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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. Starts-with-B_rhymes-with-gouda

    Such angst. Breath-in; breath-out: It's all going to be OK.

    Sound like people are searching for something they haven't yet found. I don't see a problem with that. May their journey be swift and fruitful. And in the interim, Mr. Miller, I suggest you mind your own business.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  2. treater

    This author simply does not understand what he is critiquing. It's a legitimate gripe to the uninitiated, but the fact that he concludes by saying you must either worship a collection of books voted upon by a primitive society or adhere strictly to a primitive scientific understanding is incorrect.

    Anyone who has truly stripped herself of cultural dictates to seek a deeper wisdom knows it is not about happiness. It is an intense, sometimes brutal, experience that moves beyond the "me" and into an awareness of the bond between all.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  3. kevin3g

    There is no "fence" between "religious" and "spiritual" to straddle. "Religious" has nothing in common with 'Spiritual." Religion is an important part of how we got here in society, but it is becoming a museum piece just like the Divine Right of Kings, and rightly so.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  4. mikes

    Worshiping any other than the Flying Spaghetti Monster will only upset his noodley highness. There's only one source of real meatballs, and that's the One True Church.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Da King

      Always nice to hear from 2nd graders.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  5. Ethnocentric

    What a joke of an article. We are all dumber having read it. This is the worst Western-centric article I have ever read. Like somehow the arts could only exist with the Bible. The author clearly knows nothing of the Eastern religions and philosophies of "oneness". Does that not imply we are all in it together? What if, and I know this will be foreign to the writer, but what if I want to do good, not because your Bible (written by MEN, not God), but because I choose to be. What a foreign concept.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  6. ab

    "Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture."

    True that. Numerous crusades, the inquisition and other atrocities can credited to Christianity.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  7. Larry

    This is really a clueless article. As if the only way to live a spiritual life is to have an ideological basis for it that must be codified and expressible. The spiritual viewpoint is the opposite of a tightly held belief system. It could be described as "living in the now" or just being completely present. The spiritual life does not require a belief system; it is liberation at its core. Why burden it with ideology and beliefs?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  8. reldra

    If you were going to reuse an old Philosophy 101 paper from college, why did you pick the one you got a D on?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  9. Michael Fox

    " Take a stand, I say. Which one is it?" Wow, talk about conceited. How about, given the status of most 'organized religions, which have some sects apologizing for the acts of other sects of the same religion, I choose none of the above? Maybe I feel that current organized religion does not suit my spiritual needs. What will you do? Force me to choose a religion? How very democratic of you!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  10. Chris

    Religion is someone else's (the religious orders') idea of God and spirituality. They persistently cram the literal stories of antiquity as historical truth, and use it as a club against non-believers and competing religions. At last we have a grassroots movement, Spiritual but not Religious, that is encouraging people to have a personal experience of God without the shackles of religious metaphors. Joseph Campbell left his Roman Catholic faith behind early in his distinguished career because he discovered that religion is simply myth and metaphor: the poetry of a culture that connotes (not denotes) God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  11. Marc Paolella

    Spiritualism is functional atheism. As such, it is a healthy movement. Any trend away from mysticism, and towards Reason, whether de jure or de facto, can only result in a better world. The cancer of mysticism (aka religion) holds Man back from interacting with reality. We don't need a middleman. It is best to go "direct" when dealing with Reality. Atheism is the only belief system that allows a one-on-one relationship with Reality. Spiritualism is a method of existing as a "socially acceptable" atheist. It deflects the God nonsense without appearing to be intellectually arrogant. It is a stepping stone to Reason. I like the trend and hope it continues. Ultimately it is an inevitable evolution towards true laissez-faire Atheism.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  12. bernard Mandel

    Uninformed, unexperienced, plain stupid article

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  13. Julie

    I think you should "try" using a few less "quotes" in your "article".

