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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. mj

    Oh no, not really. People have stopped believing in god. They've replaced the arm waving mumbo jumbo with science. Crazy but true!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  2. Willyboy

    Purest of mindless nonsense. The only danger in rejecting organized religion is to organized religions themselves. Good. Organized religions – specifically the twisted and perverted dogma woven around them – have caused far more harm through the years than they have done good. Let them go the way of the dinosaurs and the sooner the better...

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Godall Mighty

      Couldn't have said it better. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  3. Maliy

    I truly find this article offensive, I am 32 and spiritual but not religious, I believe "god" is a great story and one people feel the need to believe in so that they can rest easy about knowing where they are going in the end.

    Spiritual to me is believing in the universe and treating the enviorment and animals around you with respect, to just dismiss that people have a connection to a "higher power" is wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  4. kme

    So essentially this is just hippies vs suits?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • alex

      No it doesn't. My kids are learning how to be good moral honorable and productive citizens ofthis world... never limit anyoneby a single belief.

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

      So prayfor some imagination.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Pancakes

      Alex, I can almost guarantee that they would learn better morals and feel more secure with their decisions (future and present) if they did subscribe to a religion. Furthermore, people are absolutely NOT limiting themselves when they choose a religion that they absolutely one hundred percent believe in; they are freeing themselves by giving themselves something definitive to put all their faith into. By putting their faith into something definite, not just random mumbo jumbo that people change according to their mood on any given day. Subscribing to a religion also teaches dedication, because it's something your children have to put forth an effort to learn about. I know. Learning! Outside of school! Amazing! Even more appealing, isn't it? Then there are the holidays. Christmas and Easter are meant to be celebrated by Christians, celebrating the birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not just excuses for the non-Christian population to eat cookies and candy and give and get
      presents, inspiring a sense of greed that takes the place God and Jesus, who should be at the forefront of these holidays' spirit.

      My point is, it's people like you who think that since they subscribe to no religion, they can subscribe to any religion. This is wrong and twisted thinking. I have one thing to say to people like you: take the time and do some research to pick a religion that you like, hopefully a logical one like one of the many sects of Christianity, one of the most practiced religions in the world.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  6. dave

    Great article!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  7. Joe

    I have moved from being raised in a dogmatic Protestant environment to what I really believe: in a non-dogmatic belief system. I'm not going to name it, only that it is a belief system that pre-dates the three classic monotheistic classics Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam. While it is Mr. Miller's right to express his opinion, it is my right to express and practice my religion or belief system, however a dictionary or Mr. Miller defines these. There are non-dogmatic belief systems in this world that have as high or higher expectations of compassion and mindfulness to others and the world we live, relative to what Mr. Miller advocates as a "cop out". Mr. Miller I appreciate you can express your opinion, but my belief system is not a "cop out". I wish you well and wish you peace. That is my opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      I agree that many churches have lost their savor. Someone told me that "Christ was not a religion. Christ was a person". I still believe there is a religion that is a vehicle to come closer to God, but the true change is the person. We are the change. We are the face of our Creator.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • 123elle

      Very intelligently and reasonably stated. I noted that in many places, Mr. Miller used the "straw man" fallacy in his arguments in an effort to discredit his supposed adversaries:

      For example:

      "Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better."

      In other words Miller has to set up the spiritual viewpoint as exactly what he wants it to be (rather than what it may be in reality) in order to make his "argument."

      This fellow is no theologist or profound thinker. Perhaps he needs to educate himself more and try to understand early Christianity, in particular, better.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  8. lotus_notes

    I personally believe there is a Creator. We cannot build anything in this life without creating it and yet it is easier to believe that plants, animals, bugs of every kind just randomly came into existence. So exquisite is the details of each living thing that man still cannot truly replicate it.

    Many religions have become corrupt because of the pride of man, the want of power. Many are the churches of man, created by man, causing many to become distant from any form of church or any organized religion. If God were to have an organized religion it would have to be a worldwide church, one that had Prophets and Apostles, one that did not have paid ministry and missionaries. There is so much noise out there about religion would we recognize it or do we even want to.... because I can guarantee that if God has a church He'd expect something from us and some would like that.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Since something cannot come from nothing, then who/what created the "creator"?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      correction
      ...wouldn't like that.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      I have often wondered that myself, but knowing the answer to that wouldn't change the fact that He exists and I exist. Maybe that's something we can learn after this life

      September 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Veritas

      The point was – the universe exists, with or without a creator. So if god created the universe, who created god? If god can just exist, so can the universe. No proof that a god, let alone your god, created the universe.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      There is more proof that there is one to me in the world around me than not. I don't have to be proven to intellectually.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  9. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Why must we continue to follow old traditions just because "that's the way we've always done it"? Man is constantly acquiring new knowledge and learning that "the old ways" were wrong. Earth, wind, fire and water are not the only elements in the Universe. The world is not flat, nor is it the center of the Universe. Native "Americans" are not Indians. 1 AD is not the actual birth year of Jeezus. Why do we still use "Anno Domini" anyway? It's an arbitrary date and no religious figure deserves such recognition. Why can't we use a "star date" based on an estimated age of our sun? Why is New Year's Day on Jan 1 instead of Winter Solstice? Why can't we shake these old traditions? Religion is obsolete. "Gods" do not exist! We know such ancient ideas are wrong now! Let's do something about it!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Indiana J

      quiet Zeus . You don't know what your talking about.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Canst not expatiate sirrah?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Pancakes

      You spelled Jesus wrong, and having New Year's on the Winter Solstice has already been done...before the modern calendar was made, so it would be taking at least one step backward, maybe ten. Also, God and belief in him is still very much alive, as He is ever-living. Furthrermore, Jesus is important, so using Anno Domini is still relevant. Finally, I agree with Indiana. Be quiet!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  10. buzz

    To argue about such things is like arguing about the dreams of butterflies.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      Love it. lol....

