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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. suckItUp

    I have a new belief. Alan miller is an ignorant fool. good job getting traffic

    September 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  2. dKeith

    Mr. Miller should not be so alarmed. Perhaps what we are seeing is a transformation of religion itself. The only cop-out is believing that the world around us will never change when clearly it is and will.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  3. daveshaver

    I guess you could categorize me as "spiritual and not religious". I simply concentrate on the belief that "god is love". I am not against free religion at all but too many people in my mind interpret religion AS god.

    People don't want their hearts, minds and souls taken over by religion. I want mine open to god's love. Its certainly not a strident or doctrinaire position but I don't see it as particularly ambivalent or "fence sitting" at all.

    Allow people to believe as their own, hopefully healthy conscience dictates. Nobody or group or religion is right about all things, all of the time :)

    September 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  4. Dr Bix

    More People who think they must control other People's beliefs. No thanks, I 'll have my own freedom of thought!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • you're and idiot and i decided to explain

      So from your statement you think conformed religion wants to take away your religious freedom and force you to stop thinking. Funny thing is that the Catholic Church puts a great emphasis on freedom of religion and to follow what you believe and think. Your not searching for truth, just making stupid statements without any sited source. Or are you one of those people that what you think is truth, sorta funny that the bible has a nice story about doing what you want to do when you want, its in the first chapter. Hmmmm...kinda funny that is exactly what the article is talking about and you took the time to read it and make that stupid statement like it predicted. *Sigh* Our world is doomed because of uneducated fools like you.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  5. Hugh Mann

    "I'm religious, but not spiritual" is more like the American practise

    September 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • please go back to the 3rd grade

      It's practice....not "practise"

      September 30, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      3rd grader,

      Maybe in 4th grade you will learn about a country called Great Britain and the idiosyncrasies of British English vs American English.

      http://www.future-perfect.co.uk/grammartips/grammar-tip-practise-practice.asp

      September 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  6. suckItUp

    this is hilarious.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  7. vivian

    Jimi Hendrix is God. Sorry, I am a guitar player.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • End Religion

      Let's hear a tasty pentatonic solo in C# in honor of the One True God!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  8. Jesus2.0

    Religion is the ancestral form of the modern day Internet. It has the positive aspect of sharing information that is helpful to others; but can also be twisted and contorted to serve evil purposes that can affect millions at once. Society does not need either but they are woven too deep in our society to disband entirely based off a lesser number of negative consequences to the greater benefits they can provide.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  9. Chris Casey

    I don't see the basis of a complaint in this country about the satus of religiosity in America. The article made no reason for worry clear.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  10. Larry

    So...what makes this guys' version of God the correct one?

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

      Either the God of Abraham is, or He isnt.

      Study the data, try and make a case from that data that He isnt.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • vivian

      Answer: his egomaniacal holier than thou judgementalism makes him right. Why does CNN print this pablum?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • sybaris

      and yet there still remains no evidence for any god(s)

      September 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • End Religion

      Chad you're once again on the wrong side of the debate. The "god of abraham" is not the one true god unless you prove irrefutably that he is.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Chad: lame as usual, Chad – you know that someone making a positive claim ie there is a god, and it is your Abrahamic one, bears the full burden of proving that extraordinary claim. So, (A) prove there is a god – any god; then (B) prove that it is the Abrahamic God.

      . . . . waiting . . .

      And please don't bother to post such tripe as, "because it says so in the bible"

      September 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Chad

      A. The God of Abraham's reality is not dependent on my ability to "prove" it
      B. God will not make you believe in Him, He does however promise to allow Himself to be found if you search for Him
      C. origin of the universe, the fine tuning of it for the building blocks of life, the origin of life on earth, and the development of life into it's current level of complexity.. resurrection of Jesus Christ.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Chad – so, in summary, you have absolutely nothing. You simply asserting something does not make it true, Chad – and your statements about the nature of your god are laughable. How could you – less than an insect – KNOW the nature of the god you describe. Ludicrous. And as for your points in "C" – the fact that the universe exists is not proof of your god; your assertion that there is "fine tuning" is laughable; the fact that life exists is not proof of your god; complexity of life is explained scientifically by evolution; the "resurrection" of Jesus Christ is a fable with no proof.

      FAIL as always, Chad

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Chad

      @Magic "the fact that the universe exists is not proof of your god;
      @Chad "God said He created it, the universe had a beginning, an external agent MUST have been the cause. Strong evidence..

      @Magic " your assertion that there is "fine tuning" is laughable;
      @Chad "
      " "There is now broad agreement among physicists and cosmologists that the Universe is in several respects ‘fine-tuned' for life".[2] However he continues "...the conclusion is not so much that the Universe is fine-tuned for life; rather it is fine-tuned for the building blocks and environments that life requires"."
      Paul Davies, "How bio-friendly is the universe?" International Journal of Astrobiology, vol. 2, no. 2 (2003):

      @Magic " the fact that life exists is not proof of your god;"
      @Chad "no way to explain it otherwise"

      @Magic "complexity of life is explained scientifically by evolution"
      @Chad "hmm, how exactly? Naturalism cant explain stasis and rapid change, let alone come up with a theory on why we have the complexity we see all around us."

      @Magic " the "resurrection" of Jesus Christ is a fable with no proof."
      @Chad "how do you otherwise explain:

      - Jesus’ burial , the discovery of his empty tomb , his post-mortem appearances, the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Those disciples suddenly and came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite believing initially that their leader was dead, ignobly dead, those first century Jews had absolutely no concept of a Crucified messiah. What can explain their sudden, dramatic belief that they had witnessed a risen Christ?

