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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. hooves

    Some can argue that religion is the cop-out, allowing small minded people the comfort of forsaking their own quest for truth and blindly accpeting someone else's instead. I do think there is some fundamental part of human nature that requiresfellowship and ceremony, but what I found sadly lacking in my religious experience was a demand for individual accountability. I count myself in the group described above, but instead of the awkward phrase "Spiritual but not religious", I prefer Gnostic.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Gonastic meaning a hindu Jew' criminal self centered or Lucifer meaning the same, are You the one.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  2. amac

    Whatever people choose to believe, or not believe, is their own business. But even a casual perusal of The Bible will reveal that nowhere in it does it remotely suggest that a person must belong to an organized religion in order to worship.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      13:1 If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, 13:2 And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; 13:3 Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

      13:4 Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.

      13:5 And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  3. SentByTheWind

    The man who wrote this article is an absolute moron. Organized religion is the most destructive, powerful weapon on Earth. The ignorant, uneducated and fear induced sheep who would disagree with that statement are the very humans who hold countries, cultures and people back from peace and growth. An educated person would know the actual history of religion and their very beginnings (based on manipulation, control and oppression all masked with a label of love and FEAR if you do not believe). True Native American beliefs are 'spiritual', but not 'religious'....They also hold sacred the animal and plant kingdoms, which have been and continue to be destroyed by Christians who believe their god put man as priority and will take care of everything with a blink of an eye. All of you 'Not Of This World' religious people living for when you die, just go kill yourselves NOW and save resources for the rest of us.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      Why are the animal and plant kingdoms sacred? Biology doesn't even use kingdoms in contemporary classification anymore.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  4. Tex Bravery

    I agree that smart, brave people are never "spiritual but not religious" because smart people know that both spirits and religions are BS and brave people admit that in public.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • SentByTheWind

      If all the plants and animals on Earth disappeared, do you thing god would give you chlorophyll to convert the suns energy to the building blocks of life? Everything is connected moron. Plants and animals are just as worthy, important and sacred as human beings...unless you are an ignorant, uneducated Texan. Go read your fictional book of your sadistic god, useless savor (scapegoat) with over 30,000 versions of the truth that promotes hate and calls it 'love'.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  5. Mark

    Religion is for people who are scared of going to hell. Spiritualism is for those who have already been there.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  6. George

    Spiritual, believing in God as the Living Presence in each of us, regardless of religious beliefs. Not Christian, not Muslim nor Jew. . . not Buddhist nor Hindu . . . God is the Living Presence expressing in every person of every belief, including the atheist and agnostic, the gay, the transgendered and the straight. You don't have to agree with me, I have no need to convert you. It's not about that, it is about every individual waking to his or her own Spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  7. FillaTX

    Why does the Beleif Blog's comments section not allow one respond to a commenter or to sort comments by rating or popularity? At teh time that I discovered this article, there were 5,320 responses, and none are clumped together according to what narrow issue they may be addressing. You CNN folks need to figure something out.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  8. Iqbal Khan

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  9. B.S. by any other name... still smells the same.

    The unsupportable premise of this article seems to be that people who delude themselves are somehow worse off than people who adopt the delusions of others.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Athy

      You mean delusion is contagious?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  10. no dogma please

    On the eighth day God created religion, and on the ninth day the devil showed up and said, Let me organize that for you.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      No hindu Jew, criminal self centered son of Lucifer, self centered created religion's,

      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • bc

      That is the best comment to this story I have read.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • No gods, not even one.

      That is a good post. Too bad there is no god, though. It kind of takes away from your message.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  11. JCInter

    OK, here is a easy and logical way to find the TRUTH and believe in Jesus Christ, thru the bible. Take a King James version, through away the Old Testmoney, along with all the chapters after the Four Gospal. Then cut out all the miracles, angels, devils, virgin birth and physical resurraction.

    Now just study what Jesus has said and his teaching prarphases, very painfully try to under stand why did he said such things. Especially what the paraphases and examples imply. These are the TRUTH from the all mighty universe creator, the God, Allah, Vishun, Waheguru,Yahweh (Jehova), etc. which sent the messages thru Jesus the Christ to save the humanbeing on Earth from destroying ourselves.

    After you have thourughly understand what Jesus Christ has taught us, then you will find all the discarded parts from the King James version bible are no longer necessary, you will follow Jesus Christ without the churches nor the religeous authorities. Because you have found the TRUTH without the church's doctrines and the fairy tales.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Ben

      JC was clearly a socialist, so no thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  12. Keith

    Good Lord. How many things can one self-righteous twit get wrong in a single article?

