home
RSS
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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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?

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. RJP3

    Crap condescending elitist article – ignoring every religion leads to extremism and elitism within the group towards others - beyond that the leadership is usually corrupt beyond belief.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  2. Durbry

    This article shouldn't even be on here. It was a total waste of my time to read.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Phillip Hutton

      I have to totally agree with this opinion.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • refugeek

      I am happy that you exist.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  3. the souldoc

    spirituality IS the common truths of religion, the original experiences and origins of religion, the essence of all religions teachings, the same truths revealed over time and culture to all beings who did the work to experience within themselves divinity and absolute truth, and how to align life to honor and realize the health and happiness of living with nature and spirit, then only after being reimagined reinterpeted and and misappropriated by the massed who themselves had not been there done that, had no way to actually know what was being taught for themselves, and took the teaching for surface literal interpretations, somehow now different among culture and time, it is the religions that have confused the actual literal spiritual truths immanent and transcendent both and same, the actual literal spiritual experiences of the mystics, prophets, Buddhas Jesus' etc that remain true today for anyone who spends the time and does the work of spiritual development Amen:)

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      Spirits aren't real and god isn't real. People's experiences as described by them are not evidence for spirits or mysticism or religions. You can't be honest and be 'spiritual' OR 'religious'. Neither of those are the truth – face facts and show courage in the face of BS and pressure to buy into it.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • snowboarder

      that is some new-age crap.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • the souldoc

      LOL you guys prove the point, if you havent experienced it for yourself it appears like BS, there is no proof to those who remain ignorant to the experience, they know not:)

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      No, souldoc, we're calling BS on you, and you're providing no evidence, which helps OUR point.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • snowboarder

      souldoc – you are such a sheep. you can be convinced of anything and will be fleeced.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Obviously the writer is taking a shot at people who do not subscribe to societies religions. It's an articel that didn't need to be written and was probably written only because she needed to write it. True spirituality is arrived at via a life long process of self discovery. That process is inhibited when you are brought up inside a prescribed religious ideology. He doesn't get it and never will. The enlightened are the minority who reject popular religions passively. And I'm not talking about Atheists. They're missing out as well. You're either shaman like or you not. That simple. Live in peace and harmony folks, yeah right! But I sincerely hope you find a way that you can.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      You're not a "shaman". Grow up.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  5. Tex Bravery

    There is no god and there are no spirits. Spiritual but not religious is a step on the way to atheism.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Get a Life, Tex

      This is the first and only time I have ever commented on any news story/ opinion piece. I just have to ask, what about religion has you so tore up that you feel you must comment on every single comment on here? Why are you even reading the religion blog of CNN? Just to demean and argue with people? Trying to berate people for their hopes? Sir, I would like to ask you to take your own advice: Grow up and show some courage when dealing with others. I'll be praying for you! ;)

      September 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Athy

      Actually, Tex is probably the most intelligent commenter here. A refreshing breeze in the stench of religious nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  6. J.D.

    Spiritual is feeling God in a personal way. Religious is following a prescribed format to find and/or worship God

    September 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      God isn't real.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • snowboarder

      that spiritual "feeling" is just another of the traits that make up an individual. some part nature. some part nurture. that instills in a person the feeling of religious "connection". probably not significantly different than the trait which instills in an individual an attraction to a member of their own gender.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • JJ1

      Both are psychotic delusions. Please seek help.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Ray

      Your response implies that you believe in God. Assuming that you believe in God, I'm also assuming that you believe God is a higher being with higher levels of knowledge than people. Belief in God also comes with the assumption that God basically created everything. By being "spiritual" and "experiencing God in a personal way," what you're doing is creating God in YOUR image instead of "experiencing God" how He knows would bring us the greatest joy.

