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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. charlotte

    Pretending to be "spiritual" is almost, but not quite, as mo_ronic as being religious. Religions are manmade creations from our nomadic, barely-past-neanderthal prehensile ancestors whose brains couldn't grasp the natural world so who made up fairy tales to help them come to grips with it. All religions hearken back to these myths and all religions are equally ignorant and stupid. Claiming to be "spiritual" is just as stupid, although at least the individual who claims spirituality at least has had the moral fiber to reject religions, which all embody most of what is evil in the world. Corrupt, power-hungry, egocentric, intolerant and operating on some false sense of worthiness. None of it has any truth. Being ethical, moral, kind, caring and a good human being has nothing to do with spirits or gods or horrid fake belief systems.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • digitman

      omg... you have the answer! impressed... not.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • pgrigora

      Just wondering. I'm a non believer myself, but what exactly is it that you believe holds us to be ethical and moral? Ethics and morals only seem to be in play when they suit us. It would seem there is nothing very special about our "ethics", just a part of the evolution of human societies based on mutual needs.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Bindiboi

      Right on! Been saying this for many years. I used to be one of "them", I used to be a holy roller. But then I reached the age on reason and realized it was simply my attempt to understand things that either I couldn't explain or that are unexplainable.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  2. Joe

    The Abrahmic religions are largely self-contradictory from start to finish... is there some wisdom mixed into them? yes – is there divinity hating this or that group and power mongering among leaders of various sects mixed into them? yes – is there hope and love mixed into them? yes- is there retribution, revenge, one-up-man-ship, and exclusion mixed into them? yes, is there an eternal hell that can only exist and be maintained by an all mighty God in them? yes – is there a heaven with all sorts of eternal pleasures mixed into them? yes – is there a God in them that makes deals with satan to torment believers? yes – is there forgiveness and grace by a master saint to those that murdered him? yes.... this goes on and on and on and thus mostly amounting to a madness of unresolvable dichotomies or splits in peoples minds, feelings, hearts and souls. And those who don't feel such or recognize these unresolvable dichotomies in such doctrines can be truly and fundamentally dangerous to themselves and others.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  3. Mark

    I'm going to take a stand and say Mr Miller may be spending too much time in London. The greatness of America is the freedom to chhose whatever religion, if any, you would like to believe in. Your choice Mr Miller can be whatever you choose but shame on you for judging my beliefs. Besides religion has caused more pain and suffering than anything else in the world. Religions killing nonbelievers in the name of what? Religious leaders molesting young kids. Churches picketing of fallen solders and countless other examples of the hate that comes from religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  4. Jesus Christ

    What on earth is wrong with "fence-sitting" under the harrowing shadow of a religion dominated world? Just believing that there "might" be something out there instead of HAVING to belong to a religion is far more logical and heart-felt then declaring your absolute belief in something that HAS NOT BEEN PROVEN: RELIGION.
    The author or this article is naive and silly. If he needs to be so nit-picky and controlling, he ought to move somewhere in the world where a Theocracy is forced...the Middle East perhaps?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • charlotte

      Agree. Religion itself is naive and silly, just as is "spirituality." But if someone wants to believe in the Easter Bunny that is their right, as long as they respect my right to worship the tooth fairy....or not.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Bindiboi

      The irony of your screen name is not lost on me. Well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  5. justwow

    It really bothers me that anyone of any religion or orientation has the audacity to concern themselves with the beliefs or actions of another. We all need to enjoy life in a way that leaves us fulfilled at the end and deal with the the uncertainty surrounding that ending in our own way. I don't care if this is attained through the comfort and security of a shared belief that has persisted for centuries, a personal one created to suit one's own needs, or the resigned but accepting beliefs of an (agnostic) atheist, so long as it remains personal or passively educational.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  6. jms

    god telss us gay isrong and that is enuf to bring you to god

    September 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • pgrigora

      Haha, you're funny. My God told me that putting zero effort into spelling correctly and using correct grammar while trying to put down other human beings is wrong, and that's why I love Him! He also guided me to go out and correct the ignorant. My God is a truly splendid God.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  7. Billy

    With the current state of today's religion it is easy to see why young people are leaving their parents religious views.
    Today's religion is about money, money and more money. If there is a god you certainly can't buy your way into
    His world whatever that might be. Oh ya, religions are also about my god is better than your god, throw in a lot of hate
    And there you have it.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • charlotte

      If you are referring to the "Christian" reliigions, then you are a bit behind the times. Today's Church about money, money, money? How is that different from the Church of any time past the third century A.D.? And if you will extend your railing to other religions as well, wasn't it the Pharisees that Jesus decried so vehemently because they were also all about money, money, money, under the guise of being good Jewish leaders of the faith?

