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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 (9,994 Responses)
  1. Halfpatrick

    This is one of the most condescending and ignorant pieces of garbage that I have read in a long time. I am not going to take the time to go through every problem I have with this authors over-generalized and super hypocritical take on this subject because I don't need to waste half an hour of my time and I don't need to make myself more hyper and angry. So many of the worlds problems come from the archaic, uncompromising, and elitist tenets of organized religion that it is no big surprise that so many have run away from it. In my opinion, the world would be a much better place if we were all 'spiritual but not religious' rather than elitist sheep clinging to the religion that we happen to have been taught or chosen.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      the world would be a better place if people would simply stop believing in make-believe fairy tales and magic.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • Pete

      Couldn't agree more. This is pure trash. Surprised they let it on the site. Considering many of the founding fathers were deists this is exactly the the reason for separation of church and state. What an appalling attack on people for not believing in what you believe. Organized religions seem to have no shame in attacking everyone who disagrees with them. Makes me ill. Its called FREEDOM of Religion. Just because some choose to have their own view doesnt make them any less as a citizen of this country which was founded on the basis of religious freedom and to escape religious persecution. Cripes!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • mike

      Yep. The access to information and communication with others (The internet revolution) that previous generations never had before is why these , very progressive, movements are coming about. I am very happy and proud of the generation younger than myself finally standing up to traditions that are based on exclusion and indoctrination which bare little difference to open hate groups. Well done, I wish i could live long enough to see all the success and progress you will accomplish as you tear off the ancient shackles.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • HK

      I agreed with you. That's the reason I left my religious organization a few years ago. I feel free and actually my spirituality is higher than before.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  2. snowboarder

    the courage to challenge religious dogma is a virtue.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • Agapatos

      ...as is the courage to assent to it, when you find it to be sound.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • snowboarder

      agap – unfortunately, there is no possiblity of that occurence. religion is called the opiate of the masses for a reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
  3. WeWereOnTheMoon

    Thank God for people like Allen Miller who tell us the proper way how to be spiritual. What a deep thinking individual he is. I feel bad for Allen that he happen to live in the 21st century where stupid ideas like gravitational force mess up youngsters believes in a god who walks on water. Keep the faith Allen and may the force be with you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • Tom

      When worship no longer requires church, the tax free business of "Selling God" suffers... and articles like this one are written.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  4. Doonef

    I don't care much about the article, but does anyone agree that the picture is hardly flattering?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • DarkArtist

      I'm sure the art director's at CNN's online department were giggling when they spotted this photo while perusing the Getty Images stock photography catalog. LOL

      September 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  5. Sintine

    Abandon Belief for Direct Experience.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  6. kevin

    Lots of good comments. What a condescending load of bunk this article is! It takes someone who does NOT think very independently or in fact logically to believe ANY religion, as there is massive factual evidence that basically disproves all of them. The only thing that can't (or hasn't yet) been disproved is the existence of a God or supernatural omnicient being...which will probably NEVER be able to be proved / disproved.

    I think that many people who say they are "spiritual but not religious" are taking the first step – seeing that organized religion is based on man-made myths...yet they "feel" there is more. That "feeling" is probably why so many people cling to religion (even though it is not rational). When I started thinking for myself, I moved from religious to atheist...but in the middle I professed to be "agnostic", which is kind-of the "sanitized" version of atheist. I think a lot of these "spiritual" people just want to be viewed as "good people"...but realize religion is bankrupt. I encourage them to think and study even deeper – and realize that atheism / science is actually reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  7. cbtx67

    This guy has apparently never been to a Unitarian Universalist church. We are encouraged to find faith, research truth, and find out what our credo is. Not credo as in what we believe, but the true latin meaning of "what we give our heart to". Organized religions in general, and in VERY general are just people telling people what their happy ending is. Heaven to me is a too convenient happy ending. My "sister" in the next pew may find it the perfect happy ending, but we can still sit in the same church, fellowship and not have to persecute each other. A muslim can sit next to a catholic, next to a pagan, next to a humanist, and still see the holy in each other while being as devout as we wish. In my self and group led discovery in my "spiritual but not religious" church, I have come to many hard truths through our commitment to social justice programs, leadership training and community ministries. One of which is becoming a vegetarian because of one of our tenants(how I personally interpreted it) about the inherent worth and dignity of every being and being part of the interconnected web of life. This author seems like he may be feeling a little threatened in his pulpit, he should be......but this is not necessarily a bad thing, its called enlightenment.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      You can steal the phrase "enlightenment" and apply it to make believe magic all you want, but if you're still worshipping gods and spirits, then you're no more enlightened than a sacred cow.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  8. Agapatos

