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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. RandyTravis

    Hallowed be dogma and social control.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  2. new voter

    OMG, this is like SO not an article.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. cacique

    Religion has done a lot of damage to humanity, many have died in its name. If people still have the need to feel the presence of a deity which fills their spiritual emptiness while not becoming a member of a religious organization, it is their right.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  4. Sam

    I realize the writer doesn't feel comfortable without the ability to label, so I will take that into consideration.

    Still, I can't believe this article was issued or printed on a major website.

    This is idea of You Must Choose a Side in order to indicate belief is outdated. A person has every personal right to pick and choose, and it in fact shows a higher level of cognitive capability if they do so.
    To believe in God is a personal choice – but with so many faiths claiming to be the righteous path, that demonstration in fact proves the imperfection in all faiths.

    Even your picture is misleading. The man in the picture is obviously devoted to his faith and praying.

    Much of our issues today directly stems from the blind followership many practice while linking themselves to a specific faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  5. nahtobs

    if and when you get a glimpse of the transdence you can throw all your bibles, koran or other religious relics away. it will direct your life without a bible, or koran or other religious symbols.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  6. mccgeno

    Religion is the most brilliant brain washing and propaganda campaign in the history of mankind. It was devised to ease the fear of death, and to keep the peasants content in their hard, dreary, hopeless lives. As long as people are good, work hard, do what they're told, ( which could be anything from not eating pork, to butchering non-believers) and if they don't cause any trouble, or question the church, then they'll receive their rewards in heaven. And it works. Not only does it work, but it is self sustaining. People actually brainwash their own children, and through the fear of god, make them followers. It's a pretty crazy story, but people swallowed it. What is truly amazing is that despite science, and all evidence against it, and with "faith" as it's only explanation, religion still works in the 21st century.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  7. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    J.S. Bach, like many artists of his day, were dependent on the whoever had the money. And historically, what enti-ty in Western Civilization has HAD the money? The Church! So it's no surprise that, in order to pay his bills and eat, he would have been employed by The Church to compose his music. DUH! If The Church had not existed, he would have written his music for whoever else was the highest bidder. Big deal!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Yes – I think that was one of the many parts of this that really annoyed me. I'm not sure I've read a more lopsided, worthless piece of junk as this on here.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  8. Matt

    The author is in denial.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  9. News Flash!

    The "Battle For Ideas" Conference ended badly today when the 4 attendee realized that they did not actually have any ideas.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  10. Mark

    I describe myself as "spiritual but not religious" when I encounter a hot christian chick that is looking for someone they view as being just enough of a bad boy to be naughty with but find atheists to be so beyond redemption that they couldn't forgive themselves for sleeping with them. It gives just the right mix of the bad boy and someone they can 'fix' in their bizarre minds to make it exciting for them.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • OTOH

      I could not have more than a very fleeting attraction to someone who has a delusional mind.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  11. ab77

    He fails to notice a couple things:

    1. Every major religion has some sort of clergy class; one cannot have a truly direct relationship with a higher being...there is a middle man. Individual spirituality takes that out of the equation.

    2. How are your fictional stories somehow superior to someone else's individual sprituality?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Jason

      Quite a judeo-christian biased view. A quick survey of Eastern religions will show your view wrong.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • ab77

      Jason...perhaps, but I don't think the author's point was to have individually spiritual folks turn to Buddhism or Sikhism. ;) Just saying.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • ab77

      But nonetheless, organized religion generally dictates how to worship, has its own stories to peddle, etc. Such things are generally superfluous.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Ny Nick

      Without God coming in the flesh, we would have no knowledge of spiritual matters. Humans, being born spiritually dead, cannot come to God, God being alive, came to us. For how can something that is dead become alive without life being brought to it?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Ny Nick

      Ab77- a serial rapist does not believe in God. else he would not be a serial rapist. Wow, youre ignorant.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  12. Anthony Steventon

    "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".