      Since God is love and all true happiness is derived from love, it is only by achieving greater union with God that we can be truly happy; everything else is second-rate. God has provided us with a clear set of instructions on how to achieve the closest union possible with him while alive, and these instructions are outlined in the Catholic faith. From personal experience (I'm in my mid-20s) of previously not knowing God and deciding which religion to follow, Catholicism provides the most to the individual in terms of true spiritual growth while we're here, it gives the answers to ALL of the "why" questions, it is fully comprehensive, it is verified, it is doubly-verified, and, I say this out of hope that you desire to find happiness, it is the only path to true inner peace. Catholicism = instructions from God for peace and joy. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; wisdom and instruction fools despise." J.D., over the next two weeks, I'll pray every day that you seek the truth and find the Lord. I tried EVERYTHING else this world has to offer, and finally, I am at peace, and I only got to that peace through the graces offered by God through Catholicism (Mainly confession. I highly recommend confession every week.) I will pray for your peace, your happiness, and your soul. Jesus loves you more than any of us here can fathom. Don't believe me – read Mother Teresa's "I Thirst for You."

      God gave us free will that we might truly love and receive love. Think about it. If I force you to love me, am I really receiving true love? This is why we have choice. You can find peace. You can find happiness. You can find joy. I'll pray you make the choice to open the doors of your heart to Jesus. He waits for us for our whole lives. Don't kick yourself later for waiting so long; I did. He loves us so much that He knocks and waits, never bursts through the doors, knocks and waits, knocks and waits for us to open – for all of our lives.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  7. snowboarder

    this article is pure malarky. the real issue is that the religious are concerned about losing control of the masses.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  8. Tex Bravery

    Being spiritual is BS. You know spirits aren't real. There are no such things as spirits. Grow up and show some courage.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity, it is called black matter by science.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  9. Tra newsome

    The thing about a "personal" relationship with God is that those that enjoin with that need not approval beyond Word of God. Church is by definition several members who fellowship, not support of a building and it's platform or leaders.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      That is one definition of "church" that is only accepted by a small cult of Protestant believers.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Tra newsome

      and what "cult" would that be? I see You are with author of article and trying to pigeon hole people into particular groups.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • serotap

      great point Tra. And to build on that, the author of the article seems to think, arrogantly, that we the little people are the ones in the wrong. The problem is many religious leaders do the very thing he is criticizing....many self righteous leaders create new doctrine to coincide with their own personal "spiritual" experiences. In many cases, these leaders contradict the bible itself...or worse, redefine what the bible says. The political and controlling agenda is a direct contradiction to the liberty found in a relationship with Christ. It's that reason that so many choose to longer be involved in corporate, formal, religious organizations and as a result end up in some meaningless religious effemeral spirituality.

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

      Tra, you don't even realize you're in the group that's being described. For example, in the United States alone, Catholics, Episcopals (within the Anglican Communion), the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, the United Church of Christ, and even Methodists (including George W. Bush) may all be included in the large group of Christians who have a definition of 'church' that differs substantially from yours.

      Please devote your time and energy to the study of Christian beliefs and how they vary.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • serotap

      Tex, Tra is correct. Our only authority is the word of God, not the self righteous doctrines of man. If you have studied the differences between christian groups and other religions, you know that the original christian church was not a corporate, formal organization, despite what all these christian denominations you mentioned may profess. It was a small group of individuals in a community that came together to share their faith, support and to learn from one another. Leaders came from within. Whatever "knowledge" you may have of religion doesn't seem to have benefited you by the comments you have been making.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Athy

      Actually Tex is correct. There just simply is no god. Once we get used to that earth-shaking concept, everything falls into place and makes sense.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • serotap

      Athy, on the contrary, you and Tex represent a fast growing movement to deny the existence of God and the result is more chaos in the world, not less. Some deny God because they see the unacceptable things religious people do in the name of God, and some, like Tex, know just enough about religion to see the faults in it. But that doesn't mean God doesn't exist. You are both looking at it from a faulty perspective. God exists and is more than willing to prove himself to you without the need for you to adhere to a list of do's and don'ts that religion teaches. Don't get hung up on human doctrine. God is bigger than that. That's my sermon for the day.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  10. Search for Truth

