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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. Amy Yancey

    If you think it's unpopular, as you claim in your article, to belong to a religious organization, you must not live in the bible belt. Also, "spiritual" people claiming they are in a more profound relationship with – whatever- has no ground. Show me where these claims are being made. Where's your backup?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  2. Roy Ortega

    Alan Miller is wrong. He is typical of religiousness that tries to justify the baggage that comes with organized religion. I believe it is entirely possible to believe strongly in God without being tied to religion. It's not a cop-out: It's the most intelligent way of accepting God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • jenngg

      Well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Andre

      I give you free will but do as I say

      September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  3. Veritas

    Organized religion is, has always been, and will continue to be for some time, a destructive and oppressive force. Based on misogynyst, hateful, patriarchal ideas from the bronze age, the judeo-christian religions continue to plague civilization even in our time, with islam now having peaking in terms of intolerance and violence. If this "spiritual but not religious" movement, whatever that means, is a first step away from the evils of religion than that is a very good thing.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  4. Justo!

    Hey, hats off to the Author! He has pulled off one of the largest and most widely effecting trolls in the history of the inter-webs!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  5. stony

    how did the author get the platform for such a misguided absurd thesis.
    I always thought Budhisim was a spiritual philosphy and not a religion.
    Is he dismissing the spiritual lives of hundreds of millions of people world wide,
    why does he just come out and say, "you have to think like me, damn it!"

    September 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  6. bcatl

    Alan Miller is just trying to make a buck! This is nothing but an advertisement for his own agenda. He doesn't care what you believe or don't believe. He, just like so many others have turned peoples belief systems into a cash cow, and the very fact that people even respond to his nonsense proves his theory works and works very well. I can believe what I want to believe and gain everything I desire without sending a dime. That doesn't fit into today's pay to hear what you want to hear world. Make a choice? I have, and it doesn't include the vain imaginations of men.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  7. anwaw

    Unfortunately for the author, his failure to make a coherent and effective argument made me believe even further in the spiritual but not religious experience. If this is the best argument he could come up with, it's pretty clear I've chosen wisely. Perhaps he needs those external structures for his stage of growth, but many of us are beyond that.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  8. Tax Damned Churches NOW

    Maybe if religion had not been WRoNG about nearly EVERYTHING for the past oh five thousand years, you'd have more customers in an increasingly educated society – one immune to religious dogma because more and more are aware you can have personal responsibility, ethics and charity without religion. Here's my reasoned response to your mindless, pompass article: go EFF yourself. And afterwards, pay your damned property taxes on those crystal cathedrals you miserable leech and bigoted misogynist.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  9. Sam G

    There is some kind of personal hatred "interwoven" into his rant for sure. Maybe an ex, who knows. If he had any real substance in his argument, he would have found a less aggressive way to express it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  10. John

    The polarized viewpoint expressed in this article is surprising. "Spiritual but not religious" is really short for "Spiritual but not affiliated with an established religion or church". Most of the people in this general category are rational people who have participated in one or more organized religions and understand the difference between spirituality and religion, between faith and church. One of the common character traits among the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd is tolerance. In many cases, the intolerance prevalent in most organized religions has helped drive us away from established religion and towards a peaceful existence emphasizing individual responsibility and working for the greater good of mankind.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  11. Jennifer Martin

    CNN, this is "headline news"??? This writer doesn't understand the obvious: an individual's spiritual or religious beliefs are none of your business.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  12. JacinJax

    The author can't seem to fathom what spiritual but not religious means. It means accepting there is more out there. Something bigger than ourselves but we don't have to name it. We don't have to be lectured on what others say is the meaning of what someone long dead said someone who was deemed holy said...

    There are those who need the comfort and guidance of a structured power base telling them who, what, when, where and how and isn't it the most wonderful thing that in America they are free to join such systems. But some of us reject joining a power base that attempts to interject itself into every thought and deed while designating what me must do for the privilege of such attention.

    And when making any decision of such importance, a thoughtful person must always Follow The Money. It's not just the money at the local level but up the line of the power structure. Are these fallible humans the ones we should look to when we have questions of belief?

    Belief is the leap of faith beyond the proven. Some of us chose to believe that being the best possible person you can be and to walk thru life doing as little harm as possible is more important for the soul than spending a designate day being lectured on what will happen if we don't do what we're told.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Kris

      Couldn't have said it any better!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  13. Zoso

    The churches want you in church so u can donate money..simple as that...blind followers ask no questions...and reason and independent thinking are the greatest enemy to organized religion...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  14. Tim

    I resent your thinking that I haven't thought hard about my stand for being spiritual. I did so after deciding that the belief in the God of the Old Testament and all scripture in the Bible was basically BS... There's almost nothing true and factual in there.. examples, the ridiculous description of the creation, and the choosing of Abraham and the 'chosen race', and on and on from there... I refuse to submit my reason to mindless delusion and subjugation, which is all that I think organized religion offers.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Reggie

