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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. mike k

    Is that what I'm supposed to do– decide to believe something? "decide to believe" sounds sort of like "pretend."

    October 1, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  2. lmpc

    I was raised in a household where one parent thought organized religion created bigots and the other followed like sheep because it was what they learned from theirs. After soul searching I've realized that living the Golden Rule, being compassionate, kind, honest and just can be achieved without belonging to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. My legacy will be the good that I've done and the kindness that I've offered others. Regardless of whether or not I attribute my actions to obeying the teachings of Christ, Buddha or Mohammed, I can go out knowing I've (in the main) done the right thing. After I die, whatever happens, happens. I'm at peace with that, because I know I'm doing my very best to make the world a better place in the here and now. It's what I'm driven to do at a soul level, not because someone tells me I'm going to burn in Hell if I don't.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  3. LA

    What exactly is it that spiritual followers of God are , according to your words Alan Miller, "peddling"?

    What are you "peddling" there? This article, and its false dichotomy are exactly why people can see through the idiocy of some organized religions.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  4. tim

    This dude simply doesn't get it. This generation has been exposed to far more information than those in the past (be it about the vast expanse of the universe and the likelihood of the existence of life on other planets, the realization that thousands of religions claim to be the correct one, etc.) and are trying to incorporate some notion of life after death into a far more complicated and foggy world view than was afforded older generations. This guy can go sit on a tack.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Joseph

      You are absolutely right. But lets show this guy agape love. It is not his fault he is brainwashed by the old society's way of belief. It is not our fault thay we were raised in a society of new technology, innovation, evolution and new findings. So how about if you cant beat us, join us and they will see (miller) that we are all in search of the same things: truth and pursuit of happiness.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  5. Dana Hess

    Spiritual, not religious is a cop out. You're a real jokester, Alan. SNR is still a decision. It's the decision that people put their religion before their fellow man. You may not have noticed some of what has come out of that opposing choice in the last few millenia- The Crusades, The Inquisition, Jihadist terrorism.... but you may not have noticed. You may not have noticed while proclaiming to the world how you have the right opinion. Perhaps you should have tried asking one of these people. Your opinion leads me to believe you know a few- I'd offer you mine, but I'm probably near the character limit anyway.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  6. Willyboy

    The article is the purest of mindless nonsense. The only danger in rejecting organized religion is to organized religions themselves – they are losing money and drones. Good. Organized religions – specifically the twisted and perverted dogma woven around them – have caused far more harm through the years than they have done good. Let them go the way of the dinosaurs and the sooner the better...

    October 1, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Pappy62

      I could not agree more!

      October 1, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  7. WASP

    being spiritual but not religious is another way of saying agnostic. they perscribe to no single "god" idea, they just accept that there is something more powerful than themselves.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • LA

      You are saying that the only way I can believe in the same God you do is to go along with the local branch of your segregated and misogynist church that is the closest thing to the clan in suits in my area? I'm not buying that at all. what kind of God are THEY worshipping there?

      October 1, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • LA

      The day that marked the largest growth period in my faith was the day I learned the difference between being spiritual and religious – years ago. They were never one and the same.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • WASP

      @LA: ummm re-read my post. i'm speaking for being agnostic if someone isn't ready to take the final step toward being atheist. being spiritual but not religious is another way of saying "i'm agnostic."

      October 1, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  8. Preston

    Most of what people "think" they know from the Bible's presentation of God is taken out of context and incorrect. A real believer seeks peace, and know that God is not to blame for the sin of man. If I give someone a gift (free will & conditional dominion over the earth), and they throw it in the trash (disobey me), am I to blame?

    God set up the rules, we violated it..... Here is the gospel in a nutshell –> Jesus paid the price, put the "gift" back into our hands... (this message is in a response to a message i read in here)

    October 1, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • WASP

      @preston: you do know ofcourse your bible was written and assembled by a pagan emperor, right?
      so he wouldn't have had any reason to manipulate the old verbal tells of "jesus" a guy that "died" in the year 32 C.E. almost 280years before the bible was ever assembled at nicea. lmfao

      October 1, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • James S

      "throw it in the trash" AKA "use the free will i just gave them"

      October 1, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • WASP

      @james: please explain to me how; seeing god is all knowing and all powerful; "free-will" can exsist?
      what i understand is if i know everything that can ever happen and be capable of manipulating things with a single thought, then you have no free-will because whatever you choose to do, i've already seen it, and either accepted to allow you to do it or decided to change what will happen.
      let's put it this way, if god knows i'm going to hunt you down and run you over with my car and ofcourse god doesn't stop me then god is either:
      1) not all knowing because he didn't see me run you over ahead of time.
      2) not all powerful seeing he couldn't stop me, i.e. making my tire pop.
      3) doesn't care what happens to you, thus allowed me to run you over
      4) wanted me to run you over thus inspired me to do so
      5) doesn't exsist thus couldn't stop me anyhow.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  9. boyamidumb

    More from the new American Taliban. Look out, here they come. When they doubt their particular brand of religion, they attack. DANGER Will Robinson.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  10. CannonOwner

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." A truly thinking and honest person realizes that "deciding" is self-deceptive, as a truly thinking and honest person realizes that absolute knowledge of the existence or non-existence of a supreme being is unknowable to a human being. The absolute knowledge required to "decide" would, by definition, necessitate the quality of omniscience ascribed to a supreme being by those who postulate his/her/its existence. The atheist is just as arrogant as the religious zealot in their assertion that they KNOW the truth about reality. As I see it, being spiritual but not religious suggests a more reasoned, sane approach to the conundrum of what actually exists outside our own brains.

