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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. streetlightthief

    Today's spirituality is a result of years of being crushed under the weight of religious oppression, across the world. It's still happening everyday, faith is being used as a veil to mask hidden agendas. A few decades ago, though, there would be no way out but to become a pariah or follow a set routine of mechanical motions.
    And in different parts of the world the author may or may not have been exposed to in his life, people are ready to chop off someone's head because they believe in a different concept of life and god.
    Seeing these events, growing up in these environments; it's actually quite easy to see why any and all religion would be condemned as another artifact of the pre-civilized world.
    Also the author's non-acknowledgement of religions apart from christianity, which do have methods for attaining god through solitary meditation and other forms of independent work, shows a clear lack of depth in his knowledge about the subject.
    Religion is good, in it's essence it should serve people, bring them together, pass on the ideals and cherished teachings of great people who have lived before, and always be there to help everyone. But when it deviates from that, and even worse when it becomes a tool for one or a small group of individuals, then it becomes a virus in society.
    God doesn't need religion. God is love.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • tu

      Finally some honesty. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • tu

      Honesty. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  2. Jen

    How in the world can the author overgeneralize to imply that spiritual followers are not moral. To the contrary, it is because spiritual people believe in God, togetherness, unity and faith, love and purity, that they will not be swayed to lose hope, abuse or be a negative person. Why slam people who believe in God yet don't feel that they are able to fit into one particular religious doctrine? Unlike the author purports, many spiritual people investigate the bible and other doctrines, as well as find deep meaning in what these texts say. One can be very convicted in their belief system. Perhaps if spiritual followers simply found a better label this author would be convinced that they, in fact, do stand up for their beliefs. Also, there is nothing wrong with investigating multiple texts. I don't see the correlation between this and a lack of conviction. Weak arguments, at best. I would have rather read an article from the author about his religion and defense of his religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  3. Matt

    Can someone really be this ignorant to believe that because someone doesn't have organized religion that they are a fence sitter? I get that this is an opinion piece, but it's a pretty scary opinion piece. If you need to believe in rigid religious beliefs to have a purpose then you are a weak minded individual. I have no problem with anyone having religion, but trying to diminish those that don't with such a broad stroke is ridiculous and lacking in any common sense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  4. gggg

    It's not that they don't want to be religious. They probably did. But they looked at groups that were supposed to promote peace, love, tolerance and be inclusive turn out to be hateful, exclusive and intolerant of anyone who did not believe as they did. It quickly becomes a massive case of "It's not God I have a problem with. It's his fan club". Or more to the point, his ORGANIZED fan club. When the worlds religions finally begin to actually practice what they preach, perhaps you will find that the "spiritual-but-not-religious" crowd will find their way to a church. But until the worlds current crop of religions actually get a clue, I would just as soon see them diminish in size. Perhaps when they are replaced by other groups we may actually see some peace.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  5. Bridget1964

    I am also offended by this article. After being raised Catholic and having religion slammed down my throat, I chose a non-religious life. I am an educated professional, live a life where I don't break any laws, don't harm others, treat others as I wish to be treated, volunteer for several local charities...I do believe in a higher power, I just don't need an organization to tell me how to act or what to believe.

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

      But why do you believe in a higher power? There is no credible evidence for it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  6. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file to learn truth about religion's.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  7. Another opinion

    This guy just doesn't get it. Spiritual but not religous is transformational. The article's author seems to think that we cant figure out great spiritual and religous truths on our own. No he needs to lead the sheeple to his way of thinking. Get bent dude.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  8. Michelle

    It amazes me to the core that people can be so convinced that a bunch of MEN wrote things down that a bunch more MEN altered and put together into a book and then some MEN told everyone God told them this is all the right and good stuff and you all have to BELIEVE. Every aspect of every religion is 100% indisputably man-made. Imperfect, fallible, corrupt, hungry for self-importance – MEN.

    But God says the bible is the truth! Oh, he told you that? No? Men did.

    But God said blessed are those that don't see and still believe! Oh, he told you that? No? Man did.

    But God said... God promised... Scripture tells us... Bla bla bla. MEN.

    Literally the ONLY connection to God comes from spirituality. If you find that in religion, great. You win despite your distinct disadvantage. For those of us open to reality and the marvelous world around us, that connection comes easier. And we tend to be far, far more peaceful and loving than religious folks, which seems right to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Kevin

      I'm a man and I approve of Michelle's message. lol.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  9. Epidi

    The scary thing is you probably believe all the cr-ap you just wrote. I'm not an athiest but I know tripe when I see it and this is alot of that.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  10. Rodeo_Joe

    Let us keep Freedom of Religion.
    Freedom to choose, or even not to choose.

