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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. AB

    My Advice to the rest of the world, be careful and stop beeing a follower. You might get exactly what you ask for. AKA a born again Christian and a believer of Jesus Christ.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • yo yo

      From follower of the world to follower of Jesus who was created by inhabitants of the world?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  2. lighthouse444

    I would check the box as being spiritual not religious. To me God does not sit in a box, solely owned by any group. Blessed are they that search for the creator inside, no matter where they find it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  3. El Flaco

    The 'spiritual feeling' or 'religious experience' is an inheritance from blind, goal-less, mindless evolution. It helped unify tribal groups and made them more obedient to tribal leadership. This made groups of humans more efficient.

    Some of us have a stronger need than others for the religous experience. I spent half of my life seeking spiritual truth. It was a huge disappointment for me to realize that there is no spiritual truth.

    If you want to feel spiritual, then go to church, join a coven, go to a seance ... whatever ever feels good. It's all the same. No religion is more true than any other - or more false.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  4. Dersu

    Religion is a cop-out for those who cannot make spiritial and moral decisions on their own. The person who wrote this just wants people to believe the way he does, because his religion obligates him to do so.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Hunter

      +1

      September 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  5. Religious Pedo

    If you are religious, You are either a fool or a pedo.
    I bet Pastor Long would agree with me.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  6. bmused

    The author's insistence upon binary thinking (either you pick a religion or you choose atheism) about something as *non*-binary as spirituality reflects unfortunate stuckness in an outdated world view. IMHO, people are identifying as "spiritual but not religious" not because they lack the will or intellectual rigor to make a choice or "take a stand", as the author suggests, but because we are becoming increasingly comfortable accepting that life can be joyfully experienced in the presence of nuance and uncertainty. We no longer require a strict, bright-line, dogmatic understanding of Life, the Universe and Everything that has been pre-defined by others in order to gain a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. Rather than a cop-out, I respectfully suggest that choosing "spiritual but not religious" *is* often taking a stand for living in a new way; while unexamined acceptance of religion – or of atheism as a mere rejection of religion – is the cop-out.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • ssmote

      It is sad that people with the depth of insight you display here are relegated to the comments section and the author of the article gets top billing.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  7. Batter Up

    This is all just some more subjective post-modernism. There's nothing new in this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  8. son

    I think this article reflects very primitive thinking - and I can remember holding such a view early in my life as well. Probably those who are spiritual-but-not-religous are the ones who have actually read their spiritual scriptures and found the scriptures spiritually bankrupt. Consider the Bible and especially the 5 books of Moses: Full of murder, ruthless killing, deceit, animal sacrifices, and ritual nonsense... Either one gives up the religion or they engage in mental gymnastics and dogmatism to get around what they've read for themselves. But spirituality is real - and however one finds it, who cares. What concern is it too you?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  9. j

    religious traditions = conflict

    September 30, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  10. Ned Noodleman

    An unquestioning belief in the 'Invisible Sky Daddy' is a cop out. What an insulting morass of nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  11. mkar

    I see spirituality and religion are similar to technology and branded products. While technology shows a broader principle, brands (for say APPLE and MSOFT) promote their products alone while playing down other party. In truth both brands have their strengths and weaknesses. So if someone does not like any of the existing brands, Theoretically he has the choice to make his own. But we know how well that would work. Your product will be far behind in evolution in comparing with known brand. What make sense in this condition is to just choose whichever makes more sense to you and use it.

    Similarly no religion is perfect. But if you try to invent your own, that would be more imperfect. So just make best use of whatever best suites you. Because these religions evolved over a long period, So let's use all the good in them while using the intelligence to reject the bad stuff from it.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  12. Judith

    The Spiritual person decides on his own personal religious path.
    The Religious person adopts some other person's ideas of what he should believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  13. KRC

    BULL! People can be "spiritual" without ahering to the strict dogma of pre-defined "established" religions! What a cop-out this guy has!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  14. Baby

    Almost all Spirtual but religious people believe in God ... We just don't need organized religion to prove our faith. Understand now?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Fred Derf

      So you are reinventing everything? In other words, after thousands of years of collective wisdom, you and you alone have it all figured out. Your single mind. And I'll bet your truth is different from others, but that's okay, because there is no objective truth, right? Everyone has his or her own truth, kind of like everyone can try a different flavor, as long as it's okay for him or her.

      You're funny

      September 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  15. grandfathersky

    ... and he probably got paid to write this ...

    September 30, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  16. justin

    A belief system designed to enslave the lower class masses and keep slaves from revolting is so discusting and "evil" I cant even express myself. I grew up a catholic, tried the protestant thing and realized that religion is the opiate of the masses. people who believe in god are no different than people who smoke crack. 21st century people, Stephan Hawking proved god doesn't exist. If religion was removed from the world there would be no wars, no more Islamic terrorism and the US could spend money on science instead of wars against the sand people.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Foundation of hindu pagan Catholicism is not truth absolute bu t hinduism, racism. please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  17. ssmote

    I must say – I'm really impressed with the comments on this essay. Not all but many possess a depth of insight and wisdom sorely lacking in Mr. Miller's. I don't knowwhy Mr. Miller is a director of any organization with opinions this undeveloped and un-researched, but it's good to see the evolution of society evidenced in the comments.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Baby

      Agree!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  18. Baby

    Almost all Spirtual but religious people believe in God ... We just don't need organized religion to prove to all of you who do need organized religion to prove your faith. Understand now?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • justin

      eventually the scourge or religion will be removed and we will put it in the pages of history like other dark movements such as communism and Nazism. I see no difference between Hitler and the pope.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  19. apotas

    'Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better."' I'm not spiritual or religious but I would love to see the basis for this argument. Morality, good deeds and a kind heart are not solely for the religious. Am I missing something?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • ssmote

      I'm spiritual but not religious and I can assure you, if he did actual research instead of play up caricatures, he would know that true wisdom and enlightenment do not come from "nice things". It is a path of destruction over pre-existing beliefs.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Fred Derf

      You sure are

      September 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  20. MrHouse

    I only read halfway through this ridiculous article before deciding to write my first comment on an article on CNN. To the writer, you fail. To the editor, you fail. To CNN for posting this, you fail. I am even more convinced of my belief than I was before attempting to read your blatant dogmatic garbage. You pretty much described that basic beliefs and structure of the belief before contradicting yourself and saying that was what it lacked. Thanks for helping out millions of people who have been given access to the information of abuse on people mentally and physically by organized religion over the thousands of years it has bled mankind dry. You can't stop the shift that is happening in conciseness so why try?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • MrHouse

      ** Consciousness

      September 30, 2012 at 7:56 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.