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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. paddy

    Happiness agenda? WTH? You mean, the govenment wants to see people happy instead of locking them up or sending them off to fight? That really would be the end of the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  2. Martin

    This guy is full of crap. I was a catholic but i stopped going to church more than 10 years ago. The reason, well I finally learned that all religions are full of crap, just as this guy. All the religious leaders calm to be all about peace and love but if your from different religion or gay or lesbian they are ready to kill you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  3. Patrick Hamilton

    The problem is people do not have a proper definition of either religion or spiritual. Spiritual deals with the 'invisible' or 'unseen' realities which cannot necessarily be demonstrated as true by physical sciences, but can nerveless be true through other forms of knowledge (ie, some sort of divine revelation, or philosophical inquiry). Religion coming from the Latin, religio, refers to the rites and practices associated with a particular group and surrounding particular events, and this does not necessitate that they be 'spiritual', but can also be secular.

    The problem for this so called SBNR crowd, is that their statement is impossible in a logical sense. While someone can be religious without being spiritual (as in someone can be following certain rites and rituals without belief in the divine) one cannot be spiritual without being religious. One who claims a belief in a higher power in which they take seriously and wish to have a relationship or contact/communion must have some WAY, a 'How' or method, to interact with it. The picture of this article showing the man on the beach, he has assumed a meditative/prayerful stance, I'm assuming because he wishes some sort of communion with whatever 'spiritual' being/energy he thinks exists. He is engaging in a rite, practice, ritual which means he is by definition being religious, regardless of whatever he thinks/feels.

    I must confess, while I do not think the author did the best job of describing how the SBNR is a 'cop-out', I tend to agree with him. The people who make this claim have a poor logic to back it up, and, generally, it helps when they do not have a 'church' to answer to, who could challenge the silliness of being SBNR.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • snowboarder

      spirituality is standing in a silent room and pretending or convincing yourself that you are hearing something meaningful.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Bill

      Oddly enough I have found that logic and reason can help with what might be considered a spiritual inquiry. They only go so far though, and that's sort of by definition. If the mind could explain what it was that the whole person hungers for, then logic and reason would be all that would be necessary. That's obviously not the case.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  4. AvdBergism source of AvdBergfilthyracism.

    Only by AvdBerg absurdity of a AvdBerg, hindu and pagan. Filthy Christian Captain Crunch dog. Filthy pagan hindu pig dog. Filthy Randy Jackson dog. Filthy hebrew national beef dog. Filthy Ron Jeremy foot-long dog.

    NO DOGS!! Who let them be out? Quran means nothing else but path of triple abdullah absolute quantified. please visit ahmadinebinpaid.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file. But turn virus protection off before.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  5. snowboarder

    with every bit of knowledge gained, religion loses control of society.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • Bill

      Boarder - searching and gaining knowledge, either individually or collectively, based on the scientific method, is a beautiful thing indeed. No doubt.

      If you happen to have or are going to study Physics, pay close attention to the coverage of an experiment that was done at the turn of the last century ... it's the one that is the basis for Quantum Mechanics ... it's called the "double-slit experiment". This turned all of science on it's head. To take a shortcut, g**gle "the measurement problem" ... you see, there is no defining what you are made of without, in tandem, defining who you are ....

      It's a wonderful ride man ... don't get off the lift mid-station ... go all the way to the top :)

      September 30, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  6. Steve

    So what if people learned to read by reading the bible. That doesn't make it true. Religions have always been purely political movements disguised in hocus-pocus lies.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • snowboarder

      in the middle east they likely learned by reading the koran. i guess that makes it equally valid.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  7. Rene

    To Alan Miller: Alan, speak for yourself! Let other people deside what we feel is right. Your statement "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." is both short minded and ignorant. You do not know what experiences someone had in the past. Again, speak for yourself and let others deside what's best for them/us!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  8. Raj

    HELL AND HEAVEN ARE METAPHORS. WHEN THERE IS PEACE ON EARTH IT IS HEAVEN. WHEN THERE IS HATRED AND WAR IT IS HELL. ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS THIS IS SPIRITUAL.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Athy

      Turn off your caps lock, you nitwit.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  9. kathleenrobinson425

