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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. Gustav

    I find it quite interesting that so many religion-haters, who claim to find nothing valid in the whole religious enterprise, nonetheless get up on a Sunday morning, take the time to read a piece like this, and then spend their valuable time and energy writing scathing attacks on this religious enterprise that supposedly means nothing to them. Why bother? What's to be gained? Don't you have something better to do? Do you really believe you are changing anyone's mind? Maybe it just makes you feel better as a human being to vent all that rage. Very curious behavior.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Julie

      And your motive for commenting is ...?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Ian

      Rage? I've read 4 pages, the only one posting with rage, is you. Why are you posting here instead of doing something better? Answer that, it's the same reason everyone else is. You're not too bright, are you?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • One one

      Non-believers take an interest in Believers who are constantly trying to push belief in god into the public space.
      "in god we trust" printed on the dollar bill. That's millions of pro-belief messages distributed to the public by the government. Why ?
      National day of prayer. Why ?
      "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance. Why?
      The 10 commandments displayed in public places. Why?
      It's not OK for one group of people to push their unwelcome supernatural belief system on the rest of the public who do not share their beliefs.

      Keep your religion out of our laws.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • JCM

      You and this mindless sensless sheep that wrote this piece of drival knows nothing about what he's talking about. It's simply ramblings saying get back in line and do what you're told and don't question the invisible being behind the curtain that only we have special access to and that's signed and controlled by the pope or ayatollah or whatever guise it goes by, the wallowing in ignorance is still the theme.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  2. KeepManifesting

    There is nothing wrong with a belief in doctrine as long as it works and inspires you. When you feel a shift in your beliefs, which Alan has not felt yet, and you must look for something more personal then you understand where everyone is going these days. We no longer need to answer the questions Alan mentions.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  3. Dave O

    Note to Thomas Jefferson, Alan Miller disapproves of you. – he thinks your spiritual promiscuity is a cop-out. Back in line Jefferson.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  4. tippietoe

    The last sentence in this article is very telling, "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." The author has it completely backwards. Meditation, yoga and the realization that God (the infinite, love, compassion, etc.) is already our true nature takes much more work as opposed to religious folks who simply give themselves over to doctrines and antiquated belief systems. On one hand, however, the author has a point: religuous people do have to think very hard, but in fact it IS the thinking too hard that gets religious people (and everyone really) in trouble. I'd be thinking overtime and downright neurotic if I was indoctrinated to believe in fairy tales and arbitrary rules from the iron age.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • tippietoe

      That mind has created many destructive things, by far the most destructive of them all is God.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  5. coffeebean02

    Hospital question..."What is your religious preference?"
    My response..."God".

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  6. Matthew

    If organized religion would stop acting like a cancer, maybe more people would take it into their hearts. I think we're currently witnessing the fallout from the unholy alliance between religion and politics. Thank you, GOP.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  7. teabagen4jeebus

    Religion is a COP out .

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  8. Me

    Many so called higher education places are teaching that there is no such thing as absolute truth which is a lie. It makes no sense to think that all beliefs are true, that you can follow your god and I can follow mine and we will all end up in heaven.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Sw. Vandana Jyothi

      LOL, as if there is a Christian God, a Hindu God, a Muslim God, etc., i.e., a God for each path or religion. There is only one God. The wise call Him/Her/It by various holy Names. Perhaps the one benefit to be derived by sampling different paths to the top of the spiritual mountain is to realize that they all lead to the same place: Love and Knowledge Divine. At the core of all the world's faiths ~ before they were codified, modified and adulterated by enthusiastic adherents, some with personal or political agendas ~ God alone is.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  9. Name*penguin

    And the truth is whatever some group of "beleivers" tells me it is? Religion and faith are not the same. Most religeous people put more faith in some written word than they do God. Evangelicals especially are what I term "bibleists" who believe the bible (King James Version)is actually the word of God. And the Bible has been and still is used to support the position that slavery is fine, blacks are inferior to whites, women should be subserviant to men, etc. Face it the KKK and White Supremists are "Christians" drawing their beleifs from the bible. "Religion" and not "spirtuality" is what causes one group to hate others who do not share their beliefs

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  10. Dum Nut

    I suppose taking a stand is being a Republican? Amen! Bush, please help me raise up and go kick some buts in the mid east. Rush Limburger is religious too. Gotta be religious, that's the key.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  11. RPC

    Religion is a human doing things trying to earn favors with God (or the gods). religion is humans trying to measure up to some standard to please his/her Gods. In essence is humans trying to reach God. All religions do this – the old orthodox organized religions as well as the new "spirituality". What they have in common is man doing "things" to "experience" God and somehow feel it is all worthwhile, in a way to cope with the biggest existential problem humans have – namely sin and death. However, humans do not need to do things or reach out to God. God has already reach out to them. God has already come down. God has already defeated the biggest problem humanity has – which is sin and death. The good news is that humans are declared righteous, no longer dominated by sin and death, because Jesus is the Son of God and he rose from the death. There is nothing left to "do". You either believe Jesus is who he said he is, the Son of God, or you don't.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Da King