      September 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  8. Mike

    Is it better to be spiritual but not religious or religious but not spiritual? The latter prevails. I'll take the former, thank you.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  9. Ms. Pink

    I think this piece is hilarious. Really, it sounds like a long whinny rant, because some people are intelligent enough to realize they don’t have all of the answers and it isn’t a grade school brawl where everyone has to take a side. It is far less intelligent and requires far less thought to blindly accept the faith you are born into hook, line, and sinker than it is to explore, think independently, and come to your own conclusions.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • charlotte

      I hope you mean "whiney" and not "whinny" as you typed. Because there is nothing in this article to suggest it should be elevated to a status as high as either of my horses. If someone wants to belong to a religion, fine. If someone does not, fine. If they want to pretend to have "spirituality" then they can do so, whether they belong to a god club or not. But they should keep it to themselves either way. And they can quit trying to compete with my horses, which are vastly superior to anyone's religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  10. jms

    gay is nasty

    September 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  11. Bootyfunk

    i'll take spiritual over religious any day. at least 'spiritual' hippie types aren't knocking on my door telling me i'm burning in hell.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • scott

      No they are just stealing from your garage and eating out of your garbage.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  12. Kathleen Evans

    Are you trying to get me to go somewhere, do something or join something? Forget about it.
    It is about what Jesus Christ did for me not about what I do, go or join.
    Thank you Jesus for loving me, suffering for me and giving your life for me so I do not have to!!!
    Hallelujia Glory to God All Mighty!

    If the truth were read by everyone, there would be a lot more believers. Romans through Philemon Paul wrote it for all of us to read, the good news is for all so rejoice!

    September 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      2000 year old mythology and superst!tious nonsense isn't reality.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Athy

      If the truth were read by everyone there would be far fewer believers.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  13. Mustafaa Abdallah

    Too much to try and counter -thru Truth- here, but I will say this one thing..."Christians" maintain and profess the specialness of their personal relationship with Christ, so... juxtapose this against the author's statement "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..." and tell me what the difference is. Truth bless.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  14. stevenbeto

    Aging, I become more attracted to religion and less tolerant of the religious. The zealotries of crusade and jihad are equally repugnant; the politics of the American religious right is not my cup of tea. If I choose to find solace in the best of all religions and tythe to none yet respect those who do, then I have found my peace and hope the same for you.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • martha

      Right on, Stevenbeto. To be shackled by dogma that has absolutely nothing to do with a higher being runs counter to a genuine spirituality. To limit one's worldview that denies, belittles or condemns another religion or group of people goes against the humanity of others and oneself..

      September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • WorldGoneMade

      Steven the crusades were 1000 years ago. Do not compare the crusades of 1000 years ago to the aggressive violence of jihad today.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  15. Godisreal

    God is real

    September 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • jms

      gay is gross

      September 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      … and you know this how?

      September 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  16. Laura

    Alan Miller you're a first-class jerk attempting to violate my first amendment rights. You can speak as you wish but to call out others for their beliefs, for their personal and private relationship with a higher power is beyond disgusting. You're a disgrace to every form of spiritual belief.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • WorldGoneMade

      Laura you are the selfish childish person he is referring to. You are the type of person who rejects their western faith/morals/ideas in favor of anything NON western just for the sake that it is non western and you attack anyone who questions that as a racist or bigot or something of that sort. You in fact are cultureless. The people of the cultures you THINK you admire would have nothing to do with you. They would not admire you in return.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Athy

      Laura, why does telling the truth violate your first amendment rights?

      September 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  17. RillyKewl

    Time to ditch the dogma + learn about the world around you.
    Question authority + think for yourself.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • WorldGoneMade

      Is that what the buddhists are doing? Are they investigating your culture? Are the islamists thinking they need to see what good ideas the christians have? Are the jews learning from the islamic neighbors? You are afraid to have a real opinion on anyone for fear that someone will say you aren't multicultural enough or some other nonsense. Think about the culture that got you where you are and has gotten you to this point in life.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      @WorldGoneMade – Try THINKING for yourself for a change, using logic, reason and objectivity instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology and superst!tious nonsense a reality, it isn't.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  18. jms

    gay is against god

    September 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • drake

      So is wearing polyester clothing mixes, what's your point man? Go sell your daughter or something and leave the conversations to the big kids.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  19. mageen

    See nothing wrong with "spirituality". Heck, look at the ancient hermits (Stylites). They offered their spirituatlity as an antidote to an un-spiritual, even anti-spiritual world. I find the spirituality of organized religion not at all helpful. It is more like chains and rocks attached to a drowning person.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  20. CarlWstCoast

    There are different meanings to "spiritual-but-not-religious". This article portrays one of the more simplistic of those meanings.

    Step back and take a look at the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, a life that was the epitome of spiritual and non-religious. How so? Well, he hung out with folks that nobody else wanted to associate with, he taught things that were contrary to the religious thinking/rituals in place, and he was constantly harangued and challenged by the most "religious" folks of the day. The end result was to have him executed (mostly for having the audacity of forgiving sin, something only God can do).

    I dare say that the Christian "religion" suffers from many of the things Christ came to offer an alternative to: namely, the politics and pettiness of our worldly existence. (But hey, smarter folks have pointed this out; read "The Myth of a Christian Religion" by Dr. Gregory Boyd. I think it offers an outstanding explanation of how the Christian church has lost its way, and what Christ's way should really look like).

    If people were to simply love God and love their fellow humans, think how much better this world would be...

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

      It's rather funny how you say love God. If there was a God this statement would have real meaning.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • WorldGoneMade

      Scott I DARE you to go debate that with your islamic neighbors.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:24 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.