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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. ScottCA

    September 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Stop spamming us with Sam Harris

      videos and try thinking for yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  2. jms

    gay go home leave us alone

    September 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  3. Stk

    Most older religions seemed to me to be made by man as a way to explain what people couldn't understand in those days, used to control the masses, or both. Not that this was always a bad thing. Many high moral values that I believe everyone should adhere to are taught through many religions. Its just a shame that many religious people dont follow the basic moral values taught by the very religion they claim is so dear to them and ridicule other for not believing.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Vivek

      Stk, you have said it very well in such simple words... religions have been created by man and good or bad perpetuated through them. in this era, we should be emancipated enough to break free from religions and their monopoly over God. folks should be and increasingly are, intelligent enough to adhere to basic good and civic, social behavior w/o a priest, pundit or mulla, rabbi... they are not turning away from God, but dont need an intermediary.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  4. Max

    I'm firmly in the Enlightenment camp. There is no god, no soul, and we get what we build. More calculus. Less whine.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  5. jms

    gay is bad

    September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  6. Ildrig

    This author is right. Let's all pray the Lord... of the Rings (it's also a supernatural being, and there is a book that says that it existed).

    September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  7. jms

    gay must go the bible tells us so

    September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  8. ScottCA

    September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • government cheese

      Slow down. I am still watching the previous 2 hour video you posted.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  9. jms

    rid all gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  10. ScottCA

    September 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  11. jms

    th bible cures gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  12. ScottCA

    September 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • government cheese

      Why can't man create a cell? Not cloning, but actually create a cell of life?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Athy

      Probably will someday. It's not that far off.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  13. noumenondesigns

    Instead of playing the old saw about the misguided youth, there's a missed opportunity here to really look at religious belief as an evolving cultural and metaphysical trend over millennia. It's funny to me that religion is inspired by subjective experiences, but modern subjective religious experience is automatically suspect.

    Is it better to be religious without being spiritual? To go to church out of habit or obligation?

    September 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  14. happy i love JESUS

    Hamfoot f he's serving clubs, loose women, and cars in hell, hell sounds awesome!. BUT he is burning and it hurts

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

    cure gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • soul68

      You know what they say about people who are obsessed with gays...

      September 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  16. Susie

    Religion is where people live out their spirituality. It is the frame for one lives their life. It is where the naked are clothed and the starving are fed. It is how spirituality expresses itself to the world. Spirituality can not exist without religion. You may chose to express your religion by doing nothing, but that in itself is your religious expression of your spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  17. jms

    by 2060 67% of the US will be gay, childbirth will be at all time low, soc sec will no longer exist, STOP the GAY

    September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  18. Kent

    I read your article. Now I have to go to KMart to buy some shampoo.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  19. jms

    the only approach is the NON gay approach

    September 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  20. Jethro

    This article is pretty shallow. You could argue that buying into religious doctrine is also a copout – having all these intricate rules and beliefs readymade for you. The real issue here is that atheism is slowly becoming more acceptable in mainstream society. A lot of people who don't really believe in God pretend to believe because they don't want to be stigmatized.

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

      And college students tend to pretend they don't believe. in order to fit in with thier atheist friends.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:37 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.