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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. Humanist11

    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.

    I think there is an implosion of belief because more people are getting educated and see the ridiculousness of religion. Smart people don't need a book to tell them the difference between good and evil and certainly don't need a charlatan to feed them the rules of life. I like this implosion!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • USDude

      Looks like you might not believe that Jesus died for you. I challenge you to seek God through reading the Bible (if only as an academic exercise). Ask God to make himself known to you – and he will – I promise. I am praying for you. Start with 1st John in the New Testament.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:34 am |
    • Humanist11

      USDUDE.....It looks like you have been a victim of the biggest con job man has ever known. I have read the bible as well as many science books and it is clear that the stories in the bible are not true. People simply do not live to be 900 years old, or suddenly turn into a pillar of salt, or put 10 million animals on a 50 foot boat. They also don't come back from the dead. Science puts its claims out to the community for testing and offers real evidence. Christianity simply uses the bible to prove the bible as the church leaders prey on the weak minded and innocent. The next time there is plane accident and you praise god for saving a few people from death you should also ask him why he allowed the rest to die. Why did your god murder every living land creature during Noah's flood? Why did he instruct soldiers to kill every man and non-virgin women in the village but save the virgins for themselves? While you are reading your bible make sure you read Leviticus and Dueteronomy closely.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  2. buddy

    Oh, atheism is so simple and elegant compared to this mess.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • Humanist11

      Yes it is! Myself and other atheists enjoy the clarity and true freedom that a lack of faith brings. True morality can be reached by listening to yourself rather than adopting a morality from a culture 3000 years ago. Google famous atheists and you will be surprised how many good respected people are non-believers.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:34 am |
  3. Esau

    I prefer to embrace science and reason which also can be defined as spiritual but not religious. Quantum physics is spiritual!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • Athy

      I kinda agree. You gotta take quantum physics on faith until you become comfortable with it. I'm not quite there yet, but it's starting to make sense.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  4. Srikanth

    I completely disagree with the author. I am one of those, who neither believes in existence of god nor denies it. I have not seen anything in my life to support the claim of existence of god, but at the same time we humans don't have answers to everything and so I wouldn't discount the existence of god as well. I am content being a sceptic. All I care is making a good living for me and my family, enjoying the time we are here, without hurting anyone.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • USDude

      Looks like you might not believe that Jesus died for you – but it looks like you are open to understanding. I challenge you to seek God through reading the Bible (if only as an academic exercise at first). Ask God to make Himself known to you – and He will – I promise. I am praying for you. Start with 1st John in the New Testament.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:36 am |
    • OTOH

      USDude,

      Ask Gandalf to reveal himself to you and he will
      ... or Peter Pan
      ... or Alice in Wonderland
      ... or Thor
      ... or Ra
      ... or Vishnu

      If they don't, well then, you just haven't opened your heart enough. I'll be thinking for you.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • USDude

      OTOH – if any of those characters could change my life, save my marraige, physically heal me, deliver me from a bad lifestyle, I might consider following them; however, it was only when I called on the name of JESUS that all these things actually happened! I pray you will find Jesus as your Lord and Savior!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Humanist11

      USDude.....I bet you are a smart person in spite of your belief in something equivalent to a comic book super hero. If you have a good marriage, moral lifestyle, good kids and otherwise good life then I think you should give YOURSELF and your parents the credit. Good things happen to you because of the choices YOU make. You were born a human being and not a sinner. Don't let the church put a guilt trip on you and your family. You were born a good person and you still are. Don't let a made up religion tell you otherwise or allow you to adopt an unnatural moral code of bigotry, hatred and war. I do wish you luck in your journey.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  5. Matt

    It is absolutely obnoxious that CNN puts this nonsense on its front page, and with the seeming importance of it being something more than some idiot's lame editorial.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  6. Runtime Al

    Two different issues at play here. People want to know the meaning of existence. That's it. That's all.
    Teaching us morality, or right or wrong, was something religion had to do 2000 years ago, when people were in need of that type of guidance. Now we have laws that spell out what you can and cannot do and what is acceptable and not acceptable. Those who don't want to heed those laws go to jail. That's the system. It's a practical matter here on earth that each of us deals with. But that's really small potatoes.
    Who created the universe and why, and what happens to us when we die? Those are the big questions That's what we want to know. I want the answer and I want a guarantee. I won't hold my breath waiting though.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  7. Allen

    The author is a baby soul, as opposed to an old soul. Religion doesn't tell how to grow one's own halo, rather, that information is hidden, so we turn to other traditions and gnosticism to fulfill the search for spiritual growth that traditional religion says is anathema. It is only outside the box of religion that one can find the teachings of ascension.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:22 am |
    • Runtime Al

      I agree with you Allen. But I think your talking way over the author's head.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  8. Julius

    Organized religeon leads to abuse of power, the spiritual but not religeous movement has no heigherarchy or powers to be abused, theres no preist"s or clergy , just the sharing of ideas and philosophys. Many of the philosophys are christian in nature. Besides, is it surprising that people would want to distance themselves from an organizations that are intolerant abusive and corrupt? Lets be realistic, would you buy products from a company that was considered bigoted or abusive towards children. Probably not, so why not hold the source of our spiritual salvation to the same standard. The spiritual movement may be flawed but at least it shows that people are beginning to show interest in the source of their spirituality, and long gone are the days of poeople turning a blind eye to the constant abuse of power and intolerance.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  9. Jeff

    Allan, read the comments posted, almost no one agrees with your article.. All the danger is just in your head :)

    October 1, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  10. your mother

    CNN is controlled by Right Wing Extremists. Shut this christian filth down.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • USDude

