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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: Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. shane

    The role of religion is not to set your curiosity to rest, or it shouldn't be. Nor is it to "decide" how your own view is correct when compared to others. Those who live life in the middle are just as focused on understanding the world around them, they just don't pretend to have all the information. What a stupidly myopic article to read on a website associated with an international news organization.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  2. Mark

    Let us never forget that those idiots who flew planes into buildings on 9/11 had strong religious beliefs. The real problem most far-right Christians have in today's world is that their self- righteous mentality is not that unlike the damn terrorists. Maybe that's why so many of us are opting out and choosing our own spiritual paths; we can see how any such non-yielding belief system can and often does harm others in the name of what they religiously believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  3. hm

    It is also a cop-out to label those who reject formal religion as "undisciplined" and "self-obsessed" rather than looking at the structures and entrenched beliefs within organized religion that many members of the younger generation find unappealing.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  4. whatisworld

    "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."

    This is an interesting article, but I don't see how the alternative can transform or inspire any better than the accused. Are people not inspired by everyday life, by projects they have going on in their life, by other people, by art etc? Is life not the thing that transforms us? I agree that for some the spiritual but not religious stance could be a cop out, but how do you make yourself believe something that you just can't believe?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Tim Jordan

    Religion is a marketplace like anything else. When people aren't getting their needs fulfilled, they create their own DIY example. Why is this such a surprise with all the recent scandals in the Catholic Church and people like Joel Osteen as a modern Elmer Gantry? Everyday I see this I thank my lucky stars I'm an atheist.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  6. John Luukkonen

    This is silly. Clearly, spiritual but not religious is easier to say than atheist. When all religions clearly fall short of the common sense test you have to reject them, but most people were raised with specific beliefs. People who are not religious don't need beliefs because they have knowledge based on facts. The negative feelings toward organized religions is well founded, to think otherwise is delusional. This editorial is the real cop out here.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  7. Enlightened

    Who is CNN owned by again? Oh that's right. This is not news, this is fluff. I'm not religious, or spiritual. I'm me. Make this life a good one because it's the right thing to do. Help others. Respect humanity. No status. No one is better than anyone else. Rich or poor. Do good things and live a good life. With morale. Philosophy has taught me this. It's not that hard.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • The Way It Is

      Jesus says you are going to burn in hell. You see, you are judged on obedience, not decency.

      This, like the complete and utter lack of even the slightest shred of evidence supporting anything they say,is just more obvious evidence that religion is pure crazy superstition

      September 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  8. cacique

    The pursue of religious freedom is an individual quest. Communicating with our Lord whenever we want is our very prerrogative. No need for no religious leader to take us by the hand, we can do it ourselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • NoTheism

      then, you can also speak of your lord, in the single sense. Your lord certainly isn't mine.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • cacique

      I was not including you...do not sneak in and then feel offended

      September 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  9. Steve

    It's interesting to me that we live in a society that believes a person is not mature enough to rationally make a political decision and vote until they are 18 and that they can't responsibly consume alcohol unit they are 21, but we think they should they should be aligned religiously almost out of the womb. I wonder how different society would be if such an indoctrination did not occur.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • igoryok

      I assure you the author of this article belies no such thing. At any rate, we're all born atheist.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  10. Rufus T. Firefly

    Just curious, what are some peoples definitions of "spiritual?"

    September 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Seriously, I am not trying to bait anyone into anything here, I am just not clear on what constitutes spirituality to people.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • cacique

      Mine is the personal ability to be in contact with the Almightyat anytime anywhere, to be thankful for all the blessings received and for the ability to persevere in situations that are difficult. Thankful for having the strength to help others.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • zeke

      spiritual, to me, means belief in a reason the universe is here. I have no clue what it is – I believe no one truly does, but I know science has the best shot of realizing its true nature. I will likely not know the answer in my lifetime. Upon death, I hope that some of the secrets are revealed. Until then, I will be good unto others.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  11. Regan Anderson

    Well, it's a good thing no one asked you what your "take" was. Being spiritual and not religious leaves you open to learn from all religions if you choose.You shouldn't use the influence you have in this world to spread hate about things you clearly don't understand.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  12. cocteautwin

    The world is but a show, glittering and empty. It is, and yet it is not. It is there as long as I want to see it and take part in it. When I cease caring, it dissolves. It has no cause and serves no purpose. It just happens when we are absent-minded. It appears exactly as it looks, but there is no depth in it, nor meaning. Only the onlooker is real, call him Self or Atma. To the Self, the world is but a colourful show, which he enjoys as long as it lasts and forgets when it is over. Whatever happens on the stage makes him shudder in terror or roll with laughter, yet all the time he is aware that it is but a show. Without desire or fear, he enjoys it, as it happens.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  13. paulronco

