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. MC

    To the writer of this article:
    First of all, I don't find "the influence of modern science" to be negative. Indeed, I read in part to discover what our scientists, historians and others have discovered. Read the Dalai Lama's writings for a religious leader who sees science not as a threat but as a human endeavor to understand the world and ourselves.
    As for adhering to a doctrine, that is precisely what these spiritual people – perhaps influenced by science as you say – are avoiding. Because a church or book does not contain all the answers. You criticize these people for not claiming to have all the answers – they are indeed the honest ones.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Exactly. I'll take modern science over ancient mythology any day.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  2. Very poor showing by this author

    Karma sutra? Nice spelling, you thought Kama was close to the only Hindi word you knew? oh, and this is an etiquette 'bedroom' guide, not a holy text. Moron.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  3. shoos

    Maybe it's their way of saying they don't believe in God, but really don't care to have an argument with you about it. Maybe the cop out is really, 'mind your own business'.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Where is the "Like" button when you need one? :-)

      September 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  4. Jesse

    I honestly am insulted by this article. The notion that I am "un-willing to take a stand" is ridiculous. I, as a spiritual but not religious person, have thought long and hard about the concept of religion. I believe in God, but it seems you suggest that since I don't believe in a specific religion that I just make up the rules of life. Compare every religion. Heck, even compare the different sects of each religion! Each one has different ideas and "laws", and all of them claim to be the truth. Here's what I believe... I believe in everything in the ten commandments. I see these as obvious rules of life. What I don't believe is that God would send me to hell just because I don't believe in Jesus, even though I have lived the rest of my life striving to be the best person I can and to always be kind to those around me. Look at the harm religions have caused. Yes they have spawned great and moral people, but the conflicts between religions have caused far too much pain and suffering. Is this what God wants? To insult, harrass or even kill each other? I would think not. I love and care for all, and I pray for the day that we can put our differences aside and treat each other as human beings.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • MC

      Agreed. The idea of "taking a stand" seems exactly what is leading to holy wars abroad and culture wars at home. When one does not claim to have all the answers passed down from an ancient text or dictated by an appointed church body – it seems a lot easier to get along with one's fellow human beings.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Nathan

      I am with Jesse, this one very offensive. I am not going to be reading CNN's belief blog anymore.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  5. loatzu

    It is often the religious who are doing the copping out. Hiding behind the old its gods will crap. When you start helping right the wrong in this world then maybe you can talk. We have tried it your way and look at this place. We're not going to wait for heaven when we can have it here on earth by not following organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  6. Nikki Unplugged

    I think that the author's sentiments have some merit. Today's society is based largely (at least it seems to me) on the subjective truths we spill out onto webcanvases. Surveys and opinion articles, celebrity endorsements, and "feelings" have become our collective truths. Objectivity and reason are often left out of arguments in favor of illogical arguments and outright logical fallacies. The author's point (at least in my view) is that if you're going to leave yourself without a platform of faith and belief, you leave yourself open to errors of truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      The people he's talking about make up their own minds about their beliefs and philosophies, without necessarily basing them on any established religion. It's called "free thinking", you should try it sometime. We don't need established religious dogma to tell us how to live our lives. And further more, it's none of your business.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • MC

      Yet the author bashes "the influence of science." I don't find human feelings – like compassion – in conflict with truths discovered through the various sciences. I think what you cite – the American obsession with celebrity, the idea that we rush to war if our leaders stir up emotions about "freedom fries," etc. has to do with a lack of education and free or critical thinking ...