    Be American. Live Free.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      out truth absolute, GOD, foundation of American canti tution, without, one is not a American.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  11. Matt

    Perhaps the worst article I have ever read on CNN. Aside from being factually incorrect, the entire premise of the article rest on the fallacy that chosing a strict set of archaic guidelines for belief is inherently "good". Never mind that the bible was written by men with a political agenda in a time when women were viewed as property and not people or that religion has been and continues to be the deadliest force on the planet. If you read this article and agreed with it, you are exactly what is wrong with world.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  12. Good News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    which is supported by an absolutely matchless, Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

    So it is time to be Spiritual, and yes, also rightfully Religious!

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • snowboarder

      no one is stupid enough to fall for that.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  13. Tex Bravery

    God isn't real. Spirits aren't real. "Religious" is BS. "Spiritual" is BS. None of us on the side of facts and evidence are going to be mad if any of you want to admit it after saying otherwise for a long time. We get it. The pressure is on to buy into this BS even when it seems clear that it's all suspension of disbelief, like a stage magic show, and it can be fun, but please, people admit that stage magic is fake when they leave the show. You always have the option to admit the truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • rebirth

      You're not real.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  14. grateful soul

    we'll see when we're dead, won't we...in the meantime...i'm going to keep on believing that someone out there is looking out for me. afterall, my life has been perserved on a number of ocassions. so i am grateful and try to live humbly.
    if that's you God, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • snowboarder

      it fascinates me of what a person can convince themselves.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      God isn't real. Spirits aren't real. "Religious" is BS. "Spiritual" is BS.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  15. Epidi

    Obviously the author hasn't a clue about life beyond the walls of an organized church. I am Pagan. I do not attend coven meetings – I am a solitare, but I do go to gatherings and sabbat celebrations with the local community of Pagans, Wiccans, etc. So I guess you could say I am spiritual but not religious if that means I don't go to church every week. But that is because I live my spiritual path every day, and not to the tune of someone else's rythym of how I should commune with deity. That is a deeply personal and internal ativity – it's nobody else's bisuness. Pagans are voracious learners – we read everything. We take what is useful and resonates with how we choose to live as individuals and discard the rest. We are Nature people and the universe is our deity. From it we came and to it we will return and be recycled. We also tend to be community oriented when it comes to helping in charitable affairs of our fellow human beings, animals, and enviromental issues. No one needs to condemn me to hell for not going to church. My life, how I live it, & how I love and am loved is my church.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      God isn't real. Spirits aren't real. Magic isn't real. Grow up.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Epidi

      Hahaha! You think I wave a wand around & try to be a Harry Potter witch? LOL. You watch too much TV and Hollywood garbage. And I didn't say I was Wiccan – I said Pagan. You grow up and educate yourself with science on the nature of the universe and how we live in it and then we'll talk.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  16. No fear please

    I just want to live a simple life, being kind, and productive, and compassionate to others. I don't need the walls of a Church, or the rules of a religion, to make me a good person. My actions are my Church. I would rather act each day, as if I , and everyone around me matters....than to show up ,pleading on Sunday Mornings, that all my bad has been forgiven, by a man in a robe.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • snowboarder

      without eating the flesh of god and drinking his blood your soul is lost.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  17. snowboarder

    it is obvious from the article that the religious are concerned about the loss of control of the masses.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  18. craig

    Well written, ridiculous article. Can't believe CNN would publish this including the photo. What's the point really? Can you say ill-informed? judgmental? Self righteous? One of the things that is wrong with this article (among many others) is exactly what is wrong with most religous zealots. Hope the author self reflects.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  19. :)

    Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists are misguided and causes problem in our religious & public society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler (denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders who killed religious people because of their religious cult!
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most atheists are uneducated... No atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are atheists/agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    † † Our Prayers goes to atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †

    PS! the USA is a † nation and will always be. You know it's true and stop being ignorant and arrogant!
    (Take a look at our federal/state holidays, 99% of our presidents, blue laws in parts of the nation, name of some cities/counties/streets, the majority of people, some laws, calendar, culture, etc.)
    http://rightremedy.org/tracts/7 .

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • snowboarder

      what drivel

      September 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • hvajvanhasdkvha

      you're a moron

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Ken

      You are pure evil

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Jim

      Perfect post. It explains why I turned my back on religion better than I ever could.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • rebirth

      Religion makes you judgmental and blind. The proof is in your ridiculous list. Being spiritual does not equate to atheism.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Matt 2

      You are a simpleton.
      I'm surprised you can work a computer.
      ... even one with a key for a little cross.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Joe

      Wow you've done a fine job making people run away from your religion. What an idiot. If anyone was sitting on the fence, after reading your post, they're running away. Utter stupidity.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  20. hvajvanhasdkvha

    "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."
    ^^^^^^
    Yeah, he's probably an authority. Glad he's trying to lecture me on religion with his vast background in religious studies.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 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.