      Looks like you might not believe that Jesus died for you. I challenge you to seek God through reading the Bible (if only as an academic exercise at first). Ask God to make Himself known to you – and He will – I promise. I am praying for you. Start with 1st John in the New Testament.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  11. RBofLA2012

    This author has no idea what he is talking about.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Athy

      That's basically true for anyone writing about religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Don't youse two mean the readers have no idea of what he's talkin' 'bout?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  12. jeffreymarcus

    Couldn't even finish the article, it felt so unconscious and old fashioned.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Like a shelved baby in the janitor's closet at DA CLINIC?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  13. attnmustbepaid

    so, if jesus did come back, like he was supposed to – i am confident he would not be a christian. he would be horrified at christianity, and what is has been used for. Also, he would not vote republican. and he would be amazed that so many of his so called followers do. seriously, if you have read any of the writings of things he supposedly said – none of it matches the republican platform. and, certainly not the real republican goals – which aren't spelled out in the platform, but clearly favor the 1% and keep them in power. yeah, pretty sure jesus would be upset about that.

    although, he would probably consider himself spiritual. but, my guess is he wouldn't consider himself particularly religious. He's probably still celebrate passover, but, not be really religious.

    bring on all the attacks now. please, just attack my post since its against your beliefs. don't try to think about it or understand it.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Christian

      Attnmustbepaid: Jesus said he did not come to condemn the world but to save it. Sinners saved by grace go to heaven sinners don't. We are all sinners. Think about that.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  14. Toad

    Spoken like a true closed minded religioustard.

    The way you stereotyped spiritual only types as being the scourge of the earth, by labeling them "within the context of today's anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate."

    Anti-challenging climate?

    "There are none are so deaf as those that refuse to listen with their One eAr and there are none so blind as those that refuse to see with their One eYe and there are none so lame as those that refuse to walk on their One leG." – Old Toad Proverb

    Religion ONLY divides the massess, keeping us from Uniting as One Love Under God and the day is coming where the people of the world are going to finally realize that and if religion doesn't stop hating from within, the hate will consume it and it will self-destruct. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics backs that up, since it is obvious that religion is a Closed System, since the patrons of it are all Closed Minded.

    Keep hating and the Big Crunch will fix everything.

    Ribbit :)

    October 1, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Christianity is about family. You big gubmint builders are all about the Tower of Babel.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  15. Holy Man

    The author of this article is just as ignorant as most so-called "Christians." People are abandoning formal "religion" because the most prominent "Christians" come across as morons, preaching that science is wrong, education is evil and knowledge is dangerous.

    Just because younger generations are more skilled at critical thinking doesn't make being "spiritual but not religious" a bad thing.

    So, Alan Miller, let me point out a few things: The Earth is NOT 6,000 years old. It's more than four billion years old. Just because uneducated "Christians" claim it to be otherwise doesn't make it so. Of course educated young people are going to shun this sort of thinking.

    The Bible isn't the answer to every question life has to offer. If it were, women would still be considered the property of men, we'd all have slaves of other races, and anyone who called themselves a "Christian" would give away ALL their money, not just a little bit of it. By having so-called "Christians" claim to believe in the Bible as the only word of God, and yet not follow its teachings, just shows today's young people that "Christians" are idiots.

    Finally, by having a "religion" that treats exclusivity as a virtue - and inclusivity as an evil - you've turned off more than one generation of intelligent people.

    In other words, if Christians wouldn't go around behaving like uneducated rednecks, we wouldn't see a large movement of people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious."

    October 1, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  16. redzoa

    These arguments have been levied at every splinter sect coming off some larger sect. Whether it was the Reformation or the various "true" fundamentalist polygamous Mormon sects or the million other examples, the old guard always argued deviation was nothing more than capitulation to a personal agenda (new=bad, old=good). Apparently, personal revelation is only available within a group setting.

    The author is upset because those who simply accept they don't know have not sufficiently engaged some allegedly divine doctrine. Yet, those having engaged such allegedly divine doctrines still describe their position as one of faith, not empirical knowledge. It appears he wants to argue against agnosticism, failing to recognize that choosing not to decide is a choice. Typically, this choice is far more reasoned and difficult than most faith positions. Agnostics do all the hard work, but don't enjoy the pacifying benefits of believing they get to live forever. Belief Blog has plenty of nonsense, but this author's "get off my lawn, cut yer hair and get a job" rant is definitely down there at the bottom.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  17. upwardquest

    The writer of this post doesn't have clue as to what he is talking about.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  18. Melyssa

    "A belief in God and Scripture." According to the author, they automatically go together. What a bunch of crap. One can have a huge belief in God or the Great Spirit or the Divine (and a spiritual practice) but not believe in the words called "scripture." The author seems to be ignorant of the fact that some religions - gasp! - don't have a written text! Too narrow-minded for CNN. This whole article should be deleted.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • USDude

      Looks like you might not really believe that Jesus died for you. I challenge you to seek God through reading the Bible (if only as an academic exercise at first). Ask God to make Himself known to you – and He will – I promise. I am praying for you. Start with 1st John in the New Testament.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • USDude

      Looks like you might not really believe that Jesus died for you. I would like to challenge you to seek God through reading the Bible (if only as an academic exercise). Ask God to make Himself known to you – and He will – I promise. I am praying for you. Start with 1st John in the New Testament.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  19. Anybody know how to read?

    'Spiritual but not religious' is a result of feminism. And it IS the Official Gubmint Religion. Ask anyone who has been busted for a DUI/DWI and they will tell you da judge included meetings in a 12 step program as 'retraining'. Pretty smart, eh? No church separation needed there. SBNR is the motto.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  20. Seamus

    huh?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:12 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.