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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. joeymom

    It is from the "spiritual but not religious" that we get all sorts of new ideas and new religious leaders. Like the Buddha. Or Mahavira. Or Jesus. When you question the established ideas of religion and how it is supposed to work, when you really explore what it means to have a relationship with the Divine and the greater cosmos, that is when we find new answers to old questions. Jesus was one of thousands of itinerant teachers, all exploring their spirituality while rebelling against the established religions of their time.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • TIO

      Sorry. Wrong. Why did He say "Follow Me"?
      Because He was religious, not just spiritual.
      If He was like you, He would have said "Do it YOUR way".
      Instead, He said "You know not what manner of spirit you are".

      September 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  2. EuroChild

    Generalizing, arrogant, uninformed piece with other opinions cited as sources – it belongs on yahoo... Whatever, Alan Miller got paid his 50 pieces of silver for this trash, and we read it. Everyone is dumber for the experience. Power hungry organized religion that has failed its people is the reason the current generation are looking within themselves for answers and not to the 'church'.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • TIO

      And relativism (ultimately heading toward nihilism) is really helping us understand (never mind better) the world?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  3. Daniel D

    ■“The spiritual journey does not consist in arriving at a new destination where a person gains what he did not have, or becomes what he is not. It consists in the dissipation of one's own ignorance concerning one's self and life, and the gradual growth of that understanding which begins the spiritual awakening. The finding of God is a coming to one's self.”
    -Aldous Huxley

    September 30, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  4. Religious Pedo

    If you believe in god, you should stay away from those hateful christians and Muslims.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  5. Mike

    The essence and spirit and heart of creation is what it is regardless of the dogma we tack onto it. Spiritual but not religious means to me that I seek the heart of creation without dogmatic handcuffs. My experience with dogma is that it cuts me off from the heart of love that conceived me. Anybody who tells me what to believe usually has an agenda and seeks to control me in some sort of way. But who seeks to set me free? It is my understanding that I do not need anybody to tell me what i should believe and that it is the great undertaking to seek the essence of God/creation within myself.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Karen

      Said very eloquently Mike and I agree. The history of religion is always connected to the forced submission to its particular doctrine usually to keep the rich and religious leaders on top. It has a history that has repeated proved this fact over and over.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  6. Tim

    I am neither spiritual nor religious. I am a RATIONAL HUMAN BEING!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Athy

      Way to go, Tim!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • mkar

      Probably not. If think you are, please explain your rational behind rejecting God.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, YOU explain what is rational about a belief in a god.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Mike

      So-called rationality is the number 1 barrier between mankind and intelligent infinity. Logic and reason are no better than religion in that regard. Our rational dogma always falls and is replaced by new rational dogma. In the end it all keeps us at arms length from the spirit and love that is our essence.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And mkar, when you figure out the difference between "rational" and "rationale," do notify the media. Until then, you're an idiot.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      It's not a "rejection" of God when there is no reason to believe in any of them. That's where your logic fails mkar.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • mkar

      Forgive my spelling mistakes. But you need to provide an explanation for the existence of universe, life before saying God does not exist. Please explain how evolution can answer the evolution of reproductive organs. Because evolution itself depends on reproduction, it creates a self contradictory. So if you can answer this question, I can agree to giveup my faith in God.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't "have to" do anything of the sort, you dolt. If you choose to believe without evidence, it's no skin off my nose. If you want anyone ELSE to think you have a point, then the onus is on YOU to provide evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • mkar

      Tom Tom,
      I am not asking you to provide explanation for God. I am only asking about your claims of evolution. I am just asking a logical explanation of how reproduction evolved in say mammals. For this proof of burden is on you as per your own logic, because it is you who is claiming it. If you can not provide it, you just admit to yourself that RATIONAL HUMAN BEING. At least dont cheat yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  7. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    To imply that if you don't dive head first and deeply into a belief choice is absurd .. The concept of all or nothing is what's dangerous in this case.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Gary Thompson

      Endlessly critical, eternally fault-finding, self-righteous people like the author of this article are exactly what turns people off to church. When will they ever learn?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • mkar

      Well. Forms of the God might be imaginary. But the true nature of God is not. If you imagine your loved ones in the things that belong to them, wont feel their love. You could say it is imaginary. But feeling of love is real.