    "Spiritual but not religious" is usually cowardice...Those who don't have the guts to step out in faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Michael

      Actually, it's usually religion that's the telltale sign of cowardice... there's no need to think for yourself when a holy book and a preacher are doing it for you. Just nod your head complacently and don't dare to think critically about anything pertaining to the faith. If everyone ELSE believes it, it must be true! No need to rock the boat by asking uncomfortable questions.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • TrueBlue42

      Or, those who haven't yet mustered the courage to come out as Atheists. My heart goes out to them.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Agapatos

      No, because they're already LIVING it. Their struggle is not whether to believe or not, but whether to live it or not. If you're living it, you AUTOMATICALLY (a fortiori) believe it, and it doesn't matter how or by whom those beliefs are stated, because you know that it is working for you, in your life.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Jeff

      Not everyone wants to be a Christian, and for good reason. You folks have a long history of hate and destruction. Even your owners manual is full of hate. Those who seek the "spiritual, but not religious" path isn't a cop out as your say. It's just the lesser of two evils.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • Michael

      Yes, shut the brain off and drink the kool-aid. You'd make a great cult leader, Agapatos.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • snowboarder

      faith is the suspension of critical thought.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  9. Michael

    The only thing this article does is expose the author's prejudices. To the author, it is only possible to have firm beliefs if one belongs to an organization. Thus, anyone who does not belong to a club, must not have firm beliefs. And based on that logic he launches in to a critique of all these "spiritual but not religious" people who have no firm beliefs. I identify myself as spiritual, but not religious. What I mean by that is that I know of no religious organizations (ie., religions) that fit my beliefs.

    Personally I think membership in a religious organization is the greatest cop-out - rather than confronting reality yourself to try to understand, you simply pay your dues, put your membership card in your wallet, and let someone else (the church "leaders"), do your thinking for you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Agapatos

      Unless you actually believe that that organization is infallible in its doctrines of faith and morals.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • snowboarder

      agap – why would anyone do that unless they were sheep?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Agapatos

      Because their hero is known as the "LAMB OF GOD."+

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Kristen

      Bravo Michael. Perfectly and succinctly stated.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • snowboarder

      agap =- yours is a statement of no substance.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • Agapatos

      IIt's got much substance. It says that it is a virtue to be meek and humble, and accepting a religion (despite the failings of its members) is a very good and virtuous thing, especially in our culture that preaches the very opposite.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • snowboarder

      agap – again, you refer to writings that have no substance and no veracity.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  10. Emmet

    Spirituality is about self discovery in a world unknown. Religion is what fills in the blanks for those who can't grasp the mystery in life. Belief in religion will only complicate life further-consider all recent advances in science that benefit mankind, yet are not embraced because they challenge fundamental ideology taught by the church. Consider the great minds centuries ago who were punished for their 'heretic' geocentric views.

    My girlfriend's parents do not approve of me because I am an atheist. I started going to church to support my girlfriend since her parents were also upset that she hadn't gone to church and (quoting her father) that 'she needs to rebuild her relationship with God.' I stopped going to church with her after a month-I witnessed folks acting out in ways that would get them arrested if they were to do so in a public setting. People talking to themselves, screaming and shouting, having epileptic sessions-but hey, the church is an environment that allows such activity.

    I'd like to say I have faith in humanity-that we'll work towards a better future for ourselves and our environment. But religion is holding us back and the author points out, you can't have sit on the fence or have it both ways. It's time we let religion go.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • me

      amen to that Emmet

      September 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Tibby

      I agree – I live in a small, rural town of 3200 and there are 14.....yes, 14 "churches" in this town because the majority of them can not get along, work together and ALL are complaining that they are financially struggling in this down economy. Let me be the 1st to point out – there are TOO many of them in 1 town!! After half a life of living here, I am still "shunned" because I will not commit to attending ANY of them. I would much rather mow my lawn every Sunday morning and ask Mother Nature to bring me another great harvest and growing season than hand over my hard earned dollars to fanatics. Even my neighbors have commented that I am a more caring and giving person than those that attend these cult organizations and beat their chests that they are Christians and hold themselves above me in society. I say, off to Hell with all of them!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • HK

      Well said Emmet.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  11. Winter

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    I would argue that being "Religious" is avoiding having to think too hard about things, and avoiding deciding things.

