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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 (9,993 Responses)
  1. TSuisei

    Haha I love all these comments from people who think - and the lack of comments from people who don't.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  2. Zach

    How about the author of this article mind his own business and live and let live? Who made him God to try to tell us we have to be a certain kind of religious? Screw him. I don't need his guilt trip. I do what I want and I live my life the way I want. I donate to shelters, volunteer and care about my neighbors. I don't do it through the veil of some church. I do it because I am a good human being.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Greg

      Wow, sensitive at all? We aren't people able to discuss these ideas without becoming so hostile? Any time a person presents a case for a finite sense of truth and morality, some people go ballistic and start covering their ears and screaming. No one's cramming anything down your throat! It's as though any world view beyond a secular humanist perspective is seen as narrow-minded and irrational...truly sad.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  3. GM

    Greatest Commandment.....Love one another as I have loved you.
    Greatest Prayer......Not my will but thine be done.
    Jesus.

    Not too many rules there.....Seems to me like he rejected Judaism and was in fact SPIRITUAL.
    I think the guy in the picture probably looks more like Jesus than any pastor, priest,pope, or the author of this article.
    Not sure if he existed or not, but he seemed pretty cool and had a good message.

    Wonder how many religious leaders would be willing to leave all their earthly belongings and follow him.....hmmmmm.

    I would guess that's why the Pharisees put a hit out on him....he cut into their profits.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Greg

      Matthew 5:17: (Jesus speaking...) "Don't misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. Sorry, Jesus was not some peace-loving "let's get together and just love each other" kind of pansy in dreads and a tank top.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • mkar

      Greg,
      Today's spirituality is tomorrow's religion. That's how it is.

      I see Jesus as a spiritualist. He concentrated more on relationship with God than anything else. However he can condemn anything existing because he looses acceptability that way.

      That's what most of the spiritualists do. Instead saying negative things they would only concentrate on positive stuff.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  4. hedggehogg

    I'm a devoted, involved Christian and I find this article to be borderline offensive in it's narrow mindedness. The fact that CNN would put it on their front page is pretty lame -

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Dippy

      Its, not it's. You need to work on the it's/its thing. They are different.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  5. ambor

    These comments, far more than the article itself, show that there are a lot of smart, deep thinking, insightful people out there. We all like to think of our society as ignorant, but a lot of people have put a lot of thought into these ideas that refute Mr. Miller's simiplistic dualiistic attack on an experience he does not yet understand.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  6. kate

    acknowledging that I don't know the answers to anything is a better option than taking an arrogant stance claiming I know what god wants of me and the world. It's not selfish, I know that god and the creator is bigger than me. Science, the universe, nature, and moral questions are bigger than me and my simple, stupid, human brain would rather not put my belief in other humans

    September 30, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  7. cljahn

    I would argue that it depends on how you define "religion." I define it as "the belief in someone else's divine realization." In that light, Mr. Miller becomes reminiscent of the Jewish priests who orchestrated the execution of a certain Nazareth laborer who dared to question authority.

    Mr. Miller, just because one isn't discussing the terms of their relationship with their deity, it does not follow that there are no such terms. Many rivers flow from one mountain, and "there are many mansions in my Father's house." Spend less time worrying about others, and more time earning your own salvation, and everyone will be better off.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  8. doug the slug

    At the Battle of Ideas, Mr. Miller is clearly lost.
    His take is no more valid than anyone else's freedom of choice to worship or believe what they wish.
    Spiritual but not religious is not a sign of decay, it is a rejuvenation motivated by ideas, by facts and science over blind faith.
    There is nothing noble in standing with the other cattle. Breaking from the herd is how there is progress.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  9. Free Thinker

    Free Thinker
    Naturally, the movement away from organized religion is due to some flaw in individuals rather than flaws in organized religion.

    Contrary to the point of the article, the generation fleeing organized religion has tested religion's answers to big questions and found them lacking. At what point in human evolution was our place in heaven offered to us but not our ape cousins? To get into heaven we must accept Jesus as our savior, but what about all of the people who lived and died before Jesus? If I dont accept Jesus as my savior I am bound for damnation; yet Hitler has surely earned damnation–the two are obviously not morally equivalent.

    "Spiritual but not religious" is indeed a cop out, as it creates flexibility enough for the possibility of higher powers without the dogmatic inflexibility of the church. However we are driven to it not by a desire to be released from responsibility but rather by a desire for answers that jibe with our increasing knowledge of our complex world. To remain relevant churches must offer intelligent answers, not insist followers remain ignorant of obvious new realities.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • kate

      you said everything I couldn't

      September 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • bigmarc

      Very well explained.
      Good article: short and generates lots of interesting comments (which are a better read than the article itself).

      September 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • ssmote

      Why aren't you writing articles for CNN instead of Mr. Miller? Seriously – why do new organizations always present a duality (liberal side verus conservative or religious versus atheist) and ignore the masses of people who have moved beyond such simplistic views?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      The people who lived before Jesus are free to choose him as their savior or not in the spirit world. How else could it all be fair? All who live,or have ever lived, through the atonement can be saved. As for you, you too can choose, that ability to choose is paramount in our eternal development.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  10. rasko41

    Well okay, since the author insists, I'll land in the field of reason.
    Definition: The "me" generation – the generation to which belongs whoever annoys one at time of query.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  11. TomPaine

    "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?"

    Surely the author knows there are many, many options besides those two?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • miketofdal

      Yeah, thanks, but he's really only interested in the one.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  12. Edgar

    Welcome to Foxnews, this analogy is so dumb

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  13. Get over it

    I have to give my money to a religious organization that tells me to hate gay people? No, I am smarter and more responsible than that. I choose love. I choose where my money goes.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  14. miketofdal

    This is one MAN'S opinion. When it comes to spirituality, I leave opinion behind. It works best.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  15. DaFonz

    The author provides some very compelling evidence of exactly why I am "spritiual but not religious" If you're not one of us, you're against us kind of crap is why so many people find their own way!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  16. Terry Brookman

    Your take is another mind control gimmick run hand and hand with the government. I am a Christian because I met him not because I belong to some official cult religion which I consider to be money grubbing, war mongering, Pedophiles.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  17. JD

    This isn't news! Stop posting this crap CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  18. Geo

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.
    Dan Gilgoff – CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

    check out his blog and from the first glimpse its nothing but pro christian propaganda so i highly doubt this statement is accurate

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  19. Zach

    There's just too many things wrong with this article's logic to point them all out.

    I'll just leave it at religion is not a source of ethics but rather one example in which they are codified. You can be an atheist who believes in charity or a religious zealot willing to take lives. Being religious =/= being ethical.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  20. sfe

    apparently human needs to fee lconnected with teh universe have evolved past the archaice strictures of religons that have ben practivced for thousands of yers. In a time when people are blowing htemselves and uother up in the name of tehir "relion" and god/prophet is it any wonder that human beings are seking somehting more?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 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.