      So even if you imagine God as something and worship God that way, He accepts that worships because God knows your intent. He only cares about your intent rather than anything else.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      " If you imagine your loved ones in the things that belong to them, wont feel their love"

      Did this make sense to you when you typed it? Because it certainly doesn't make any sense now.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      mkar .. in that case I have no reason to worship God(s) as they will accept my "intent" to seek the truth .. even if it's that they don't exist .. so I have nothing to fear being atheist.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Athy

      mkar writes like a typical bible babbler.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hmm. I think mkar writes like someone whose first language is NOT English.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • mkar

      It's supposed to be "wont you". Sorry for the typo.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • mkar

      Athy:
      I am not a Christian. I put my self more like a spiritual than any religious thing.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  8. Religious Pedo

    GOPs and those corrupted christians bankrupted America.
    They will go to HELL.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  9. nrose5

    Dan, well written. I have more respect for those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" than those who claim to be Christians and only focus on getting together on Sundays and discussing "life-issues". Christianity is taking its gasping lasts breaths in this country (though I feel I may be argued with about this statement, true Christianity in which one is kind to others, selfless, forgiving and loving WITHOUT justifying pride, pretentiousness or sin), and the audience you are speaking to in this piece is becoming smaller and smaller. To those who are looking for the truth, I've come to find that it takes an incredible toll on the spirit, it will break you down. It will utterly destroy you, like gold being refined by fire. But, if you maintain your faith and "do not shrink away", you will be as refined iron. In today's "feel good" generation, as Dan pointed out, fewer and fewer people would claim this painful journey to be the truth, let alone be willing to partake in it. Being a Christian isn't easy these days. Because other Christians say you're being to literal, and none-believers think you believe in fairy-tale. I can promise you that following Christ doesn't "feel good", it isn't popular, and is becoming more and more difficult to remain committed. It's reverting back to the days of its establishment in that its true numbers are getting low, and its full-truth very unpopular.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • ssmote

      I am spiritual but not religious and undertook a very similar journey to the one you describe. It transcended any one religious dogma and included many, took an incredible toll on my spirit, broke me down, and utterly destroyed me to the core of my being in order to allow me to rebuild anew. It had nothing to do with your baseless "feel good" accusation. I will keep you in my prayers in the hopes you learn to open your mind to the many paths to the One.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  10. Daniel D

    Mr. Miller, you clearly do not understand what being spiritual but not religious means.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  11. maria peterson

    I don't believe you have ever spent any time with a spiritual but not religious person. I was not aware that a third party was need to discover god.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  12. Religious Pedo

    The world would be better off without christian KKKs and muslim terrorists.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Pretty much any faith that was spawned from Judaism is belligerent and violent as h&ll! If the Mor(m)ons haven't made a name for themselves yet, they haven't been around long enough.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  13. Mike

    The essence and spirit and heart of creation is what it is regardless of the dogma we tack onto it. Spiritual but not religious means to me that I seek the heart of creation without dogmatic handcuffs. My experience with dogma is that it cuts me off from the heart of love that conceived me. Anybody who tells me what to believe usually has an agenda and seeks to control me in some sort of way. But who seeks to set me free? It is my understanding that I do not need anybody to tell me what i should believe and that it is the great undertaking to seek the essence of God/creation within myself.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  14. Religious Pedo

    Religious leaders are pedos and crooks.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • ssmote

      That claim is no better than Alan Miller's claim that spiritual people just want to feel good and not ask hard questions. Both are profoundly wrong and just serve to perpetuate a divide where there should not be one.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • B. Stone

      I am neither religious or spiritual. From my perspective both camps are equally deceived, and I don't buy the idea that there is merit in taking a stand for its own sake. If you have evidence for a belief, then by all means, commit. What I will not abide is that the central piece of evidence for religious and spiritual belief is the invisibility of its object, i.e. a complete lack of evidence. Indigenous people who, out of ignorance, worship animals or the sun and the moon have far more sense; they believe in what they can observe.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • TB

      evil is everywhere and this serves to illuminate the good – lumping everyone together is a bad as Miller's tautology and cannot stand. No organization or belief structure will ever be without conflict or failings

      September 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  15. truerunner

    I spent k-12 in a private christian school where Bible classes were a requirement each year. I attended a christian university for my first year of college–my father has served as an associate pastor and I have to say that this is the stupidest, most pop-philosophical article I've read in a long time! Mr. Miller makes a miscalculated case for being a mindless joiner as opposed to actually putting the challenge to the individual to delve deeply into the nature of their spiritual life and objectively strive to discover who God is and how he wants us to live and treat others. Everything else is just man-made rules, but maybe legalism and dogma are more comforting to people like Mr. Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Athy

