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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. Simplicio

    Commitment-free spirituality is not discipleship.
    What does your Father in heaven most desire of your life, if not that?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • Michael

      Oh, I'm sure YOU'LL be quite happy to tell us everything that he wants. You probably know what God wants better than God himself does, yes? Most spokesmen for God do... almost every preacher in America certainly does. It's the inherent tyranny found in such religions and thus why they are dangerous, and why the power-hungry man who wrote this article is frustrated by its waning influence.

      "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." – Thomas Jefferson

      It was true nearly two hundred years ago when he wrote it... it's still true today.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  2. Tara

    You know, this is one of the few articles where I've really been proud of and pleased with the comment section. Thank you, Alan Miller, for restoring my faith in humanity by publishing your tripe and eliciting a sensible reaction from thousands of people.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  3. Sera

    I hate hippies as much as the next person, but come on. "Danger"? Organized religion is a million times more dangerous than some unshaven dillweed burning incense in his studio apartment, listening to REM and thinking he's deep.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  4. chemical ollie

    this artical was disheartening in its (truly profound) ignorance. would be funny if not so indicative of what ails the world. the responses however have given me hope that we're moving in the right direction. peace

    October 1, 2012 at 2:37 am |
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    October 1, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  6. Natasha Applegate

    How did this crap even make top story on CNN? Makes me think CNN is going the way of FOX. How is this "journalism"? CNN should be ashamed by this drivel.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  7. Fabrice Kombo

    Every organize religion find it rather difficult to practice democracy, one will notice that leave and let leave is the hardest exercise for Christians, Muslims and others. Fears drive these type of criticism, fear of what? Fear of being proven wrong, because if more and more people around the author of this article leave using a completely different belief system and get away with it, then the whole belief system is jeopardized. This because every last one of these religions has been perverted to respond to a very “human” need. This pathetic need to exist trough others, this simplistic need to justify one’s life, the recurring yearn to see in the neighbor one’s self. That is the underlying fear behind this criticism of the “spiritual”. Fear that maybe, just maybe life itself is worth nothing, that we are nothing but what we are. That the fundamental need to exist is existing, that no! there isn’t anything beyond this, not a heaven or hell, no mid-evil anything. Just us; pathetic, non-sophisticated, animalistic us. Because, if the argument for the survival of organized religion is what it has brought to humanity, then come on, you got to be smarter than opening yourself to the litany of the church’s wrongs. I refuse to believe that we collectively “humans” are anything beyond what we are after we have believed in anything. Believing is being human, justifying the most insignificant existence in a universe that is as vast as we found out every day is being lazy. Accepting that we don’t represent anything, that life is exactly what it is…nothing. Maybe then, when the religious and the spirituals are done bickering and at times killing each other, we will evolve to finding out how can we enjoy this life, the very nothing that no one gave, that no super being created but that we just happen to have. If there is a God, please scratch this whole thing and start over because this is some BS.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  8. Kenchandammit

    The writer of this opinion seems angry to me. Maybe he's angry at a younger generation who chooses to think for themselves, unlike the choice he made, which was to believe a whole lot of dogma and ridiculous 'truths' that it confounds the imagination of the person who is honest with himself. ALL religious beliefs are passed down, generation to generation, and those who believe those 'truths' only do so because somebody told them to.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • pugh7755

      You are incorrect in your assumption that religion is just passed down from generation to generation, and that they only believe because someone told them to. I am a Christian, I have faith; however, I once was an atheist, once a wiccan, nobody told me I had to be a Christian. Most non-believers , some atheists included, were once believers in Christ, but were led astray by the lie that they "smartened up" and started thinking for themselves. That was me at one time. Now, since being on both sides of the fence, I see the truth, experience the truth, and live by the truth. That truth is Jesus Christ. Don't take me wrong, I'm not criticizing anyone. But, eternity is a long time to be wrong.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • CommonSense

      @pugh7755 Ken is right – religious beliefs are absolutely passed down from generation to generation. Each life starts with a blank slate. If beliefs are not passed down, they are lost. The beliefs can be written, oral, or otherwise, but they are definitely passed down.

