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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. Knucklehead

    Anyone who advises someone else to "take a stand" one way or another and insists that someone must "decide" on something they can't possibly know needs to think again.

    I think the whole point is to contemplate it. Pray if you want to call it that. Quiet yourself and cease all the rushing for answers and something just might come to you.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  2. CNN Found Alan Miller at MORONS R US

    I often find myself wondering where CNN finds these incredible nincompoops. Then I realized that religion by it's very nature is the unevidenced belief in an invisible superfriend. As such, all religious people are nincompoops.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  3. chicago7

    This is another instance of an epidemic of people who believe they know what other people think and feel, and have the need to judge it and try to change it, thus imposing their own personal religious beliefs on everyone else. You go take whatever path makes you feel closer to God and just shut up about other people's, please. They are none of your business.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  4. Rafael

    Good lord what a bore. The author offers only a string of disparaging comments about people who think differently from him, not a positive message that would show people what they might be missing.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  5. Brian

    What a horrible article.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  6. artsey

    organized religion had a profound affect on my family life ~ my father having as a pubescent been molested by a priest. yes so profoundly did it affect his life that my childhood being groomed by a wantabe predator that was able to contain himself to just a molester. bibles and korans were written by man and has been through time manipulated by man. Jim Jones, Ku Klux Klan and Reverend Moon showing the manipulation in the extreme (as well as the Taliban). my "spirituality" means I havent given up on God with all these severe violations shoved in my face. The pieces I chose of ALL of the religions ~ all the pieces that reinforces the good in humanity and tolerance of differences. It's about human dignity after all isnt it?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  7. Alex

    "God and scripture" or "enlightenment ideals"? Those are my only two choices? Really? That's how small the author's world view is?

    God is accessible to everyone. God is open to everyone. There are many books that have been translated for thousands of years and for political purposes. Many of them, like the bible, have a lot of good stuff in them, but they are just old books, written by men, translated many times. God requires no book. God requires no man wearing ceremonial clothes telling you what to believe and how to think and what to act. God is there for everyone who seeks him! Don't you dare put up another corrupt, sinful man between me and God – that is the fallacy that all organized religions fall into! Don't dare dictate to people what they must or must not do. Who are you to dictate to me what is and is not a sin?

    My belief system is not a copout. My belief system is a liberation from narrow-minded medieval viewpoints the author seems to present. Don't build your life around "us versus them" "with us or against us", and "everything this book says is absolutely true, even when the book contradicts itself" notions. There's more to life than that. God is much more than that!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Stephen

      I appreciate your comments, however, I do have some questions.... How do you know that God is accessible to everyone? Did you read that somewhere, or is that what you suppose? The Qur'an and the Bible both claim that God abhors sin. God hates sin because He is righteous and pure. Have you found some new evidence that suggests God is not pure and righteous?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Dave Scoven

    "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 old "Morality is impossible without religion" argument. Completely bogus. Would murder be wrong if one holy book or another didn't mention it? Stealing? Lying? The fact is that the "no morality without religion argument" assumes that religion is/was prior to morality. But that is not true. Religion does have a way of making behavioral prohibitions *sound* like moral imperatives, but they never are. No one needs religion to have an accurate moral compass.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  9. Nev

    Gosh, Alan Miller's ignorance is astounding. Completely embodies the opposite of enlightenment.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Clark Nova

      What Ray Wylie Hubbard calls 'endarkenment'

      September 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  10. Joe

    What I got out of this is the author is upset that people don't believe in the same thing he does and he somehow extrapolates that into the doom of mankind.

    Get over yourself.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  11. Brian

    So a businessman is promoting the business of religion! Religion is just another business in this country. Just go to church and you will see what I mean. It's money, money, money and more money – or "filthy lucre" as the Bible calls it. Religion in this country is a mile wide and an inch deep. If Christ came to America today He would vomit at the sight of our "religion."

    September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  12. Steven Jones

    Nothing says CNN (and mainstream media for that matter) like perpetuation of conformity. If you don't belong to an organized religion that is pressed upon you by those who have the power to do so, you are abnormal and should be considered as a hostile lunatic by your surrounding peers! Follow the flock, obey! War is peace!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • rohs

      Yea this author is a simpleton

      September 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  13. Foster

    I can't remember reading a more shallow interpretation of "spiritual".

    September 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  14. matt

    Well that's the glory of opinions, isn't it? Believing in some sort of god is a cop-out in my opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  15. CNN Found Alan Miller at MORONS R US

    The "Karma Sutra"?

    HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

    What a dingbat this "writer" is!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • hal 9001

      Hello, "CNN Found Alan Miller at MORONS R US". I notice that your pattern of "HA"s is irregular. The ent!ties that subscribe to my analysis banks, particularly those from IX, have requested that you "share with us".

      September 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  16. Diane

    Religions are from ,and about humans.Religions are inventions!We can throw them away and invent new ones!Religion has
    prevented us from elevating to a higher state of perfection.We are the same ole,same ole,century after century.Still going
    for the make beleive.Spirtuallity is about God! God is Real!Real is the authentic truth.Real is seperate from the elusion,
    where religions reside.To hug God,hug a tree,hug a child,hug yourself.Real is a Real posision.Keep it Real.Relax. Its
    all Okay.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  17. jane enwright

    I don't think anything is being 'peddled'...rather a right is being exercised...the right , at least in this country, to follow the religion of your choice, or no religion at all. I think "get over it' or maybe 'mind your own business." sums it up for me.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  18. Hernando

    To me, even though I strongly belief in freedom of speech, the only question that comes to mind is how can CNN give such a dinosaur, a platform to berate against a subject that he obviously knows nothing about. One thing is to know and have an educated opinion, another totally different one is to "attack" a different mindset because in someways it goes against your chosen reality. Furthermore, I would invite the author to read just one example of religious thought, Leviticus 18:22 and then tell me that religion is still a valid reference. And what would the author have to say about different religions??? Perhaps one day, he and others with similar beliefs will understand, that religions create little Gods, as there is only ONE SUPREME ESSENCE, standing above all religions, and each one of us is part of it. And to have gotten to this understanding took me years of profound studying of RELIGION....

    September 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  19. vanyaserra

    "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."

    Using this reasoning to justify why Christianity is the way we should stay with is such bullhockey. By this reasoning subjugation of women is what we should stay with after all it has been integral to our cultural for so long too. It was included in our writings, songs and politics. To say that just because something has always been there does not mean it is important we need to weight the value of each thing we keep. As we move forward in science and logic we realize that Christianity is losing most of its value. The exception to this is the core values which all religions share; Love and respect all humanity and through Peace shall we achieve enlightenment.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  20. electric52

    I am spiritual but not religious. The author sums it up well, but he's wrong on the spiritual outlook and our willingness to commit to some regimen. That's just it, the regimen is oneself. The author kind of touches on why there is this great exodus from hard core religous groups but he doesn't get it. I'm sorry but "mankind" has corrupted the purity of religious beliefs. I'm sorry but I choose not to believe that someone on a Sunday mass pulpit has actually heard God ... sorry. The regimen known as "religion" is man's way of controlling the masses in "the name of God, or Allah, or whomever", for their own good and their own beliefs. Clean up the corruption in religion and you'll get people to come back, but I see religion as going the way of the horse and buggy.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:32 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.