      September 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Ildrig

      If you assume a religion as a platform to analyze the world, all your conclusions are going to be based on an assumption that cannot be proved or falsified, i.e. that there was a supernatural being who inspired the writing of some code. Plus it seems that there have been many of those supernatural beings inspiring people to write codes of conduct, and as a result there are so many religions that believe in completely opposing ideas. This has frequently led to religious wars, terrorist acts, inquisition and so on. Which of those supernatural beings is right? How can you prove if a purported god is really a god? What is a god? It seems to me that accepting a religion is basically accepting a bunch of stuff blindly and without question. This is precisely what spiritual people, agnostics, and atheists want to avoid, not because of lack of thought, but because they really think and question what's out there and are not gullible.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  7. Arnold A. McMahon

    This article is but the tip of the iceberg. In my recent book, "The Most Important Crisis Facing the 21st. Century" (publisher – AuthorHouse), I lay out how in the last 400 years, we have had the biggest change in human culture. For the first time in history, a materialistic philosophy (in all its dimensions) has become the dominant philosophy in the West – and because of the West's influence – in much of the world. This has the most profound implications for all areas of human life, including the notion of the intrinsic worth of each human being. Being "spiritual" or "religious" is not the basic issue. The basic issue is what is the nature of reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • MC

      Spiritual people affirm the value of human life. I think spirituality is the opposite of a materialistic philosophy – we know the two materialistic philosophies are capitalism and Marxism. as for the notion of a "crisis," I see the religious dogma and nationalistic wars of the past centuries up to today as real crisis, with the added emerging crisis being an environmental crisis. Yes, as long as people pursue material gains while ignoring both science and compassion, we are in crisis ... but I feel it is one we can overcome.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      "The basic issue is what is the nature of reality."

      Agreed, but I believe science is better able to answer that question than religion or spirituality.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Nikki Unplugged

      So is discovering the nature of reality defining truth? And if there is an inherent truth to reality, are we puppets or are we collectively masters of reality? Do we shape our lives with our thoughts, beliefs, and actions? Or are we merely pawns in a play without purpose?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  8. Reason

    Did he seriously write "KARMA" Sutra?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  9. Melissa Moriarty

    A fool speaks and CNN makes him center on their homepage. This is why I much prefer the BBC.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Nathan

      Melissa, you are dead on. This one just violently shoved me from following CNN to BBC. This is so obviously insulting, it's absurd.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  10. Edward Current

    Actually, when it comes to creator beings in the sky, truth IS whatever you feel it to be.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  11. Animal

    I think a lot of people missed a crucial point of the article. I've read numerous comments that seem to bash the author for trying to push organized religion. That is NOT what he's doing; this isn't an article about which outlook or religion is best. It's not about 'believing vs. not believing' at all...it's about [u]making the decision[/u] to believe or not believe. The main thing that the author is condemning is the "non-tryingness" that he sees among the spiritual-but-not-religious.

    Whether you believe religion is bad or good, the thing that matters is whether you've reflected on it thoroughly enough to justify your ultimate position. In other words, do your homework.

    Now then: I will say that this era is one in which investing your faith in a worldview is kind of...risky business. Researchers discover new things every day that continually reshape what we know about the world. We've seen the natural sciences pick apart certain aspects of religion one after another, so scriptural claims about how one should live and why he or she should live that way start to seem unfounded, like something some guy just dreamt up a long time ago. The ONE THING that is still pretty safe to believe in is just a simple "presence" or "being" that exists in a very abstract way (it could be outside time and space or it could be something simpler like "god is love"). Science can't measure in this abstract realm, so we're left with a stalemate. Can't prove it, can't disprove it.

    My point is this: not taking the kind of firm stand toward or against religion that the author has described is really just evidence of natural selection at work. Spiritual-but-not-religious is simply an offshoot of traditional religion that fits in better with our current understanding of the world. And as for the individualistic nature of this way of thinking, what kind of doctrine could you really nail down? Believing in such an abstract god is not a faith that can readily be packaged into sermons or creeds. Faith only becomes risky when it creeps into the literal realm.

    The bad thing about spiritual-but-not-religious is that because it is so abstract, and because it is a new-age idea, people can ascribe to it without doing much homework. No strings attached…it's a simple idea that you can't really build on. Everyone would like to know the reason for their life, and "something out there" (who probably loves you) is a great answer. It's easy, seemingly intuitive, and generally wonderful news. And it can't be taken away by scientific discovery.