      Whether people believe them or not, simply because they are told to do so is another question entirely. I think that you would agree that people first learn the teachings before they choose to actually believe them or not (otherwise, they would not know what they are rebelling against). Therefore, the extent to which people change their beliefs is really only the extent to which they feel it does not suit them, and this is done more passively than actively (e.g., they just stop going to church).

      October 1, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  9. AdmrlAckbar

    See the political opinion sections ebb and flow based on the time of year, but the belief forums will always generate tons of web cash from folks who know their opinion is the absolute right opinion and feel the need to share it with everyone else =) This has got to be a better racket than academic textbook publishing. Go CNN!

    October 1, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Tara

      Just to clarify: the writers of those academic textbooks will be lucky to receive a dollar a book – and the university takes a cut of even that. Now, academic textbook publishers, on the other hand....

      Carry on.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  10. mama kindless

    "You should read about Saul – who hunted and killed Christians. He believed as you do. Until God paid him a visit. Then he became "Paul – The Apostle" – one of the MOST important figures in the Bible....."

    Oh my. Paul was a self-proclaimed "apostle". I personally think he got drunk or had some bad food, or maybe he just needed money, but I don't buy into his vision at all. He just probably slipped his secretary a little gold and said – this is the story we are going with – we'll both be famous and rich. We have no more reason to believe him than to believe Joseph Smith. And that's why I think he is one of the most DANGEROUS figures in the bible because of all the weird tenets that the early church has in his writings for their foundation. Thanks to him Christians can speak with forked tongues. and thanks to him people are divided today over stupid stuff that even jesus wasn't involved in.

    Folklore is folklore. and Christianity isn't even very good folklore at that. Was rehashed over from other untrustworthy folklore.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • mama kindless

      Sorry this was a reply to "BldrRepublican" on page 180. I have copied it there.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • Michael

      I also think it should be pointed out that Paul clearly thought that the end of the world was supposed to happen in HIS LIFETIME, even to the point that he advised people not to marry because the end was just around the corner. All Christian apocalyptic scripture refers to that specific time period... but most Christian leaders since then have tried to spin it as referring to THEIR particular time period in a desperate attempt to try to make it appear relevant as opposed to failed, obsolete, and untrue.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • pugh7755

      If ignorance is bliss, then you are a very blissful person. You try to sound intelligent in your comment, but only show you're delusional. Before referring to the Bible try picking one up and reading it. It may be difficult at first, it's a little more complicated than the 2nd grade grammar book you are reading now, but you'll get there eventually...if you just try a little harder.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  11. Shalla

    As far as I can tell, the author of this article is a deliberate provocateur. Your only choices are to adhere completely to a church and its teachings or to completely reject them? I don't know that there is anyone who does that.

    Admittedly, I'm among the many of Generation X who avoid organized religion. It's not because I'm wishy-washy about my beliefs, but rather because I had enough bad experiences in organized religion growing up. In sixth grade, my Sunday School teacher told me I was going to hell because she tried to tell us that mentally ill people were going to hell. (Uh, no. That wasn't a teaching of my church. She was some weird zealot trying to force her beliefs on kids, and when I called her on it, she got nasty.) Unfortunately, this sort of thing has happened again and again, and I've witnessed power struggles and back stabbing and all sorts of two-faced behavior in organized religious groups. So like many of my friends, I choose to worship with my family and friends or on my own and simply avoid the giant, sucking negativity wormholes that organized religion seems to carry with it.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  12. Matthew

    If i were to put words in the author's mouth, keeping a similar but (i think) more enlightened argument they would be:

    All you spiritual but not religious people, if you won't come back to Christianity, then stick with a time tested spiritual tradition – like Zen, Advaita Vedanta or authentic Tantra. You'll love it – especially Tantra. It's way more efficient to try and work with their teachings and practices rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And just calling yourself spiritual with a warm fuzzy feeling now and then is not going to liberate you from suffering or generate any kind of transformative change.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:23 am |
  13. Evan

    So what you're saying is: you can't understand your own religious beliefs, you have to belong to a group who will decide what your beliefs are for you... sorry, buddy. I think your article is a cop-out. Organized religion is fine for those of us who aren't smart enough to figure out life for ourselves. If you need someone to tell you what to eat, how to dress, what to do, and how to think, then by all means, join a church.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • caramiamy

