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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 (9,994 Responses)
  1. Religion_KIlls_Sometimes_Spirituality_Never

    Here is my analysis of personal experience with people who are either spiritual or religious.

    In most cases, spirituality is 1) universal morality ( non killing, non violence, love not hatred etc ) for fellow humans + 2) unbiased personal approach to the much abused, distorted concept and word "GOD" from which convictions will come. The spiritual guy can take on any one the second issue and will most likely not offended or threatened because of this rational approach to issue 2. The other views will most likely not affect his take on point 1.

    Religion in most cases is 1) universal morality + 2) Belief in one set of ideas of the concept of god, destiny of human life etc. The religious guy, because of his belief in one way of looking at the reality finds it difficult tolerate other views. For him issue 2 is closer to his heart than issue 1. If his take on issue 2 is challenged by some one, his take on issue 1 will deteriorate at least to the point of hating the other person. In worst cases, his morality can deteriorate further to cause physical harm to the people of other faiths.

    Simple fact. It is the "religious" who have killed the fellow humans in zillions and not the spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • rochdoc

      Spirituality eventually grows into religion or dies down as a personal experience. There are historic events in which two spiritual groups killed each other. Fool yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  2. Mark

    some don't realize that "spiritual and not religious" does not necessarily negate religion but rather celebrates the truth in all religions...embracing the "oneness" vs a self imposed separation/isolation of belief systems. In short, one of the truly remarkable/miraculous observations one makes in the study of the religions of the world is how similar they really are...we have so much more in common that we have in contrast...God reveals himself/herself to those in ways in which they can understand...hence all the different perspectives that represent the religions of the world...we are not against any given religion...we simply wish to celebrate them all without discrimiation...

    September 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • igoryok

      You celebrate some perceived similarity between all the world's religious, while in the next sentence doing away with fundamentalism tenets of pagan and polytheistic religions by positing a single God. Inadvertently you only emphasize the point Miller is trying to make. Of course all religions, including spirituality trend do have one thing in common – belief without and often contradicted by scientific evidence. Whether the piecemeal approach to belief by spiritually irreligious is good or bad, depends on the intent of the person in picking the appealing parts.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  3. Karen

    Wow, way to group people together and then judge them to be lazy and taking the "cop out". Never seems to consider that maybe there are lots of us in this group that got here not by lazyness but by trying to take the spiritual life seriously and figuring out that much of what was being taught in religion just didn't work, didn't feel like it had integrity, and didn't feel at all like living from your best self. It takes a lot of courage to step out of socially accepted ways of being (including dutifully going to church) and state that you just don't believe in everything that's being taught. One of the things religion often seems to teach is intolerance for others and this article is proof of that. I don't then do as the author does and assume all religious people are this judgmental and intolerant of others that believe differently than he does.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  4. Hart Matthews

    So, your position is that all possible belief in a higher power is properly practiced inside a manmade power structure? I think the Sufis have a saying about that ...

    September 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  5. Augustine

    "I'm spiritual but not religious" is simply a way of saying "I believe in God. I just don't want Him to make any requirements on me."

    September 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • kenny

      don't you mean the PEOPLE that SAY they know what god requires since last i checked NO ONE really knows... and it just so happens most people are sheep and need someone to follow. so you have the leaders who tell you what GOD says to do and then the followers like YOU who obey... then one day they tell you to do something like go to war.... i'm sure god told them that... so its justified... right??? u are an ignorant and uninformed sheep

      September 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  6. BigSkyHumanist

    I had to read this twice to comprehend what was being said about those horrible fence sitters that are destroying western civilization. Whenever someone points out that this one group or another is ruining everything, I just laugh. Get real.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  7. conston

    hierarchies, formalized practices, rules and history

    September 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  8. conston

    touchy-feely

    September 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  9. conston

    Whoa Bro

    September 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  10. conston

    betrays an arrogance by not considering a third (or fourth or fifth) possibility.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  11. Steven

    Spirituality+knowledge+rationale+introversive exploration > Organized religion

    organized religion is scape goat for people who arent willing to do the inductive work themselves.

    lol @ the bible being responsible for all evolutions in culture............. Such deductive reasoning........

    September 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Craig Holm

      The Bible is responsible for all cultural evolution. Funny.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  12. rochdoc

    The spiritual but not religious kids are mostly college kids who want to try out eastern religions without letting go of their Christian roots. The problem is with the christian church itself as they are not satisfying these kids questioning inquisitive minds. Sooner or later these Spirituals drift around different philosophies till they realize that none is better than the other .

