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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. Rob

    This is the dumbest, most absurd article I've ever read in my life. Those that have their own spirituality are stronger, more believable people than cowards that don't think for themselves and blindly follow a 'scripture' made by human beings.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  2. REGinAZ

    "Spiritual but not religious" would seem a valid position that considers and accepts all religions, noting that each professes they are the "one right one", that they each have merit, hence being spiritual, but that none are conclusive without points of contention and that God is truly universal. Religion is a comfort zone usally come upon by other than a logical determination and they all have quality with the same objective – to find, understand and fulfill our relationship with God and our responsibilities as His subjects – and therefore it would seem very logical to deny that any one religion is less than (or better than) another (except as a personal preference). Hence "Spiritual but not religious" seems a valid position, especially when keeping egotism out of it (which of course is hard to do).

    September 30, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Atheist

      Well you see that implies that religious tolerance is the default standard of participants. it is not. no matter how many times you say we should be tolerant of all religions, the truth of the matter is that they all can not be right when each are making claims for truth. So it will be decided as it always has been and always will be, through bloodshed. The God of truth is the blood God of war.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  3. very happy

    The person who wrote this is super ignorant and obviously lacks spiritual development. Blessings to him that he will evolve past the dogma of religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  4. Please

    It is the KAMA Sutra, not Karma. They're two completely separate things. Come on, CNN. As a news source, you'd think it would be a no-brainer to at least spell the names of ancient scriptures correctly.

    I stopped reading after that point, but I do think today's society is too quick to write off organized religion. After all, it's within these structures and disciplines that many of the prophets and greatest philosophers found their inspiration to express some of the deepest truths of the universe.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Beavis

      Huh huh. You're right. He said Karma. Huh huh huh.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Baby

      I agree. come on CNN. really?

      There is no place for old boy thinking today ... we have new leaders that can not emerge under the mask of organized religion. Please tell me, what good comes out of organized religion today? I only see evil, not philosophers ...

      September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Atheist

      Please tell me one single deep truth of the Universe.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  5. sativa619

    This article is such baloney. Please, tell me EXACTLY what harm has come from someone either being non-religious, atheist, agnostic, or simply 'spiritual'? Hey, Chicken Little, look up, the sky is still there.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Atheist

      They go to hell dragging other like them with them. Hell is pretty dangerous. Although I never could figure out how eternal suffering would work with no nerve endings or brain to register pain.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  6. Dr. Gener

    To the author: chill. Folks don't need to fit into your dichotomy to be happy, or to feel whole. Likewise, they do not need a set list of rules to follow to contribute to society in a meaningful way. To each their own, and at the end of the day, the dust will fall where it will. Being "spiritual" isn't a reiteration of hedonism wrapped in ignorance with a side of apathy. It's a group of individual's choices to pick something else. Maybe their something elses won't fall into an existing schema, but, again, other than you, who cares? Focus on your own faith before you question others'.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Atheist

      The problem is either what a religion claims is true or its not. So their is a lot at stake socially and economically for established religions. Its like when you are trying to run for president as an independent, you will be written off as a whacko or fence walker because you refuse to side with collectivist ideals. Freedom is the enemy of the collective. Freedom is the enemy of religion and politics.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. Steve

    Defining and redefining a god has been going on since the beginning of time. That's why there are so many religions and so many sects of each. Christianity itself was a redefinition. All that Leviticus stuff of burnt animal offerings, not eating pork or shellfish, women sleeping in a separate tent during their period, and treatment of humans with defects wasn't working out well. Who's to say people have to now stop redefining their spirituality and have to accept one of those religions already defined.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  8. 212gr

    In the beginning man created god!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • new voter

      Well, duh, yeah, of course.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Dr. Gener

      Lol.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  9. Cthu-uh, Dan.

