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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. Anonymous

    This guy did not do his research. He writes things as if people only recently grew a disdain for the church system. This kind of idea has been around since Martin Luther posted his theses. Luther said himself that people did not need a priest to have a connection with God.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  2. Dave F

    Religion is a business started by man not God. You can believe in God and be a good person without enriching any man made church

    September 30, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • four

      made by man — by demolishing "God's" creation... a conflict i've never understood.
      the heresy of siting within the very encapsulation of disrespect for the divine, in order to pay homage to the divine..... confuses the hell out of me. literally.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  3. Jeff

    Quantum Physics, Neuroscience and Astrophysics are really the true religion that the ancients have been searching for... It starting with a search for answers on why... these sciences are on the front line of answering those questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Bill

      You are in the wrong spot ,CNN has a separate section dedicated to science

      September 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Civilization

      Science might tell us what happened but religion tells us why. Science may explain what the rules are but religion explains who made the rules. Science may explain the process but religion tells us who invented the process. Einstein said, "I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details."

      September 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • four

      Spirituality and Quantum Physics seem whole to me. I found my spiritual beliefs when I was very young (practices have come over time as I've learned & become more disciplined). Quantum Physics — which was not in the discussion until much later — has only served to strengthen my belief. Which I've always found both disconcerting and grounding.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  4. The Spirit

    Anti-dogma whether in religion or rationalism. That is the message.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  5. Jason

    What a complete crock of sh...!!! Like god came down and told this buffoon what is write and wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  6. Jman

    Sounds like reporter alan miller got into an argument he couldn't win one day and decided to write a story about it. Who Mr. Miller was it that ticked you off soo much? Go back and fight your battle them

    September 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  7. Jo

    Good talking point, but INCREDIBLY flawed argument. The trouble with this writer's debate begins out of the gate,by creating his own definition and assumption of "spiritual" and "religious." Next, he assumes that those who consider themselves "spiritual" have no understanding or education of the bible or "traditional religion." Who's providing the answers and explanations he accused self-described "spiritual" people of lacking.....in modern times, it's been humans with biased and political agendas in addition to those who've carried out the abuses and cover-ups mentioned. Again, good talking point, but very narrow minded and unthoughtful argument.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Susie

      I think you accidently hit the nail on the head. The problem is that the terms religion and spirituality have different meanings to different people. Only when we can agree on a definition, will we be able to determine whether we agree.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • four

      well... there is another flawed base assumption — those who find their path through organized religion have found the true path. those who find their path another way, don't.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  8. geeky

    Yeah, well I think saying you believe every word in the bible is a cop out too. You don't have to think twice when judging others' lives cuz the bible says they're sinners.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Susie

      Why would that be a cop out? A cop out from what?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • proudtobespiritual

      I don't think the author understands the true definition of spiritual. Look at the world right now. So many problems due to
      thinking one's religion is better than another's. No one holds wars because they are more spiritual than someone else.
      The heart of all religions converge in spirituality. Religion is merely a structured path to this goal. If you can get to the goal without espousing a religion, the more power to you! A bit of advise to this author – don't be stuck to the path. Focus on the goal.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Rick H.

      Society's "truths" are historically proven wrong almost all of the time. It is the iconoclasts that question the sheep herd mentality and look for a better way. For example Jesus, who was an outcast and questioned the system in place. Ironically this author would like everyone to act like sheep but at the same time follow one who questioned sheep in the first place.

      Humans have been alive for a minimum of a hundred thousand years, and it's possible as long as 2 million years.
      Before Christianity which is less than 2,000 years old, before Islam which is 1,500 years old, Judaism which is less than 6,000 years old -- were all of the people "copping out"?
      This article's author is (excuse my bluntness) moron. It is much more likely that blind beliefs of man made religions is a "cop out" than actually questioning a system that completely reliant on "feeling" in the first place. How ridiculous to state that if you don't subscribe to man made beliefs from a few thousand years ago (or less) that have little scientific backing and rely completely on the idea that the creator of the universe somehow thinks like humans or cares what humans individually do, and prescribes specific tasks for humans to adhere to, that coincidentally don't apply on any other planetary body, that this person is "copping out".
      What does Mr. Allen know about each individual's principals and belief system that he would consider it to be worse than man made religions that have been the principals and belief systems that have caused wars and deaths of millions of people in the last 100 years?
      This author should be an ex-contributing editor for being so closed minded. Perhaps his kids won't go to church with him so he wants to lambast the rest of society for being skeptical of something that demands skepticism.
      As one other commenter said on here- Einstein was spiritual but not religious. So apparently he was copping out too, because he had such a lazy way with dealing with complex issues? Or perhaps he saw the silliness in following something that is 100% based on "feeling" in the first place.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  9. Jim Baker

    The author is misguided. There is nothing wrong with being spiritual because god is within us. Tap into that higher power and you'll find no need for any book, temple, or dogma.

