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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. SilentActivity

    If you went to a Christian Church and had any other opinion other than what they believe you will be ostracized. Religion is supposed to be open. Dogma is not pretty nor open to truth.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:19 am |
    • Herself

      It does depend on the church. Some are more liberal than others. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater...........

      October 1, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  2. bizarro25

    This article is thinly veiled religious intolerance, and this viewpoint s exactly why so many people are flocking away from churches and organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:14 am |
    • Dan

      I agree. 'Organized' religion has been the bane of humanity for 2,000 years – More harm has been done by the church than by all the rogue nations put together

      Religion is a private matter between each person and his God, whatever God that might be and the last thing anyone needs is a church telling him/her what to believe and how to 'practice' religion . . . . let alone picking your pocket so the church leader can drive a Lexus or a Lincoln

      I won't even go into the child abuse found in so many churches or we's be discussing this all day. No true believer needs to ever set foot in a church and they'd all be better for it if they didn't

      October 1, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  3. SS

    Being spiritual is following something natural. Being religious is being spiritual but issue with religions is the human religious leaders ( over centuries) who may/may not be power mongers and decide what is correct vs incorrect and impose on other. Any imposition stops the flaw of what is natural.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  4. Tom Billings

    Thanks for yet another rationalization of your own religious beliefs.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  5. Erica

    I am not a monotheist. A person cannot look at me and say 'these are her core beliefs' unless they ask me. But my beliefs are solid. You can ask how I stand on an issue, and I can tell you. I know more about the bible than most self proclaimed Christians. I have taken the time to research other faiths, so that I can see where they come from. I actually RESPECT other people's faith, instead of trying to tear it down. You are free to believe that I will rot in hell. I don't believe in your hell. You are free to pray for my soul, but that leaves me free to curse yours for being arrogant. My relationship with my gods is as precious to me as my children. Ghandi had it right. Worry about your own souls before you worry about mine. Jesus himself said that it was a Pagan who had the greatest faith he had ever seen, and so would walk with him in heaven. God, or however you wish to call the Creator, does not give one flying fig HOW you believe in it, so much as you believe and live a good life.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • SS

      Very well put Erica. Thank you.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • ROE

      Perfectly said! Could not agree with you more.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  6. Joshua189

    WOW, I went to the cnn website to cross ref some news, and I saw this articel and i couldn't believe any half credible news site would post such a waste of space on their site with a straight face. How in the (*&^% is this guy able to get this artice on this site is beyond me. He sounds like a propaganda spreader or some other cronie from cnn. Fire this terd asap before us "spiritual" people start to reall get p .oed.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  7. Alfred K. Rocci

    The ultimate arrogance....man claiming to know "God"

    October 1, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • Harted

      I don't that's right....

      October 1, 2012 at 6:18 am |
    • ROE

      Yes, just another one.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:26 am |
  8. James

    It is people like this which drives people to strive AWAY from religion. Well that and the mass killing of others because they don't believe in the same religion as you. Religion is the biggest contradiction that faces mankind where can one, for example, preach where "God" is the only being who can judge man yet they themselves, condemn others if they disagree with how they live their lives and what their beliefs are. I believe there is a saying that goes along the lines of "Judge not less ye be judged". Therefore I believe that it will most likely be RELIGION that dooms mankind into extinction. NOT climate change, NOT global economic collapse, NOT facist governments, it will be a very large scale he-said she-said argument involving massive amounts of people who drank the proverbial kool-aid and gained access to a variety of weapons whether it be rocks and sticks, IED's (improvised explosive devices), military weaponry, and even bare fists. We need to wise up as human beings and understand that no matter what we may "believe" but we are still governed by base natural instincts and one of those is defense which sometimes may involve violence if we are threatened.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  9. Phazon