    Alan Miller is absolutely right about everything he is presenting in this incredibly perceptive, poignantly relevant article. The whole "feel good" non-religious, anti-doctrine-fearing thing doesn't jive with me. Call me old fashioned – and you can at that! Hah hah, but seriously, nit picking religious ideas to develop a kind of "creative theism" is appalling to me; oh sure, you have a solid relationship with your God, and you love and cherish being their creation, until you find out your god has a star-fish head, bat-like wings, and eyes and mouths blinking and flapping about hungrily. Then it's a different ballgame, isn't it? Just friends now, right? Anyway, human beings need organized systems of control for the purpose of both worship and progress; I mean, without them, there would be complete chaos. Trust me on this one.

    This whole hippie spiritual humdrum gets me crabby.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • seth

      How is worshipping a star fish head, bat like wings, etc. any more absurd than believing in the bible?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Todd

      Feel free to be controlled, I will choose to search for the truth instead. Just because its not what you believe doesn't make it wrong. You spent half your argument tearing someone down you know nothing about. What would Jesus do? Think about your judgmental words and reflect.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Mr Romney lover

      wow...ok. This is why its good that people grow old and die. You can't accept change / things moving forward. Well at least you will go to heaven.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      Yup – it's right up there with "redefining" their god so as to fit their lifestyles. Whatever is accepted today is the image of what these "Spiritual but not religious" people want create with their malleable gods....

      The only God is far from a whimpy, be-anything-you-want God. He has His rules, and they have never changed. They just fall in and out of favor of society....which is what He warned us about.

      It's His way, or the highway. You don't get a choice. But the rewards are incomprehensible.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Sarkazein

      So long as you continue to have an anthropomorphic view of "god" or whatever, feel free to do what you like. But don't you think it's a tad weird to apply physical features to a spiritual being? Do you really think something that is all powerful and all knowing is going to take the shape of humans and other animals populating the planet?

      "Created is his likeness" doesn't mean human. People see "Jesus" on grilled cheese sandwiches and tortillas. It's his "likeness". There's a misunderstanding of "likeness" there that implies that "God" must have some human form that is recognizable and familiar. That's comforting, sure, but I sort of doubt that it's accurate. The difference here is that I'll be willing to admit I'm wrong without going on a tirade.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Cthu-uh, Dan.

      I will report you, Todd and Seth, if you do not agree with me, Dan. Not only that, but beware; when I rise from my craven, watery – uh...well, you just watch out, or I'll be writing nasty letters about the whole thing.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  10. Sarkazein

    The problem with organized religion is not that it forces difficult choices or otherwise modifies one's lifestyle. The problem is that it's organized extortion through which your belief system is reinforced once or more per week without giving you the ability to make such difficult choices on your own.

    It's actually more difficult to be "spiritual but not religious" if only because you are not berated on a weekly basis with what you should believe and what is wrong. You have to make those choices yourself without someone else telling you if you're right or wrong at every step. There isn't a "leader" of sorts to consult. There isn't a book to read literally or metaphorically to guide you. Instead, you rely on human nature.

    It boils down to what are tenets in every major organized religion, but without having to wear it like some badge of self-righteous condescension. Love one another, do unto others, don't judge lest you be judged - this is more common sense rather than something that needs to be taught and reinforced over a lifetime.

    Some people may need help understanding, and some people may never get it. But for most, there's an innate ability to know when you've done right or wrong, in the same sense that a cat on a kitchen table knows it shouldn't be there, or a dog that poops on the carpet knows it shouldn't do that.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Dr. Gener

      Agreed. The concept that a-religious or "spiritual" folk can still act morally, without an organized belief system boggles some people's minds, and that boggles mine :/. Makes me wonder what kind of special heck would be let loose if suddenly there were no rules for people to follow.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      Wrong.

      There are societies that TRULY BELIEVE that if you are born of one race, you are "slave material" only. That runs counter to the commandment that "all are created equal".

      Don't believe me? There was a middle-eastern man ARRESTED and PROSECUTED for having a slave in the Denver area several years ago. He swore, in court, that it was his INALIENABLE RIGHT to own this other person as as slave, because of the races of each.

      That, my friend, is EXACTLY why there is an authority greater than the US that states that all people are created equal. You have NO WAY (other than faith) to assume that just because the laws of the US dictate that slavery is illegal and amoral, to guarantee that it will be that way for eternity.