      Becoming a believer is a process for most people. Seeing and feeling the love of God may take time. Being loved and forgiven does not come naturally for most people. Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God. Give it a try.
      Go to an nondenominational Bible based church and let it happen to you.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  12. Oscar Pitchfork

    I've never seen such a bunch of incoherent, non-critically thinging, self-serving narcissists in my life! All of you have exactly the same problem: you think that there is nothing more important or powerful than yourselves! The first step in believing in God is examining the concept that "Ok, maybe I don't know everything, maybe there really is a reason that things happen that I can't see the end to right now." It's like the old saying about a man falling to his death and screaming for help. Who's he screaming to for help? BTW, want an easier to understand bible? Check out The Message by Eugene H. Peterson.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • treater

      For those who experience enlightenment, it is not about themselves. It requires no rules, no structure, no hierarchy or rulings from a council, but is the experience of unity between all life. Unlike most religious pursuits, it is the opposite of a focus on the individual. You just have to experience that higher level of connection to know what I mean. It can't be explained.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • cedar rapids

      "I've never seen such a bunch of incoherent, non-critically thinging, self-serving narcissists in my life!"
      Its rich that a someone religious moans about others not being critical thinkers, and if you want self-serving narcissists, we arent the one saying worship me, sing my praises, only me, no one else but me, etc.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  13. Da King

    Religion has a history of being harmful to it's followers and the world. Jesus was opposed to religion. You do not need religion to follow the Word of God. Love your neighbor. Forgive. Obey the ten commandments. Praise and worship the Lord. Having a pastor who knows and believes the Word is helpful. If your religion tells you to eat fish on Friday's, that may mean their fleets are loosing business to china. If you religion is teaching you only what not to do you are not teaching you about the love of God, that's religion. Let them teach you that "Nothing can separate you from the Love of God" and prove that to you. To have God's helper you must first believe in Him. It's between you and Him. Religion is not needed.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  14. aroth

    Can people just skip ahead to the eventual conclusion of all this and go straight to being just plain "not religious"? Please? The world will be a better place for it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  15. Jim327

    This article is very narrowly centered on European Christianity being the heart of the educated and enlightened world. Populations in other parts of the world have become literate without reading the bible. Populations in other parts of the world have developed culture and art that had nothing to do with Christianity. One could say that Christ himself was a very spiritual person, believing in his religion but adding to it - so much that he was put to death for it.

    I would say that spiritual people are looking for answers in the whole realm of human knowledge and cultures. Maybe they haven't found their peace in organized religion, like others have, but are still looking and asking those hard questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  16. Sun

    It just POs the religous right when they can't get their hooks into you to extort $$ in the name of some god. Stupid people, 'church' has nothing to do with 'god' and everything to do with taking your $$. SO glad I'm a Pagan. My $$ stays with me, where it belongs. You want to supprt lying child molesters, get on it. I'm not stupid.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  17. Scott

    Wow. Searching for answers from within, taking the incredible teachings of thousands of years of other human beings into your own mind and heart to try and be a better person to yourself and others. Sounds really bad. Having to "commit" (I'm using quotations with the same snarky sarcasm as the writer) to one "team," is what has caused wars, discrimination, torture, and suppression. These crazy "spiritual" people you seem afraid of are the ones who are trying to change the world starting with themselves first, and if that keeps "spreading," the world may actually make it a few more years without one of the "committed" people blowing us up because the new "spiritual" people are actually strong enough (not weak) to understand they have been handed a load of garbage by church leaders, kings, and politicians who have used and manipulated organized religions for so many years in order to control us. Admitting your church "team" might not be "the way" may feel like you are offending your grandmother, but the truth is whatever you make it, and it's not such a difficult idea to jump across if you have some guts. We're always afraid of what we don't understand. Give it some time and some thought without worrying that you're going to be in trouble for doing it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  18. Tim

    I wonder if the author is confusing spiritualism with existentialism?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  19. Rob

    Like the worst of organized religion's adherents throughout history, the author wants to bully us into following his views through insults and bigotry. Because the subject of the picture is a young white man with dreads and appears slightly overweight, we are supposed to buy that anyone who is spiritual is a "loser" (because having dreads or being overweight makes you a "loser" in the minds of people who believe making an insult is the same thing as making an argument.)

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • kb

      bravo, hope you're getting paid more than this author

      September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  20. bbuster79

    Lashing out at people for choosing their own beliefs, rather than conforming to those of a prepackaged religion is a form of religious intolerance. The ignorance of this article also exposes its hypocrisy.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Joel Banaszak

      I agree. This author missed the mark.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
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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.