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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. Bruce

    Ah, the old if your not one of us you are wrong routine, so typical of the brain washed, oops I'm sorry, I meant organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  2. Steve

    I hope Bill Nye doesn't read this, his head might explode from all the ignorance.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  3. rickinmo

    Don't get your panties in a wad. Spiritual but not religious people are just like religious people except they are generally wackier than most religious people. They tend to be very needy and believe everything but, unable to be satisfied with anything. They are not satisfied with any belief; constantly seeking more explanations and perfect truth. They jump from one belief to the next in their never-ending search as if to learn the meaning of life. They have failed to realize the meaning of life is unique to each person and defined differently by each person. While one person might find perfection in music, another person might find perfection in family. There is no right or wrong answer. It's like asking someone what the best hobby is. The answer depends on one's likes, dislikes, experiences, abilities, etc. There is no ONE perfect hobby for everyone and anyone who seeks the ONE perfect hobby for everyone will have a long and never-ending search. Find your own perfection and let others find theirs. The people who have succeeded in their search have reached the status of THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD. You'll know one when you meet him because they are interesting, well rounded people.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  4. MalcomR

    Dude... I'm like, totally one with the cosmic oneness of the universal spiritual harmony of the universe.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Duck Duucke

      I told my daughter there's a spaghetti monster. Now she worships meatballs.

      I'm a complete idiot.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • MalcomR

      Meatball are awesome. No shame in worshiping meatballs.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  5. Jon

    He should also talk about the danger of "religious, without thinking for yourself". This represents a far larger portion of Americans, and the dangers of that are far higher. Furthermore, when people who are "spiritual but not religious" are not sure about theological questions, it is because they are being honest, whereas those who "believe" in a pre-set fixed creed handed down by generations are just lying to themselves. People who are "spiritual but not religious" almost always *are* sure about the *spiritual* truths are actually *are* important, like the value of every other human being, the value of doing good to others, and the value of forgiveness and being able to find peace in silence. Many who consider themselves to be "religious" overlook, or rationalize away these spiritual truths; it is truly those people that have the fake "spirituality" which is in fact not a spirituality at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Year of the Rabbit

      I would say "Amen!" – but that would be counter productive.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  6. MAC

    The author states that "Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture." While this is true, he neglects to inform of us of why! The truth is that the church was looked upon as the authority of all things. In fact, all science-based knowledge had to be approved by the church before it was passed out to the masses. Eventually, people like Descartes and Da Vinci woke up and realized that we cannot be held hostage to the church and thus, the period of Rationalism and Empiricism began....these concepts have also been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. Just because something is true doesn't mean we shouldn't challenge it!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Saphyrre

      I was raised by devout roman catholic parents who sent me to 12 years of parochial school. My 8th grade science teacher was a nun, and it was...entertaining when she had to try to reconcile evolution with Genesis. I am now totally agnostic. Still, Those nuns were kindness personified, and I'm glad I got to spend time with them. Not all aspects of religion are bad :-)
      This article was pure drivel, but I am really enjoying the debates and comments!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Bobby

      This is by far the best description of religion. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Religion was man's early attempts to explain the unexplained, and to control those that were uncontrolled. Since we now know how things came to be, we really don't need all this voodoo and hooha anymore.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  7. kb

    Spiritual but not Religious is pretty simple to accept and explain if you allow it to be. Spiritual has to do with the Spirit. While religion has to do with organized belief. To assume that "Spiritual but not religious" people as you have come to call them, us, whoever.. are not holding and carrying sacred principles and practices inside of us in every day life, is not entirely accurate. It's presumptuous and foolish. As for calling out people with their own unique belief system a "cop out" – well i'll have to chalk that right up their as an insult to originality, creativity, uniqueness, independence, and freedom. Way to address the public you halfwit.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  8. snowdogg

    Believe what you will – my operative is still something like "Do unto others"... etc.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  9. Nick Howdy

    After years of falling attendance and reduced cash flows.. The Vatican hires Dan Gilgoff to fix everything for them with one incredibly bad CNN piece...Epic fail for you Dan, no going to heaven after this...

    Take your hyarcle structure and shove it buddy...I have a direct connection and don't need you or your religion..

    Another Fraud.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  10. MatterOfFact

    The author doesn't get it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Year of the Rabbit

      The author TOTALLY doesn't get it. Spirituality is its own creative, thoughtful force inside a person,and IT IS VERY PERSONAL. It goes far beyond "likes and dislikes" and is much deeper than attending a weekly service where you sit and listen to someone's interpretation of what somebody else wrote 1000's years ago. *Religiousity* is just what a bunch of people made up to control the masses. It's been handed down through the ages from century to century, just millenniums of control. And not just Christianity, but every religion. I'd pick spirituality any day of the week over religious hoohah. Because thinking for myself IS part of the process.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  11. One one

    Being "spiritual" is when a person is having trouble ending their addiction to religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  12. Brian

    This article is a direct representation of why people are thinking for themselves and challenging the foundations of religion. It is far more of a "cop-out" to just accept what the church teaches and not question its validity or plausibility. Morality can exist without religion and religion can exist without morality, as proven in the headlines every day by "religious" individuals with no respect for their fellow man.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  13. MalcomR

    What the f*** is "spiritual awareness"?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  14. Jeff from Upstate

    You can have both: Unitarian Universalism.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • FreyaV

      @Jeff: Or you can have neither, and still be welcome. What matters to UUs is the development and simultaneous sustained questioning of one's faith, and the expression of this faith in deeds (not creeds).

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  15. Patrick

    why does any of this even matter? people love labels. something simply can not exist unless humans associate it with at least 50 different labels. in less than 100 years, every one of us that read these words will be spiritual but not religious. and you can rest assured of that. : )

    September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • MalcomR

      Except for us Methodological Naturalists.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  16. Name*Jake

    This dude was definitely stone when he wrote this.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  17. ComSenseWiz

    This delusional writer is just ticked off because too many normal, sane humans in ever increasing numbers are not signing up with any religious flock to be fleeced.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  18. Spiritually Religious Person

    It would be interesting to know what religion the author considers himself to be. I personally am a denominational Christian who attends church every week barring illness. I do so because the bible tells us not to forsake gathering together with like believers. I don't need a church to define my beliefs, rather I use the definition of their beliefs to find which church most closely matches my own. My foremost belief is that Jesus is the Son of God, who died for our sins and to restore us to a right relationship with God. Relationship not religion. Religion is a distraction, a by the wayside thing that Satan can use to pull you away from spending time in personal study and prayer if we allow him to. Life doesn't fit into neat little 50's style boxes, that's why the 60's happened. Likewise our relationship with God cannot fit into a little religious box never to change again or it will die! If you believe in God, why not trust Him to seek and save the ones that are lost and to guide those who are not? Or better yet, why not share the evidence of your relationship with Him to help and encourage them instead of judging them and their refusal to stick to the form of religion instead of searching for the Author of Faith!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  19. Your_Myth_is_Evil

    Religion is the ultimate cop-out and the enemy of reason and sanity. The author of this article is a jerk.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  20. kko755

    Food for thought here. Be careful with indigestion.
    The article seems to criticise that more and more people think they can think for themselves instead of being told what to think. ("the nerve!" the writer says and shakes a fist in the air)
    There is the risk of being redundant when you try boxing people into a camp, who have already decided not to be boxed in.
    Several inconsistencies along the article. The camps, for example, and the line that splits them are grossly incomplete.

    It's a bigotted line of thought, but it could have been an interesting read. Unfortunately it wasn't. It was trivial, generalizing, and really short-sighted. Not to mention it had more logical potholes than an Afghan road.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
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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.