    In Religion, you are "taught" what to believe. Your beliefs, when expressed, are only valued when they conform to the party line. Form a belief that differs from the church, and find men trying to tell you that a) your God doesn't approve of you, and b) you may not seek him or be a part of this community, so long as you hold that view. Politicians who advocate social policies in line with their beliefs, but outside the party line of the church, are ostracized. With almost singular exception, this describes nearly every organized 'scriptural' religion.

    It is not fence-sitting to "go it on your own".. in fact that would seem to be the very definition of NOT fence sitting.. but thinking hard for yourself about the truths you find, and deciding for yourself what to believe.

    You suffer from the fallacy that there are only two paths. That one must either be purely secular, embracing only that which the scientific method can prove, or deny the secular and embrace only the teachings of an organized church. And yet, the Catholic Church itself, denies the factual accuracy of the book of Genesis, and embraces science's answer for the creation of the world and universe, instead.

    If being told what to believe, and surrounding yourself only with people who believe, or say they believe the same things, then that's great... you're a great candidate for organized religion. If, you can beleive that nothing non-material exists that has not yet been discovered or proven, then congratulations you're a great candidate to be an Atheist, but you'll make a lousy scientist. But if you believe that not all that exists is known, and perhaps that not all that exists is knowable.. if you believe that science knows what it's talking about, and that the scriptures are merely the myths and legends of a pre-bronze-age civilization, lost and confused over hundreds of generations, and that religion no more knows "everything" than science does.. if you believe that only you can know what you believe, and only you can decide what you believe in, and beelive however that there is something.. more.. out there that is not purely the physical world..

    Well that sounds a lot like someone who isn't an athiest per se, isn't religious, but has a spiritual side to them.

    And that doesn't sound like fence sitting to me, because you'll have to brave the scorn of your religious friends and family, and the scorn of atheists as well. You'll keep your views quietly to yourself most of the time, and will spend lots of time seeking your own truths.

    And if they lead back to some form of organized religion later.. well, that's your path, and you should embrace it. And if that path leads you to stop believing in the unproven, leading you to atheism, then that's your path and you should embrace it. And if it leads you into a lifetime of searching and finding answers and questions leading only to more questions.. then that's your path, embrace it and enjoy the trip.

    I won't judge you for following your path. Why are you judging me for following mine?

    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
    – Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 5

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Neil Carusetta

      Enjoyed very much your thoughtfully crafted and wise insights on the human condition. Would have be much better had CNN hired you to write on this subject than Alan Miller.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  12. J.Moe

    Why would cnn, or anybody, run an article like this? The Author is just a boring old curmudgeon that feels his opinion has any amount of significance.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  13. Winter

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    I would argue that being "Religious" is avoiding having to think too hard about things, and avoiding deciding things.

    In Religion, you are "taught" what to believe. Your beliefs, when expressed, are only valued when they conform to the party line. Form a belief that differs from the church, and find men trying to tell you that a) your God doesn't approve of you, and b) you may not seek him or be a part of this community, so long as you hold that view. Politicians who advocate social policies in line with their beliefs, but outside the party line of the church, are ostracized. With almost singular exception, this describes nearly every organized 'scriptural' religion.

    It is not fence-sitting to "go it on your own".. in fact that would seem to be the very definition of NOT fence sitting.. but thinking hard for yourself about the truths you find, and deciding for yourself what to believe.

    You suffer from the fallacy that there are only two paths. That one must either be purely secular, embracing only that which the scientific method can prove, or deny the secular and embrace only the teachings of an organized church. And yet, the Catholic Church itself, denies the factual accuracy of the book of Genesis, and embraces science's answer for the creation of the world and universe, instead.

    If being told what to believe, and surrounding yourself only with people who believe, or say they believe the same things, then that's great... you're a great candidate for organized religion. If, you can beleive that nothing non-material exists that has not yet been discovered or proven, then congratulations you're a great candidate to be an Atheist, but you'll make a lousy scientist. But if you believe that not all that exists is known, and perhaps that not all that exists is knowable.. if you believe that science knows what it's talking about, and that the scriptures are merely the myths and legends of a pre-bronze-age civilization, lost and confused over hundreds of generations, and that religion no more knows "everything" than science does.. if you believe that only you can know what you believe, and only you can decide what you believe in, and beelive however that there is something.. more.. out there that is not purely the physical world..

