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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. Melissa

    Religion is a curse on this planet. Better spiritual than religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Athy

      Best is being neither!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. Adrianne Nicole Rose

    Mr. Miller, maybe you should have thought harder before you wrote that judgmental article. Throughout, you attempt to portray so many "either/or" situations and concepts that are all ridiculous. Your article would be a wonderful one for new writers to use as an example of poor presentation.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  3. The Sacred Knot

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who can easily see that this is a pathetic article. As one who is well-versed in the Bible and theology and has experienced some pretty damaging relationships in the context of organized church, I will continue to worship at a distance. You, sir, are the one who needs to think deeper.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  4. Raymond Weschler

    As one whose favorite bumper sticker is 'Militant Agnostic: I don't know and neither do you," I completely reject Miller's false choice between "A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action." I totally embrace the enlightenment ideals of science, reason and logic, and as such, I also reject the Bible, Koran and other so-called holy books as nothing more than often trouble-making fairy tales.

    However, precisely because I’m a rationalist, I also reject the dogma of 'hard-atheism,' with its glib assertion that the 'universe has always been,' or as more recently proposed, that “the quantum universe popped into existence from….nothing.” Maybe, maybe not. But in my own ceaseless musings on what is the actual ontological truth, it’s clear to me that claims to know this with anything approaching certainty is simply a form of “Godless religion,” in that I believe it’s quite clear that mere human noggins are not capable of truly understanding the temporally infinite as applied to physical reality, much less the concept of something from nothing.

    So where does that leave me? With mystery—the awesome mystery of existence itself. A basic foundation of that inscrutable reality is the physical universe and the laws of nature, and then, perhaps, just perhaps, some mind-blowing metaphysical consciousness or energy or whatever that by definition can’t possibly be known, much less observed or measured. And given the other totally unsatisfying explanations for this nettlesome question of physical existence, speculating about this metaphysical possibility in the context of life’s rich pageant is, in my book, a natural outgrowth of enlightenment ideals. Does believing that make me religious? Obviously not! But does it make me ‘spiritual’? Well, if it does, it can hardly be considered an insult.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Mike

      Excellent retort to someone who is beyond understanding.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  5. Helen of Boston

    The article author is an arrogant turd in suggesting that religion can or ever has provided any answers for those searching for meaning, spiritual or otherwise, and for suggesting that not accepting religion is weak or a cop-out. Religion such as Christianity has never delivered real answers, and nor has it delivered on any of its promises either, so there is no reason for the young to adopt it and there are many reasons not to adopt it.

    It is a great sign for our future that the young are not taking up religion. Question everything, you young people. We need the bravery and the fresh outlook that approach represents.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • MarvinK

      Ok then. I question your intelligence.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  6. biobrain

    The farther away I move from the empty promises of religion, the happier I become.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  7. bigD

    When thousands of you friends tell you that there is a problem with you, do you listen?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  8. Booka

    dumb-asses like him would have us back in the dark ages, all over again, there is a evolution to spiritually, one that eventually brings one to see organized religions for the crock of crap they are. This fool is stuck in his rather unimaginative little mind, and as such should be ignored for his stubborn ignorance

