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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. SD Yogi

    Not that I care, but the author knows nothing about spirituality. Spirituality is about transformation. It is about truth. And that is why we typically do not join organizations who speak not of the truth, but of false beliefs. We do not divide, but feel a certain responsibility to love all, and respect alll, as we are one. With infinite space in all directions, we are thus infinitely small and inseparable from each other.
    The critical nature of this article is reflective of separation. But I want to love this man, and thank him for getting me to write something here, which I almost never do. I've read the Bhagavad Gita 9 times BTW. So I may be religiously spiritual.
    Peace and love to all of you,
    Randhi Krishna Ramji

    September 30, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • lb333

      Excellent response. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  2. PCBURGH01

    How much longer are we going to live in this facade that 'organized religion" is anything other than a creation of man? The one GOD has told three different people, Moses, Jesus and Allah that there are rules and we need to live by them and they all tell, relatively speaking, the same story. Those stories have incited the most extreme and violent human behavior of any other force in human history. Maybe extremists need some spiruatility! I don't know. I just think that religion having such a negative impact on the world is something that really needs to be considered. If only everyone could stay out of eachother's business. Let people think what ever the heck they want. What difference does it make? Religion will change significantly by the year 2100. I think we are watching it lose it's grip on society.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  3. whatsup

    A "cop-out". no it isn't. You, Mr. Miller, are simply not that intelligent and have to be led. You aren't smart enough to do your own thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  4. Durannie

    Interesting...denying your made up belief in favor of my own is wrong? Going on my own experiences and ignoring the writings of men who lived hundreds of years after Christ supposedly died is wrong? I think it is wrong for the author to ignore the role a handful of powerful men had not only in determining what the bible would contain but also the creation of all the dogma for the sole purpose of keeping the flock poor and stupid. No thanks – I prefer to learn for myself.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  5. Eric

    I can't believe this article would hold any weight or any value to anyone whatsoever. Sadly it will. It is spoken as someone who actually knows very little about much of anything from a spiritual perspective. Actually, I'm offended at its ignorance and implications. Narrow. Judgmental. Ignorant. Surface.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  6. Henry

    Talk about the pot calling the Kettle black!!! What does the author not understand. We no longer buy that garbage that you have been feeding us for 100s of year. God is a one on one relationship. He would have nothing to do with any organized religion. The problem is they study the bible and not "about the bible." Which tells a completely different story.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  7. L Wallace

    Mr Miller is wrong It is not a simple choice between Spirituality and God Both ideas encompasses much more than our mythical/spiritual beliefs As we evolve and move into the next few centuries We have and will continue to learn that we are physically connected in a way only partially explained by "spirit" or "God" We need not choose sides We are all on the same side –no matter how hard we try not to be

    September 30, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  8. Scott T.

    Isn't it possible to be "religion-less", yet practice the elements of goodness and compassion that religion promotes? Can't an individual still be held accountable to himself and to society for his words and actions without an organized religion acting as a third party? Shouldn't a person be allowed to develop their own measure of worth and self-recognition skillset and apply that peascefully without being told how?

    Why do I need to place a bet? The more popular religions feature various iterations that have evolved based on pick-and-choose. By committing to a particular religion, or one of its variations, one commits to being "all in" It may be a tad hypocritical to embrace a religion by only trying to capture a majority sub-set of its teachings, hiding behind veils of, "It's all about the journey," or, "It's the thought that counts," or to avoid discussing those teachings ruled-out because they are too inconvenient or unrealistic.

    It would not surprise me if most spiritual-but-not-religious people have chosen their path not through lack of thought, but after discovering such inconsistency. The church had its chance with me throughout my childhood years. Once annointed as an "adult" within that church, I behaved like an adult and starting making decisions that led me down a more peaceful and productive path.

    It's ironic how the most popular organized religions have fallen short of their potential. There is so much opportunity for them to promote peace and compassion and cooperation throughout the world, yet they have chosen to foster unrest – just consider the judgemental nature of the article!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  9. Youdontsay

    So if I make up a bunch of stuff that makes me feel better about the things I don't understand in the world, I am a fence sitter, but if I buy into the stuff some primitive made up 2000 years ago, I'm good to go?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  10. The Central Scrutinizer

    The author spends most of his reasoning on what he feels are the negative aspects of rejecting organized religion, and far less time on the perceived benefits of it. Overall, it comes off as a petty screed against the various reasons people have fallen away from church. I was waiting for him to explain why anyone should exchange a self-managed spiritual view for the dogmatic, unthinking confines of scripture and religion. In the end, Miller illustrates the kind of judgmental tone that drives so many from church life.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  11. Emma

