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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. poisonousroot

    I have heard this cop-out bashing since I was knee-high. It's a motivational catch-all statement, in hopes of bringing in funds for struggling faith organizations. What is true is that none of the message is really going to change the move away from blowhards behind the pulpit. We are moving on, folks. Get used to it.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      'bout time.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  2. scott

    Religion is for the weak and spiritual but not religious is for the truly flaky.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • WorldGoneMade

      Who are all the antidepressants anti anxiety meds and street drugs for then? Who is all the weed people smoke for?

      September 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  3. Ariel

    "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."

    Oh yeah, riiight. Religions, on the other hand, do offer nice explanations for Life and Everything, don't they? Like the Earth is the centre of the Universe, perhaps it is flat, Evolution is just a nonsense theory since the Earth (and the Universe) is just 4004 years old, dinossaur fossiles are "Noah's chicken bones" and so on.

    What a morAn!

    September 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  4. Sue

    As the child of a minister, I started with a child's faith and ended up struggling with the disillusionment and confusion of reconciling the actions of the faithful with the virtues they espoused. As an adult, I understand – humans are flawed. But my early experiences have led me to a lifetime of seeking, of learning how to separate the message from the messenger and basic truths from other agendas. If and when I'm required to "take a side", I will do so. Until then, I reserve the right to not have others make assumptions about me based on my affiliation, or non-affiliation, with any group. It's easy to condemn those that don't think the same way, but most religions would agree that attacking and deriding those that differ is not the proper response.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  5. srichey321

    Trying to follow spirituality based on writings of other men seems kind of Orwellian/controlling and gives too much power to a select few. That is just common sense. Younger people are much more savvy than they were in previous generations - I can't blame the for seeing organized religion for what it truly is: A hypocritical/political tool used by influence peddlers to push wars on us.

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

      just dont let one man follow another mans butt – as in gay – and youre ok

      September 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • WorldGoneMade

      I beg to differ in regards to your comment that young people today are more savvy. Young people today can't fix the cars they drive, they cant fix the houses they live in. 75% of people ages 14-18 have never even had a summer job. In what way are young people more savvy? Because they don't believe in religion? Are you telling me that young western people are more savvy than young Muslims because they dont believe in religion and the Muslims do? Wait till the government cheese stops arriving and the government milk stops flowing, then we will see how savvy the young people of today are.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  6. poisonousroot

    old news

    September 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  7. Steven T.

    I think spiritual but not religious is more for intelligible, progressive minded people who are more likely to accept other people and their points of views. Whereas a strictly religious person is more likely to have a mindset where if someone has a different view then that person is just wrong and "need to learn" the "true ways" to have what many of them refer to as "salvation".

    September 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • MLB

      Thats an over generalization. I would consider myself strictly religious. However I am highly acceptable of others and their beliefs. Their is a contradiction in your comment to say that spiritualism is for progressive minded people and they are more likely to be accepting of others and their beliefs. By saying that, you are automatically being closed minded and non progressive by excluding religious and not accepting their form of beliefs.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  8. jms

    just think about what a gay does with another gay

    September 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Ildrig

      If you can only think about that is probably because you are gay.

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

      butt to mouth is gross

      September 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Dave

      hey jms: Why should I? It's none of my business, doesn't harm me or anyone else in any way, and is not in my field of interests. I strongly suspect it is "in your field of interest", *cough cough, hint hint*, considering how obsessed you seem to be about the topic.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  9. Dino

    The freedom to choose from a buffet of beliefs seems to make subscribing to a single set of beliefs look like joining a mild cult.

    It is happening because it's much easier to get an idea about different beliefs from around the world now with a click of the mouse than it was in the recent past when you had to travel or dig it out of a limited collection of books.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  10. thereplyblog

    To read an argument against Alan Miller's position, visit: thereplyblog.com

    September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      Good! Thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  11. Texas atheist

    By "profound relationship" most of my spiritual friends still mean some sort of God – not just trying to be happier.Why should they have to filter their relationship through a church or even the Bible? Why does spirituality have to have an exposition or explanation. Ultimately a person's relationship with their beliefs is individual. why does it have to be a body? By "truth" you mean the "truths" contained in your bible, not universal truths had by other religions or humanists.If you want to study the bible as a history lesson for the USA do so but humans developed morals long before christianity came along. I guess Jews have no morals?

    September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  12. Joe

    How is religion itself not a cop out? Saying "God created everything" really offers us about as much understanding as saying "this all seems to have come from nothing." Why did he create it? Where did he come from? How can he be omnipotent/omni present/omniscient and still have to "battle" Satan? etc. etc. Believe whatever you want, but don't tell me your religion offers you any more true answers than anything else.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • jms

      we must rid the gays, and God helps us do this

      September 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Aaron

      Right. As I see it, religion is the ultimate expression of intellectual laziness, and the more me-centered of the two by far. If the Bible wasn't full of promises to the believer, would anybody believe in the authenticity of the Bible. No. They would not. Believers are there because they expect to get something.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  13. jms

    God HATES gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Joe

      God will love you, jms, even if you do what comes naturally to you. Overcome this conflict of yours.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Aaron

      God CREATED gay. And God doesn't make mistakes.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  14. Kristin

    I consider myself agnostic – and that works for me. Organized religion is a social control and boohoo for those in power in the church that feel they are losing their control over the masses. God forbid we should actually think for ourselves and not verbally regurgitate the views of our "elders" at home and in the church. I believe that I can live by the golden rule, not attend the dog and pony show at church and live and let live. We need to worry more about what is going on in our own home before passing judgment on others, doesn't it state in the bible to "Judge not lest ye be judged?" Or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." So before the author passes his opinion about something that he clearly lacks insight.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  15. RillyKewl

    What a condescendingly judgmental article.
    Religion is fine, whether taken as an historical journey through the transcending evolution of contemporary learning and/or practice, or taken as a belief system to hand down.
    It is also fine to reject religion as a useful tool, due to the discomfort it brings with it.

    Stop judging what doesn't suit you, when it suits another just fine.
    No harm, no foul.
    By the way, religious history brings as much violence + harm, as it does benefit.
    Those who lack belief may harm too, but never in the name of their "god".

    September 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  16. jms

    butt rump is no way to live a life

    September 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Joe

      Stop thinking about it, and starting doing it.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  17. BLF

    There's no evidence for which (or any) religion is right. So just pick the one closest to you because God-damnit you need discipline!

    September 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  18. John

    This is a dumb article

    September 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  19. jms

    gay means you must like poo smell

    September 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Joe

      Love it. What's it to you?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • jms

      you must be rid as you are the keep of aids

      September 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  20. Raaj

    "The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an," anyone who puts it in same sentence is certified ignorant yet alone try to be authority on spirituality and religion.

    Anyway I stopped reading article right that line after went straight to sound off.. get real.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:56 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.