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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. John

    What a weak position. The same logic was used when a few folks thought the Earth was round and that the it wasn't the center of the universe. Most religion is about control. Do we really think a higher power cares about our petty religious groups?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  2. Paul Dykstra

    What about the dangers of being religious, but displaying zero spiritual awareness of any kind?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • MalcomR

      Such as...?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • kathyprice1

      Such as blind devotion to religious leaders that promote wars, overpopulation and environmental degradation, to name just a few.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • MalcomR

      That's just not being stupid. What is "spiritual Awareness" please?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  3. James Marcus Bach

    Is the author saying that taking responsibility for my own beliefs is a cop-out? Does he know what the word "cop-out" means?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  4. 200 TON HAMMER

    Wisdom is the Teacher,Knowledge is the Student,Understanding is a RoadMap on a PathWay.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  5. Timothy Settle

    The issue that many have with "Major Religions", is that they find throughout their life, that the answers they are trying to force on you are answers to the wrong questions. Finding the correct question is one of the most important issues that has been lost in this culture. "Who am I" Sadly, we have been taught to externalize everything, and we have forgotten how to search and develop within.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  6. TonDef

    Refusing to fall in line and be a brainwashed zombie is a reflection of the self obsessed "me" generation? What a load of crap. Being spiritual but not religious does not "avoid having to think too hard". It's about thinking for yourself instead of simply accepting ideas and values that are often ridiculous and sometimes dangerous. Has anything in the history of mankind ever been more divisive or been the cause of more violent deaths than organized religion?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  7. Drew

    What a contemptuous article by someone who obviously has never known or spoken at length to people who feel that being spiritual without religion is a far greater experience than being religious without being spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  8. Troy

    The last time I saw a "spiritual, but not religious" article, it was just as stupid as this one. Get your head out of your *ss,

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  9. Duck Duucke

    Important questions like if you're born into a Christian family then Muslims think you're going to hell or if you're born into a Muslim family Christians think you're going to hell?

    I guess the billion or so Chinese folks are going to hell since their parents taught them to believe something entirely different.

    I taught my daughter to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and if you're not a Pastafarian, she swears you're going to hell.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Drew

      I, too am a pastafarian– but to have a true divine experience with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, one must be a whitesauceian, which you obviously are not, and therefore not a genuine pastafarian.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Duck Duucke

      At this very moment, my daughter is kneeling down on a meatball.

      That's why I'm a complete idiot.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  10. PeteC

    Religious or sane...effectively the only options.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  11. Pattypal

    This article speaks volumes about the author and the value of The New York Salon; which is apparently nothing more than a extemded discussion group with a $100 entry fee. Great concept, until you start to believe that what you have to offer is anything more than collective opinions, or worse, self-grandizing BS. Sort of like religious organizations.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  12. Gina Hamilton

    So I should believe in God because Bach did and it was the basis for his work? What Miller fails to understand is that most of us started out with a religious tradition in our lives, and gradually grew up and out of it. I can say clearly that I am a recovering Catholic who at the age of 16 became a humanist and freethinker, but that from the acceptance of the lack of a god proceeds a sense of the oneness of the universe and my place in it. It's not touchy-feely; it's science, and yet it is profoundly spiritual as well. Perhaps Miller, one day, will have this sort of understanding.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  13. Elmer Fudd

    Well... I think the author presumes to know an awful lot about what everyone else thinks, believes or knows, which isn't all that surprising. I find that to be a common symptom of those that believe organized religion is the "only" way. As a wise man once said about our brief existence in this world, "If life is eternal, then this is not life". Enjoy your visit.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  14. Siddhartha

    The "spiritual but not religious" mindset is the basis of most Eastern religions. Read "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  15. Sarah

    This article is a prime example of shallowness preventing World Peace. Everyone has a choice to elect NOT to invade the freedom of others or force their opinion or belief on others. Different is not wrong. I am 49 and I CHOOSE Spirituality to improve not only myself, but to also play it forward to create a positive impact daily

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  16. Paul Dykstra

    Now you need to do an article on ..... "The dangers of being religious, but displaying NO spiritually aware behavior at all".....

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  17. C-Note

    I grew up catholic and they basically melted my brain with fear of god and hell. I believed it!
    However, I do not regret that I went through that because it has solidified MY truths that god loves us all and would never hurt us or abandon us no matter what. To me...that makes him a worthy god.

    'For I know the plans I have for you. They are NOT plans of disaster, but plans of hope and a future. And in THESE days when you pray to me I will hear you. Who soever WHOLEHEARTEDLY seeks me out will find me.'

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  18. Michael

    One of the advantages of 'traditional' religions over 'spiritualism', at least the way it's often practiced in Western countries, is that they are far less expensive. You can be, for example, an observant Catholic, and at most it will cost you a fairly modest contribution to your church. All that 'spiritual' stuff often involves gurus, costly books, DVD's, seminars, maybe even therapies.
    The poorest person can be religious, but spiritualism is mostly a hobby for the well-off.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Caron

      Meditation is the ONLY spiritual practice that ANYONE can do at ANYTIME, ANYWHERE and its absolutely free. It is the single common thread that runs through ALL of the world's religions. Each of the religions has a mystical tradition that is free of dogma and rooted in meditation.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  19. Jill P.

    Silly how other people's viewpoints (opinions) are stuck down so strongly in the authors own opinion! His arguments against the people that say they are spiritual but not religious are as silly as the ones he congures up in his mind trying to pin everyone he is criticizing into the same thought patterns.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  20. Chris

    Dear spiritual people. You lack of belief in my dogma is killing my ability to control you and suck off your cash. Please stop. – the author.

    Look, I tend to think religion is silly and dying off. I think that "spirtuatlity" is these peoples' way of slowly working their way to the same conclusion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:01 am |
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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.