    If you were standing before God today, how many of you can actually say "I did everything within my power to serve you and know you." Deut. 6:5 "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." As a society we are so blessed to have opportunities to explore anything our heart desires, yet we still choose to be idle in areas in our lives that are important to the human race. The me generation still is alive and thriving. Our focus is sports, entertainment, drama, electronics, whatever it is, it's not the qualities of being loving toward one another. Helping our families, friends and co-workers and growing in understanding of truly loving one another. Everyone has an excuse, why you can't be the bigger person and choose love and not discord.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • John

      Careful now. What if someone said that they were, "standing before the Klingon High Council". You'd think them a nerd or a nutbar. Yet their 'belief' is set out in a fiction book also. Who knows, in 2000 years or so maybe everyone will believe.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Veritas

      Religious nutcase

      September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • raywoolery

      I like watching Catholic football. Does that count?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • cary lacayo

      Emma, When we stand before God at His judgement seat. The only question He will have for us is "Why should I allow you into My Kingdom?" The answer you gave was based on your efforts and what we may do by our actions or deeds to be accepted by God on that day of judgement. All religions teach this idea that we must work or do good things in order to be accepted or approved by God. The word religion in the Greek language is broken up into two parts. One, "re" meaning to go back and the other is "ligio" which means to bind. So it's to be bound back and when we are wanting to reach God it's religion that holds us back. Religions are man's attempts to reach God. Granted Christianity is a religion as well, but the difference between the rest is the belief in God and the Bible which should through proper understanding drive you towards a relationship with God not a religious experience...

      Our efforts as well intended as they can be as you stated regarding love and acceptance is totally needed, but it isn't the deciding factor that gives us eternal life or the answer God will be looking for on that day of judgement that we will all face. The answer is never mentioned in this article which points out the difference between a religious person and a spiritual person who are both lost if they haven't found the true key that unlocks the door to this topic...

      The answer is a person, who God accepted as the one and only human being that would give us entry into heaven. As I said with this article never mentioning the answer probably because it would change the theme of its subject matter making it a personal issue rather than a general topic. When we speak of this person it generates a personal thought, it triggers a response or a mindset towards relationship not religion...

      Answer = Jesus Christ! When we look at what God did on our behalf by sending His one and only Son Jesus to earth as a human being just like us but without sin then it becomes personal. It brings us to a relationship with a living God who desires for us to be with Him daily and that only happens through Jesus Christ. On our own, we aren't accepted, forgiven, made right, no matter what we do in our efforts of good works here on earth. It's only by God's grace or undeserved favor that He sent His Son to be the sacrifice for our sins, to make us right before God, to give us forgiveness of our sins and to be accepted by God on that day of judgement.

      That's the answer we need to know while living in the now! That's the person we should have a relationship with daily. We are already judged, it's only when we receive and accept God's gift of His Son Jesus and choose to believe and trust in Him is when judgement goes away. That's the filter that God sees us through – His Son Jesus! Otherwise keep doing stuff, keep going through hoops here on earth hoping God recognizes your efforts. That's what religion will do and it's a slap in the face to Jesus who died on the cross for us all because we will never be able to do enough of good to be recognized by God. Jesus took care of that for us. Jesus + nothing = eternal life in heaven

      The spiritual side of this article is just as bad. It's all about feelings, love, connecting spiritually to who? If its God then one must go the Bible unless it's some other god. I agree with the writer that says the spiritual person will not engage personally or make a choice to follow something or someone, but will choose to sit on the fence with their faith. Spirituality to me is just a cover for people to say " I want to worship whomever or whatever my own way!" It's all about me, it's all about my feelings and my self guided awareness...

      It's only through understanding what God did in his Son Jesus for us all that brings us into the place of knowing what it is to be spiritual. We are all made up of body, soul and spirit. Our spirit or some say the soul is one in the same must be regenerated due to sin, If your a believer of what the Bible teaches about these things. When Jesus died and rose from the dead which by the way no one has ever done in the history of mankind. He left us the the Holy Spirit, who is the Comforter, who is the guarantee of who we are as God's children. When we realize that we can't do anything of our own to make us right before God because of our sin nature, when we understand that sin needed to be dealt with by judgement and punishment, when we accept and receive God's forgiveness of sin and when we believe and trust in Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior that's when become a spiritual person.

