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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. Illuminata

    Well well, I sense some hostility. Did you know that Christian counselors say that 50% of people who come into counseling have problems dealing with anger. If you love your religion, good for you but to begrudge others for their views well this is how wars get started. Sometimes the best thing to do is work on asking why we are so angry and stay focused on what needs to be changed in our own self to make us better people. Maybe if you do that, then people will be more attracted to your religion by your example. God bless.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  2. Sam G

    Lol, his choice of photo is about as equivalent to us using an angry, evangelist, southern preacher to portray his side of this terrible argument.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  3. Tim

    Unwilling to take a real position... What an impertinent, ignorant jerk author Alan is. Sure it's an unreal position from a religious zealot's vantage point, but he doesn't know the depth of one spiritual person's beliefs carved out by his or her own journey. After the religious bashing we receive from the day we are born, it takes more guts to rationally look at religion and reject it because it is no longer the shining light for humanity's hope in a better future, but instead it's shackles for arrested development.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  4. andreafromsd

    I find it interesting that one of the first things I learned as a small child in Catholic school was that God (and only God) is the judge of us and whether or not we get into heaven. We do not know who he will or won't let in. We don't know what actions we take on earth could deny us entry. We just don't know. Most of the things I learned at Catholic school are actually the reasons I do not go to church anymore... because a lot of people are so lost in in the facade of religion that they lose sight of its intentions. So, yes, I am spiritual (as in I believe in God and power higher than myself) but I am not religious (as in I do not need to jump through all the hoops of man-made organized religion to feel worthy of God's love). In being so, I still have principles and feel I have purpose in my life. My sole existence is not surrounded by the need for "nice things" or to "feel better" but rather to be a good citizen and contribute to society.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  5. RedheadWriting

    Well, now you've gone and done it. Sweeping generalizations conveniently applied to those who choose to not follow your path and assign a particular dogma or boxed-in faith to their lives as you do. I abhor religion, as that's my freedom to do so, yet I do believe I am connected to people and this universe. That is spirituality. While you started what is definitely a heated conversation, I'd beg you to skip pontificating on the religious drop-down menu of Match.com and ask yourself: does my failure to affiliate with a defined political party equate to my disbelief in the political system? Heavens to Betsy. I'll be over here (with my spirituality), asking the question I deem to be important.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Richard Marks

      Can just anybody write whatever piffle they choose for CNN? Apparently so. There is NOTHING to drop out of in organized religion. Usually we are happy when people get out of cults; however, when the cults are the accepted ones (the organized religions), we seem aghast. Organized religions are man-made – ALL of them – and we should be happy when people wake up and begin to go beyond them. The sooner the organized religions die, the better. Imagine a world without Judaism, Christianity, Islam . . . a world without Hinduism . . . Buddhism ... just imagine how much better a world it will be.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  6. FloydZepp

    Alan Miller's real problem with "Spirtual but Not Religious" is that it takes young people out of the control of aging white men and their fading Christianity. Alan is one of the fading desperate that still think God NEEDS them to reach other people's hearts. Alan, God doesn't need your help to do HIS job. You aren't necessary.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  7. Warren

    God forbid people find their own way to be spiritual. I'm sure God, Allah, or whomever it is sitting upstairs would have a massive problem with people worshiping in their own ways. "offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind", in other words we need you to believe what we tell you to believe. That way we can get your money and coerce you to vote how we tell you to.

    Sorry Ted, we know you lived a righteous life and were a wonderful person, however you need to be a christian gold member or higher to get in to heaven, enjoy hell.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Eric

      well said Warren, i feel the same way.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  8. ghostdansing

    The only requirement for being spiritual is a sense of higher power(s). This seems to be an inherent potential for human beings as they live their existence in the face of the unknown, with angst about mortality and death being the fundamental unknown, but also the wonders of birth, the magic of life and an universe that seems to dance to a music all its own and of which we are a part. Spirituality can focus on the positive, on light, and the struggle between moral polarities... between good and evil. There can be the spiritual that emphasizes the light, or the dark aspects of human nature and the conditions in which it emerges and exists. Organized religion is at once a testimony to the human experience that there is something ("it is probably not what we understand as "thing" at all, or can understand at all from the perspective of mortal existence) beyond... something more, AND a reification of that experience. In many ways it is a premature truncation of wonder and the sense of unknowing, where some religions emphasize the practice of blind-faith in some revelation or another, and unfortunately pack-in with their concrete "answers" simple human excuses for banal bigotry and the mistreatment of others. On the other hand, religion, in its reification, can provide the concrete steps and icons that can be used by people in their seeking, and a pathway to spiritual sensibility. Just as human spiritual outside the religious structures can be of either a good or evil nature, evil spirituality can be bundled along with the good, buried in the concrete walls of religion; artifacts of human error as the church was built.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  9. Matt

    This is a dumb article. Some people can't understand why people can't just fall into one easily labeled category like atheist or Christian. I am not a Christian because I don't believe what the religon teaches and I don't believe that the bible is the word of god. I am not an atheist because I believe that there is life after death and that there may be a God out there. I don't have all the answers but stop arrogantly assuming that everyone has to fall into a specific category (like democrat and republican...)

