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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. Melissa

    I am also offended by this article. Those of us in the "spiritual but not religious" generally come to this stance out of a preference for non judgement. Something this author clearly knows nothing about. Not accepting some dogma without question doesn't make me non committal. It makes thoughtful, educated and enlightened. That is the stance that i intentionally take.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • ScottCA

      It also makes you smarter than religious sheep who haven't learnt the skill of critical thinking.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  2. Dw666

    I largely agree, about the SBNR refusal to go the full way, and reject the consolations of faith, as well as the formal structure of religion..

    September 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  3. ScottCA

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JILvK_fLTuY&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • ScottCA

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6zCKlgGOwQ&w=640&h=390]

      September 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  4. Aninditachaudhary

    He hasn't been through a religious riot created by politics where Hindus and Muslims massacred each other? Where you favorite muslim teacher is locked in her house because the dominant Hindu community might kill her which included me and I barely understood what it was all about? I will wait till he sees people getting burnt up because of religion. This is not quoting history but personal experience.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  5. ScottCA

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMmvu9eMrg&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Chad

      You forgot to post the video: "Why we believe in God? Because He's real!!!"

      September 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • sybaris

      Evidence Chad?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Chad

      origin of the universe, the fine tuning of it for the building blocks of life, the origin of life on earth, and the development of life into it's current level of complexity.. resurrection of Jesus Christ

      September 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  6. Crystal

    I am so in love with what everybody is saying, YeaH and DittO!

    September 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  7. ScottCA

    Faith is pretending to know what we do not know.
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp4WUFXvCFQ&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • sybaris

      Religionists and god worshipers won't watch this. It involves those dirty words reason and logic.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  8. Timmy G

    "Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"

    Is the this the basis of your argument, and the thesis statement of this piece? These are NOT the only two choices. Sorry, but if you were trying to craft a rational argument in favor of religion, then your article is a dismal failure. Try again.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Apatheist

      I believe he was trying to craft a rational argument against religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Steve

    Nonsense. The implication that an organized religion somehow has real answers to those "hard questions" is fundamentally unsound. Every religion claims to have answers, but none can provide proof that their answers are the right ones. Being "spiritual without being religious" is much more intellectually honest.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Larry

      "The implication that an organized religion somehow has real answers to those "hard questions" is fundamentally unsound." Why is that? How is it unsound? "Every religion claims to have answers, but none can provide proof that their answers are the right ones." None? Are you sure? Have you spent long years investigating the claims of each religion? Reading the literature? Probing the history? And there isn't a single one with valid and verifiable claims? If that's what you think, I'd suggest you check again–or perhaps, check for the first time (I suspect the latter is the case.)

      September 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Steve

      I agree with you 100%! Religion has always been a way to control people whereas spirituality gives a person an independence away from rituals and dogma that serve no purpose but leave you into believing that you have a joined a occult. Besides, the Bible, although very influential to many people, has been rewritten, edited, and parts extracted (i.e. The Apocrypha) to satisfy those that are preaching and/or trying to control what people believe. One person's perception is exactly that and shouldn't be taken as "Truth." Your truth is based on your intuition (God sense) and is yours to interpret.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  10. MagicPanties

    The cop-out is irrational belief in imaginary beings.
    So rather than really "thinking", this guy takes the easy way out with faith.

    Anything good, that's because of god; anything bad, that's either the devil or caused by humans.
    It might be comforting, but it's still ridiculous.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Lisa

      Approximately 2.1 billion of us are ridiculous then. Will you please oh please educate us?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Caleb

      Lisa, we're trying to educate you, but it takes time to break through stubbornness.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • JJ

      The entire planet once also believed the Earth was flat. Then the entire population was dragged into the reality that it was not flat. You belivers in ghosts, gods and fairies will come around as well one day.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. Guesswhat

    How about this, God didn't create man, man created God.
    All based on men's fear and insecurity

    September 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  12. ScottCA

    On faith – pretending to know what we don't know
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp4WUFXvCFQ&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  13. Benjamin

    Of course the "RELIGIOUS" organized are against the individual executing his FREE WILL to THINK. Religion puts a cap on
    thinking, mouths off incorrect passaging for pay, lives opposite from his preaching/practicing, and is now fearful that GOD HIMSELF may be directing. For those who cling to RELIGION, try not to forget, if your religion is based on JESUS CHRIST, that JESUS CHRIST HATED "RELIGION" HE said FOLLOW "ME"! There are many FALSE GODS! (in religion)
    The idea of ORDER is good, but ORDER led by wrong doers is deadly to the soul.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  14. the truth

    ATHY if you choose not believe that is your choice but for those who are not sure and understand their is a higher power and want eternal life.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Good luck with that. Ancient mythology will not provide that for you.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Athy

      It's "there", not "their". So there.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • damon

      Spiritual guidance is great
      Perhaps it is all the folks that judge that are at a dis-advantage. If everyone could follow their own beliefs and follow basic morals and ethics we would be in a better place. For someone to say to follow my religion is the most absurd concept – as there is no faith that is interpreted the same way. Anyone who pushes religion is insecure and should learn that lesson first before causing angst among others.
      Be kind and move forward -

      September 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  15. Steve

    "I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief."

