God. By taking the good from different religions, we are getting closer to actual God, and not what Man has interpreted God. Also, it's certainly not just the younger set doing this. The main group I think of, for lack of a better term, is aging hippies – who were at the forefront many years ago of questioning authority, re-thinking so many things, and blazing trails for all of us. I think it's all just great. We are moving forward as a society, despite the efforts of people like you to put us back into cages of outdated belief systems imposed by Man.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  8. SB

    Looking for love in all the wrong places...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • End Religion

      "Wookin Pa Nub" is one of Buckwheat's greatest hits!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  9. Laura Kristen

    A cop out you say? Try, a courageous path, trusting God is available to all who seek. Of course people who claim to be either "spiritual," or "religious" could have little to back that up- as you know- and that should go without saying- applicable to either "side of the fence" of course. But a truly "spiritual" person I believe is someone seeking, learning, growing in love and light. Not someone God Fearing who believes their weekly attendance in the pews counts for diddly, or because they glide over the scripture... come on, this article simply lacks intelligence- its not about what you claim to be- its about what you ARE

    September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Making up spiritual beliefs is no more appropriate from taking them from a dusty old book. Gods, souls, and leprechauns don't exist, no matter what context or yoga pants a person puts them in.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • sokesky

      NO LEPRECHAUNS???

      How do you explain Lucky Charms, then?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Maria Alexander

    Thanks, CNN, for the most ignorant, wrong-headed "belief" article ever posted. On the front page, no less! Well done.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • KeithBK

      Agree, very absent of substance as to the reasons as to why people call themselves spiritual but not religious. Could it be corruption in the religious organizations themselves??? Those here that want to blame the "spiritual but not religious" population are bearing false witness and judging.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • fundamentalist ego

      agree!!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • End Religion

      CNN's job is not to write scholarly position papers within each article. News as an industry is itself not in the business of news alone anymore, if it ever was. It exists to profit like any other business. To do so it needs readers, lots of them. So it requires continual and hastily written opinion pieces that pull us all in, and more so to argue in the comments section, since it all makes for more and more page views, which sells more advertising. If you want better facts go find and read that resource, and stop using this one.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  11. Will Whitney

    This is a cnn headline? Back to BBC and Al Jazeera

    September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  12. bbrooker88

    IF there is a God, I can just about GUARANTEE it's not the one in the Bible or any other religious books out there.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  13. Just Wokeup

    Ignorant commentarys like this artical brings us all out..lol.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  14. TRUENESS

    Religion (NOT GOD) is the form of all evils in this world. Just look around and read a history book. Religion will some day pass. GOD wont. But all the religions are evil. Plan and simple. If u don't see that...your uninformed!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  15. samuraikatana1

    Coming from an Atheistic perspective, I would argue people are drifting away from organized religion due to the overwhelming corruption and/or extremism that is becoming more and more apparent in today's churches. You can hardly go a day without hearing a story of a child molesting priest or a gay bashing pastor somewhere in the states. Couple that with Christianity taking a more and more fundamentalist view on things in reaction to recent liberal shifts in US social policy, it's no wonder why younger people are leaving churches. What did we think was going to happen? This is a generation of young people at odds with many of the church's teachings, so instead of compromising what they believe, they choose to worship on their own without being judged by others. There is nothing wrong with that, it's a fantastic thing honestly. Churches are just upset because they are taking in fewer donations; like always it always comes down to the $. Organized religion is the cancer of our modern society and the more and more people leave it, the better we will be off as a nation.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Rajeev Gupta

    People are finding out that religion is man-made. No God would create religion and divide His/Her children based on religion. Religion was invented to collect power and wealth. It was created to control people thoughts and actions. If anyone questioned the religion they were removed from the society as religion does not allow free thinking. There is so much thievery and lying in religion since the beginning of the times... it has not stopped even now....lying, killing and stealing keep on going.. Why religion is against science and new trends in society?

    If I want to understand myself and my world around me, why do I have to go through a religious broker or pimp. Those so called priests do not better than I.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  17. new voter

    OMG this is like SO not an article.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  18. Rainer Braendlein

    Who is worse than the pope or Muhammad? Our current political leaders. They do everthing for the sake of the Dollar or Euro.

    s there a Holy Rat? Yes, it is the pope. Who was the worst liar of all time? Muhammad! Are the Protestants better? No, they suffer from the cancer of cheap grace.