    September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  9. MyGigaHurts

    I do agree, to an extent, that being "spiritual but not religious" is a bit of a cop-out. Those who fall in to this category tend to be reasonable, logical thinking people who know there must be a better answers to life's big questions than those presented by the church. The problem is that most of us don't know what the real answers are, so continuing to believe in some higher power that is responsible for it all provides a sense of comfort to replace the ugly feeling that comes with not knowing. Personally, I have taken a stand. Throughout history, various Gods have been used to explain that which we don't understand. Gods have also been used to provide society with rules set forth by a higher-power (one that cannot be questioned). I don't think that originally there was anything sinister behind this idea. It was intended to get everyone to work together toward a common good.
    Today though, I believe that if we were to completely abandon any thoughts of one or more Gods who are responsible for it all we could still come up with plenty of logical reasons why it is important to abide by a set of moral standards that we can all agree upon. The meaning of life for us is no different than that of any other animal. It is to ensure the survival of our species. Doing so takes a deep understanding of your relationship with the planet you live on, and all the other creatures that inhabit it. Today, in my opinion, we are not living in a manner that is sustainable. We must abandon the concept that paradise awaits us after this life in order to fully take responsibility for our actions now. In knowing that this is our one and only shot to get things right and have a positive impact on the world, I believe we can start making real progress toward ridding the world of evil and creating an environment where future generations will not only survive, but thrive. Of course, opinions on what's "evil" and what is not can differ from one person to the next. Most of us, I think, are reasonable people who can agree on these things. If everyone has a voice, it should be pretty easy to identify clear majorities. That's my two cents.

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

      Never before has such a small amount of text contained such an abundance of clear thinking, goodwill and an all round considered position. Refreshing indeed, thank you.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  10. hooray

    Poor Alan Miller. He will never know what it is like to have a free mind.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  11. MarvinK

    While perhaps a bit strident in tone, this article brings to light a real issue...that of seeking truth based on "feelings" as opposed to rigorous intellectual examination. I work with young people throughout the year, and it is undeniable that, more and more, people would rather embrace a false doctrine that "feels" good, than a true doctrine that is uncomfortable. This had repercussions far beyond just the practice of spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • The Way It Is

      How do you know your doctrine is true and all the others are false?

      You don't – there is absolutely no shred of evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • shane

      Well, that feels right to say. But unfortunately all of the major religions have been modified over time to conform to what "feels good" in relation to the cultures that they were trying to thrive in. Just find a Christian that maintains a Kosher diet...

      September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • abcdxyz

      OK, you seriously believe that Christian doctrine can withstand rigorous intellectual examination?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @MarvinK

      " I work with young people throughout the year, and it is undeniable that, more and more, people would rather embrace a false doctrine that "feels" good, than a true doctrine that is uncomfortable. "

      Curious -Marvin since there is no 'specifics' on what the "false doctrine that feels good, *is/are* that you are referencing vs. what a true doctrine *is/are* that is uncomfortable. " ???

      Peace...

      September 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • SoulWideOpen

      @MarvinK: To deny "feelings" and their merit is to deny what brings the soul to the surface. The intellectual mind is a tool and should not be considered who/what we are. Living as if the intellect defines humanity at its best is to deny the core engine of what enables intellect in the first place. We are spirits first. The intellect allows for moderation and for civilization to prosper, yes, and is key to a successful experience here. But the youth (of any era) only move to excess because of the rigid and hypocritical control structures set in place by those in authority. Fix that and you have a better launchpad for the youth to enter society in.

      Any good thing can be abused in one of two ways – by omission or by excess. Authority, control, and religious doctrine need to be moderated properly. They aren't now.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  12. SoulWideOpen

    We are spirits in a material world, that much most of us know. Why man-made organizations feel compelled to be the purported "mouth" of the Divine Being can be answered by psychologists, but the result is obvious: a lesser experience with said Divine Being. Why? The list is long. Among the reasons are filtration, manipulation, power, various forms of corruption, and the lack of actual spiritual empowerment.

    In most religions, you are literally meant to worship "God", a character portrayed by writings to be so much like a man that it is obvious where the notion came from: flawed man. Be assured – "God" does not "think" like man. The Divine Being is unknowable except through the direct experience of the individual. It is in the air you breathe, the rocks under your feet, the water in your body, the birds over your head, the spark of recognition in your core. To be moved by it is natural – to speak on its behalf is not. Religions do not teach you the flexibility and independence inherent in your spirit/soul. They only use your soul as something you'll need when you die – and if you aren't a good religious person now, your soul will be damned forever. Such crock!