      I guess I am both, I am a Christian which means Christlike or trying to be like Christ. Which is also a religion, but from my reply I hope you see my interpretation. I am a spiritual person based on my relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who lives within me, who I choose to allow full control over my actions...

      I hope for someone to read my reply and fully understand what it means to be a child of God. I hope everyone knows how much God loves you, enough to send His Son to die for you. I have kids, I couldn't give my son up like that especially for me and my terrible history of sins. I hope you hear from God today :)

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  12. shofacke

    The author of this article might want to read The Life of Pi.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  13. Greg

    I understand where the author is coming from, however I feel before any judgments about an individuals beliefs, practices, ethics are called into question, that it is more important to look at results. This goes for both people of a specific denomination or those not affiliated with any denomination. If the results of either persons beliefs are a more contented life, bringing joy to others, comforting those in pain, as well as other traits, then that is all that matters. Don't most religions promote a personal relationship with God? Me, I have a personal relationship with my Higher Power, which is love and positivity. And feel that it is all about the searching, not the finding. I feel the most connected when I'm in the moment (i.e. rock climbing). Hopefully anyone searching can find the contentment in life they are searching for!!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • elephantix

      Hey Greg, I mean this in the least smarmy way possible (though an internet message board makes everything sound smarmy): you are exactly who this article is writing about.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  14. Dana

    It must be make-believe day again.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  15. Joe

    "Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices."

    This is encoded racism and a poor sentence. Those who identify themselves as what? He cannot complete the sentence because it would betray too clearly the idea.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • FloydZepp

      Alan Miller conveniently forgets – like most Evangelicals – that Christianity was an invented religion too. They picked and chose what they would believe, and if you want the proof of that, read up on early christianity and the Councils.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  16. JanetMermaid

    Alan Miller is completely wrong. As a Christian I simply accepted "through faith" that all the teachings were true. It wasn't until I left organized religion that I truly started to question and learn. And so what if there's "a bit of Zen here, a bit of yoga there" - spirituality has been around since the dawn of humans, so why should only one have it right? And even Christianity can't agree on particular rituals and practices - is it OK to sprinkle the head during Baptism or must the whole person be dunked? Is communion simply symbolic or the actual blood and body?

    Perhaps he should step away from his dogma and allow the spiritual universe to actually speak to him (so to speak). Frankly, organized religion is a disservice to the whole concept of spiritual connection with something greater. Christianity is a walk down a narrow, dark hallway filled with closed, locked door. Spirituality is what happens when you leave that hallway and step outside into the universe.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  17. James 1:27 Family

    I completely agree with this. I watched my niece, raised in MY Christian family, lie, sneak, and hurt people. However, she's now Wiccan. Why? Because "I don't hurt people anymore." WHAT? It strikes me that the younger generation wants an easy path. The Lord never said that it would be EASY to follow Him. In fact, the Bible says to EXPECT trials!!!

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

      The problem with your supposition is that it requires YOU to determine the Faith Path of others. If its not done the way you Aprrove of, its automatically worng. God deosn't NEED you to help Him.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  18. thedaddiator

    I'm confused. Miller wants to give credit to organized religion for its contributions to worldwide literacy because the Catholic Church's policy of banning the laity from interpreting their own bibles forced them to learn to read on their own? Wow. And where is his appreciation of the contributions of history's great philosophers; these freethinkers expanded our views through open inquiry. Advocating dogmatic belief simply so one doesn't appear wishy washy seems intellectually lazy to me.

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

      Credit. No united states without churches. Credit no crusades that freed millions from 700 years of murder by isliam credit without the church the federal government would have already taken every right you have. Credit church going people give to charity 5 times more than those who don't credit polls show that church members that go 3 times a week are 3 times happier than those who don't.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  19. Shonna McNasby

    Writer – The atheists and agnostics I know take a very strong stand on issues. The people you describe don't seem familiar to me. But, to suggest that it's easier to reject organized religion doesn't square with my experience. In my case, it took a great deal of courage and conviction. Choosing your own path takes lots of careful thinking, and it could be argued that putting on the mantle of traditional beliefs is much neater and simpler.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  20. gloria

    I see nothing in this article that is correct. On one hand at least those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious are "trying" to think for their selves rather then be led by dogma that has been used to control the masses. Still, man would better spend his time relating to simply living in the present like every single other species does. Forget about the spiritual because there isn't one!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:31 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.