      Exactly. I consider myself "spiritual but not religious" because I think for myself. I'm logical yet I do have faith. I believe in miracles. I believe that all those years ago it's a good possibility that the bible was written as a way to get people to develop good morals and not be so selfish...it may or may not be fiction, but even if it is the intent was likely good...either way, it doesn't matter to me because I know how to be giving, loving and happy. Being "spiritual but not religious" is not a cop out in any way. I have seen others who claim to be religious either behave unfairly towards certain groups of people (other religions, gay, etc) which I don't understand. I have also seen friends who consider themselves religious constantly searching for happiness...they feel lost, and are looking for a path...and frankly if religion is their path than more power to them...but I have always been on a good path, no need for others (aka group religion) to tell me what's right.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  14. wake up

    i would pose the opposite paradigm: history has revealed that the individual, and therefore the world, suffers more damage from those that follow and espouse religious beliefs but posses no inherent spirituality, than from those the author so basely mocks.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  15. southbelle8

    It is good to have all the answers... rock on, dude! I hope I can have such clarity at the expense of humanity... nice.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:20 am |
  16. Maat

    At least sitting on the fence will not allow you to drag a bunch of people down with you when you molest young boys, steal from people and use their money to buy expensive personal things, lie to people having them looking up to the sky while you do whatever to them, go on crusades to rob/pillage places around the world in then name of your religion and killing millions of people on your way. You know what – this article was meant to start a discussion/argument and bring division in areas where there would be none – good job, mission accomplished.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  17. AdmrlAckbar

    Still waiting for the "God isn't real, FSM, fairy-tale in the sky" folks to provide any solid empirical proof which has been published in a quality peer -edited journal to support their hypothesis. I know many folks with PhDs and MDs who have what I'd qualify as very strong spiritual and religious beliefs. Rather, people pushing off their opinions as facts no matter what their place on the belief spectrum are all pretty much trolls and/or fanatical zealots.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • n0e11e

      the burden of proof is on those who believe god exists.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Well if some random guy from the interwebz says it , it must be true! You sir or madam are no better than the folks copy/pasting random Bible passages. Meanwhile those of us who are a bit more sane and much less self-righteous in our beliefs live on =)

      October 1, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • clinky

      n0e11e, No, that's not correct. Atheists make a metaphysical assertion, "God does not exist," and they are compelled to support it. You have to back up your claim like any other claim. If you say you don't know, then you make no assertion about what is the case so you don't have to provide support.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • Thomas

      You can't prove a negative. This is rule #1 of any search for hard evidence.
      I'd you to provide empirical evidence that invisible Unicorns and Elves weren't dancing in my back yard silently while I was asleep last night.
      You can't because you can't prove a negative.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:31 am |
    • Sitnalta

      Still waiting on that "concrete proof" that a higher power even exists. A book full of hearsay and cultural indoctrination don't count.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  18. JW

    If anyone hasn't noticed, there is a distinct balance in our world, and indeed much further out. There are laws and rules, most of which we know nothing about. But a small bit of that – how we interact to our world and other people – is built in. We really do know right from wrong, and we do care. It's up to you how you think that happened, or from what or whom.

    But anyone who feels more connected with just more than a book – and there is nothing inherently wrong with having a mighty guide – could just be closer to understanding. It is not for the "faithful" to look on other's beliefs with such disdane. Most everyone wants the same things from this brief life, but we are all on our own separate paths. If we don't force our paths on others, each is as admirable.

    The trouble clearly begins when one belief systems is convinced there shall not be another belief system.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:17 am |
  19. Marc

    Religion is a set of customs. It has served its purpose and will not dissapear when humanity comes to know (first hand) the One force that operates all of reality. Spirituality is not psychology but a revelation of how interconnected we are. "All shall know me from the smallest to the greatest", literally. It is nature (just conealed from us, currently). If you want to learn more, check out http://www.mutualresponsibility.org

    October 1, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  20. lconstancio

    You are god experiencing itself

    October 1, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • ytman

      I personally subscribe to the possibility that we are the universe incarnate. Its a truly spectacular thought both physically and spiritually.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:17 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.