    Furthermore, the author seemingly disparages "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking". I put it to you that "truth-is-whatever-you-are-told-by-religious-authority thinking" is just as inane, and perhaps even more dangerous. This however, is just my opinion.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • Boo'sMomma

      CannonOwner – I could not have put it better myself. What an arrogant jerk this author is. To claim because you choose not to follow one set of sheep or another you don't care about others or the future. What an ignorant blanket statement.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  11. Joe Labriola

    Given all of this "author's" reputable sources that he cites in his piece, how can we not take him seriously?

    October 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  12. Dan

    ID-10-T Who is he to tell me what I can/can't/should/shouldn't believe in and how to practice that belief?

    October 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  13. Mary

    This is the most ignorant article I have read in a long time. I appreciate diversity of opinion, but people should at least base their opinions on facts - and if they don't know facts, keep their uninformed and bigoted opinions to themselves. This author has no idea what spirituality is about. Frankly, I feel sorry for him and his ignorance.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • think

      they did it on purpose to annoy and pacify thief need to sacrifice other 'religions' or non-religions to the SHAMED pile to appease the Islams. They figured this would be an easy target – since they respected this 'group' of non-religion SO VERY LITTLE – to not even know what their talking about before they spew their ill-kept opinions.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  14. Joseph Linka

    Religion is an outdated concept. I do not need any religion in order to behave in a civil manner. I'll think for myself and commune with God in my own way thank you.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  15. FZM

    From the article: "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."

    PRINCIPLES need no explanation; PROPAGANDA does.I don't kill because I believe it to be wrong. I don't need a fictional account relating a Deity who holds humanity responsible for their "transgressions", yet shuns his or her own responsibility at every turn to tell me this. I know it to be so without having to be told. Churches and organized religion exist specifically to empower and enrich the clergy. Period.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  16. mollie1891

    Bless you, Alan Miller.
    You have a true concern for what must seem a world falling apart. It can look like that from any angle, yet in faith we must trust – a belief in the idea that good will win out, that there is a pattern and a force beyond what we can comprehend in our human existence. We are but spirits having a human experience, so we have innate hints that we cannot even express.
    I feel the way you do when I see "Christian churches" growing up around leaders who bend the Bible to fit their own agendas.
    Not having had an experience which is spiritual, outside an organized religion, I can see how you might jump to the conclusions listed here. Keep in mind that many people who move among the established religions carry on their own conversation with a higher power, just as those you so worry about. They just go through the motions of what is expected without believing in the dogma and format. They follow the teachings of Christ without the trappings of man.
    May you be blessed with Peace and Love. May you be Love in all your encounters with others. May they shine back on you that Light which is Love in every spiritual sense...religious or not.
    Lola Gregg

    October 1, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  17. Sue H

    I am more spiritual than religious and I completely disagree with the writer's opinion. When a minister tells the congregation that it has to accept all the dogma and can't pick and choose, for me it is time to move along. I have attended a number of different churches by myself and with friends. I read voraciously. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in English. The Bible figures prominently in all English literature. So at my age I have been able to conclude which Christian dogma I accept and which I do not. Basically, I do not want to be a member or give money to a church. I prefer giving directly to an organization. I don't believe in the Trinity, the foundation of most Christian faiths. I don't know if there is a heaven. I will know when I get there or not.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • thoughts

      It is hard to be an educated female, (one who is not afraid nor unable to think for themselves), and accept a religion, (I am assuming the author is referring to the Judeo-christian-islam religions – since he know so little about the existence of other religions or the picture would not have been used to mock half the other major religions who advocate for meditation, yoga, and prayer – which really they all do in their own way), that does not include educated nor spiritual women at it's core. I asked myself where was the feminine in these 3 major religions so many times – I finally went searching for more that related to and respected females as well as men.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  18. Debashri

    People like this author are exactly the reason I stay away from organized religion. Always judging you, always assuming things about you without even knowing you, always telling you what to do, what to think. Stupid stupid article!

    October 1, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  19. Julie

    This is the third day this dumb article has been on the CNN home page. Enough already.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  20. OtakuAnthony

    Well I think there are some good points here with this opinion piece I don't completely agree with it. I don't have much of a favorable opinion of religion these days but I can and do respect parts of it. I really don't see the big deal if you are spiritual but not religious if you just take the parts you like from various religions if you understand them and do your best to apply them.

    I'm an atheist myself but, I do still learn about religion and I do like somethings from all of them. I used to be a Christian but I didn't agree with a lot of what was taught but I do agree with some aspects of it. I also agree with some aspects of Judaism and Muslims.

    I do take a lot of parts from other religions (Taoism is one of them) but I think it fits me "better" than staying with a group that I didn't agree with everything with. I'm not saying that religion itself is terrible (personally it should be done away with) but hey if it works for you great, it just didn't work for me. That is not to say that I agree with EVERYTHING all religions have to offer I certainly don't but I use what aspects from others that I respect and use them to form my beliefs.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • OtakuAnthony

      Correction I wanted to say Islam not Muslims so I apologize for that.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:45 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.