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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. moe smith

    "The danger of 'spiritual, but not religious'" - The "danger" is churches don't make money off the spiritual. other than that, they honestly don't give two $h!ts what people think or believe. YOu give them your money week in and week out that's what they care about.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  2. woody pitt

    It's so comforting to see all the good organized religion is doing for the world. What they give they take away.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • jms

      what gays give, they take away as well

      September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  3. jms

    GOD says GAY is bad bad bad bad DO NOT GET GAY with other men, youre sick

    September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  4. 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 in 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. And I think it's safe to say that most people who comment here at least FEEL like they've done this reflecting; the people that this author complained about are probably people who don't make a point to visit cnn.com very often.

    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…kinda sucks that this little essay is gonna be buried so quickly by other comments.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • jms

      all that matters is gay is sin – sin is h e l l, enjoy

      September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Dw666

      Yes.

      People v keen to get angry seemingly defending religion- when he's not!

      What IS interesting is how keen people have been to get wound up over this imagined position..

      September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Nick D

      Dear Animal,

      Well written!

      THANK YOU.

      ND

      September 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Ildrig

      He is not pushing organized religion. He is pushing Christianism.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  5. jms

    nasty nasty gayness

    September 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  6. ScottCA

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vM5n8jESUEk&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  7. ScottCA

    Morality
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdBJL1c7xUI&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • government cheese

      Wow. Did he just say that you tell others what to do and that is morality?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • ScottCA

      No He said that you provide them reasons to do things and that is morality. You don't order them, you convince them with logic and reason,

      Faith can not offer reasons, because faith means to believe in something without reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • government cheese

      "to do things" that you want them to do....

      September 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  8. jms

    spiritual pref no biggie, as long as not gay, if gay, then go to h e double hockey sticks

    September 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  9. the truth

    This is my last post and i hope you are able to understand this. GOD already knows who is going to believe on him and who is not going to believe. The saved were predestined from the beginning of the foundation of the earth meaning GOD gives you free will to make a choice to serve him or not. Its is not GODs fault that you choose to serve your father the devil. I suggest that you choose to serve GOD and JESUS or you will be serving satan. Some of you later in your life will choose to serve GOD and will be saved . True story my neighbor 38 years old just died . He was blessed with many treasures on this earth(CARS, MOTOR CYCLES, LOVING and DEVOTED WIFE, SON) but guess what he was just like most of you on this blog would not go to church and serve GOD . All his treasures are still here and since he loved the club , chasing women, loved his cars, I guess that is what he is serving in hell right now. Another pastor and I asked him to come to church but he would rather shine his car and make sure his grass was cut. WOW i pray this helps one soul. GOODBYE

    September 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Your claim of the existence of god, without a single shred of evidence to back that claim, makes you insane.

      The null hypothesis is that there is no god. Since there is no evidence to support the existence of god, the null hypothesis holds as the logical position. To depart from this position without evidence is to delve into fantasy and insanity.
      Just as it is insanity to believe in the 6ft tall green monster in my closet without evidence of its existence, so is it insanity to believe in god without evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Hamfoot

      If he's serving clubs, loose women, and cars in hell, hell sounds awesome!

      September 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • One one

      " GOD already knows who is going to believe on him and who is not going to believe. "

      Translation: He's making a list, he's checking it twice, he's gonna find out who's naughty or nice, Santa clause is comming to town.

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

    rel pref no big deal as long as not gay, if gay then must flog

    September 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • DONTFEEDTHETROLLS

      dont bite!

      September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  11. jms

    all I know is that gay is gross

    September 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • DONTFEEDTHETROLLS

      dont bite the bait

      September 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • GYooper

      Dear JMS-
      don't i remember you from bible-camp? seems to me we shared a bunk one lovely moonlit evening. hope life is treating you kind – you seem a bit wound-up. care to get together soon? call me

      September 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  12. rinsac

    BUNK! You clearly don't have any idea about the spiritual practices of most people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. One thing that has become abundantly clear to me since I abandoned organized religion is that no building or group is needed to be close to and have a deep loving relationship with that which many people call God. What does become clear to me at least is that I am closer to what I call Source Energy and have a deeper relationship now than I ever did before. I think many people in organized religion are wonderful people; but on the whole the rest are set on controlling others and prying into their lives. I say mind your own business, let us alone, and do whatever you like in your life. I certainly won't interfere with you.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  13. Patrick

    The ego is legion but the Holy Spirit is One. – A Course in Miracles

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

      There are no miracles.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • LouAZ

      It really is a CURSE of "Miracles".