    Well that sounds a lot like someone who isn't an athiest per se, isn't religious, but has a spiritual side to them.

    And that doesn't sound like fence sitting to me, because you'll have to brave the scorn of your religious friends and family, and the scorn of atheists as well. You'll keep your views quietly to yourself most of the time, and will spend lots of time seeking your own truths.

    And if they lead back to some form of organized religion later.. well, that's your path, and you should embrace it. And if that path leads you to stop believing in the unproven, leading you to atheism, then that's your path and you should embrace it. And if it leads you into a lifetime of searching and finding answers and questions leading only to more questions.. then that's your path, embrace it and enjoy the trip.

    I won't judge you for following your path. Why are you judging me for following mine?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  14. bob

    written like a judgmental christian. "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Mahatma Gandhi

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      He was free to choose, so are you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  15. Raj

    Messiah's and Prophets are spiritual. Followers create religion out of them. Spirituality is like pure water. Ingredients are added to make it religion. Then it is marketed like coke and pepsi.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • snowboarder

      the difference between a prophet and a mental patient is simply the gullibility of those who surround them.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  16. Venkat

    The author has got it completely wrong. Spiritual doesn't mean atheistic. It means that the person believes in the existence of God or the Supreme being but is not affiliated with any particular religion. I cannot believe that the author doesn't grasp this simple concept.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  17. B

    I'm spiritual but definitely not religious. There is no angry god, but there is balance in energy. Do good things and genuinely wish others well and good things and well wishes will come back to you. Be the change you wish to see in the world!!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Chad

      What makes you think there is a balance of energy?
      What is this "energy"
      What keeps it in balance?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What makes you think there's a god, Chard?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Athy

      What is "balance in energy"?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • >

      @tomtom Admit it you like Chad too.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • >

      @tomtom u work for this blog

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  18. JM

    Just because you do not understand it does not mean that it is not a meaningful path for many people. Some of us did not find God in the religions of our parents, and did not find meaning in the churches we were brought up in. It is a rite of passage to search for a deeper connection to God/the Universe through non-traditional means. Some people have the option to travel the world and experience other religions and spiritual enlightenment outside the Western world. Others are not so lucky and make do with the "sampling" of other beliefs/practices that you seem to find so shallow. The important thing is that each person makes the decision for him or herself as to what kind of spiritual practice will be the most fulfilling and give them the inspiration to be the best person possible. That's not always traditional Christianity or even a traditional religious practice. After all, a strict religious observance isn't the only way to God!

    Plus, you seem to have forgotten that some people use the "spiritual, not religious" label to avoid the persecution that can result from being honest about not-so-traditional religious choices. It takes an extraordinarily brave person to admit to converting to Paganism, Islam, or another oft-berated religion when one lives in a small town or conservative community. The "spiritual but not religious" label might be ripe for ridicule, but sometimes it's a far easier label to bear than the truth, which often brings persecution. And quite frankly, that choice is nobody's business but the person making it. Call it a "cop-out" all you like, but I'd be willing to wager that many of the people you're dismissing have put a lot more thought into their relationship with God than the traditional choice of believing whatever your family or community does.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • snowboarder

      it is really just a polite way of saying organized religion is crap.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  19. Izzycat

    Christopher Hitchens is rolling in his grave.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • J.Moe

      in his grave or somewhere in the universe.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Mark B

    Why anyone would believe in something that has never been proven is beyond common sense. The only reason people believe these stories is because they have been told they should. Thats why every country has it's own religion and why people in these countries follow these religions. I am not saying religions are all bad and that everyhing in the bible is dribble but i think we have to come to realise that the world we live in is a direct reflection of ourselves and we are the only ones who can change that. God(anygod) did not create war and genocide we ouselves have and god did not intervene when he should have so even if he did exist what use is he? Right now innocent lives are being taken all over the world it is a discrace and our western leaders and ourselves(humans) have to take the blame.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • snowboarder

      a lifetime of indoctrination and groupthink

      September 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      It is called faith, and it is severely lacking in the world today, as so many posts testify.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:52 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.