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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. Vidura Barrios

    And also by the way, Christianity was a big contributor for the start of the Middle Ages. During the time of the Byzantine empire one of the emperors declared Christianity as the only religion and started religious persecutions of other beliefs. Knowledge was squashed and it was replaced by intolerance, fear of God, feat of the Devil, feat of hell, all various forms of control. It is sad that the writer twists history in order to "prove" his points.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  2. Ian

    As someone who has identified themselves as "spiritual, but not religious", I have 2 things to say.

    1) I honestly had NO idea so many others were identifying themselves as this. In fact, this article is the first time in my life I've ever seen anything addressed on the topic.

    2) My choice in identifying myself as "spiritual but not religious" comes after years and years of my own spiritual journey that I am still on. I do NOT feel the need to defend my position against your ignorant one-sided article.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Vidura Barrios

      Ignorant and one sided indeed!

      September 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Just!ne

      I agree! This article is a MAJOR fail.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Know What

      Ian,

      Good. In this country you are free to believe whatever you wish, as long as you stay within the law, don't wake the children nor frighten the horses, nor expect to govern according to it.

      Me, I enjoy a good fantasy escape once in a while - but I don't live there.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  3. TS

    It is so perfect that the author is completely unaware that it is people like him–hateful, arrogant, fear-mongering–who have led to the 'spiritual but not religious' generation. From the very beginning, he makes no effort to understand the origin or cause of this movement–he just belittles it every turn. How very Christian! I am all for personal empowerment, and am thankful for men like this. They help drive us to our very own spiritual discoveries.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  4. dearest

    Spiritual Individualism has deep roots in America. The "Church" has always fought this notion because it interferes with their ability to fill their coffers.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  5. T R Plume

    What is religion other than a politicized and manipulative form of coercing a set of values, rules and other tenets over others in order to gain power. History is replete with these examples and they continue worldwide today. On the other hand, the term spiritual is perhaps nebulous in that it does not refer to any specific dogma as in the case of religion. But conduct and community are not dependent (in the sense of being "righteous) on religion. If nothing else, the Golden Rule offers a simple but realistic guide on how to live our lives. In other words, someone who claims to be spiritual but not religious is someone who refuses to play the dogma game; someone who knows that "being a good person" or "being a responsible steward of the environment" or "conducting oneself in a civil manner" does not require the adherence to a dogma that invariably centers not on those things but instead on instilling fear, distrust, or in some cases a sense of elitism. And let us not be mislead: Religion is all about "feeling." To suggest otherwise is both naive and frivolous.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  6. MarkinFL

    Also consider that people are becoming more and more educated and it is becoming more difficult to reconcile the hard.core superst.ition as represented by the old standard religions with the modern understanding of science. However, people at their core are supersti.tious and extremely prone to magical thinking, so this nebulous "spiritualism" is a lot easier to blend with their more rational sides than the extreme stories of the mainstream religions.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  7. chris morgan

    The problem with this article is that it is not a call to dialog. What does it mean to be religious vs spiritual? Is one way better than another? If so, why? What are the various perspectives? What does the author think you are missing if you are not part of an organized religion? Dialog is an important part of the journey, if not the MOST important part of the journey.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  8. Satan

    Take LSD, and become far, far more spiritual than any fake, nonsense religion ever could allow you to become.

    Religion is for the weak of mind. It's FAKE spirituality that claims to know something no one can possibly know.

    Psychedelic drugs free your mind and allow you to perceive the world as it is – creating AUTHENTIC spirituality.