    September 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Richard

      Not true, I'm 35 and I've been spiritual but not religious since 19. I don't do it because I'm lazy, I do it because the bible and most religions can't beging to fill in the gaps and questions in my mind. I guess it could be simple and I could just say "god works in mysterious ways" and just believe like everyone else.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      @Richard – I'll bet you have no problem believing that gravity bends light and alters the progression of time, do you?

      Do you know how? Or do you just believe that "science works in mysterious ways"???

      September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Athy

      Gravity doesn't bend light, it distorts the space that light passes through. It only appears to an outside observer that the light is being bent.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • evidence

      Balder-Builder-BludgerRepublican: the evidence and mathematical theorems defining gravitational pull on light and time within high field strength are fully open for every single human being to examine on their own. What testable evidence is available for examination describing the presence and characteristics of any of humanity's deities? I like evidence and I like that testable evidence is open to examination, discussion and challange by anyone. It is what allows discrimination between factual information and factually inaccurate information. No church ever offers that or the Republican party for that matter.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Richard

      Are you kidding? The point is that because I don't know it doesn't mean I'm gonna make something up to try and answer it. Not knowing now doesn't meant not knowing later, it just means we have to work harder. I don't believe in Jesus or the bible but it doesn't mean I don't believe in something bigger than all of us. There's no one in time that has ever known it and that includes all politicians, every pope, or whatever other figure you could think of.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  13. conston

    While I agree with the author's contention that there are certainly a great many in the world who reject organized religion through a laziness of thinking or moral courage, his rigidity in suggesting there are only two paths

    September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • shane

      actually doing things changes more things.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Larry

      Scientific studies indicate prayer changes nothing.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • igoryok

      It allows god to smite the enemies of your faith. Also it makes one post the same one sentence under rhetorical screen name. Even taking parrots have more than a one trick vocabulary.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • John

      Religion has killed more children than Atheism.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • nope

      @john
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  15. Christie Ley

    I am one of those "spiritual not religious people the author is talking about. I studied about many different religions, and have incorporated into my life positive aspects of compassion, kindness, love, openness of mind, heart and spirit. I try to be non judgmental when it comes to other peoples choices in life. I would much rather see, feel and live life through multicolored lenses than be confined to a box full of 'thou shalt nots'.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      So, why do you reject a religion (Christianity) that teaches THOSE VERY SAME things?

      The problem, Christie, is that if YOU can decide what is the "best way to live" based on YOUR morals (which, I agree, are pretty rightful), then OTHERS can live the way THEY want based on THEIR morals – some of which involve slavery because on "race" of humans is "inferior" to another.

      I'm specifically referring to the middle eastern man in Denver who was arrested for having a slave of another race. He claimed it was his HUMAN RIGHT to own that slave, based on his lineage.

      But you disagree. Now what? Is the US "right" in prohibiting slavery in his case? Or are we just imposing our will because our guns are bigger than his.....

      September 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Morality is acting towards others in exactly the way you would prefer another to act towards you. Biblegod treats his followers as slaves and commanded his chosen people to take slaves and mandated how their slaves should be treated and how much to sell your daughter into slavery for.

      Thus, god has no problem with slavery, and thus, I am within my right to make him my slave and order him to be as I command. It's what he does to others, and so it's what he wants me to do to him. He's the one wants slavery, not me. I wouldn't enslave my fellow man because I recognize that I would not want to be enslaved and so I am morally consistent.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      @Moby –
      You are confusing the Covenant under Law (old testament) with the Covenant under Jesus (New Testament). And don't think you are getting off the hook by claiming the Bible advocated slavery. "Slavery" is roughly translated. In the old testament, think of it more as "farm hand".

      September 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      LOLOLOLOLOL!!! Do your research instead of just pretending to have done it and learn, grasshopper. But seriously, LOL!

      September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      @Moby-
      I've done mine. All you've done is redicule and insult, the swan song of someone losing a debate..

      September 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      I haven't insulted you, pansy, and no, you've not done your research, and even if you had done it, an honest person would not paint over the biblical term "slavery" with the broad brush you used with me. Your techniques may work on those more attached to their fear and less educated on logic and what slavery actually was in different biblical times, but it won't work on folks like me. Just because you've learned to extend the power of your meme within your social sphere doesn't mean that its true or that it has as much power in the fair marketplace of ideas.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Know What

      Bldr,

      Did your "research" include:

      The following passage shows that slaves are clearly property to be bought and sold like livestock.

