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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. Max

    I always take it as people trying to sound deep. At least the ones I encounter since I'm not selling religion of even inquiring their beliefs. I'm agnostic and find the spiritual thing flaky. Hey, I believe in tree too. So what! I'm still not spiritual. Ogggity Booogity!

    October 1, 2012 at 5:09 am |
  2. Hassan

    I think that this specific case is a sign of how people will consider 'religion' in the coming future. People will seize believing the the idea of 'traditional' religion. The argument will be whether if there is that 'higher power' or not. People will realize that Christianity, judasim, and Islam. other religions too are false.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:04 am |
  3. Geoffrey Taucer

    " everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work."

    What, because those geniuses could not have possibly found inspiration in anything other than the bible?

    This is quite possibly one of the stupidest things I've ever heard anybody say.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • Mike

      I agree with you Geoffrey

      October 1, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • ma dalton

      I think this is WITHOUT ANY DOUBT the stupidest thing ever said , not "quite possibly" the stupidest :)

      October 1, 2012 at 5:53 am |
  4. awasis

    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.

    And that's bad how? If there is something, it isn't represented by man made religion. This is a step forward.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  5. Greg

    No addressing how the church may have failed here..these people have taken a stand. And this kind of dualism is simply a reflection of the dogma of your indoctrination.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:47 am |
  6. Whoa Dude

    Karma changes things

    October 1, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  7. Mom of Three

    It's not a cop out. It's a way for non-believers, agnostics or even those who believe, but outside of a packaged religion, to get the faithful off our backs! I am a secular Buddhist. That means I follow Buddhism but think I will be worm food ultimately. I know others that believe in a "great energy", some think that's a God, others not so much. And it's not dangerous, if you don't believe there's a big man up in the sky just waiting to strike you down if you screw up. People own their journeys, unless familial and societal pressures prevent them from even having one.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • jarodbee

      "People own their journeys". Thank you 'Mom', that is a wise remark. Organised religion makes people live fake lives. (And they need money!)

      October 1, 2012 at 5:49 am |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    October 1, 2012 at 4:31 am |
    • Michael

      And telling children that there's a God who can only love them if they believe that he wants to torture them on a cross for their supposed sins, but that he (temporarily) killed his son/himself in their stead... is healthy? HOW? By the way, my cat seems like she's an atheist and I think she's doing fine. At least, I've yet to see her kneel before a cross or any other symbol.

      And "prayer" in the sense that you're using it is just people convincing themselves that a certain dogma is true. If you ask someone to say the kind of prayers that you want them to say and they come back and tell you that nothing happened, then the attacks will begin and you will tell them that it's their fault for not having faith... and you'll keep doing so until they either realize the stupidity of the whole thing and give up, or until you actually wear them down and they give in to your cult conditioning.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:18 am |
    • Mike

      I think you mean Theism is not healthy for children and other living things.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • ma dalton

      Please, stop believing, think !

      October 1, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • ma dalton

      as a child I was terrified by the crucifix with this young man suffering and diying, and his mother crying down the cross, my mother (probably wishing to teach me how nice was jesus) told me he was put "big nails in his hands and feet" and I thought this was SO horrible.. then when I asked why god authorized the killing of thousands of babies, no other answer than "god"s meaning are not understandable by humans", same when I asked how a god can ask a father to kill his beloved son, and so much other examples like this.. so I was teached the christian catholic religion, but when I grew up and saw what it is, I reject it, and all other beliefs that lead to cruelty, reject of others, lack of brain use, women mistreatment, in a word : EVERY religion. So in a word : NO, religion is not good for children, no.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • ma dalton

      as a child I was terrified by the crucifix with this young man suffering and diying, and his mother crying down the cross, my mother (probably wishing to teach me how nice was jesus) told me he was put "big nails in his hands and feet" and I thought this was SO horrible.. then when I asked why god authorized the killing of thousands of babies, no other answer than "god"s meaning are not understandable by humans", same when I asked how a god can ask a father to kill his beloved son, and so much other examples like this.. so I was teached the christian catholic religion, but when I grew up and saw what it is, I reject it, and all other beliefs that lead to cruelty, reject of others, lack of brain use, women mistreatment, in a word : EVERY religion. So in a word : NO, religion is not good for children, no.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:49 am |
  9. Jamal

    "God" awful article (pun intended. Hae hae (Peter Griffin laugh.)) I am going to MSNBC for my news from now on.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • 13monkees

      They're as bad as Fox. Only left-wing instead of right-wing. This was a stupid article though. The whole faith blog is laughable. People need to believe in things that are real.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:47 am |
  10. viberider

    greetings and love to all who posted here.
    remember, when you form an opinion about something, it often means you are tired of thinking about it.
    this dream seems so real, so unfair sometimes. dream your own dreams each precious, present moment.
    we are consciousness expressing itself in its infinite variety.
    or not. you choose. you decide.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • Bat Country

      Sounds like you scores some good acid.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    October 1, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  12. thebeast

    what crap...Spiritual is based on a total and undeniable leap of faith that you are god and that god dwells in you and all the spaces in-between...Religion is for those who have no faith that somehow need to be punished and reminded that they are going to hell.

    I think they got this ass backwards

    October 1, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • What You Describe is Pantheism (or Solipcism, perhaps)

      And that, honestly, is what "Spiritual but not Religious" means: Pantheism, the modern Religion of the Environmental Left.
      It's fine to believe it, but be honest about what it is.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  13. Mike Hargis

    Sadly, I had mistaken CNN for a news organization. Thanks for posting this tripe, and helping me to find the motivation to seek my online news elsewhere

    October 1, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • Try these

      BBC and Der Speigel are surprisingly good sources – the view from outside is often more balanced and insightful.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • sam stone

      Yet, you cannot understand that this is a BELIEF BLOG. Do you go to the sports section for hard hitting news, too?

      October 1, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  14. Common Sense

    When a "spiritual, but not religious" person starts a holy war, then perhaps the author has a leg to stand on. This article is a crock.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  15. Altee11

    The individuals who choose spiritual but not religious have chosen to avoid entangling themselves with leaders who know no more about God than anyone else. No one but God could ever understand God; humans aren't equals of God, so humans can only try to converse individually with God using our own unique forms of communication. Despite trying mightily, our human efforts are feeble and clumsy; therefore, humans are left to deal with each other as they are on an individual basis in order to coexist. That is a choice that clearly chooses one side of the fence over the other in matters concerning religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  16. Raj

    What a load of rubbish! Religion has no right to tell an individual what you should be doing, how, when and why.. Religion is simply man made for the sake of MONEY, people strive to fleece you in the name of religion.

    Do what you think is right, go with what you feel inside you, follow your instincts wherever they lead you, eventually if your goal is enlightenment.. you will get there, if it isn't you will get nowhere

    October 1, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  17. Michael

    Perhaps religion is freaking out because people are realizing they can be spiritual without needing religious doctrine. Without creating division of society.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  18. BB

    Love God, hate religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:14 am |
  19. Best News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    which is revealed now in an absolutely matchless, Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

    So it is time to be Spiritual, and yes, also rightfully Religious!

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    October 1, 2012 at 4:07 am |
  20. hankc

    i am spiritual to my smart phone, easy to see why i am not religious.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:05 am |
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About this blog

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.