    Oh really, and since when has religion explained anything?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Wr

      Never heard of the ktuvim, huh.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  13. judeamorris

    Ridiculous and faulty assumptions. My own religious path is as a Unitarian Universalist. I chose this path after many years of exploration and study since my childhood Christian upbringing did not sufficiently fill my needs. It is very much a church and a rellgious system of belief. It is NOT based on experience or feeling good, but on the individual's personal search for a relationship with the divine and/or the universe and meaning therein. UU's embrace moral and ethical codes of behavior while honoring the dignity and worth of all human beings. They also draw wisdom from a vast number of spiritual sources. Yes, to be culturally educated in the Western world, one must understand the Bible, but the Bible, influential as it is, is only one source of spiritual guidance among many in the world. The writer is arrogant in believing that Biblical belief or membership in a Biblically based religion is the only way to find spiritual succor and meaning. I would agree with him that the "feel good" atmosphere and materialistic teachings of the megachurches are often shallow streams that serve to pacify people who are seeking meaning in the world. But spirituality has existed apart from religion since man first sought the answers to larger questions. There is always a great difference, for instance, between priests and monks in any religious system - one looks for answers through liturgy and rules, the other seeks a more direct path to the source. Both are valid.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Ny Nick

      Unfortunately your christian upbringing did not yield results because you never truly understood the word of God. The Bible says search and you will find, Jesus also says you MUST be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Im sorry, but you can embrace as many beliefs as you want, and from different sources, but there is 1 creator, therefore 1 way to worship -and that is in Spirit and in Truth. As the Universal Judge-there can only be 1 way to judge mankind- either youre worshiped the true God or you believed a lie- and at the very moment-you believe a lie- remember this – for a lie to seem true, it will always contain a little bit of truth to make it that much more believable.

      Matthew 6:23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  14. Thomas

    You reference the "me generation".Christians believe the creator of the universe has nothing better to do but listen to their prayers. That among all that exist only they are formed in God image. That all creation was put into place as a setting for their existence. That sir is the true "me generation"

    September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • ab77

      Spot on. Is it even possible to get more arrogant than that?!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  15. alienanthro

    Glad to see so many people also think the writer's view is nonsensical
    I would say it is the ones belonging to an organized church are the ones trying to avoid thinking about things
    all their views/beliefs are pregenerated for them, no thought required
    and aren't all religions a mixture of different beliefs added over thousands of years ?
    If you want to be "Christian" focus on what Christ actually said, preached, practiced
    Not what the Vatican, backwoods preacher or a megachurch lays down as rules & regulations to follow
    and a more personal relationship with diety ? isn't that what the Reformation and Protestantism was all about ?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  16. NY Nick

    Religion is man-made, Catholocism, Islam, Hinduism,Buddhism etc- all counterfeit beliefs that try to justify mankinds behavior according to their own standards, which is totally against what God wants from mankind. Religion will NEVER bring you close to God, in fact,Religion will make you drift further away from the truth, to the point where you wont believe anything that actually comes from God because youre spiritutally dead. Religion serves the flesh, Relationship serves the Lord God. and this is the True God- Jesus Christ.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • judeamorris

      I woud have to disagree that religious systems are counterfeit and contradictory to God's plan. Without religious systems, you wouldn't know what God or God's so-called plan is - unless you personally have a direct line to the divine. How marvelous for you. Religions are systems for understanding the divine.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • ab77

      Why would I need another human being to reach or understand God? Unless said other human being is a prophet. Having a "middle man" in one's relationship with a higher being is where the problems start...

      September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Ny Nick

      Judeamorris-- without God we would have no knowledge of God. Religion is vain.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  17. Tim

    I am in absolute agreement with Shane – below. This is a stupid myopic article. Who on earth would want to belong to the religion that this arrogant intolerant idiot belongs to if this is the result. It also reflects very badly on CNN. How many more such evil bigots have they got associated with this site.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  18. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller and a meth-addicted porcupine in Montana

    "Spiritual but not religious" . . . just another way of saying that religion sucks!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  19. phaedrus63

    Your article reads as a screed on adherence to organized religion. While I respect your beliefs, this article is a disrespect of those who have different beliefs or (as is often said of agnostics or athiests) no beliefs; the belief of an agnostic or athiest is still a belief. Most of the article you wrote feels like a defense of returning to organized religion, which is why I believe many people have turned to the phrase "I am spiritual but not religious", not to be fence sitters, but to reject the failed authority of "organized religion". Just my two cents.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  20. Bill the Engineer

    I am not the shepherd, nor the sheep, nor the wolf. I am the sheepdog. I am not part of the flock, but I still report to the shepherd.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:24 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.