    By the way, how do you know what is good and what is not? By what standard do you judge, if in fact you judge? Where did the knowledge of good and evil come from? Just because somebody doesn't acknowledge that there is a God doesn't mean that there isn't. Why do people so freely attack Christianity and yet they don't attack others. I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe. I don't have to prove that I am right and I don't have to attack. The same should be true for others. Let the Christians believe. If it doesn't hurt you, why should you object? To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Truth absolute is good and denial of truth absolute hinduism, is bad.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      Religion is garbage and shouldn't be taught to children.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • snowboarder

      justice is based on the rights of the individual. that is plainly obvious.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • snowboarder

      just because you do not acknowledge all gods of history does not mean every one has existed. see how stupid that logic is?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • snowboarder

      if it were only so simple as allowing your belief. the problem is all the loons that work tirelessly to impose their religious view on the population. against them we must be ever vigilant.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  11. TSuisei

    There is only one population set that does not have to "think too hard" - namely those who fork over their reasoning ability for faith and blindly tow boxed-religion-x, -y or -z's party line. (Kind of like the "followers" of Fox News haha.)

    Following and participating in the advancement of human knowledge through science and philosophy will always lead to the question, "In what is the universe itself contained?" Hence a natural spirituality that surfaces at the current limits of objective findings. Key word: Natural.

    Moral action is not dependent on the threat of hell but on one's own efforts toward character refinement and sense of honor - neither of which require saying 3 hail Marys or bouncing your head off the floor while facing east.

    What's the matter? Coffers drying up? Is that why you feel threatened by humans who are actually evolving?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  12. David

    We are the higher power. Being spiritual to me means being alive and knowing what that means. I'm still very rational and definetly atheist. Being positvie comes naturally and quite frankly isn't rocket science.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  13. Fred

    The only rational thing to believe is that there is nothing after this life.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  14. George

    Spiritual, believing in God as the Living Presence in each of us, regardless of one's 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 9:14 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Word God means truth absolute and nothing can exist without truth absolute GOD.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      Except all evidence suggests there is no God and there are no spirits.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • mkar

      Tex,
      Can you list some of those evidences for our benefit? Thanks in advance...

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  15. thecollegeadmissionsguru

    I am an atheist. I used to say I was "spiritual" and in a way it was a cop-out. I think what it points to is the fact that this newer generation is finally coming to terms with the weakness of the religious cause. They are more scientific thinkers, they ask questions, they do not simply accept tenents on faith, and it's about time.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  16. Tera O'Hara

    ""These" people?" ""Theirs" is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, not-trying-ness"?

    What exactly are you practicing? Possibly a practice worthy of keeping a distance. Spiritual people search for meaning, purpose, and connectedness, not the superior way of believing. Shame on you for making such far reaching efforts to discolor people who deserve to be honored and respected. This is just an effort to humiliate those that have gone "Rogue" from the model of domination that you have clearly bought into.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  17. Fred

    The only danger is believing stupid things that don't exist like God or a higher power.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      Spirits aren't real. There are no such things as spirits.

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

      Uhhhh yeah...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  18. Justbobinnj

    The author would have us believe that the spiritual not religious crowd is self-centered and lazy? In my opinion, those who go along with whatever their religion says are the lazy ones. To blindly follow where blindly led is ridiculous. The unspoken message of most religions is, "Just do as we say and nobody gets hurt." And at the heart of the spiritual not religious movement isn't an unwillingness to take a position, but rather an unwillingness to pretend to follow doctrines that often are so lacking in common sense as to be laughable.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  19. JewelE

    Religious people try to be good so they can please God & get into Heaven after they die.

    Atheists try to be good despite believing in nothing after death-they try to be good for absolutely no ulterior or soul-preserving motive what-so-ever. That makes Atheists better people.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • MrCurve

      Whatever you say bud...lol

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

      So their secular beliefs will make the world a brighter, safer, and more progressive place rather than destroying it to get to heaven for "72 virgins." Yup sounds a little too rational, sorry dude lol

      September 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  20. Ben

    Religion is irrational. At the same time, it can't be denied that death sucks. Once one takes these two things into consideration, it stands to reason that a lot of people are "spiritual but not religious".

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Advertisement
About this blog

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.