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  14. Jon Marcy

    Organized religion is founded on the dogma it decides is important and what the founders of that religion think the rest of society should also believe in. The idea that an individual needs the help of a group to determine their spiritual path is rediculous. 1000 years ago when the typical intellect of a human being was small, then yes, there was a need to teach right from wrong. Here in 2012, with the birth of the information age, the average human is much better educated and aware of the society rules of right and wrong. The purpose of organized religion today is more to establish pockets of communities that organize for the betterment of their communities. Through financial giving and volunteering, faith groups assist their members, and in some cases whoever they see as being in need. It is through organized religion that Republicans want to see aid being given to the poor (and not from the Federal Government). At large, this is a good concept, but unfortunately most organized religions are tied to their dogma, and there is an unspoken "contract" that determines on whether you will get their assistance in your time of need. If you do not honor that contract, then you will be ignored and cut off from their charity. As such, I am spiritual and not religious, as I do not subscribe to the subtle prejudice that is taught by organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  15. Manny

    Religion is not bad nor good, but it does take us to a level to reach God, but not beyond it. That's when one needs to use their Heart and connect with the Christ/Buddha Conciousness. I meet Christians who are faithful and follow the word, but then again some tend to curse others or speak behind their back. This is why religion is only to a certain level. It's all about thinking pure of love and accepting everything. People with huge "ego's" are the ones that cannot let go. I write this because I have been experiencing myself, and there are others the same. My mentality and heart is at the Christ Conciousness level in which most Catholics/Christians dont know because the church says you cannot do that. Remember that God can speak directly to you, no the church. The church is your heart which is the sacred center of Love from our Divine. And to some people who do not believe in the Higher, it's ok. They dont know as much as we do. If we see God, dont you think people will get used to him and then forget.....YES. Imagine the things you've always wanted and when you get it, you have fun with it for awhile, and then "boom" your bored. God doesn't judge those who dont believe in Him and those that make sin. We are ALL under his plan to achieve a Spiritual goal; either came down to this planet to learn to hate everyone, love everyone, judge everyone, not have faith, have faith, follow leaders, be a leader, and so forth. People tend to forget to view life as a bird flying from above looking down. Some of us are at a level that we see with our Ego. Now, dont get me wrong about religions. Religions are great, but to a certain degree. Just because someone knows the Bible or Koran in and out doesnt mean they know who God really is. God is within all of us, even those that believe He doesnt exist. We are all going through School (Earth) and it's your choice on what you really want to do with your life; no matter who is looking, because He always is.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Carole Morrison

      The bottom line is that we cannot intellectualize God. No one can prove or disprove God or what happened as portrayed in the Bible. Our brains are not evolved enough. The reason I believe is that I feel God with me, I feel His overpowering love, and he has definitely answered all my prayers. He is like a blanket that covers me. Call me naive, but I am gloriously happy and secure knowing that he is in charge of my life. We all have to give in to the fact that we are not in control. I love knowing that I have a Father who will always be there to guide me through the life He gave me. Cheers!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  16. Mark Howell

    Some choice.
    Be delusional or structurally delusional.

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

      Well if that's how you see the "choice" then that is what you get.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  17. AgnosticBliss

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting when you cannot know something. Anyone insisting that it is important to make this decision on this topic is a real idiot. Every evidence we have to make the personal decision on whether we believe in God is highly debatable and speculative. Still, you can't quite rule out the possibility. Remaining forever ambivalent is really the only intelligent conclusion because you simply cannot know. If humans are ever going to evolve, they will have to ultimately stop trying to prove or disprove God and get to real problems like...perfecting the IPhone 5.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  18. Art T

    What ever happened to 'freedom of religion'? Doesn't that mean you're not supposed to ask questions, simply do your own thing and quit paying attention to what others believe so long as it doesn't hurt other people or impede on other peoples beliefs? Since when do we start asking questions about other peoples lives? No wonder the world has a bad view on America, we've become critics and cynical people who are shocked by what is different. Just leave people alone to do as they please as long as they're not hurting anyone else. Damn, what's the matter with people these days... There's more pressing matters at hand than trying to understand spiritualism and religion. By the way, according to the bible, Jesus Christ said anyone who follows religion is a fool. Understanding Christianity, can't be described as a religion but only a belief. Organized religion does more damage than it solves. As for spiritualism, well I've known so many people to be just happy and they don't go door to door telling people they're sinning and that they're going to hell if they don't listen to what you have to say. Honestly, what's going on in peoples heads? Especially in what's supposed to be the "free country" where people are supposed to have freedoms, free of the critics. No wonder we're losing our freedom, its because people enjoy the criticism and don't stop it! Talk about that for a change!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  19. craig

    I guess the author feels you can dump every person whom is the subject of this nonsensical drivel into a giant spiritual but not religious basket. I wonder would he dump the Ghandi's and Martin Luthers of today into the same basket for wanted to redefine their own path towards spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  20. Criminey

    Let me put this article in a nutshell for you:
    "If you leave the church and become spiritual in place of religious, then for Christ's sake, how are we supposed to make any money off you?"

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 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.