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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. Fran Archer

    Do you know who is responsible for killing more innocent children and people than any other factor in history?
    Catholics and Muslims.
    Ill stick to my "spirituality" I think the entire point of religion was lost.
    Treat others the way you want to be treated, live and let live, and do unto others.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Chad

      Amazing how this kind of misinformation persists...

      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

      Axelrod, Alan & Phillips, Charles Encyclopedia of Wars, Facts on File, November 2004, ISBN 978-0-8160-2851-1

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

      Fran Archer:
      "Treat others the way you want to be treated, live and let live, and do unto others."

      All well and good, but that is called "practical" or "pragmatic" or "rational"... no spirits necessary.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  2. MagicPanties

    This is the old "just believe in SOMETHING" garbage.

    People that believe in imaginary beings are threatened by others that don't share equally silly beliefs.

    It's time to stop believing in fairy tales.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  3. Maelius

    Not a "cop out". This is simply a belief that is probably bordering agnosticism more than anything else. Newsflash to Alan Miller, all religions were invented by man. They are all equally incorrect and false. We are way too dumb and short lived to ever understand all of the workings and order of the multi-verse. Preach faith all you want, but it really is a coping mechanism to be able to deal with the unknown.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • BRod

      Couldn't have said it better!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Yeaman_Shaman

      This guys got it right

      December 20, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  4. Hugh Mann

    This type of Religion is a bit like the White ruling class in America,,,that is, gasping their last breath in death throes.
    If a religion were to survive, it would have to embrace spirituality, not continually distance itself from it. I see this argument as jealousy from a clan who has lost it's majority position and lashes out at others that are doing well....
    You shouldn't attack success, as your chosen leader has said.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  5. Rick

    Can't believe I read this garbage. In my opinion, just the fact that man kind has had so many religions throughout history points to the notion that no one really has a clue what is true. We look back at Ancient Greece and laugh at the notion of multiple gods like Zeus or Mars. Ten thousand years from now, maybe people will laugh at mainstream religions we have today and call us stupid for believing what we did. I think a more spiritual and smarter way of thinking would to be to accept that we don't know the truth and live our lives as good people and help others. Why should we have to turn to some religious organization to tell us what to believe when in all honesty they have no clue themselves?

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

      That hits the nail on the head! Good post.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  6. tallulah13

    The header says that the author of this article is director of the New York Salon, so I checked it out. This is what it said about itself: "At the NY Salon, participants have a right to hold an opinion but they also have a duty to express and defend it."

    It's troubling that the director of an inst.itution with such lofty ambitions is so unable to defend his opinion. It seems beyond his comprehension that true belief and spirituality are personal by nature, and that the "one-size-fits-all-believers" dogma of organized religions isn't satisfactory to people willing to question what they are told.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  7. Confused

    I'm having a difficult time in seeing the danger of choosing to be a balanced and productive human being without being bound by the terms of any particular church or branch of religion. How am I any more dangerous than the faithful, churchgoing Christian?
    The sometimes slight variations within religious beliefs have led to much bloodshed through the centuries. I accept your beliefs and do not hold them against you. My beliefs hurt nobody. I do not preach them and try to press them onto others. They are my personal life philosophy. If they do not conform to your ideals and this fact bothers you, then shame on you for your intolerance.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  8. Moe

    Now that was a very sharp insight in today's spirituality. Congratulations!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Really? To me, it seemed more like the rant of a cranky old man who is uncomfortable with change.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  9. Tim Hurley

    Religiosity for religion sake is poison. Miller also skips over how unimpressed Jesus was with the religious morons of His day. However, Father lays out what real religion is in the Word.
    James 1:27
    Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  10. Eichard Chamberlain

    The Danger? The only dabger is to right wing idealogs who believe everything they think... I will stick to my"spritual" center, thank you, and enjoy a life of wonder, peace, and serenity by leting go of my worldy thoughts..... Nothin left to do but smile, smike, smile!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  11. Maty

    The author's intimation that life's milestones and mysteries can only be understood in the context of an organized religion, and that doctrine or beliefs which are outside of the monotheistic designation aren't valid, in the context of our so-called Judeo-Christian society, is insulting. It attempts to invalidate and neutralize any other way of thinking about our place in the world, the universe.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  12. M. Rodriguez

    I'm a non christian, is that a cop out for atheist.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  13. Non Atheist

    Spirituality is the essence - religion is at best the external form. There is not point of religion if it does not lead to the essence - spiritual realization. Religion is meant to serve Spiritual Truth and not the other way around.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • sybaris

      and it's all just feel good mental masturbation

      September 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  14. Eddie Diaz

    I'd say that this guy is misguided by the very thin thread he already walks on. His ignorance is blocking a propitious fact that being 'spiritual' is bigger than any organization. Like his predecessors, judging and condemning those who'd rather not be persuaded by deception has turned out to be not as persuasive – for fear mongering no longer works. Again, the problems facing our world today and throughout history has been the result of organized religion, and the weak-minded will continue to follow. Personal accountability and community lies in following the Golden Rule, respect, and the truth. Cult-like organizations based theoretical BS: A dangerous proposition.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  15. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    there is no truth but truth absolute, essence of existence, GOD and hinuism, corruption of truth absolute, GOD, foundation of consti tution of USA are called religions, please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  16. Non Atheist

    Buddha gave teachings - his followers founded Buddhism and evolved it. Guru Nanak gave teachings - his followers founded Sikhism. Jesus Christ gave teachings and personal example - his followers founded Christianity - Buddha was not a Buddhist, Nanak was not a Sikh - Jesus was not a Christian - in sense of modern-day usage of these terms. These prophets stood for Truth not for mundane designations - like Christian, Buddhist or Sikh. Ultimate truth matters - not material designations - simply accepting a designation does not enlighten us with truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      But they denied truth absolute in life of humanity, and promoted human as god's in defiance of truth absolute by hinduism, corruption of truth absolute GOD, hindu deniers of truth absolute worshiped as truth absolute GOD by hindu's, ignorant s.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  17. cielo62

    "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." To which I say SO WHAT? People have killed and died over some of the stupidest "finer points" of religion. WHY does anyone NEED to have a set of principles of any kind? If people feel comforted by an individual set of beliefs, or no set of beliefs, then why would you think that is a cop-out? Rigid rule-lovers have killed the soul of religion. Tradition and empty rituals have starved souls for decades. People are finally reaching out for what actually feeds them.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  18. Acdsasf

    This article makes it sound like all religions agree with each other. Maybe if they did, and didn't kill to prove THEIR religion is the ONLY religion, free thinking people might see their usefulness.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  19. Alan

    CNN, would you get away with posting/publishing an article about how Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism is a cop-out? No. And yet it's ok to post something saying that those who's beliefs do not fit into those box are taking a 'cop out.'

    I think it's better to be out of the box, here's why: no one's going to make silly threats about how those of us who are proudly spiritual but not religious may have been offended. No one's dogma will require retribution. We have no holy wars. We have no priests who will whip us into a fury.

    And please note I am not specifically targeting any ONE religion... all have spilt a shocking amount of blood... Here's to hoping we are the future.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  20. sftommy

    One's relationship with God is strewn with the dogma's of others, all irrelevant...if you feel you need a crutch as Mr. Miller insists so be it; even that is relationship with God for such a thing cannot be avoided in this lifetime at any time.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:07 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.