    September 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Clarke

      Very well said, will all that fit on a t-shirt?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • sarda

      The soul is divine and eternal. there is a life after death. human body is given by God to attain the Divine love, otherwise, we won't know what we become....Need genuine Saint to explain all about it. please read "The Philosophy of Divine Love" by H.D Swami Prakashanand Saraswat.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Matt

      Clarke: Are you trying to be sarcastic? The universe is not a simple place. Try reading up on current science. The human race is still in the process of learning. It's too early to come to definitive conclusions about things when we still don't know all the facts.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Reggie

      Totally understand you not believing in God because you don't believe in what the religion teaches. I promise you I was there at point. Then it hit me...all these religions are trying to convince me their is "right" and they all have decent principles and moral concepts. What do I follow? I decided to ask God, Himself, and if He wanted me to pursue Him and follow Him, He'd respond to my plea for Him to show me what's right as oppose to me reading something and having to make the decision on my own. In a tough few weeks of waiting, God revealed to me Jesus and to follow the Bible. It was so comforting because I didn't have to rely on man to help make my decision. I just encourage you to set aside some time and ask Him if you sincerely care to know.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • AlGhandy

      "Karma sutra"? Really? Authors has to do at least minimal research on topic if he has no clue what he is writing about. Kama and Karma two absolutely different words. And using in a sentence " Kama Sutra or Qur'an" either incredibly stupid or intentionally provocative. Judging by the rest of the article, it is probably first.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  10. DocHollywood

    And yet, you could argue that organized religion is the "cop out". Because you're given the excuse that what you do is not based on right or wrong but on what was written and interpreted by men over thousands of years ago. And even on a deeper level, it allows you to excuse your behavior in your actions against other religions, because your organization is the true belief, because they told you so.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  11. JP

    Important questions like "How do we keep the money flowing?"...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  12. Proud to be a cop-out

    "spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out"

    And how do you feel about organized religions protecting pedophiles from prosecution? Over, and over, and over again. When the religious organization becomes more important than the spiritual, and physical, well being of their members, then you have a cult....and time to shut them down. Any other organization we would have zero tolerance for such horrendous behavior. But organized religion...well, that's different the church leaders feel.

    Make no mistake, the failure here is not the individual....it is organized religion. And they just don't get it, and they never will because "listening" is a weakness to them.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  13. Olijah- Spiritual & Religious

    Jesus Christ is coming soon. You can find Jesus everywhere....McDonalds, Mailbox, water cooler at work, chick-Fila, and in the car. It doesn't matter where you serve God. The important thing is to try to Follow God's Law. Jesus Christ saves us from our sin. Jesus does not desire for us to continually live in sin. Repent of your sins. The Son of God is coming. Jesus Christ is coming soon. Peace.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • One one

      Thanks for the heads up.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  14. Chedar

    There no other connection in spirituality except in one's consciousness. Cultivate minfullnes and the scriptures of the enlightened mind will come naturally to you.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  15. Chucky

    So you're telling us how to be religious now Alan? You're the supreme person to tell people how to live their lives? I have some suggestions on how you can live your life Alan but I'm afraid CNN can't reprint where your head is currently.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • mikithinks

      Being spritual rather than religious seem to be the true ethical way to go. There have too many unspritual clerics, and far, far too many religious wars. Crusades and fatwahs are rarely started by the thinking meditating spritual persons, but by the religious clerics. One example is the good sumerian who gave aid to the traveler. He was one of the people hated by many of the jews of the time, Sumeria has been absorbed part of the middle east which is mostly a muslim with a code of being charitable to the traveler. The zeal of conversion of others o one's particular faith often leads to the frustration and hate when the "infedil/heathens" don't see the brillance of one's arguments. What many "religious" people don't understand is that "by thy deed they shall know thee". When religions become truly spritual perhaps then they can convert.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  16. case

    I love that my generation is moving on from the dry boring heaven and hell religions are parents and grandparents followed. Times have changed and we are evolving. Go and bask in the light. It is pretty much proven now that there is life after death and we all go to the light, then it's on to the next one.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  17. les

    I can't believe this article is the front page off CNN!!! The arrogance of someone to dismiss other peoples belief systems thinking theres is the best.. OH that's right isn't that what every religion does? I will take spiritualism any day!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Andre

      This article is not about religion it is about self serving greed. that is why it is on the front page

      September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  18. Bill Vaananen

    This is the top story on CNN online today? I am increasingly turned off by CNN's sensationalism and its bowing to the most simplistic headlines, stories, and viral videos from pop culture. I long for NEWS. So often I find myself instead logging onto the New York TImes, where a story on religion vs. spirituality would not sounds like it was written by a high schooler.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  19. jenngg

    Completely offensive.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  20. Rob Keith

    September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
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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.