    No, no, no, you cannot narrow human experience and the unfathomable vastness of the Universe into an arbitrary either or choice: religion and the scriptures (which scriptures? whose scriptures?) or Enlightenment, reason, and rationality. First, you assume that all religion and spirituality require scriptures. Stop right there. Says who? And that there is no continuum between the two choices, when experience and research reveal that existence is a continuum. The search for spirituality is a continuum, from the beginning to the end of life, and, I assume, beyond.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  10. Bobby Uppot

    God in the Bible says that we live in a fallen world. A place where men sin and there is a war between good and evil. We must choose whether to follow God through Jesus or whether we think that doing whatever we want is right. The standard that the Bible sets is the agape love of Jesus. You must love God first and put Him first then you are a Christian. You suffer terrible consequences if you don't choose to follow God. He despises sinners. Talk to your priests and read the Bible.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • JJ1

      "Talk to your priests and read the bible". How about growing a brain instead.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Michael

      Islam makes the same kind of pathetic threats, as do several other religions. If you're trying to pick a religion solely as a "get out of hell free" card, then you've probably already got problems that no religion can solve. Satan and hell have been favored bogeymans of the church for centuries, and their primary purpose is to make people afraid to think for themselves, to scare them from daring to be critical about the religion's outlandish claims.

      As Mark Twain put it, "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also."

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  11. Just2BClear

    A very bizarre stance. Usually, you see the position that "my religion is correct and all the other religions are wrong". Here you have an author who says "Pick ANY religion. Doesn't matter as long as you pick one. Not choosing one is the only wrong option." OK so Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hindu, Hare Krishna, Branch Davidians, Heck, Scientology, Mormans....all are the right path?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • JJ1

      Yes, choose anything but reason for it's better to belong to any cult than to slide towards reason for the next thing you know you'll be a filthy atheist.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  12. Fred

    What BS, Spiritual folks are all over the board just like religious people are. If organized religions weren't so focused on money and power, people wouldn't be rejecting them at the current rate. Some may be fence sitters but others are very serious in their study, and everywhere in-between.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  13. mmorningstar58@hotmail.com

    Nothing wrong with have doubts or not knowing the answers to the big questions. I'd rather be skeptical, doubtful, even confused that follow a religion in blind faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • snowboarder

      if only that independent thought were more common.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  14. The day

    My friend and I had to go to church once to research openmindedness. We were so terrified at about 20 minutes in that we fled the church. People talking to themselves seems unnatural to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  15. ItSoNlYmE

    Why is it any of anyone's business but mine? If everybody would worry about themselves instead of sticking their nose into what other people believe, the world would be a MUCH better place, and a lot less people would die violent deaths. Buzz off Jack...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  16. Michael

    Writers Question: Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it?
    The Gospel of Michael : Jesus Christ was spiritual not religious . Its amazing at how Christ like spiritual non religious folks get crucified by supposed fellow Christian. After all isn't being a Christian supposed to be living like Christ? The writer should recheck his personal stance on that fence!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  17. Jon

    I can't fathom why this non-argument against a non-movement is on CNN at all. I can watch Romney campaign ads to hear this type of crap. "Spirituality" is not a movement. Jesus said God is spirit, and to worship him in spirit. No one would argue the horrors created daily in a world of religions that have no spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  18. Whatever

    This guy is an idiot. CNN should not put this crap on there website...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  19. Stryper fan on the loose in Oklahoma City

    Look how many comments this article drew! I fear we are in a cycle of sponsoring ignorance in order to feel smart for a few seconds. It's worse then crack. Must....have....discipline...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  20. Rob

    What an incredibly dull, judgemental, and close minded article. I'm a little appalled that this was even considered news...this sounds more and more like a rant you'd hear on an evangelical show at 2 in the morning.

    Neither the author nor anyone else has a right to tell someone how they must make their peace with their chosen maker. There's no "fence sitting" about it, but no decision HAS to be made.

    Maybe all religions are both right and wrong? Or is that too fence sitting a mentality? Gosh, sure wish I could make decisions for myself rather than assuming that maybe mankind has absolutely no right to dictate what God (or Goddess, by any name chosen) is, as an absolute.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 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.