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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. Stephen

    Dear CNN,
    While I think it is actually a good idea to encourage open discourse about religion rather than stick to the more prevalent position that no one has the right to critique the religious belief system of another, I feel you would be much better served by changing your approach. These op-eds are not going to promote much critical thinking or deep reflection, but rather extensive message board arguments and lengthy rants (see below). A much better format would be some sort of debate style video blog. Bring in two or three philosophers/writers/professors to debate some of these topics on video or just audio. This would avoid the (fair to this point) frequent criticism that these opinion pieces are just that: highly biased, individual opinions prone to overgeneralization with limited application to society as a whole. Just a thought.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • It's all about money

      All they really want is click counts so they can get more advertising money. Controversy does that better.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • ericgoestoholland

      Your point is very well taken. Though I disagreed with this article, I really did appreciate reading it. If nothing else, the critical thinking and debate that occurred within my own mind was very stimulating. You do so correctly identify the issue of there being no specific great place to engage in meaningful discourse, though. I wish there was. What a waste of opportunity, eh?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  2. Aaron

    This writer hits the nail on the in many ways, I think the anger in some of the responses is the discomfort people feel when faced with a truth...we have become self-obsessed and neurotic and in many ways have anointed the individual self as god, each person with their own individual religion. Spirituality as comfort has failed, look at the problems people have with addictions and even prescription psychological medications...we need truth, and truth is found by diligently seeking it and then committing in faith. Nietzsche declared god was dead and died insane – we can benefit from exploring and attaching to the root system of religious faith.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • georgebushSR

      wow so if i don't go to church but still believe in god, i think i am a god, and thus perpetuate spiritual ignorance and pompousness?

      you are as shallow in your thinking as the writer of this article.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Stephen

      Addictions and use of psychotropic medications has little and less to do with the failure of spirituality. People tend to have a wonderful tendency to take a myopic viewpoint of human history and imagine that present day ills are unique to the present. Alcoholism has existed as long as alcohol. Self-centerdness has existed as long as human beings. And yes, religious faith has "failed" a myriad individuals throughout its existence, just as "spirituality" has, and even secular solutions to whatever ails you. Simply put, life has always and will always be filled with a great number of tribulations regardless of how faithful one happens to be.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  3. Insert Truth Here

    Since CNN would not post my comment please read it here if you're interested: http://inserttruthhere.blogspot.com/

    Perhaps CNN found my comment to be too long. I am known for being long-winded ;-)

    October 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Helpful Hints

      Insert,

      See the list on page #174.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Helpful Hints

      Insert,

      A quick look and I spotted "ti-thes".... there may be more, though. Good luck.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Insert Truth Here

      Thanks for the tips.... I'm not sure I have the patience to check over my post for all of those combinations, but at least I know why my long-winded comments often get blocked...

      October 1, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Helpful Hints

      I looked again and I think "ti-thes" is the kicker. Try it. It is a very good essay, by the way!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • Insert Truth Here

      Thanks! Turns out you were right and that was the problem word! :)

      October 1, 2012 at 12:39 am |
  4. georgebushSR

    To top it off just what a horrible topic to write about, it says you have opened bars, why not go back to helping enhance Londons pub scene and bring a little joy to people rather than picking controversial topics you know for a fact will get you reads and comments because of the people you are going to offend.

    i seriously dont understand how a lack of imagination leads people to create such polarized pieces as this that dont even bring anything to the conversation, i was offended in the first few paragraphs, and so were many others, which gives me a strong impression that you don't know how to write or have a civil debate on a subject.

    retrogressive?
    invalid because their faith cant be explained to others?

    i am truly sorry you are unable to feel any type of happiness within your soul to have to say those who are happy are wrong.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  5. And the winner of the "Most Offensive Article Ever Put On The Belief Blog" Is . . .

    Alan Miller ! ! !

    Great job, Alan, on showing exactly why people like them want to get the hell away from religions like yours!

    Well done!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  6. jan

    Author is missing something. I am a Christian and have a clear set of beliefs. I completely accept Protestant doctrine. I just don't feel the need to go to church to announce itnand be seen there.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • Christian

      Don't deceive yourself you are not a Christian. Do not forsake the assembling of the saints. Jesus wants you in fellowship with other believers. By the way I'm a student at NYU I'm just not enrolled. Wake up.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • There is a better way.

      Then again, Jan, you could be free of narrow-minded bullying people like Christian and just ignore religion altogether.

      As long as you claim to be a Christian, someone will tell you that you are doing it wrong and must conform. That is why the Founding Fathers did not want religion in government – they loved liberty and religion brings totalitarianism.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Martin

      Christian is right, you're probably going to hell.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  7. norm62

    Organized Religion, to me, is more and more [or always has been] like Big Business. And I really don't want any part of that anymore. What I believe, and how I believe it, is personal to me, and nobody else. I don't need to "pay" to support any church, or to help them help others – I can help others on my own. Treating others with kindness and respect is a good start...

