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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 (9,993 Responses)
  1. HunterMoon

    This reads like it was written by an 8th grader with a new thesaurus.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • mgibsongirl

      alan miller is an ASS. this article is a cop-out. he has some serious issues

      September 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Rustam

      Ha Ha great comment Huntermoon.....CNN you just enlightened me by some agnostic extremist precoccupied by post WW2 delusions.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  2. Grader

    What a terrible article. He imagines a type a person without any basis and then slams him. Also, major overuse of the "quotes." How does poorly written stuff like this get published?

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

    Living in the (Old) Capital of New Age Spirituality (SF Bay Area), I get the point. Those of us who were Evangelicals in the 70's complained about this, but we really didn't like to take either side. Why should we? God was on OUR side! This article has a bit of FOX firestarter "news" to it. One response might be: Maybe people need New Choices. . .which are, of course, Old Choices. . .move from Religion to Spiritual, then, continue the process and move from Spiritual to Secular. As Muir, Burroughs and others said long ago, why add a Super to the Natural? Nature is pretty super all by itself.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  4. Rob C

    But if more and more people become "spiritual but not religious" who will support the organized religions with their donations?
    Oh right, there won't be any. Follow the money. ALL religions are a scam. ALL.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Flying Scot

      I'm with you Rob. My fist response was Yeah...no different than all of these bogus cancer fundraisers. How many billions and billions of dollars have gone into that scam? But...I think there are some church organizations that do good in their community. It's just too bad it can't be done without any strings attached. I'm sure too that if something devastating happened to the planet and we were reduced to a small population that had to start over and the only book that survived was the Lord of the Rings Trilogy human nature being what it is would turn it into a religion. Hey, why not? It's just another book with no proof and a great story. Of course you would have to take it on faith...

      September 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Rob C

      Flying Scot, Don't get me wrong. All major religions do a tremendous amount of good, charitable work in their communities and beyond. But not without taking a little percentage of the financial support of their flocks. I prefer to give to charitable causes of my own choosing thereby cutting out the middleman. Much to the dismay of the middleman.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  5. Steve

    Bullocks. Letting your Church do your thinking for you is the cop out. "Spiritual but not religious" is a rejection of organized religion and the blatant corruption of faith that it represents.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  6. Joe

    This article cracks me up. People are wrong for finding spirituality without some form of organization to guide them. Whatever guy. It's people like you that create the negative mindset that has infected America today. I'll pray that you find some sort of guidance in your life that will drive you towards a more positive lifestyle like so many others are rediscovering.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Gavin Ford

      I'll tell you what a positive lifestyle is: happily rejecting all this fear-based, made-up BS and living life in reality.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  7. Gavin Ford

    "Spiritual but not religious". Such a cop-out when people say that.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  8. Lizzy10

    I see nothing wrong with believing in "a higher power" and not defining that power by joining an organized religion. If you're someone who does good works, lives by the principles of caring about other's, then who cares? Certainly not that "higher power".

    September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  9. gager

    Spiritualism does not support the preachers. Money wise.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  10. Curt

    This article makes it sound as if believing in God is dangerous without a man made religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  11. Alan

    What a load of hooey! "Spiritual but not religious" is no more a cop-out than saying you don't root for any sports team because you don't follow sports at all. Whether one adheres to any specific religious tenet or not has nothing to do with spiritual study and self-development. Someone who meditates daily, sees the Divine in all things and feels no need to attend church and listen to someone else's dogma is just fine with me. Following other people is rather sheep-like, studying and listening to your own inner calling takes a lot more work.