    This article sucks.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • SUZYQ

      Hey Satan,
      I've been on both sides of the fence as I've spent many nights on LSD, acid and mushrooms. After years of partying, I finally found something fulfilling, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Doing drugs does not free ones mind, but rather enslaves one to addictions that many can not break. Doing drugs destroys lives and families. Jesus Christ brings life and helps families. At the end of the day, we will all stand before God and I am so thankful that after all my sin, Jesus was willing to forgive me. Now when I stand before God, I will not pay the price for my sins, as Jesus has already done that. It's not about religion, it's about a personal relationship with God.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  9. Greg

    This is the worst article I have ever read.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Lisa

      Agreed. Very poorly written. Also he refers to Christianity's historical contributions as a reason to ascribe to it. Like because the church had enough money to employ Bach says anything about the nature of the universe.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  10. Meg

    What I want to believe instead of what is prescribed to believe you mean. You have no idea. None at all. Those of us who believe in faith but need to work it out in fear and trembling need space and time. And not your dogmatic nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  11. Joe Markis

    I am offended by the picture of the hippie. It is a not very nice generalization and cliche. Also I don't need your dogma and scripture, based on outdated ideas, than you very much. It is no surprise people are leaving Christianity in droves in the US.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  12. rs

    I wonder how many anti spiritual proponents will profess creation starting from 2 rocks hitting together, as they take their last breath here on this earth.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  13. David V

    Does anyone even know who this guy is? I already tired using Google and couldn't find anything.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  14. Nare

    Pointing out the flaws in other peoples' beliefs and practices does nothing to draw me to yours.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  15. Edward

    Just a side note regarding the writing: Mr. Miller wrote this: "Those that identify themselves..." That is grammatically incorrect. Elementary school grammar (5th grade) teaches the correct word is "who," not "that" when referring to people. Use "that" when referring to non-people objects. Professionals should know better. Worse: CNN editors collecting paychecks as professional editors/journalists should know better. The 'dumbing down' of America has reached the once hallowed halls of professionalism and has been deemed "acceptable." Dumb.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  16. JP

    As someone who was raised in the Catholic Church, and then started to go through my own spiritual awakening I have to say that I feel more centered and much happier with my life then being forced to go to church every Sunday. Now do not get me wrong I still believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but I practice meditation, Tai Chi, and other eastern religions to get my spirituality aligned. The person who wrote this article is probably picturing some liberal, hippie pot smoker, like the person in the photo, instead of the actual people who practice this angle. For example, I am a 25 year old economic major who works out regularly eats healthy, served in the Marines and has never touched a drug. Pretty sure not what the author had in mind...

    September 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Vidura Barrios

      That is fabulous JP

      September 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  17. arcee

    What a crock of self-righteous bs. The author is your typical self-centered religious fanatic. They love to criticize other people and tell them how to live their lives. Maybe if he spent more time helping his community, rather than judging them, he would help stop all the divisiveness that we see coming from religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  18. nirmal

    new spiritual idea is all about applying it ..everything evolve around you... allow spirituality to evolve too... Bible & other religious books doesn't say nothing about phone, Ipad and game usage effecting youngster's brain. So allow youth to find out by themselves to find their peace and happiness in this stressed out modern world where we have no time to do a single prayer.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  19. Vidura Barrios

    If we are to survive we have to keep evolving as a human species. And fortunately many people are outgrowing the outdated shackles of dogma and religion. The author of the article implies that being spiritual and not following a religion means being ignorant of what is going on. From experience I would argue the opposite. Through my process of spiritual growth and seeking I have taken positive and useful elements of religion and have discarded the rest I don't vibe with. I prefer to practice yoga and meditation and I don't consider myself part of any religion. But I am very much educated as to the many spiritual beliefs and traditions . True spirituality is about practice. It is not about preaching it is not about half truths and ignorance. Yes, there are plenty of people who consider themselves spiritual and who are very much ignorant about spiritual practice.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Vidura Barrios

      Too many people have suffered in the name of religion. It is time for us to evolve and move on to something better. I favor spirituality which also could be in harmony with science.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Know What

      If "spirituality" is about focusing, centering and chillin' - reviving sympathy, empathy and compassion, then I'm all FOR it. If it's magical thinking and expectations - then, I'm out - although, as I said elsewhere, you are welcome to groove as much as you wish as long as you stay within the law, don't wake the children, frighten the horses, nor try to govern with it.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  20. John14

    A main reason for being spiritual vs religion is a complete distrust of the current organized religions to understand the religion that they profess. Chiristian sects have for the most part lost the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and in some cases have turned into political organizations dedicated to hatred and negativity.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:31 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.