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  8. Ben

    You want a "real position"? OK. Here's a "real position": We're creatures of matter and accidents of chemistry, and when we die, we're done. That's not spiritual OR religious. Satisfied?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • LindaLou

      Yes, that is quite satisfactory. He was not addressing people who hold your position, as you are not "sitting on the fence". He was addressing those who do not care for what organized religion offers, but still claim to have some spiritual belief in a higher power without any thought as to why or what it is.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  9. ilbuono

    wow, great article, you've obviously put a lot of thought into this, but ultimately...who cares? why does anyone have to take a position on this at all? why is it your's or anyone else's business what i choose to believe?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  10. E1st

    This is what Miller should have written:

    http://furstwords.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/spiritual-but-not-religious-part-2/

    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • timmy

      what an incredible article..thanks for sharing and I'm assuming writing it! I'm spiritual but not religious but also feel very comfortable with my belief that there is a 'truth.'

      it is not provable but a feeling to be experienced. The problem isn't that this truth exists. To me, the problem is that the moment I try to share the truth it instantly becomes a belief system and then bumps up against your belief system. And here we are...recycling the same discussion over and over again. What is absolutely a truth is the importance of alllowing others to be right..even if that includes them being so terribly, very, wrong...like in the case of the CNN writer. Anyway... Thanks again

      October 1, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  11. seen the light and it's not in there

    This type of article shouldn't be allowed to be posted to a reputable news agency such as CNN. When wars and torture failed and became out of fashion the churches moved to less strict and barbaric forms of recruitment and ostracization. Only now are they trying to reason to you in this way. It is but a desparate plea to hold on to power. If you give them an inch, they'll take back a mile.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • c lou

      Of course this sort of opinion piece should be allowed to be published. Would you shut down free speech simply because you disagree with the writer's viewpoint? People of faith have the same civil rights as others to express their ideas, and keep in mind that when our nation shuts down the free speech of the religious, the rights of others will not be far behind.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  12. tom bunzel

    Absolutely inane column – the dichotomy presented – "A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" is meaningless, especially in view of modern movements in quantum physics and neuroscience. Science and the Sacred are not mutually exclusive, and certainly do not require a belief in a Sky God. If anything our rational mind can never completely explain the infinity of the cosmos or the DNA in our cells–both clearly point to a higher perspective but one which conventional religion is incapable of providing. The author here is narrow and simple minded and I agree with those who wonder what CNN is doing publishing such complete garbage.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  13. fookypants

    wow- what a totally meaningless article. your prejudiced, predetermined outlook is sad, and yes, out of touch. you mention "peddling" but of course that's exactly what you're doing. pitiful.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  14. zafrogzen

    What a load of biased BS. I fit in the category he chastises, but my faith and practice is not just on Sundays. I've trained extensively with several famous Zen masters, sweated with Native Americans, fasted for days, and read the major works of every religion on earth, including reading the bible several times. I do two hours of meditation a day and several full days a month. I appreciate all religions and see clearly that the reality behind them all is the same and they argue over words.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  15. Dylan

    Spiritual but not religious is a cop-out?!?! Fool. Those of us that subscribe to non-mainstream "religions" are not religious but spiritual. If you follow Driudism–an ancient nature-based philosophy, you aren't religious, since Druidism isn't a religion–but it is older that Christianity. it's actually so old, it was being practiced in Gaul (present day France) before Christianity was a tiny cult in the Middle East. Julius Cesar called the Druids a religious group and thus Druidism became a religion, even though it's just a philosophy.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  16. BWANA DIK

    Reading, comprehension and reasoning are different things....

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  17. snsociety

    Mr. Miller's understanding of spirituality seems bereft of much real information, unfortunately. We at the Spiritual Naturalist Society believe that spirituality is an important endeavor that transcends provincial doctrines, although it is certainly informed and aided by the many rich teachings of them. To the contrary of this article's thesis, it is the bold, the brave, the intrepid who venture forth to discover their own spiritual path.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  18. zeyn2010

    Why would there have to be a 'danger' – we should leave people be as they like along as they don't force me to live according to their beliefs.... We seem to have such a need especially in troubled times, maybe it's how we grew up, but it surely helps to think there is a source of power we can tap into when we need to!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  19. highlyfavored

    i like this article because its the truth. this generation is all about how smart and advanced we are, but we cant clearly see prophecy unfolding before us. read the bible, review your science, and keep track of all things that have happened and are happening. if you cant see that then its cause you choose whats comfortable instead of whats true. all i can say is that out of budda, mohammud, taoism, confusionism, johnathan smith, and any other false doctrine, none of them died for you, yet christ died for all including them. when budda or anyone else who claims to be the "easy way" dies on a cross for me, then i would consider it. but there is no equal. Atheists, and anyone else should watch " the daniel project", or " read your bible", if you want the truth and are willing to believe. if you think nothing will change your mind, then you it shouldnt hurt you or your opinion to watch it and find out what truth is. and FYI this was made by sceptics. your either for god or your not. dont die making the wrong decision because "you" dont think "you" could be wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Humanist11

      You say don't risk dying by not believing in the mysticism you choose. Don't you think god would know you were unsure and just faking it if you tried to force a belief? What if you are wrong and those you love waste their lives chasing a fairytale that is no more real than Santa Clause? Religion controls its people through fear. You show a good example of that.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  20. Christian

    Jesus said: Be hot or cold. Do not be lukewarm or I will vomit you out of my mouth. He also said: you are either for Me or against me. A choice needs to be made.
    Read John 3:17, 18

    September 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Jesus is quoted many times in the Bible saying that a believer can ask for anything through prayer and receive it. He even goes so far as to say that mountains and trees can be thrown into the sea simply by praying for it. This is clearly a lie, and can be proven to be a lie by any believer. Simply pray for me to be converted to Christianity right away. Or better yet ask God to move the mountains behind my house. He could make a lot of converts that way. If I’m converted today, I’ll post a public apology on my web site and devote my life to kissing God’s ass. If I’m not converted it would only be fair for you to apologize and devote your life to kissing my butt.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:56 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.