    You will be held accountable no matter what you believe I am sure that those in Noahs day had similar belief but remember 2 things if your not eating at Gods table whos tablep are you eating at. 2. Remember the questions that was raised by Gods enemy. They wont follow you on faith alone, they can rule themselves, and man will only serve God when he gives them things now we know these questions are of couse already answered but God is patient because he desires all to be safe now if everyone followed true Christanity and followed God' word we would all be peaceful until he gets rid of sin and we never get sick grow old and die. True Christianity two things the bible mentions the road to destruction is large the road to everlasting life is narrow. Jesus said you would know his followers by their fruits think about that for a second why do people honestly get mad at those who only believe in the bible it's their only source of belief and they teach from it but yet people get mad when they knock on your door which is the same thing Jesus did btw they do it for life not 2 years with pay and they also teach you from the bible.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • awasis

      Made up baloney.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  10. Eva Rea

    This article is such nonsense in so many ways. There is no problem with being spiritual and doing yoga ( see picture ). There is rather a problem with religion! Most wars are created by religion! How can CNN print such nonsense.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:55 am |
  11. kimc

    I had a difficult time following this. Seemed a bit disjointed.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:51 am |
  12. Alan

    So unless I purchase religious product from a local franchise of some brand name, Big Box religious global corporation, I have no principals? I need to sign up for membership, otherwise I'll be denied the opportunity to have a whole life, well lived? Sorry, sacred scripture makes it quite clear that God withholds His grace from no one who seeks it, and you don't need to go through any toll booths to get there.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • Tracy

      Well Said!!! 100%!!!!!!

      October 1, 2012 at 5:52 am |
  13. Nate Mullikin

    The time when an otherwise unqualified yet charismatic person could gather bunches of people that would give them money because an Invisible Friend said to is waning. Such articles pine for those simpler, stupider days.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:38 am |
  14. Glen Ervin

    Broad strokes painted by a blind man...

    October 1, 2012 at 5:38 am |
  15. kruntz

    "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."

    THIS IDOT IS SAYING NOTHING. JUST WANTS TO HEAR HIMSELF TALK.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
  16. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life

    A thought provoking article by Miller summed up well, At the end of the day every one needs to find that peace within themselves, enlightenment/spirituality without God/ scriptural foundations is useless and futile.
    A Christian's spriituality comes from a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:37 am |
    • To that, we say, Amen
      October 1, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • sam stone

      so, you need a book to be spiritual?

      October 1, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  17. Jeff

    Wow. This is terrible journalism

    October 1, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  18. Billy

    Religion is still a relevant thing?

    October 1, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  19. Wilson

    Miller must be living with his head in the sand to take up such a haughty perspective while offering nothing more than the same old tripe that the big churches have always foisted on people. THese big religious organizations are all about money, and use religion as a means to get it out of people's pockets. Lets examine the most recent court case brought by the Catholic church in Germany against their own believers. IN Germany, Chatholics must pay a "church tax" of 8% of their gross income. In these tough economic times, some folks have "stepped out" of the church to avoid paying this very high tax. The Catholic church took this to court and referred to the sacraments as a "product" provided by the church, and that receiving them without paying for them amounted to theft. The German supreme court agreed, and allows the church to deny access to the sacraments to those who do not pay the tax. Does the Catholic church leadership not see that selling indulgences pales in comparrison to this assault on the religious beliefs of their believers? You don't pay the tax, Sorry...no communion for you. Sorry...you can not get married by a priest. Sorry...your child can not be babtized. Sorry...you can not be burried in a Catholic cemetary..even though the local municipality actually owns the land. Sorry...no extreme unctio for you...your soul is going to hell unless you pay the tax. No word yet on how they will implement this, but I envision a sort of ID card that proves payment. Just imagine...you walk up to the front of the church for communion, and the priest takes a crdit card swipe right after saying "Corpus Christy." Instead of saying "Amen", you say KA-CHING!

    This action has placed the orientation of the Catholic church in full perspective. It is all about the money. Can anyone fail to understand why people are leaving the organized churches?

    October 1, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  20. Thanks, CNN

    "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."

    I really enjoy it when respected news organizations gives a voice to people who write as if I, a follower of a religion other than Christianity, did not exist.

    October 1, 2012 at 5:12 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.