      September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  14. junkme2e

    There some good points here- but in the end the author is self-righteous and condescending, ultimately deserving of a thumb off. We are all struggling to find our way.

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

      We are all struggling to find our way?

      Speak for yourself

      And a way to what?

      Salvation?
      Enlightenment?
      Nirvana?

      Bullocks!

      Religion, spirituality, worshiping of god(s) is just made up nonsense. The only way you need is to accept reality and not your existence on some invisible fairy or supernatural mental state.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  15. chris

    This article disturbs me. I for one am one of those spiritual but not religious types and feel that I lead a life that is much more fulfilling and giving than many people I see who are devout and steadfast. I think that children/youth are brainwashed into believing that a certain deity exists and it is instilled in these children for years upon years and this creates an unwavering "faith". Being able to think for oneself and choosing for yourself what is best is more difficult than merely ascribing to a life of beliefs that your parents taught you about. I think that those who are spiritual are about making themselves better and in turn make the world better. I think that "spiritual but not religious" individuals are searching for different answers than those prescribed to them and in that are personally growing. I for one am an advocate of peace, love, and kindness and do my best to practice these ways of being every single day. Religious individuals are very close-minded and always think that they are right and those who do not share their beliefs are dead wrong. Spiritual individuals look at everything with an open mind and do not have to choose a side of the fence to defend because it is in the defending in which anger, frustration, and war become present. I praise all of you who choose the spiritual but not religious movement and ask you to keep seeking, keep standing your ground and to carry this path over to the next generation. Religion has reigned long enough, caused too many wars, and has left people feeling "righteous". I salute each and every one of you and wish you all the best.

    Chris

    September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  16. Bob

    I have yet to meet a single Christian who believes EVERYTHING in the Bible. Everyone picks and chooses what to focus on and what to ignore. The "spiritual but not religious" crowd is just more honest about what they are doing. If you think you believe everything in the Bible, then you haven't read it.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Athy

      Might as well just throw the bible away and believe in the truth. That's what I did.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  17. LouAZ

    Alan Miller ? Ha! Ha! Ha!
    "Ordinarily he was insane, but he had lucid moments when he was merely stupid.” – Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856)

    September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  18. galaxy101

    Religious, spiritual but not religious... have your pick. Either way, they're virtual but not reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Depends on how they use the word spiritual. The concept of spinoza's god, as the forces that dictate the evolution of the universe and not a personal god of any form, is in complete keeping with Rationalism and observable evidence, thus even atheists are willing to accept this philosophical conception. Faith based religion is nonsense, but their are higher and more enlightened forms of philosophy than those based in faith, spirituality can be founded in a philosophical view of ones existence and all existence based on observable evidence; this is a more enlightened approach.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  19. Chad

    But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24

    September 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Athy

      Why do you need to serve anyone?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Can you not be good on your own, why do feel the need to be a slave? What if god asked you to kill someone, would you view that command as moral?

      Morality is not based in faith or ancient books. Morality is based in logic.
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdBJL1c7xUI&w=640&h=390]

      September 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • guest

      "I like big butts and I cannot lie..." Sir Mix-A-Lot. Equally relevant.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • chris

      My concern is the fact that you are 1. Believing something with all certainty which you did not write nor did you see the hands that wrote this book. It is a device that keeps people from committing serious crimes and leads the "public" to shed their fears (which media lay upon us) and problems of the world (which you have the power to work around) upon something else in hopes that you will be free from any thinking / problem solving yourself. You are God and you have the power to change your life right now, you don't have to pray to make things better, it is in all of us. You are believing something that was handed down to you which was handed down to that person before you. Just as parents have told their children not to go outside without a jacket becuase they will catch a cold, so too have people spoke about a "God" being the only real truth. It has now been proven that you don't get sick from going out into the cold and no one can prove that there is a God so it seems a little questionable to me.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Chad

      @Athy "Why do you need to serve anyone?"
      @Chad "Because there is only one way to be reconciled to the God of Abraham. There are many-many ways to continue to be estranged.

      ===
      @ScottCA "Can you not be good on your own"
      @Chad "no, not one of us can do anything truly good outside of Gods work in us.

      @ScottCA "why do feel the need to be a slave?
      @Chad "Slave? no.. realistic? yes.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  20. ScottCA

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQxJi0COTBo&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 4:16 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.