    For my part, I'll tackle the big question. I don't believe in God... and what do you know? Still spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  13. Ben

    "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?"

    The second one. Glad I was able to get that out of the way, thanks. Back to football.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  14. blackbeard79

    "Spiritual, but not religious" seems like the perfect choice, actually. Why subjugate yourself to the dogma created by a bunch of clergy trying desperately to keep themselves in power. Why are there so many kids in Northern Mexico born into poverty? Because birth control is evil, of course. Why can't gay people get married in most states? Because that would somehow magically demean the marriage of straight people – duh. Same thing for buying alcohol on Sundays. Instead, we should continue to pretend that the clergy are so smart that they can speak on behalf of God, up to and including the development of nonsensical rules. Makes perfect sense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  15. pazke

    I'm sorry, if the author had a point, I failed to see it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • A word from your sponsor

      I couldn't agree more. This entire article seems like we have an author struggling to sound intelligent but he failed. I'm always interested in hearing or reading peoples viewpoints on why or why not religion works. This article, simply put, was crap.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • LAS

      Agreed. What garbage. Stick to real news please. Blind trust in religion has lead to more wars and death than I can count. Humankind grow up. Time to put our imaginary controlling friends away for good. And while we are at it time to put the humans who use this poor excuse at "explanation and understanding" of the world, ie. those wonderful manipulative clergy of all religions, away as well. I can see that all of this might have been necessary thousands of years ago when there were more unknowns, but to clinging to this drivel in the modern world reals of stupidity. Maybe humans aren't that smart after all!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  16. ironman59

    This is nothing more than some guy trying to protect his turf and justify his existence. The nonsense about christianity is just that, nonsense. It is nothing more than fables and stories stolen from other traditions. Even the idea of christmas was taken from Pagan rituals to compete with them. By the words of their own book, the alignment of the planets as described was in the summer of 6 BC. So again, the idea that someone can't be spiritual and must follow some doctrine is absurd.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • Erin-Todd Hansen

      I agree. Until someone can prove that their religious beliefs are superior to someone else's (or lake thereof), you can't make the argument that someone is "copping-out" in their beliefs. In this country (the USA) all religious beliefs are basically equal in the eyes of the law. Alan Miller can evanglize his thoughts all he wants under the first amendment, but that same amendment ensures that he'll never really be successful in getting his way ... because while it ensures he can speak his mind freely, but also ensures people will form their religion beliefs freely as well.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  17. Jacob

    While you were reminiscing about the beauty of bible reading, you also forgot to reflect the much more heinous outcomes of a deep belief in God. The Inquisition, reformation (religious infighting), justification of slavery in the United States (funny that they oppose it once the secularists were outnumbering them. MLK gets the credit and is the posterboy for something that was started by the secular movement), Shiites vs Sunnis, Catholics vs Protestants in Ireland, the Crusades, witch-burning, suicide bombing amongst others which are almost exclusively driven by the need to appease a deity.

    I should perhaps get all angry about your post like some commenters but actually I do agree with most of it. I am sick of religious people picking-and-mixing their religious philosophies and coming to the defense of having a personal belief. It just further proves to me that God is evolving into his/her true number; from many of Him/Her to only One of Him/Her and soon, none.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  18. LolLi

    Ha- you forgot that without organized religion, who will tell us on what day we must rest and what day to eat fish for dinner?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Athy

      Just have the printers put it on the calendars. Calendars rule!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  19. tnmtl

    This article totally stinks. CNN should stick to reporting news... or change its name to "Church News Network". This is a total loss of credibility here...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  20. E

    hey if more people are moving towards less delusion from more delusion great. But if your spiritual it still means you believe in a mythical "spirit" and "soul" two things which are not even real and have no importance to life. So little progress there people can debate all they want but as long as religious people keeping having children nothing will chance, one religion will hat the other and no one will ever ask important questions or try to learn anything b/c when the question gets tough "a deity" made it happen! That's the cop -out, since there is no way any higher beings exist you are just giving up.

    Reason, and science are the only things that matter

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Matthew

      Ken Wilber mentioned that the Tibetans spent 1000 years looking deep into their interiors conducting experiments with consciousness. Was that not reasonable and scientific? Or are the only real and reasonable experiments the ones that look at an object from the outside? I'm not giving a monopoly on truth to material science when there are other valid means of inquiry.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • ssmote

      Actually, respected philosophers living today and even scientific research shows there is more than the material world. Be careful assuming because one extreme is wrong, the other must be absolutely right. The universe is far more complex than you seem to realize.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:21 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.