    I suppose that saying you're "spiritual but not religious" is, more or less, a forward way of saying, "I acknowledge that I have a spirit, but this asymptotic increase in technology and globalism– not to mention the spike in religious violence– over the past hundred years has not escaped my notice, either. Frankly, I don't know what to believe, and if I have to pick and choose what works for me from many different faiths, or not choose at all, that's fine with me for the time being." Perhaps the author, who seems to be a committed deist himself, should spend less time complaining, and consider himself lucky that he lives in a world where people at least still acknowledge the existence of some kind of higher being.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      but what makes on believe in "a spirit"? Being that there is no evidence that a soul or spirit exists beyond religious literature, one should ask themselves why they want to believe in a spirit. And that answer is simple. Because people loathe the idea of dying someday and delude themselves into believing that some part of them might live on.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • paulronco

      Your statement casts away the entire body of evidence for ghosts, near-death experiences, reincarnation, as well as the electromagnetic field that surrounds all living things and which is otherwise known as an aura. We may not have isolated or proven the existence of a soul yet, but that doesn't mean we never will because it doesn't exist.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Len F.

      Hey, Seyedibar, try weighing or photgraphing the thoughts in your head. They are non-material subtle energies, and, I dare say, spiritual. There's infinitely more to the real universe than what the five senses perceive. Better search a little harder, Seyedibar.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  14. Kristal

    Nicely said!!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  15. sdg66

    And what if no particular organized religion from today's available set rings true with an individual? I would argue that in today's world being "religious" by joining church A or B relieves us from the need to be spiritual, and the negative consequences of this are constantly on display for all to see. The author clearly doesn't understand spirituality; maybe he doesn't have that "spirituality gene". My condolences to him.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Argue the semantics of "spiritualism" all you like, but creating your own spiritual belief system is not that different than buying one from an old book. At the end of the day, you're still wasting time daydreaming about things that don't exist and for which there is zero scientific or historical evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Kristal

      Perhaps if anyone in the spiritual but not religious community could define it.............spirituality..........and share your "spirituality" gene the author may "get" it the way you want him too.........oh wait..........the way the religious always wanted others to get it too :-) Same idea........differently dressed (or disguised)

      September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Jim McTeigue

      Seyedibar-

      There is a difference between creating a belief from nothing and seeking to understand what is behind your own experiences. Many who are spiritual believe they have experienced something that goes beyond our physical universe. Scientific and historical evidences are not the only ways to establish truth for an individual. You may not have experienced anything that transcends this life, but that does not mean others have not. You have no more proof that the spiritual does not exist than those who claim it does. Why do you seem so sure you are right?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  16. Just Wokeup

    There is already an internet version of the national enquirer. I thought CNN was a news site.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      It hasn't been a news site in a decade.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  17. cacique

    At the end we will have moved from being a slave of some religion to being one in a direct one-one relationship with our creator...

    September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      You are already in a one-to-one relationship with your creator. Natural selection operates on you continuously.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  18. Marc Stone

    You know who takes a stand...Al-Qaeda, The Taliban, and the religious right. Ill take a pass on that thank you.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Grace

      And many who now claim the "spiritual but not religious" label already experienced these environments, and have left because they could not go along with the fundamentalism and bigotry they experienced in the religion of their upbringing.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  19. greg

    I think it's just the opposite–the vast majority of people who follow organized religions have never even thought about what they believe or why they believe it. they are simply following culturual instructions from parents, community. Without inquiry, questioning, doubt, without the idea of realizing that your particular belief is nothing more than that, there is no journey. the "religious" are the ones who are cop outs.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Jason

      Really? And I bet you don't even know what the word, "religion" means. It's Latin for "to re-connect". Focus on your own stupidity.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Gatorfisch

      I agree. And to add another aspect of my personal journey, I don't agree with most "organized" religion on several issues: birth control, separation of church and state, and gay marriage. Too many religions push the agenda of the leaders of their church and forget the lessons of Jesus Christ. There is too much hypocrisy for me. It just seems like too many religions try to shape the bible to their beliefs, instead of actually looking for a deeper understanding of the teachings of the bible.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  20. Ann2000

    Being "spiritual but not religious" is NOT a cop-out, it's alot simplier than religion and it's free. You asked some questions about what it is? It's not someone who is doing yoga on the beach, but that is a form of meditation. Being "spiritual" is believing in God and some practice by prayer to God or their "higher power." A true spiritual person practices spiritual principles such as faith, hope, honesty, forgiveness, integrity, love, and service to others. If you go to church, they are teaching the same spiritual principles through the bible.
    There are "spiritual but not religious" folks who do read the bible and attend church at times, but do not necessarily belong to a particular denomination. Some people have been shunned by churches or grew up with the fire and brimestone God, and so they found that "spiritual but not religious" is a way to still be a believer without fear of rejection or harsh judgement from others.
    There is another type of "spiritual but not religious" person who has been a lost soul and never had religious connections and they are overwhelmed by walking into a church. They find God through prayer and "something" happens when you pray and they come to believe that there is a God. This is just a starting point in their spiritual journey.

    Some of the most spiritual people who practice these principles are some of the most peaceful and happy souls. It requires a lot of work and thought to practice spiritual principles to be a better human being.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:00 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.