      - how a persecuted movement based on a physically resurrected Jesus could have survived in the presence of an occupied tomb?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  11. countertran

    Look up history, more people have been killed in the name of religion than greed, political power or natural resources. "my am apiritual not religious' has not caused the jedads, holocaust, crusades, spanish inquisitions, human bomb and with hunting. So my dear sir, i have no problems with 'i am spiritual, not religious'.

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

      'Police have committed crimes therefore we need no police'.

      Nice logic.

      BY THE WAY: HITLER WAS 'SPIRITUAL' (he was an occultist – where do you think the swastika came from?) HE WAS NOT RELIGIOUS IN ANY OTHER WAY BUT TO APPEASE THE MASSES BY FRONTING AS A CHRISTIAN.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Chad

      In their Encyclopedia of Wars, authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod attempt a comprehensive listing of wars in history. They doc ument 1763 wars overall, of which 123 (7%) have been classified to involve a religious conflict

      93% of all wars have their roots in conflicts not as sociated with religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  12. Pierre Alexander Emond

    To me, organized religions, pretty much all organized religions have caused nothing but pain and sorrow and been as a tool to control the masses. God died the minute that Martin Luther tacked up his declarations and gave birth to Protestantism. From that point anybody, not just the priests could interpret the bible, and when there ceased to be a universal interpretation, the one fed to us by the Catholic Church, and everyone's interpretation was as valid as anyone else's – the universal church died and along with it, "God". It happened over 500 years ago, but we still haven't completely dealt with it.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  13. Helaine

    I don't hear anything in Mr. Miller's comments that I haven't heard a thousand times before. "The breakdown of society," the 'take the easy road, the lazy road, the uncommitted road'" stance. The beliefs in which he's invested his life are coming unraveled, not because of lack of commitment or laziness, but because when critically examined, and with a society that now relishes rather than demonizes individuality, religiously-preached doctrine just simply doesn't hold water for many. Church was put in between god and the masses for the sake of garnishing power and riches for a very few heads of church. I don't need an interpreter when it comes to my relationship (or lack thereof) with god. I understand that must put a great deal of fear in Mr. Miller; change is often frightening. His criticism of others for finding a god-based, albeit non-bible based, belief system in their own way speaks volumes about his insecurities in his own beliefs and the very unchristian voice of accusation rather than dicussion.

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

      Utterly and completely false.

      The Church proposes that life is divine, that there is a greater purpose to our existence.

      The Scientific community proposes that you are a random collection of particles.

      The root of all crime and misdeed in this world is in fact the selfish expression of ego – the self – with total disregard for the fact that we are part of something greater.

      The sin of 'pride' , the 'love of money' (power), these are all attributions of the ego and can be well established as the basis of most of the problems created in this world.

      Jesus, nor the Church even admonished the notion of 'self expression'. 'THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS WITHIN YOU' – JS. Does this sound like the suffocation of the individual? BUT Religion, the Church, Christianity, and basically all moral systems require us to recognize something more than our material, egoic expression.

      I'm a scientist. I can assure you there are no 'answers' in any of the formula's that describe the nature of the universe, that we will be discovering more and more ad nauseum. Only in metaphysics will be find 'an answer' and it will like like a modern rationalization of classical spiritual principles.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  14. larryb

    trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief ...actually I suspect it is direct rejection of a body of belief

    September 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  15. Non Atheist

    A self-realized saint is self-evident, self-satisfied and self-luminous - he does not need a rubber-stamp of approval from an organization like the Catholic church ruled from Vatican ... only those after material name, fame, power and wealth run after such external-approval and sycophancy ... a self-realized saint is completely free from all such subtle and gross material hankerings - hence he does not care for any mundane organizations ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  16. John

    Religion is the cop-out!! Avoiding the reality that life is... Avoiding the real world cause and effect that is evident all around us everyday... Religion is the off-loading–the outsourcing of reality..

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

      False. Religion is a spiritual framework for managing life.

      Granted, just because those who are religious may miss the point (i.e. spirituality) – the reverse, i.e. those that claim spirituality but little else, have almost assuredly missed the pragmatic point.

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

      Let me rephrase.. Religion and spirituality are cop-outs. Carried over from primitive cultures who had nothing else to explain the everyday world around them. It's all nonsense. The sooner humans realize that, the better.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  17. amandamcneill

    Is this featured news? No. It's Christian propaganda on the homepage of what is supposed to be a news source. When did CNN team up with the 700 club? Opinions aren't news. Get them off your homepage. Al Jazeera and the BBC make CNN look like evangelists writing to 8th graders.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  18. Kayakjack

    I came over to the website to GET AWAY from FoxNews!!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • End Religion

      Welcome to the jungle. We've got fun and games.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  19. Dan

    Many are spiritual in that we have a core set of beliefs tied to a spiritual life force Tao or holy spirit, but not religious because we don't want to be dictated to by someone personal (not divine) interpretation of holy scripture,it's arrogance and intellectually stupid to say my religion loves god but looks down on you because you are not one of us

    September 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  20. nuance

    You miss the point entirely. Being spiritual doesn't mean being flaky or too lazy to follow the set pattern of religion. It can mean a number of things to different people but at it's core it signifies that a person believes in a force greater than themselves and in the notion that we are more than our physical bodies. It also expresses a desire to experience this belief in a personal and individual way without the need for doctrine. Spirituality is especially positive because it is non judgmental of other faiths and beliefs which means that it is both accepting and inclusive and does not pose any judgement on what is different which is a pattern all too common in organized religion and which, sadly, you are demonstrating in this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:57 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.