      I understand your point. Thinking about the topic with our own minds, it sounds crazy. I thought so too. Until I realized, til the day I die someone will always try to convince me their religion is correct. All with sound doctrine and principles. What do I follow? Instead of reading something and saying "hey, this sounds right", I wanted to get to what's right. So I prayed and ask God, his take on it. I just want to do what's right regardless of what any group thinks. In a tough next few weeks of waiting, God revealed to me Jesus and the Bible and continues to affirm that in my day to day life since that time. I believe He responded to my sincere cry to do what He wants and not what a group attempts to convince me of.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  15. Mary Jansen

    Religion keeps us accountable. Mere spirituality is only a veneer of faith. It has no community, no challenges and no depth to understanding. It is no wonder the world has become such a volatile place for people lack meaningful answers and respond to violence in kind. Instead of investing energy into pondering the deeper meaning of existence they have chosen to blow off the very tools that are there to make their life profoundly meaningful. Being "spriitual" is not enough. It's like building a foundationless house on a sand.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • MCR

      Well said, but how do you convince people of the benefits of a religious structure?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Ian

      Being spiritual is more akin to building a strong house, but not worrying about the minute details like where did the metal sink drain come from, or what is the story behind the forming of the paint. They are irrelevant unnecessary details. You have a house, now move on, go forth, and help others build their houses. Quit obsessing about the grout in you own bathroom.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Matt

      To claim that the volatility in the world today is the result of "spiritualism" is ignore all of history. The volatility in the world today and throughout most of history IS the result of organized religion. More have been slaughtered in the name of God than all other reasons combined. Currently most in the west view the violence of Islamic extremists as barbaric, but the not so long ago barbarism of Christians make todays Right Wing Muslims look quaint. Religion isn't the solution to violence in the world, it's the cause.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • anwaw

      You simply do not understand. I assessed the structures in place and found them lacking, more adherent to established norms than seeking truth. As such, I turned within and found all the sructures we need to understand and connect with all of life are there. I can hang out with people singing and eating donuts separate from that, but my ability to see the love of God and fundamental but lacking wisdom flowing through most experiences in Islam, Christianity, and the others connects me to all.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  16. MCR

    This article does nothing to try to convince the "spiritual but not religious" crowd that there's any reason to join organized religion. Instead, it passes judgement and puts them down.

    I strongly feel that the right religious choice (which will vary from person to person) can enhance one's spirituality, which I define as a personal relationship with G-d, whether you define G-d as Vishnu, Bhudda, Jesus, Hashem, Allah, or the flying spaghetti monster.

    I have found that through observance of my religion's rituals and practices I am able to infuse every-day activities with a level of spirituality. I praise G-d when I wash my hands, I thank G-d for creating a world filled with delicious food when I sit down to eat, and I bless G-d when I wake up for the miracle of life and when I am about to go to sleep I pray to be rejuvinated. I pray daily because that is what my religion requires, and use that meditative time to reflect on how to better relate to my family, friends, and anyone else and how I an be a better person.

    I respect the "spiritual but not religious" crowd, because they're trying to work out esoteric ideas but lack the structure that might help them figure out their place in the universe. Keep searching!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  17. nogodatall

    And I find it's getting harder to hang out
    With grown adults who actually believe
    In Santa Clause and Noah's Ark, and Their god is the best
    My distaste has turned into detest
    -Fat Mike of NOFX

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Saphyrre

      And faith is being fancied over reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Eric

      Man's reason is laughable.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  18. Mark DiSciullo

    The article inspired me...the comments depress me.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Reggie

      I agree.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Mary Jansen

      Mark, I agree. But I think that many who surf the net are not part of any religious organization. It's a different demographic. Not only that, but it's Sunday morning and those Christians who choose to go to church are simply focused on better things. Just some thoughts from an utter stranger...

      September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • anwaw

      I think if you had had a transcend spiritual experience that has no words for it or religious structures but is profound and life altering in awakening to an awareness of the bond between all life, you too would realize why this article is written by someone who is simply at a very elementary level of awareness and cruelly judging a mindset he cannot yet grasp.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  19. TJ

    God created the spirit, Man created religions. I'll worship God and not Man, thank you very much. As for the Bible, no book in Western civilization has been more twisted and warped for individual personal gain than the Bible. I'm pretty certain I can read and interpret God's word through the Bible as well as any religious personage, so why do I have to follow a church's dogma in order to do so?

    And why should God and science be seperate? Isn't it possible that God made science so that we would have a tool by which to better understand God's creation and, by extension, God himself?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • MCR

      As for how the Bible has been twisted and warped, I agree. We need to strive to understand the Bible better and to challenge those who will pervert the divine words.

      If your religion forces you to follow a dogma and won't let you question it, it may be play for a different team. There are certainly religions out there that encourage questioning. Look at the Talmud. The sages are constantly questioning and challenging each other over both fine points of Jewish law and the big existential questions.

      G-d and Science should complement each other. You are exactly correct about that. You might want to read Gerald Schroeder's book "Creation and The Big Bang" to get a positive perspective on how religious belief and science can complement each other.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  20. mm

    An author 'peddling' religion based on an us vs. them meme......how original...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
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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.