      However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

      The following passage describes how the Hebrew slaves are to be treated.

      If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.' If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)

      Notice how they can get a male Hebrew slave to become a permanent slave by keeping his wife and children hostage until he says he wants to become a permanent slave. What kind of family values are these?

      The following passage describes the sickening practice of s'ex slavery. How can anyone think it is moral to sell your own daughter as a s'ex slave?

      When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)

      So these are the Bible family values! A man can buy as many s'ex slaves as he wants as long as he feeds them, clothes them, and screws them!

      What does the Bible say about beating slaves? It says you can beat both male and female slaves with a rod so hard that as long as they don't die right away you are cleared of any wrong doing.

      When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

      You would think that Jesus and the New Testament would have a different view of slavery, but slavery is still approved of in the New Testament, as the following passages show.

      Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)

      Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)

      September 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • evidence

      Republican: Moby Sctick has it exactly right. The Golden Rule is the foundation of morality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christianity is a major offender of that principle. If you advocate that the New Testament is an upgrade over then now irrelevant Old Testament, that must mean the Koran is an upgrade over the now defunct New Testament (Bible 3.0?). Yes? No? I think organized religions that teach its followers that women were created as an afterthought to be Adam's concubine and clean up after him and that Nuns live a live of poverty and work while priests become quite wealthy and don't even lift a finger is a major violation of the Golden Rule. Christianity as it is today is broken, destructive and worse than useless. Mitt Romney doesn't believe in the Golden Rule. Do you?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  16. Larry

    Just like a religious corporatist to insist that his way is the only way. Trying to make sure the dollars keep coming to those brick and mortar churches.

    Freedom of religion means you don't have to do that if you dont' want to and you're still right.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  17. Reason

    @ Constan – theres no "belief in atheism". Atheism is the ABSENCE of a belief in God. Its not an "act of faith".

    September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      Bullcrap.

      It is a belief in science as observed by mankind. What is belief? It's known as "faith"......
      Atheism is a faith

      September 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Don't be an idiot, Republican. Theism means "belief that god exists." Atheism means "NOT belief that god exists." The standard is that of proof. We can prove that electrons move and cause electricity, and so that proof compels unto "belief." There's no "faith" involved. When you can prove something conclusively (say the existence of your particular god) then the atheists will be compelled by the same mechanism that compels them to believe in electricity or, if you prefer, SOMETHING THAT ACTUALLY DOES SH!T.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      @Moby – don't be stupid. You CANNOT prove that electrons do ANYTHING because you cannot directly observe matter or energy, because the fact that observing it makes it behave as if it were a particle. Yet when you don't observe it it, it behaves like a wave.

      That sounds to me like a whole lot of "belief" and hypothesis going on, but not a lot of FACT. There's no way to get to "Fact", only explainations as to what someone THINKS is occurring.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Umm.. That's why they're called "models" for understanding the nature of reality. If you'd like to use different words to describe the same thing, then fine, but since "electrons" it what we've been using so far, I'll just stick with that. Either way, the point is proved because of the way the language and structure of the model proves its USEFULNESS. Our understanding of the atomic model and our language of atomic structures brought forth the power of the atom (bomb and reactor power). When you believers can actually do something like power homes or set off a big explosion with your beliefs about spiritual matters, disbelievers like myself will take a look at the models you subscribe to and seek to understand them with the language you utilize. Sound fair?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • evidence

      Republican: did you take high school chemistry class? Did you study Rutherford's experiments in which he was able to observe both the particle and wave behaviors of light? Actually, yes! The dual behavior of photons as well as electrons can be observed through carefully designed experiments. I have reviewed those data long ago and I found them quite convincing. Ask any radiologist about the scattering (particle) and diffraction (wave) of x-rays on film. The evidence is in every hospital and veterinary clinic. I like evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  18. Moby Schtick

    Gee, a religious guy who says it's not good for people to turn away from structured religion in favor a personal, mind-body "spiritual" enlightenment? Who would have guessed it? Why are you so stupid, CNN?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  19. conston

    rigidity

    September 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  20. conston

    I do belong to an organized religion–but only after decades of exploration and consideration during which I struggled to find a set of values and commitments that satisfied me. I know many people who do not subscribe to a group but still have a strong, inquisitive, morally admirable sense of principles that include a less specified universal power. Like any positions that cannot be proven or disproven, belief in God and atheism are acts of faith. And so are all the positions in between.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
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