    To others, it can come off as ignorant. No real awareness of other religions, little concern for self-improvement, etc. It's like a freshman with no respect for the seniors. Not that he/she necessarily DISrespects the seniors; it's just that the idea of seniority or a hierarchy outside of oneself is not even the tiniest blip on his/her radar. It's annoying. But, nonetheless, spiritual-but-not-religious is, in some ways, less foolish than traditional religion. Like I said above, it fits more neatly into today's and tomorrow's world.

    Hopefully at least one other person reads this…sucks that this little essay is gonna be buried on, like, the 150th page of comments.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • E

      I'll summarize your essay.

      People are half-baking their mediocre beliefs.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Well, I enjoyed it. Sometimes when I type out long, well-thought out replies, I wonder if perhaps they will survive and somehow be recycled or used in a way I never imagined. Here's hoping!

      September 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  12. ScottCA


    September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  13. Clive Brower

    Here we go again. Yet another who thinks that if we don't believe what he believes we're somehow anti God and not worthy of thinking positively. To quote Celo "F-Youuuuu". You're part of the problem dude.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • the truth

      Your father the devil is calling your name.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  14. get over it

    How unbelievably arrogant. This author needs to mind his own business. It must be hard to go through life with such contempt and misunderstanding of people who would rather have nothing to do with him and leave him alone.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  15. Austin

    I am an Episcopalian. I found this article condescending, inflammatory, poorly researched, and insulting on a personal level toward individuals and groups that consider themselves spiritual but not religious. There may be an argument to be made on this topic, but not like this.
    I am very surprised CNN chose to post it; it makes me question their motivations in choosing what they consider newsworthy.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • E

      I have to agree.

      For some reason, they've chosen to highlight opinion pieces, especially religion on Sundays, on the front page FAR too often now. Their editors for the so-called religion section need to be re-staffed to be maintain a better balance.

      I was offended when they posted lynching photos for an opinion piece. They should have censored it for possible children browsing the site.

      I've had to resort to other sources for real news.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  16. ScottCA


    September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  17. Bob

    Hey Alan
    Won't you be disappointed when your day comes and you awaken in heaven to find all the "spiritual but not religious" people are all there to!!!!! A lifetime of differences with the same net result.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • the truth

      Fail not to assemble yourself

      September 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • the truth

      Fail not to assemble yourself BOB

      September 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Heywood Jablowme

      There is no heaven. All religion is a fraud. Now, would you mind gobbling my crank?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • ScottCA

      We were all dead before we were born and we will all be dead again after our brains cease functioning. And all the time after our deaths will pass in the same manner as the billions of years before our births, get over it and stop being children speaking to imaginary friends and talking about fairytale lands that don't exist.

      “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

      ― Mark Twain

      September 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  18. wayne

    According to one 2005 Newsweek poll, about 24% of the United States population identifies itself as spiritual but not religious. With most if not all there was deep thinking and sole search before the decision was reached to find ones own spiritual path. Many if no most still consider ourselves Christian, may mix Christian and Hindu beliefs or others, though a belief in God and Christ too for many is the core of our Spirituality. Surely, not all of us "Spiritual but not Religious" ( not all of us say that ) follow the same Doctrine, but we are on the same page. Organized religion's doctrines simply did nothing to sooth our troubled soul. If we had not found that inter-peace that Mr, Miller has apparently has not, we would still be searching and some of us would be writing "My Take" ramblings on his faith. Mr. Miller, we do not cop out, we opt out after years of spiritual disappointments by false Prophets.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  19. Tarded stuff

    Funny, this story seems an awful lot like this other story from two years ago written by someone else....


    September 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  20. ScottCA

    Religion is the copout of feable minds that cannot think for themselves, but rather accept lies told by men and ancient books. If one wanted to study biology you were seek out the latest and newest book written by a modern writter. Why is it that people place such undue respect on the writtings of ancient people in regards to questions regarding their existence? 1st century people had almost no knowledge of the natural world compared to what we now know today.

    Religion is what brainless sheep seek for delusional stories to placate their fear of death. They just don't want to admit what is clearly obvious from medical science, that our deaths will be the end of our conscious existence, there is no Never Never Land and there is no Heaven.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
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