    Furthermore, you said people should not be fence-sitting and take a stand. Do you not understand that not taking a stand is actually taking a stand not to take a stand? You need to brush up on your logic, friend.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Susie

      Well that is certianly your opinion.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Susie

      *certainly

      September 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  10. erejkl

    hi

    September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Hello!

      I'm spiritual but not religious is a cop-out

      September 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  11. Siara Delyn

    Ah yes.... Christianity, the morally superior, elitist social club of middle America, speaks again.

    What makes you a good human being? Wearing a cross, quoting the Bible, hating gays, and combing your hair before church.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      ...and combing your hair before church is optional.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  12. Tay Summers

    This sh%t belongs in FOX News. I don't know who is the editor of this section but please, oh please fire their asses.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  13. Sean of Detroit

    Zeus is the real king of the gods. Just look, our culture has abandoned him, and BAM! we get 9/11... then POW! there came Hurricane Katrina.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  14. southernwonder

    spiritual people are not religioous because religious people are political.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  15. sam

    He's not trying to get you to "go back" to old-world, literalist religious practice, people. He's only asking us to make a decision: Scientific reasoning or religious faith? Study and pick a position instead of just going with something because it feels good. I think the author makes a valid point.

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

      You don't have to be one or the other... you don't have to throw your brain out the window if you have spiritual or religious beliefs. You don't have to accept EVERYTHING that a religion teaches just because you think some of it might be true. I doubt that there are many Hindus who still believe that the world literally sits on the back of a turtle.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Chad

      "scientific reasoning or religious faith"

      that is a false dichotomy.

      Consider reading "The language of God" by Francis Collins, born again Christian, former director of the Human Genome project, current director of the National Insti tutes of Health.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • MLB

      Being religious or spirritual is not so much the problem as it that fence sitting is the problem. Many comments to this article allude to a belief by many that there is a "higher being."The reality is that as busy people we become consumed with highly distracted lives, we often become complacent,or forget, or even afraid to know the truth. Because sometimes knowing the truth requires us to change things that may not conform to our "comortable lifestyle" or its just really inconvenient timing right now to know the truth. The bottom line is that there is a higher power keenly aware of all of us that is willing to give as the proper guidance, inspiration, answers, and direction if we simply put in the time and effort to receive the truth. This can cover every base of our lives from, family and friends, finances and employment to unemployment. If anything let us as a people, for the sake of our children, fellowmen, and nation, seek truth in its purest form, from the one source of truth. A man named Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I think we can all agree that there are two major forces in this world, those of good and evil. The ever present avalanche of lies, deception, mistrust, and infidelity are of evil nature. Whereas the minimal glimpses of truth and honesty and goodness towards our fellowmen are ever lacking in a society morally decaying. Let us stand for good which equals truth! If there are fears or doubts as to an existence of a higher being or even truth, all you have to do is search and ask, and in due time answers will come. I know it says somewhere in the bible something to the effect that "and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set your free." If there is anything that has gotten me out of my fence sitting days it has been the truth. Which truth can only make us all better, husbands, wives, partners, employees, friends, and human beings. We can all do a little better each day! The truth can only enable all of us to be our best selves and improve our lives an those around us!! I will get off my soap box now!

      September 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  16. Siara Delyn

    My take is that being religious and not spiritual is a cop out. A lot of people see Christianity as some sort of snobby social club. Quote the Bible, slap a Jesus bumper sticker on the back of your car, wear a cross and.... viola!.... no matter how poorly you behave, you are spiritually superior to everyone around you

    September 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  17. Benjamin

    I am another who is surprised to see there is such an apparently *threatening movement* of people "like me", as if to say I can be lumped into a generalization that really only serves to label and judge people who may sincerely not want to be labeled.

    I attended Church up until the day of my confirmation but when I asked certain questions I wasn't comfortable not having answers to, without any sufficing yield, I decided to wait before making a commitment to one faith.

    There are as many reasons for not buying into one school of thought as there are people who have done so, but I personally feel I live a better and more informed life, supported by the not always but mostly positive feelings following my decisions.

    If people are doing good in the world, who cares who they pray to?

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

      Interesting article. I agree with most! It really doesn't matter what you believe in, nor should this matters to others. Belief is a state of mind, as long as you are happy with yourself and be kind to others. It is just that simple! Anyways that is my opinion

      September 30, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  18. Josh

    It really grinds my gears when people can't decide their favorite type of pizza.... maybe I can make the front page of CNN.com, too!

    September 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  19. Megan

    "Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better.""
    And what's wrong with that? It's no wonder that the younger generation has smartened up and refused to participate in mindless religious dogma. Maybe we are finally learning from past mistakes. I'm all for it–perhaps in the future human beings will be less likely to slaughter each other under the pretense of some misguided "religious" mission.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  20. Dev

    I am so happy to see the comments on this article. You do not need to belong to a major religion to find spirituality. You just need to ask questions and continue to seek answers. Don't let someone else do the thinking for you. That will be cop out. At least that is what I believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:02 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.