      Everyone seems to be worrying a lot about what or who god is and how he wants us to behave. The very fact that we can't agree should tell us something. God just doesn't exist except in the minds of believers. Once you get past that, everything starts to make sense.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  16. MLB

    Being religious or spirritual is not so much the problem as it that fence sitting is the problem. Many comments to this article allude to a belief by many that there is a "higher being."The reality is that as busy people we become consumed with highly distracted lives, we often become complacent,or forget, or even afraid to know the truth. Because sometimes knowing the truth requires us to change things that may not conform to our "comortable lifestyle" or its just really inconvenient timing right now to know the truth. The bottom line is that there is a higher power keenly aware of all of us that is willing to give as the proper guidance, inspiration, answers, and direction if we simply put in the time and effort to receive the truth. This can cover every base of our lives from, family and friends, finances and employment to unemployment. If anything let us as a people, for the sake of our children, fellowmen, and nation, seek truth in its purest form, from the one source of truth. A man named Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I think we can all agree that there are two major forces in this world, those of good and evil. The ever present avalanche of lies, deception, mistrust, and infidelity are of evil nature. Whereas the minimal glimpses of truth and honesty and goodness towards our fellowmen are ever lacking in a society morally decaying. Let us stand for good which equals truth! If there are fears or doubts as to an existence of a higher being or even truth, all you have to do is search and ask, and in due time answers will come. I know it says somewhere in the bible something to the effect that "and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set your free." If there is anything that has gotten me out of my fence sitting days it has been the truth. Which truth can only make us all better, husbands, wives, partners, employees, friends, and human beings. We can all do a little better each day! The truth can only enable all of us to be our best selves and improve our lives an those around us!! I will get off my soap box now!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      "Truth springs from the earth;
      And righteousness looks down from heaven." Psalm 85:11.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • MLB

      Beautiful Verse.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • MLB

      what is the significance of arvoasitis? Reference to Arvo Part?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  17. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    I said this before, but I just want to reiterate what a phony this author is.

    J.S. Bach, like many artists of his day (and like so many artists who have to be wh0res even today), were dependent on whoever had the money. And historically, what enti-ty in Western Civilization has HAD the money? The Church! So it's no surprise that, in order to pay his bills and eat, he would have been employed by The Church to compose his music. DUH! If The Church had not existed, he would have written his music for whoever else was the highest bidder. Big deal!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • TB

      since no one else had money they probably would have been tending to farm animals and dying of the plague like everyone else ..... even governments owed their legitmacy and money to the church. The answer is something that none of us will ever know.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Well, G, you might be right, considering that Bach had 22 kids to support. However, according to most music historians, Bach was indeed a devout Lutheran who believed wholeheartedly in God.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Tom, Tom: Not denying that Bach had faith, but then he was a bit of a trouble-maker. He did, after all, serve time in prison for pi$$ing off religious authorities.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      He did, but only because they attempted to prevent him from composing religious music creatively, not because he was an atheist or agnostic.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      But my argument is about WHO had the money to employ. The dependent employee is always a wh0re to the highest bidder, or else in the case of the employee who is willing to take a pay cut because he would rather do something that is more fulfilling to make him happier, such as being an artist, musician, etc, the employee must always submit to the desires of the enti-ties that have the MONEY to employ them. Hence, in this case, The Church.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I don't disagree that Bach was dependent on the Church for employment, G. However, there is copious evidence that he was a devout Christian and a believer in Lutheran doctrine. You are free to disagree, but unless you can show that Bach was faking his belief for money alone, you have no case.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  18. Religious Pedo

    I believe in god, but I hate those religious crooks such as Pastor Long and Santorum.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  19. yo yo

    Alan Miller seems to be able to read minds, because he's putting everybody who's "spiritual but not religious" in the same category. I wish I had that ability; I wish I could read the minds of millions of people and know exactly what demographic to put them in. Man, advertisers would pay me a fortune, perhaps Mr. Miller should cash in.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  20. Hugh Mann

    A 40-something American that wears a white shirt and tie is NOT going to tell me who to explore and utilise Spirituality...nor is he going to DICTATE to me which brand of underwear to purchase...
    Evangelists are merely Marketing Agents that push their so-called "religious" trade mark for their own Prophet and profit

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

      no but he sure will sell you on your right to believe in nothing that which you say is ok to believe in – relativist!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:15 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.