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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. Kris

    Being spiritual means you are open to the idea of greater things being out there in the universe and how we are all connected to it. Being religious means you blindly believe one idea. Which one is the lazy cop-out?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Len F.

      If I'm right, the spiritual-not-religious person is dangerous to organized religion. This person is a fiercely independent thinker and is committed to the truth, not to any belief system.

      And this person's faith is not in a creed or doctrine, but is rather in the capacity of God, the Universe, or the Supreme Intelligence to simpl lead him/her towards the truth.

      Finally, this person will almost certainly not rear children in the way of church attendence. Isn't it frustrating to religion that the numbers of these people are on the rise?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  2. Yellow Ape

    You are so overwhelmingly full of it. The only questions side-stepped by the "spiritual" vs. "religious" divide are the ones that no human being is qualified to answer, despite numerous works throughout history aimed at doing just that, such as the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran.

    Religion is not the backbone upon which great works are constructed, as you imply. It is merely the reference point by which an author or artist can hook an audience. It is a common thread that ties both the creative work and the culture of the viewer together.

    People did not learn to read because of the Bible. Believe it or not, your particular holy book is really /not/ that important. Christian Europe was one of the last places where literacy really took hold in the general population. Indeed, in many cultures, it was /illegal/ for anyone other than a man of the cloth to read the word of God. Christianity /actively suppressed/ the education of the masses. It's not called "the Christian Dark Ages" for nothing, you know.

    The world is far too learned for you to push this biased and wholly illegitimate agenda today. The only people who will believe your line of garbage are the ones who are already convinced of it - you aren't fooling anyone new. Please, just stop it, and fade away quietly...

    September 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  3. Robert

    I've come to the decision that CNN posts articles solely to infuriate and polarize their audience; to keep us mad and keep us reading. Which makes their decision as offensive and arrogant as Mr. Miller's article.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Larry

    Just another human being that puts humans before God. It was ludicrous from the beginning to even think that any one person could, or would, have the lock on what God is. As Jesus so clearly said in the flesh, "How can you understand the Kingdom of Heaven, when you can't even understand things of this earth." Christians warp the Bible to fit their own agendas, especially when it could cut into their financial bottom line.

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

      Thank you Larry, some people dont think about how the bible has been edited many times, even though it is known as the word of god, why would they have to change it if its his word?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  5. Bills Cat

    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. (quote) And there it is.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • no...

      That's not entirely true. Spiritual-not-religious is several things

      1) it's what people say when they don't want to listen to Jehova's witnesses rant their ears off
      2) it's also a large collection of atheists and agnostics who have deep personal questions they've faced throughout their lives and have figured out an individual set of, how do you put it...

      "positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles "

      Just because we don't all band under one umbrella or don't choose to explain what most religious people wouldn't get anyway doesn't mean we don't have a "body of belief or set of principles." We just don't see the point of canonizing them.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Len F.

      Hey, Mr. Bill, the fact that the spiritual-but-not-religious don't have a "positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind" is just a fancy way of saying that they are not bound and controlled by a hierarchy or similar organization.

      Isn't it just frustrating that people are finding God and living principled lives divorced of organized religion? If the truth be known, God regularly answers the prayerful intentions of these spiritual-but-not-religious people. How's that for frustrating?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
      • Bills Cat

        "Religion may save my soul, but spirituality will save my ass." Len, nobody can function without a basic set of beliefs - if it'll make me feel better to avoid being a JERK today whenever possible, then that's my belief. LOL

        I get the impression that it's simpler for the organized religions to downplay the Spiritual aspect than to try to debate it. For obvious reasons the higher-ups want to keep 'spirituality' as some sort of private domain, where we're occasionally let in on it and usually for a price. I'll pass on all that - chipping in for the Popes new shoes or the reverends latest Benz doesn't make me feel better.

        "Humility isn't about thinking less of myself, it's about thinking of myself less."

        October 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. Mike

    It looks like someone's church has been losing money over the past few years.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. MLR

    Most people would rather worship the god they want.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Athy

      Well, for me, I worship no god. The whole idea of having to worship anything, imaginary or real, is absurd nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • MLR

      Then worship the idea of no god.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Athy

      Don't have to. Can't worship an idea, it'd be like worshipping yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  8. kerin

    Perhaps the author discounts the experience of many who sought something higher in religion and found something much lower. Lakota author Vine Deloria Jr. wrote that as soon as you codify your belief system, people will look for loopholes, and plenty of religious leaders have deeply disappointed followers.

    The arguments here sound very much like the colonizers' reaction to Indigenous spirituality, which didn't conform to their expectations and so was dismissed as nothing, at best or devil worship, at worst. I think many people who are spiritual try to be inclusive and glean the best from other systems of thought. Unfortunately for the author, this does not give him a new, ready-made doctrine to adopt. That said, the author didn't really get at the only concern I'd have, which is that a person can self-servingly craft a set of justifications for bad behavior rather than a set of aspirations and standards that guide a person to real humanity and an understanding of/connection with the world. But the person who would do that would be a phony Christian/Jew/Muslim/ Buddhist if they stuck to organized religion, one of those loophole-seekers mentioned above.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  9. AtlJack

    Alan Miller reminds of the religious dweebs I used to see in college. He has NO depth, no true understanding of spirituality but condemns it because it does not fit his little agenda: he was indoctrinated into Christianity so he will simply try to do the same to others.

    "Spiritual but not religious" emerged because many people could feel the presence of forces in their lives that could not be explained by scientific logic.