      September 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  11. BRod

    Read "Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine. Amazing that someone who lived in the 1700s could be more rational and intelligent than someone who writes a blog on CNN in 2012.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  12. Journey

    Mitt Romney is a man of conviction.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • BRod

      He would have been a great leader – in the Bronze Age.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Ya, he is convicted of hindu Judaism, self center ism, CON ISM.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Hugh Mann

      ...or he will be soon enough,,for Fraud

      September 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  13. Gregory

    "Spiritual without religion"...if only the entire world could take this mindset. Religious sects are ridiculous, from Catholicism to Islam; the only thing a doctrine-based religion even accomplishes is violence. Catholics are fine and generous people until they are confronted with Protestants, Islam is a "peaceful" religion that, if insulted, prompts international riots and the deaths of (as of last count) 50+ people. You do absolutely nothing positive by secularizing your faith; you isolate the population of your church following your "one true God," when you have no more factual evidence than any other religion currently existing on this planet.

    Spiritualism has it's place in the human mind. Faith allows people the hope of reconnecting with their loved ones, gives an omnipotent "parent" to always be looking over your shoulder, acts as a shield against negativity that will undoubtedly be present in life; however, all of these things can be done without a denomination. Nothing good comes from referencing the Bible; you couldn't follow 80% of the Bible's edicts without winding up in prison. Women can't talk in church, you can't have rounded haircuts, women who are not virgins on their wedding day should be stoned at the door of the house of her father...all of these things are found within the Bible and drastically underlines these facetious "control" factors that an organized religion represents.

    Let people decide their own moral compass; if God/Buddha/Jehovah/Satan/Allah/Jesus/Zeus are compassionate, loving, and understanding of the flaws of the human psyche, then you have nothing to worry about. If you think that you have to abide by a strict moral road map in order to get some form of "reward" from your religion, I would be the first to wave a flag and tell you that some self-evaluation is in order.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Islam is not hinduism, religion but Theen Allah, const itution of truth absolute, hindu, ignorant.please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  14. Steve Brower

    I am the Pastor of a Non-denominational Christian church. We think of our selves as "Spiritual, not religious" in the sense that we endeavor to live in accordance with the "spirit" of the laws and ordinances of God as set forth in the Bible, NOT the laws of a church or denomination as well. It's hard enough to live pleasing to God without having to please a board of "religious" men too.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Because you adhere to the bible, you are religious. PERIOD.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Athy

      Sounds exactly like religion to me.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  15. truth seeker

    Choosing not to have a religion is just as valid as choosing one of the hundreds (thousands?) of random religions that are out there. Why is my choice to not have a religion (and yes I have very strong reasons for this, it is not that I am lazy or selfish as many of the religious would like to believe) any less respectable than your choice to have a religion? Oh I know why, it is because I don't believe the same things that you do and that frightens you.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  16. Michael Teich

    You, Dan, Don't get it. People are sick of the lies, the hate, the discrimination, and the evil which is all hidden with a little low cost charity up front. There is nothing true about any religion other than the truth about power structures. Why don't you pull your head out and realize that today the big lies tend to fall apart easier mass communication. Maybe it is simply that kids are smarter than you :) Peace

    September 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  17. rique zisk

    alan miller – who are you to judge ? No i do not feel superior to anyone who follows the teachings of organized religion. i do believe in the humanity of man/woman – and that belief will equal if not surpass what you think organized religions have done. Don't tell me where i must align my faith. Many people before the youth of today have rejected your religion dogma including myself. i have an old quote i found back in the early 1970s and not sure who had written these words ... "I have given up only my religion, not my faith; you shall not endure my heaven, nor i suffer in your hell.' All you are doing is stirring the pot ... cop out you say, well i say .... fu.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  18. believeinchrist

    Great article. It takes more strength to make a decision than to follow through with it.
    Jesus Christ is our savior. Follow His commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love others as yourself.
    No harm can be done by following Christ and believing in him.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • BRod

      No harm can be done by not believing bronze age drivel either.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hidnu Mithraism, pagan savior ism, original religion of the hindu pagan Romans labeled as Chrisitianity, please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • MLB

      Great comment!!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  19. 9875yeahman

    You know, I was a very spiritual and "non-religious" person before I read this article. I can honestly say that it has now shed an important light on the error of my ways, ans starting tomorrow, I'm going to join a large religious organization and be told what to think and feel. Hopefully it will be something very rigid and dogmatic...maybe throw in a few pedophiles. That would be killer...man, So excited!!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • truth seeker

      Hopefully you can find one that tells you how to vote, how to feel about things like gay marriage, or even what foods you should eat. More importantly hopefully you can find one that tells you how much money you need to give the religion on weekly basis.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  20. NoDoubt

    To me, when I say I am spiritual and not religious, means that I believe that we are all connected, and that whatever you do to others, whether good or bad, will come back to you. I am glad religion exists so that those that need a moral compass can use it as such, but I don't need a religion to tell me right from wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • John B.

      yah, because you're sooo much better than those simple-minded plebeians affiliated with a religion.

      kudos to you!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 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.