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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. TJ S

    It's Kama Sutra not "Karma Sutra"... seriously, does CNN vet any of their op-ed writers?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  2. RonBiss

    Ridiculously short sighted, this entire article sounds like it was written by someone stuck in a mainstream religion – where they are taught what is "right" with no room for variation or independent thought – who is longing for the freedom to act in accordance to his true beliefs. The idea that true spirituality is not transformative demonstrates a lack of understanding about both spirituality and transformation.
    May he find the courage to experience both.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  3. Non Atheist

    A true self-realized person who has understood the spiritual truth has no need to serve a mundane organization - he sometimes creates an organization only to serve the spiritual needs of others for their benefit - but in most cases, once that self-realized soul leaves his mortal frame, his followers use the same organization to serve their own selfish ends for money, control and power ... this summarizes the problem with organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • nope

      @none
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • james

      Religion is not about 'serving and organization' , thus your entire comment is irrelevant.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Non Atheist

      @james - in my entire post I have not spoken of religion ... i am talking about spirituality and not religion. pay attention.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • james

      You wrote about 'SERVING A MUNDANE ORGANIZATION', implying Religion. What else could you possibly be referring to? Do you read what you write.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  4. RobM

    I think religion is just a cop out for responsibility, reasoning and self esteem.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • nope

      @rob...
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Dan

      I was with you until you started attacking megachurches. Isn't attending a church of any size being part of organized religion?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Rob

      If you get to know some religious people, you'd be surprised to find out some intelligent people with normal amounts of self-esteem. So often people criticize religious people for judging people before they really get to know them – yet it's obvious with comments like this that it's a human tendency that transcends all belief systems.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • RobM

      Yeah, the fact that some intelligent people have a firm belief in a religion blows my mind. It's like when they talk about it you can almost feel they don't even believe what they are saying when it comes to some of the stories. But they remain zealous because they are afraid of burning in hell for eternity. And eternity my friend is a long time.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • zenguitarguy

      This article amazes me in its naive view of spirotuality and organizwd religion. First the idea of certainty that organized religious view is more valid then any other view is delusional thinking. The author points out some of the cultural spinoffs that organized religion has spawned while aptly ignoring the atrocities and failures. The simple fact is that NO ONE, No human can know with absolute certainty, anything to do with life after death. It is ALL conjecture. Certainty is in fact a kind of spiritual fascism as it shuts down the dialogue by imposing the rhetorical argument that one perspective is more accurate and superior to another. It is that same certainty that straps on a bomb in the name of god or allows a priest to harm children with no repercussions. Spiritual but not religious is actually accurate. people are looking for healthy codes of conduct and shying away from monastic/political/patriarchal organizations that really are just not that connected. I think secular spirituality is much needed and the author has an agenda that is more about shoring up his own unspoken uncertainty then making a convincing point here.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • zenguitarguy

      sorry about the typos, was not paying attention and no spellcheck...

      September 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • sally baker

      yep.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  5. Mike

    OH .. So CNN Fired Sanchez because of a a supposed comment against Jews and now they publish this story on how being spiritual is bad for you LOL. >> CNN and the Jews lost all credibility when they fired Rich Sanchez.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  6. hemchandra

    The author is so scared of knowledge and reasoning of an individual mind. I guess he is fearing that religious shops will be shut down if the trend continues. Being isolated is fearful thinking for those who want to believe in and create heard mentality. Why don't we gather for better humanity rather than for a religion? The missionaries of any religion serves only one purpose- to serve religion. The purpose of spiritualism is to find in you the essence of humanity.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • nope

      @hem...
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  7. SaraFalin

    Atheism: a personal relationship with reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • nope

      @sar...
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  8. timothyclee

    Silly article – an appeal to the value of Iron Age dogma? No thanks

    September 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  9. Evan

    To pull a religion out of a hat, if I were to chose Mormonism as my religious belief, I'm guessing the author of this article would either respond:

    (a) Fine, chose whatever religion you believe in and live by its principles. (Whever meaning any religion from Mormonism to Born Againism to Watchtowerism to you-name-it-ism.)

    (b) Mormon is not my religion. Wrong choice. The point of the article was to steer you in the right direction. As the author, I'm a Born Again Christian, and if you don't accept Jesus as your savior, you will be damned.

