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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 (9,994 Responses)
  1. jms

    just say NO to gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Joe

      Say it into the pillow.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  2. Jim P.

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

    This is a false dichotomy. Especially is by "Scripture" you mean the Christian version thereof which your article would seem to indicate.

    There are thousands of "gods' to choose from and hundreds of "scriptures" if you must have an organized religion.

    I would say the falling away from formal religion is the first step in realizing that as a human, you can think for yourself and do not need an invisible friend/judge in the sky watching everything you do ready to punish you harshly for the least little "sin".

    The "great questions" do not need religions to be answered as many of them only exist in the context of religion: "Why am I here" and "What is my purpose in life" presume some outside force has set up this game and tossed you in without a rule book. The questions presume an answer.

    There need not be some outside reason you exist or someone else to give you a purpose. Find your own purpose. You exist, that should be sufficient. There need not be a why in the sense most people ask. There just "is".

    September 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • CarlWstCoast

      Yes, but as physics has now shown, in the quantum universe, "there just is" doesn't occur until someone looks...

      Forget "why am I here?", it would seem science has now moved on to ask the even more fundamental question "am I here?"

      And you thought religious answers strange. :-)

      September 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  3. jms

    FIVE WORDS: gay is gross

    September 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  4. jms

    nothng worse than in your face gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Joe

      How about all over your face gay? HAHAHAHAHA.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  5. TC

    "Spiritual but not Religious" is a phrase and perspective born from the rise in the 70's in California. The trend, although still primitive, is a bridge to the inevitable abandonment of all formal religions. Unfortunately does much damage in the present: psychics, sound healers and all manner of petty frauds are perpetrated on those not smart enough to abandon the primitive belief systems of our cave-dwelling ancestors.
    Cheers!

    September 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Aaron

      The internet is what is dealing the killing blows to religion, as I see it. The more visible all of these different belief systems are to each other, the more they are simply revealed to be sources of irreconcilable differences that should be loathed for the hatred they inspire.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  6. jms

    is it possbile for my ping pong table to be gay? what should I do with a gay ping pong table?

    September 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • One one

      Try shoving it up your a$$.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  7. nwh

    It is clear that the author has avoided having to think to hard about the subject at hand. That is actually the benefit of organized religion that they prevent you from having to think, Of course it is their drawback too. The same can not be said for "spiritual but not religious". Those folks have to look around at all the options and sample the parts of each that make sense to them.

    Religious leaders have proven time and time again that they are more like politicians than believers. God bless those who decide not to torture innocent people because the pope says God wills it. God bless those that decide that radical Islam is lunacy rather than divinity. God bless those that take their children out of the church to protect them from molestation at the hands of men who claim to represent God.

    You can say a lot of bad things about the "spiritual but not religious movement", but to accuse them of not having to think is just silly. I'd assert it is the only group that has to think hard about religious issues every single day. And God bless them for it!

    September 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  8. Gadflie

    Here's my religion. I try to be the best person I can. If there is a god and that isn't good enough for him, so be it.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • jms

      if youre gay youre not good enuf, dont be gay and youre ok!

      September 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Steve

      Amen to that!

      September 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      Or her…

      September 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • wwleslie

      I agree with you. I see no reason to believe what's being pushed by any of the major religions. There are aspects of each that I admire, but when you look at the whole package of each one – forget it. I do believe in God or at least a spiritual presence in my life. To presume that we know anything about God and his/her plan (if there is a plan) is either the result of brainwashing or conceit.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  9. Aaron

    On the contrary, I see religion as the more "me-centered" of the two. It's a comfort food that makes us fat with manufactured "knowledge" and content not to seek the real thing. We go to church because *we want* life after death, *we want* to be reunited with deceased family and friends, *we want* to be forgiven, *we want* to know why we're here, *we want* to know what created the universe and life on Earth. There is very little about the reasons why many Americans are Christians that cannot be expressed as service to one's own me-centered wants. And that's fine. We all have those wants. Some of us are simply not as eager to believe that the answers lie in a book written by ancient man and not corroborated by any observable phenomena. We instead struggle to extrapolate the answers from our own human experience, which requires a great deal more actual work–very much the opposite of the sort of intellectual laziness that has led so many to religion. America should be glad that the ranks of the non-religious are growing.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • jms

      I see rel as non gay people

      September 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  10. jms

    dont fight the power, fight the GAY

    September 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Ildrig

      Why don't you crawl back to the hole you came from so that you can keep on reading the Bible?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Martin

    "Spiritual but not religious" is a recognition of the limitations of reason, objectivity, and science: not everything can be known or understood. At the same time, it recognizes the yearning for all the answers behind religion but also recognizes the patent absurdity of formalized religions and their dangerous tendency to control things totally outside the spiritual sphere. For me, it's the way to avoid wasting time trying to figure out things I'll never figure out and just get on with my life.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  12. jms

    religion requires you to not be gay, that is what us normals want, no gays

    September 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  13. Liz

    Why is it necessary for one to declare his/her convictions at all? I don't see how one's relationship with spirituality, religion, God, or lack thereof is in any way subject to public discourse. What ever term you use to define your spirituality is highly subjective. How about you worry about your own definitions of what you believe and leave everyone else to do the same.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • jms

      to rid the gays

      September 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  14. jms

    most gays lick each others b a l l s even if they have poo on them

    September 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  15. jms

    just stay out of the gay box and youre ol

    September 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  16. jms

    the real problem here is without religion there will be rampant gayness

    September 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  17. Ildrig

    When did these posts suddenly turned into a duscussion about being gay? Did I miss something?

    September 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • jms

      its alllll gay

      September 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  18. four

    my spiritual practice requires that i be absolutely responsible for my actions and my thoughts. my experience with organized religion is that neither of these things is true. Catholics and Christians — as organizations — have violated every tenet set in the bible, and accepted responsibility for none of it. my spiritual practice does not absolve, or promise something better on the other side — it requires me to live up to the best of my capacity right now, forcing me to face my own fears and insecurities, with grace and compassion, and take absolute responsibility for my choices, right now. i can't even fathom what the author was thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  19. Bootyfunk

    this guy is a moron. he wants everyone to fit neatly into a box - if they don't, he doesn't like it.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  20. jms

    the gayness is all around me, get God and rid gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:47 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.