    Chase away the evil leaders of our current churches, and let us reform them, than people will go to church and love it.

    The great problem is that the mainline churches like the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are led by wolves in sheeps clothing which use religion as a smokescreen for their malice, and it is clear that a body with an ill head cannot work. People make bad experiences in the mainline churches, because there doesn't reign the Spirit of Christ but demons. Nobody will stay in a house of demons but forsake it.

    Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church have arised out of the Early Church which was according to the New Testament which is the most holy scripture of Christianity.

    Regretably the Church of Italy (today called Roman Catholic Church) separated from the true Christian Church of the Eastern Roman Empire (this was the Civilized World up to 800 after Christ) through evil papacy beginning in the 7th century. The last good pope (papa) was Gregory the Great or Gregory I, after him wolves in sheeps clothing took over rule over the Church of Italy and made her the Roman Catholic har-lot whose groom is not Christ but the devil. As the lousy, criminal popes displaced Christ as leader of the church, the Holy Spirit, the divine teacher, forsook the Roman Church, and heresies had to prevail threre up to today. The lousy pope, a ridiculous human dwarf cannot be the divine teacher of the church, and hence heresies had to spread in the Catholic Church.

    In the course of the Reformation the Anglican Church emerged, rejecting evil papacy, but meanwhile also corrupted through the evil gospel of the cheap grace (cheap grace means complete adaption of the "believer" to the sinful world implying God's forgiveness would cost nothing and be very cheap demanding completely no effort of the believer). Since I live on earth I have never met a faithful Protestant, and of course there heresy of the cheap grace allows them to behave like ordinary sinners everywhere, and you will hardly perceive them as Christians.

    Hence, what we experience today is the total destruction of the Christian Church, whose last remain was the the Confessing Church in Germany during the Third Reich which was destroyed together with good, old Pruzzia.

    We need a reformed church which goes back to the principles of the New Testament. There the Holy Spirit will reign, good doctrine will spread, and the Spirit and good doctrine together will make believers happy, and they will remain in the Church of Jesus Christ with pleasure enduring the persecution of the secular, profane world.

    By the way, the old Protestant confessional docu-ments are valid, and should be used as an introduction to the New Testament, also some scriptures of the Church Fathers, and also the decisions of the Ecu-menical Councils of the Church of the Eastern Roman Empire.

    The sacramental baptism, also the infant baptism is valid. No rebaptism!

    If someone has received infant baptism by a Catholic or Anglican priest, this baptism is valid, because the invisible baptist is always God himself. There is only a high or urgent need to connect the baptism with personal faith, and to follow Jesus in a anti-Christian world which is overcrowded with sects, cult and false churches. Of course, someone who takes serious his baptism will forsake the RCC or the Anglican Church, and associate with true believers.

    Today a believer has to face suffering and rejection by the godless world, only in the church he would find rest and a foretaste of eternal peace. Yet, the one who wants to have peace with the world here on earth right now, will never enjoy the eternal peace in heaven.

    Jesus Christ died and resurrected for us. We have died for the sin, and we are in him, if we believe that he died and resurrected for us, and if we are sacramentally baptized. Everyday we can invite Jesus to rule us, and to help us to overcome the lust of our sinful body, and to love God and our neighbour.

    http://confessingchurch.wordpress.com

    September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Dick Izinya

      Thank you for providing a perfect example of the idiotic dogma that young people are rejecting. You have done a public service.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Karen P

      So instead of posting your thoughts you can only spew garbage from another website? THAT'S a "cop-out"

      September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  19. BRod

    Hey Alan Miller, I'm a Deist – the epitomy of spirituality without religion. Bite me. I would much rather live in a world with people who only choose the good bits out of religions, and leave the bloodsport aspects of it behind – than nuts like you who take your oppressive beliefs to the voting booth and try to force them upon the rest of us.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  20. jake45

    Author writes "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."

    The author clearly doesn't understand that explanation of a body or belief do not have to come from religion and they come from science. The author also does not understand that people that are spiritual but not religious have principles that are coming from government and law.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Dick Izinya

      Moreover, what "set of principals" are the Christians offering? The same one they've offered for centuries: Believe what I say, or you'll get hurt.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:38 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.