    I see a problem. Either opposing choice is flawed. So what is the author's point? To chose a religion - any religion will do - or to choose the RIGHT religion... which happens to be the author's of course? Afterall, why would the author choose any religion other than the RIGHT one? It's either my way or the highway. Or you can just believe in God on your own? But wait. You can't have morality without the church. If you think you're a moral person, but don't have religion, then guess again? The article seems like an existential rant with no definitive conclusion.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  10. Non Atheist

    Organized religion serves no other purpose than keeping the ignorant masses organized and avoid chaos and anarchy ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • No Way Yahweh

      Those organized ignorant masses have caused PLENTY of chaos throughout history.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  11. danM

    author is an idiot, why would cnn print crap like this???

    September 30, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  12. David

    Completely ignorant. The author insults his audience by being completely uninformed on the subject about which he writes. I am surprised that CNN would allow such cavalier posturing on such an important and relevant topic in today's world...shameful, to say the least.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  13. EnjaySea

    The premise of this article is easily the dumbest thing I've heard all week. If spirituality without religion is dangerous, then spirituality with religion is even more so.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • nope

      @en...
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Wow nope, you got me there! Your debating style is just unbeatable.

      You won this round, but I'll be back!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  14. truthbetold

    CNN's trollin'

    September 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  15. andrealp43

    Jesus isn't a religion....it's a relationship. I WANT to serve him because I love Him. I actually like spending time with Him. I have peace. Do I care if the world calls me weak? Not at all. No longer do I search for happiness. I love the teachings of His Holy Word. "I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and He who believes in Me shall never thirst." John 6:35. The Bible is the guidebook for the human soul.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Chad

      well said :-)

      September 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Athy

      Wow! Talk about a hopeless case of biblization. How did you ever get that way, Andrea?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Clever. Jesus isn't a religion.

      You might want to let the Vatican know about this one, then shoot off an email to the televangelists. Billions of dollars are at stake here, and they might be just a tad upset with your assessment.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • andrealp43

      Athy, I traveled down so many roads in life until I found the one that led me to Christ, which led to peace, in good times but more importantly in bad times. I certainly don't shove my relationship with Christ down anyone's throat, but I just felt compelled to respond to some of the remarks to this article. Maybe it could help someone if they wanted to listen.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • andrealp43

      EnjaySea, it wouldn't hurt my feelings in the slightest if the Vatican closed their doors. Not a fan of Televangelists either. I'm a Jesus fan. :)

      September 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      You love the "idea" of Jesus. If he did actually exist, you still could only love the idea of him because you've never met him. You couldn't possibly know who he really is.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
      • andrealp43

        I know Him. ;)

        February 23, 2014 at 5:38 am |
  16. Non Denominational Pagan

    Sorry, fella. You don't get to choose for me. I don't care if you do think it's a cop out. You are obviously not walking my path, so your opinion on it is moot. Religion is a cop-out, in my not so humble opinion. It takes the responsibility away from the individual and places it all in the hands of the organization, which seeks to control and manipulate. I want no part of that, thank you very much.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • andrealp43

      It takes the responsibility away from you and places it in Jesus' hands. That's called freedom.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Shelia

      Pagan, if not for churches and faith-based non-profits, there would be very few homeless shelters or food banks provided for folks like you and your leftist friends.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  17. Tim

    The interesting thing here is that Friedrich Nietzsche came to a very similar conclusion when looking at modern Western civilization. At the end of the day, for Nietzsche, modern humans have decided to set their own course, rather than give themselves to something larger. He thought that the hope was to look into the abyss and make peace with the fact that there was nothing beyond setting our own course.

    I sense that the author would agree with Nietzsche's analysis, but disagree with his conclusion. I'd also imagine that the author is writing out of a sense of heartache as he watches people attempt to set their own course, only to find that hope and peace fall outside their grasp.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  18. Journey

    In my experience, and at the risk of sounding intolerant, people who bash Christianity are the same ones who read the Bible and pray when nobody is looking. They hide it under their bed at night. Sort of like that guy who HATES gay people...but secretly...

    Probably applies to 99.9% of the people on this message board.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • nope

      @journ...
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • kmakers

      Really...in your experience, you are privy to those who secretly read their bibles at night? Are you also reading my inner thoughts and know what I "really" believe? Are you aware of how silly your argument sounds?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  19. Jordan Graham

    Jesus would be a part of such spiritual thoughts- he actually lived his life preaching exactly that. He preached not to be a part of a religion but to follow the god in your heart(not pocketbook)

    September 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Chad

      no He didnt..

      Jesus is Jewish, He followed the Jewish law as described in the Torah, He attended and preached in synagogues.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  20. CWAlstom

    Is there anyone else getting flashes of Zapp Brannigan?

    "I hate these filthy Neutrals, Kif. With enemies you know where they stand, but with Neutrals– who knows? It sickens me."

    September 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • jsir

      Well said sir!!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 6:50 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.