    Religion is just a way for people who think they are superior in some way to tell everyone else how they should or should not behave.. Does the author think the Taliban are more right than someone who treats other people as he would wish to be treated? After all, the Taliban base all their actions on 'religion'.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  16. nunuv

    I also am insulted by this article. The whole idea of supporting a facility, church, etc, is a matter of opinion. I can be spiritual and believe and not have to support the so called hypocrits of this world.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  17. AmyRH

    "  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.  "

    According to whom??? I will choose my inherent ability to tell right from wrong over a corrupt organization (Christinanity) that  1) primarily focuses on getting (more) money   2) tries to push political objectives during church services  3) is biased against women and gay people  4) was manufactured, 2,000 years ago, using the threat of "hell" and converting symbols from mythology into "religious doctrine" to convert the masses to thereby carry out the society's leaders' political agendas. And, according to this writer above, it's *so bad* that people are becoming spiritual and are following what feels right to them? Religion is dying out. I believe Jesus was a real, wonderful person, but his "divine" nature was invented by others, again, to manipulate and control people. And Jesus had a super-simple message "LOVE EACH OTHER!!" – which Christians have been screwing-up since day one. And I went to Catholic school my whole life (where the priests were treated like gods). And my husband went to Lutheran school (male-centric, anti-gay). And I grew up in Utah, so don't get me started on the LDS faith (anti-women).  And I've spent decades in the midwest, so don't get me started on evangelicals (looking for any reason to hate other people.) We know these religions are corrupt! Not to say they each don't have good points – Mormons take good care of their fellow Mormons, Catholic nuns do a lot to help the poor, evangelicals are organized and do a lot of community outreach, and Lutherans have food pantries. But couldn't we have these positive organizations without the bigoted ideals that are behind them? Any organization that doesn't believe in equal rights for all people is "on the wrong side of history" and will not survive in this country forever.

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

      You put it so much more eloquently than I ever could.....

      September 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • kiki

      i totally agree with you!!! same here i went to a catholic school and was taugh stuff that i learned to question later on. after understanding that religions are just there to control masses i decided to go spiritual instead. There is not reason to follow hypocrits, nor reasons to discriminate people

      September 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • MC

      I would add that the fact that ethics exist is similar fashion across cultures, religions and 'spiritual' places like western Europe shows that we do not need one dogma to behave ethically.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Nathan

      If you could hear me you would hear applause right now.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  18. Ildrig

    The article says "it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses". Nothing further away from truth. It is quite the opposite. Writing systems already existed millennia before the Bible was written. It was the Humanistic movement, and the interest in looking back to the Classical world of Rome and Greece, which took knowledge away from secluded monasteries and from the clergy and made it available for everybody else. It was the period called Renaissance in western civilizations. If we travel to the East, the idea of the Bible being what lead to the masses learn how to read and write becomes even more ridiculous. This article is pretty pathetic, really. "The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world." The idea of sin is characteristic of Christianism. There are many other religions where people are not born into the world as sinners. This idea of constant guilt, which I think is pretty damaging by itself, is just a Christian feature. This article is not talking about the "dangers" of not being religious, it is talking about the purported dangers of not being Christian. Pretty insulting for anybody who is not a Christian, i.e. most of the world.

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

      Thank you for mentioning the humanists and all the writers who preceded.

      Indeed, it was Catholics who made it a crime to read the bible for centuries – perhaps this is why is dogmatic Europe (where "witches" were burned and others persecuted) there was an interest in seeing what was really in this book. I find it much more productive to read about science, psychology, history or even philosophy.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  19. BP

    How about: I'm not religious and I think religion is total BS, but I'm smart enough to know that if I actually said that, I'd be discriminated against by most people? Maybe people don't even care about the question, just the fallout from whoever seems to feel the need to stick their noses in someone's personal business. Your beliefs are personal, not for you to push on anyone else.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  20. Nathan

    This showed up on CNNs front page as news. I am done using CNN for news.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:04 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.