    And since religion – ALL religion is so filled with contradictions and often hate – many people reject it.

    The Christian Bible is an ORAL record compiled over a 2,000 year period by nomadic tribes. And how odd that these same tribes concluded they were "God's chosen people". Would the creator of this vast universe choose one small group over all the others on the planet? (only the brainwashed could believe this).

    The New Testament was not written down until 75 years after the death of Jesus. Really? The Son of God comes to earth but its not important enough to write this down for 75 years?

    Logic and reason cannot dissuade the true believer. But it would be nice if the true believers would come to the table with something other than the vapid views of this writer.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • MercuryCrest

      Thank you. This post is exactly what I was thinking.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  10. Jesus Is Truth

    Alan Miller is going to hell in my church, so I couldn't care less what he thinks. Come to Jesus and be saved!

    September 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  11. CSizemore

    Religion as a whole gives faulty perspective and a skewed vision because all religions say they are 100% right about everything. Religion can be good for instilling morals but bad because it contains hierarchy and takes total power away from a person and gives that power to a false idea. The truth is no one knows if there is a God or how our physical beings come to exist on this huge space ship called Earth flying through an infinity. We're probably all the same infinite being looking through different glasses or just experiencing life differently but as one. So the next time all of the so called religious good to doers pass that starving homeless man just pause and know that that is you just experiencing this life differently.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • nope

      @cs...
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • CSizemore

      So Nope you have all the answers. Good for you. As you vote for Mitt Romney please think about how you could have created a positive change on this earth but yet insisted on following the crowd with no real individual thoughts. I hope this isn't true.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  12. bryan

    this is not fence sitting it is simply acknowledging that even if there ever was anything of worth in any organized religion, the religions have all been so mired and twisted by the greed and lust for power of their leaders that they are not worth the paper they are written on today.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • nope

      @bryan
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • CSizemore

      This is true. Religion's have just become another form of control by using outdated ideas and mythological hero's. People just want to be apart of something and by buying into these deities people absolutely drain there mind, body and spirit of the real self power they possess. Religion does nothing more than divide and instill the us vs them mentality and a false separation of humans. It's just like nationalism.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  13. lilbluepill

    ...so this article was about how individual spirituality is not religious? well, i guess this is an insult to those who will not or have to join some organization in order to "talk" to god? sounds pretty christian opinionated to me...who gave these folks the authority to talk for god? this sort of idealism sure does sound like present eastern philosophy to me...being able to freely pursue the freedom of or freedom from religion in this country...another christian propaganda as far as im concerned with these clowns...

    September 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • igoryok

      "well, i guess this is an insult to those who will not or have to join some organization in order to "talk" to god?"

      In fact, joining a polytheistic religion will involve talking to many gods.

      "sounds pretty christian opinionated to me...who gave these folks the authority to talk for god?"

      They themselves did the same way the authority is now individually asserted by spiritual, irreligious. The issue is not with authority but with the talking.

      t"..another christian propaganda as far as im concerned with these clowns.."

      THe author did not and does not espouse christian ideology. In fact, he endorsed atheism in this article. The idea that eastern religions are necessarily more tolerant, benign and conflict free is naive and ignores Christianity's eastern and pagan roots.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  14. die die

    aw, a "cop-out." take your stupid religions and shove them up your ass.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  15. ChrisInLA

    Sorry for using multiple continuing posts. It took me an hour and a half to find a combination of words that would get through the automated censorship on this site! And I was using no obscene or insensitive words!

    September 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  16. a famous brony

    I don't see how anything he said is a bad thing..
    "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."

    good, we don't know... accept we don't know... better than saying something is true or not when you have no idea...

    this guy is everything bad in the world

    September 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  17. Charlie

    Unfortunately, the author is generalizing. It sounded as though the author has a problem with the idea that "God is within", according to the KJV Bible itself! I also couldn't help to hear a smear of group or herd thinking through the first part of the article. We're just not allowed to find are own perspective- which also contradicts Masonic faith. I just think the author needs to stop bashing and do more research. Because i remember when I was ignorant; and how painfully painful it was!

    September 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  18. John The Spiritualist

    When ones says " I am spiritual but not religious" ..What they are saying is I believe iin God, but I am not going to act like a condecending ass about it, and I wont judge you.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  19. ChrisInLA

    (continued from previous post)

    Having one's own sense of spiritual order and power in the absence of belonging to organized religion is not an automatic endorsement of lazy thinking and ethical flaccidity. It is easy to attack a lack of commitment or a nebulousness of spiritual position, Mr. Miller: there is no push-back. I would rather see you engage and argue those who choose a personal spirituality and do so with moral strength and intellectual rigor. They are not cop-outs.

    (continued in next post)

    September 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  20. John Mistler

    Alan, your view is only partially true. The world continuously evolves from greater states of fragmentation towards greater states of unity. The Greeks called this "Eros". The "spiritual but not religious" movement is a result of this evolutionary drive, and it is only in its infancy. The dogmas of the old time religions had a purpose, which was to create concrete structures around which people could move out of an egocentric worldview into one that was more inclusive of others, into one that opened people's eyes to the importance of care and concern. We are now moving into a period in human history that the world has never seen before, a period in which those that are leading the world are surrendering to the flow of Eros. Those leaders are seeing the world with greater perspectives, are seeing the world's religions as valuable tools upon which to build new and even more inclusive worldviews. These worldviews are more complex than their predecessors, offer deeper and more profound principles for guidance than their predecessors, and will progress and build upon each other as Eros drives the world towards greater and greater wholeness, maturity, and awareness.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:39 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.