    We are souls NOW. We are in heaven or hell NOW. Our actions and thoughts matter NOW. You know this. We are most aware of the Diving Being when we are feeling and acting in harmony with all that is, including ourselves and others. The human soul needs unity, not division, to prosper. Religions are by their definition divisionary – look at the world and see the result of that truth. Look at history, please.

    Religions are like stores selling bottled salt water next to the ocean.

    I say set aside the dogma. Take a deep breath. Feel your spirit react to being in your body. Feel your spirit react to the thoughts that cross the synapses in your brain. Feel your SELF, your soul, as it faces the human-defined practices of religion and division. Mankind is spiritkind. Embrace it. Forgive others for seeking unity and peace in man-made structures, and go out and LIVE the peace already present. BE the unity. You will be a magnet for new feelings in the world. Spirits will feel your intentions and either energize or polarize – that's normal. But be spiritual. Dare to be your real self. You're not alone. Many are learning to love being a spirit.

    It's the most natural way to live, the most free.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  13. Adrianne Nicole Rose

    Mr. Miller, you are creating divides that don't exist.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  14. barbarahayes

    The author completely contradicts himself; he states that the spiritual-but-not-religious group is not a movement because it is neither organized nor collective, then he goes on to attempt to define it as such. He makes up quotes to make a bogus "straw man" argument. If he educated himself about the Eastern philosophies that he throws in without without actually addressing, he would know that Buddhism and Taoism are non-theistic philosophies with strong moral components. They are not religions in the strictest Western sense, but certainly provide well-defined guidance for living a positive, productive, and healthy life. These beliefs are also being incorporated into Christianity; there are Catholic monks who have become ordained Zen Masters with the blessing of the Catholic church. This article is also so poorly written as to be almost unreadable. Get a copy of "The Elements of Style," please!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  15. stacey

    This article reflects one of the major reasons why it is that I consider myself to be "spiritual, not religious" – people in churches don't hesitate to decide what is best for people that they don't even know. And, in my experience, most people who go to church regularly do so for the social aspect, and not because of faith. For me, it was going to be either "spiritual, not religious", or "atheist". And, contrary to the assumption that this author has made, I DO read the Bible. Pretty regularly, in fact. And most people that I know who attend church services weekly have told me that I read it more often than they do.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  16. webyourstuff

    I identify as a spiritual, but not religious person. In no way can I relate my experience of this state to what Miller writes. He has not done his homework and this piece comes straight out of his imaginings.
    I study constantly about religion, communicate with others of like mind, constantly increasing my understanding, and practice what I chose to believe in.

    NO church on earth contains the ultimate truth. ALL are colored by the thoughts and beliefs of their leaders.

    This is no cop-out. It is a focused search.

    At one point, I made the rounds of local churches to find a church who's beliefs are similar enough to mine, but who will allow me to have the beliefs where I differ. I wanted a community where I could visit locally, and see actual faces. My current community is on the internet. I failed to find it.

    If there are in fact people who fit Miller's description, let them stand up and say so.

    They don't exist in my acquaintance.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  17. thetruth

    Just another typical "religious writer" who put other people's thinking too simple and make assumption.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  18. zeke

    Mr. Miller also says that great works of art were inspired by religion – as if there are no great works that weren't/aren't religious. As if that is a good reason to join organized religion. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – one of Michelangelo's greatest works- was painted not because of his obsession with God, but because he was paid well by Pope Julius II. If I had millions to throw at an artist and had a strong belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there'd be a lot of spaghetti on the ceiling.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  19. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of years of inbreeding.
    Oddly enough, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance and Smokey and The Bandit.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  20. Daniel

    The concept brought forth by Alan can easily be twisted to match the radicle right, or any major religion. How many evangelicals actually know Hebrew? More importantly, how many Christians actually keep kosher? Pick and choosing what to believe in spirituality is natural. Its all just one narcissistic journey we all take alone. So regardless if fast food religion/ spirituality is good remains irrelevant. Because unless if your a religious scollar or a maniac, all religons are self serving.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:05 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.