      It is your own myopia that brings about your opinion that all people are as "common-sense" as yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Sarkazein

      @BldrRepublican:

      I know there are societies like that. The British that founded America believed that about Africans for a long time. Some still do. It doesn't make it right.

      By common sense, I mean that most in the Western world are raised with qualities X, Y, and Z. Of course there are places where "common sense" differs. But look at the cause of what makes things that different. It's a religious belief (taught or otherwise), whereby "right and wrong" is based on a religion and not a common sense, and it's taught at a young, impressionable age. Whether or not they will ever admit it, there are people in America now that don't like Obama not because of his policies or skills, but rather because he's a black guy. He could give them $25,000 and they'd say, "But I want $50,000." You can't change everyone.

      I don't have myopia (or astigmatism) about common sense. I know that there are many that don't have it. And those tend to be the people in the audience at mega-churches and are also the people that have 20 religious bumper stickers on their cars, along with one really racist one. ;)

      Rule of thumb: The number of religious things on the back of your car is inversely proportionate to your ability to drive.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  11. Becky

    Wow, what a profoundly ignorant article. I don't even know where to begin...

    September 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  12. Raj

    "A GOD IN HEAVEN AND A DEVIL IN THE HELL' IS ALL THAT IS NEEDED FOR THE RELIGIOUS LEADER ON EARTH TO TELL THE MASSES TO KEEP THEM IN THEIR CLUTCHES.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  13. !

    Atheism = Dangerous

    September 30, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  14. blake

    Religion or spirituality without Christ is hollow.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      It is! It's the disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer".

      September 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  15. Joe Kirchner

    Aside from this being a strictly one-sided opinionated blog. I think Mr. Gilgoff is hurting for an audience. Why may I ask are you at trouble with people wanting to be in the "live and let live" lifestyle as opposed to the taking position and therefore delegating to others on the other position who is right and who is wrong...that has taken humanity no where except for war, squabbling, and zero progression. I think Gilgoff needs to serious reflect on his own intention before sitting down in front of a computer to ever type again.

    Terrible Blog.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  16. YesMmmmHmmm

    Detaching from religion is difficult, even though many realize intuitively that it is the right thing to do. Throwing off the shackles of myth and fear of death isn't easy. A natural step in this direction is to be "spiritual". It's a middle ground between religious and rational.

    After rational, then TRUE spiritualism can begin, which will consist in doing the right things not because of a punisher god but because it is in our nature to do so – service makes us whole. It transcends reason, and thus can be spiritual. Whether you believe that or not, the fact remains, these gods of ancient societies are really falling down on the job, and with increasing rapidity, they are being abandoned. Amen!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  17. Clark Nova

    I am neither religious NOR spiritual and I'm doing just fine. I saw through this garbage 50 years ago when I was 14 and have never regretted completely rejecting it.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  18. jane

    PS. The only 'danger' seems to lie in upsetting Mr. Miller, as his arguments in favor of religion are so weak.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  19. Bruce

    God is an imaginary friend for adults.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • blake

      I pray you come to know the truth before it is too late for you. Denying that something exists does not make it so. There is no reasonable explanation of origins apart from intelligent design.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      I think I smell the disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer". (blake)

      September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @blake

      " I pray you come to know the truth before it is too late for you. "

      You are inferring a fallacious *Pascal's Wager* argument.

      " Denying that something exists does not make it so. "

      It might... depends on what we are talking about. And... in the context of an "intelligent designer" here, which I believe is your context... Just because 'you' say something exists, does not necessarily mean that it actually truly does.

      Peace...

      September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  20. Larry

    The idea that science and spirituality are opposites is false. It is simply absurd, the great scientists up to and including Einstein sought to understand the mind of God. Not some absurd strawman idea of God, but rather the self evident source of creation. I choose, I choose to admit that there is much unknown, and also choose to say that fundamentalists concepts of what that unknown are, are utter nonsense.

    I refuse to accept any dogma. There is obvious truth, there is obvious falsehood and there is the unknown.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:39 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.