    Personally, I'm Wiccan, and have been since 1984. I'm deeply religious, but there's never a box to check on a form to indicate my religion, so I wind up either checking "Spiritual but not religious" or "Decline to state", depending on what's available.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  12. lesliecgriffith

    AMEN Alan Miller. God requires that you "pick a team". You can't just pretend this is some sort of salad bar where you pick and choose what you like and don't like. If you have responded with some touchy freely thing about choosing your own way to decide this or that, then you've bought in to the Non Truth. Read the Bible and come to have a personal relationship with God. If this makes you feel uncomfortable with your salad bar spirituality, then good. I'm not your judge, but God does call me to be a witness and it's time for everyone to wake up, because I want you to have what God is offering. I feel so desperate for my non-Christian friends that I can't be wishy-washy. I am taking a stand.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Lisa

      I thought you were being sarcastic for the first half.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Your God requires you to make a choice. Not everyone else's. Muslim's feel just as strongly as you do, probably more so, does that make their religion more legitimate? Basing the value or legitimacy upon how dogmatic it is merely reflects your personal religious needs and nothing about others.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  13. J66

    I disagree that you must be religious to have ethics and integrity. I am neither religious nor spiritual and I would put the way I have lived my life up against anyone. I certainly believe in much of Christ's message – loving your fellow man, taking care of the weak etc. but cannot accept virgin birth, that he is the son of God. That he is God, the Trinity. It seems to that this irrational belief causes more problems than it solves. Blindly holding on to the myths we were taught as children and refusing to questioning them out of fear of the loving God who will condemn you if you question those beliefs or apply reason seems totally wrong. By the way if God created everything who created God? Makes no sense to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Finally see the Light

      What I find interesting about your remarks is that Jesus's words made an impact on your life, but you don't believe Him to be God. Is He a liar or nuts or God, can only be one or the other, He claims to be God, so you cannot say you like what He has to say but you don't believe He is God. You can, but it makes no sense to me.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  14. dleetor

    I think that as people living in a modern society and especially one that requires you to communicate and open dialog with people from other religious and spiritual backgrounds, one should make a conscious effort to challenge his own beliefs and to not adhere to dogma. We no longer live in an age where our nationality and geographic boundaries determine what our beliefs are, and so, we should make a conscious effort to find out which belief system works best for us on an individual level.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  15. Let's practice karma sutra

    Yeah!!! 21st century produced the greatest of sexuall awakening by practicing the karma sutra!

    September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  16. Dennis

    I don't need religion. I have however been in awe in the face of immense beauty. I have been renewed by the mountains of Colorado, Switzerland, California and many others...I have been renewed by the beauty of the oceans. I am a who I am and do not need religion in my liife. I understand science and I am convinced by evidence that evolution is how we got here and that science will contiue to explain the universe without the need for a creator.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  17. Servant

    Faith is personal. Each person has the option to accept or deny God. I pray for everyone. It is okay to agree to disagree. Common respect for mankind. Peace to everyone !!!

    September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  18. Theamology

    Dichotomy Fallacy – The article closes with an argument suggesting a 'belief in god and scripture' is to be preferred, trying to sneak in the concept of 'scripture' as going hand and hand with 'God'. What is true is that the God we can see in the universe, if God exists at all, is very beautiful and not at all like the hideous God described in scruptural references such as the Bible, Quran and Torah. Today, man is trapped by fear of these ancient notions of some angry worship-demanding God who burns non believers in hell. But man is slowly learning that if he closes the scriptural books of his ancestors opinions, he can see the decisions of God which are quite evident in the universe, if indeed God exists at all. she is very beautiful and it helps to simply gaze at the starry night and think of her as female. All of those ugly characterizations of God that we have inherited simply dissolve with this simple technique. She is indeed very beautiful, if she exists, because we see that every day for the past thousands of years she is creating and entrusting newborn children to be raised by man, and that is not a malevolent God, that is a very loving God who is expressing faith, hope, trust, and love for us with each new gift of an infant. Should we respond by enforcing our ancestors hideous notions of God into their psychologies in their youth, or should we instead live as repositories for their trust?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  19. Medievna

    So, what was the point of this rant? To create problems where there are none?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  20. Your Take:My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out

    Record number of justices attend Red Mass
    ;)

    September 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
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About this blog

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.