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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. dave

    I have not taken a survey, but I would guess that most "spiritual but not religious" people would agree that loving a spiritual higher power and treating others as oneself are the right way to live. Didn't sombody one say those were the greatest commandments? Who was that? In fact, those sentiments are in many religions.

    Religion is to God as Language is to Communication -

    October 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  2. Tosspuppy

    The world is not black and white, religious or atheist, as Mr. Miller seems to believe. There are a lot of people in between. He probably has no time for independent voters either; you're either a Democrat or Republican.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  3. Dave

    Another "enlightened church" goer tries to understand why everyone is so wrong. Many people do believe and are spiritual, but the dogma and stagnant practices of many faiths is unappealing at best. The buffet of values that you point out to us as bad, assuming we’re like simple children, with the notion that we run for all the desserts and ignore the meat and potatoes, is complete false. It’s actually about accepting the positive things where ever they are found. The Baha’i and a few others can see this. The Christian church ruthlessly tried to stamp out non-centralized religion in the 4th crusade because it was "bad for business". Your article is modern day propaganda for the same idea – You can only be saved through "insert organization here" so buy now. In the modern age, where information flows so easily, hypocrisy and corruption show through and cannot be brushed under the rug. I do believe most people in formal churches are good people with similar values to those in the spiritual but not religious group and if church is working for them great. Leave me alone. In my opinion dogma shuts down the two way flow of ideas and leads to sheep who accept whatever comes from the front of the church…no thinking or inner reflection necessary. That is why I reject it (not God).

    October 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  4. Cupcake

    Shame, shame, Mr Miller. You sound remarkably like the Christian St Paul in some of his more short-sighted moments. And you have just happily reminded me of some of the reasons (ignorance and intolerance among them) I walked away from organized religion.

    For a man who claims so many of us are unlettered and untutored, please let me point out the plank in your eye.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  5. Danimyl

    The eclectic approach to religion can never work because it posits that we can teach ourselves what we do not already know. Religion is essentially a form of higher education. The major pathways to union with the Divine were initiated by legitimate contact from the Angelic Presence to those who were chosen as its Messengers. Indeed, these pathways have become overgrown with the centuries of human commentary, and none of them were intended to usher humanity through the thresholds before us in our time. BUT God has not abandoned us, either. He has sent a New Message and a New Messenger. For anyone feeling the impulse toward higher education and greater purpose the New Message from God is here to bring you closer to what you came here to do in this life. If you have not found your home in the world's religious traditions, this Way is for you. newmessage.org

    October 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  6. John

    The author sounds like someone trying their best to keep the churches filled, and the money coming in. Churches are seeing their congregations dwindle, so they send out yahoos like this guy to try to change the thinking and guilt people back into those big old stone buildings with creepy old dudes giving long lectures – not gonna happen, sorry.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  7. joe

    Dear Allan,

    There is no fence, my friend. The concept of fences and borders and labels is what keeps us a violent warmongering people. All religions throughout time have been found to be merely mythical, and Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, all of them will eventually fall by that same wayside as time merrily ticks along. To pretend that we actually know anything, spiritually or scientifically is to pretend that we as a species have some equivalence to the creative forces that have brought us to today. Please don't get me wrong, I think you and all people should follow whatever form of religion or science makes you feel good and feel that you have purpose in this world. I would never deny you that. So, with great indignity, I ask you, how dare you deny my right to be who I have become in your insignificant little mind? We are both just specks meandering through this tiny corner of the universe seeking meaning for our consciousness, and try as you may you will never be more important than me, nor will I ever rise above you.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Deligoer

      Joe and Cup: Well put. Obviously little to know research took place before Mr. Miller shared his opinion with us. You have a right to do so, sir. As we have the right to believe what we will. There is no right or wrong, no black or white here.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do us a favor Joe and don’t bring science into the same category as faith based belief systems. You’ll look smarter and science will thank you.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Zeke

      Very well said. There is no fence, except the one we make up. The article is full of judgements, but it is really only another way of trying to divide us in order to satisfy an ego or a deadline or "something or other". The other problem is the lack of passion in the writing. If you want to serve god, serve him in your heart!

      October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  8. The Empty Cup

    Sounds like Mr. Miller has his mind made about up about this topic. When your mind is already made up, there is no room for growth. Sadly, Mr. Miller won't be able to understand other people's perspectives until he opens his mind to new possibilities.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  9. L

    Personally, I don't agree with what is being said – or I'm using the words out of context. I belive in the bible and the "rules", etc., But I call myself spiritual because I'm not a fanatic. Meditation is praying to God in my world. Yes there are those who believe how you wrote this article, but not everone does – me for one.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  10. Chuck

    Why didnt he reference believeing in Science?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • L

      That would be because this is a religious article, not a debate over science vs religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Mirosal

      The science versus religion religion debate effectively ended on the day they installed lightning rods on churches.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • JJ1

      Because one doesn't "believe" in science and facts. One "accepts" science and facts. One "believes" in fairies, gods, ghosts, leprachauns and astrology.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • dave

      Science does not tell you lying is wrong. Science is not morality. Ask Messrs. Oppenheimer, Nobel, Gatling, Browning, Mengele folks at Dow, Raytheon, etc.

      People who are anti-religion or atheists often forget about Mao and Stalin

      October 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      @Dave
      Mao and Stalin did what they did out of a desire for political power. Not atheism. Something theist often forget…education.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • mwa

      because the whole point of science is that it does not propose teachings that are unknowable by natural reason and must be assented to by belief, but rather propositions either proved or convincingly supported by physical evidence.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • GeoScba

      As a scientist, I have always believed that science and faith do not have to be mutually exclusive. What if science is the method of God? Science, in and of itself, is certainly not a moral system. It is certainly (hopefully in more cases than not) guided by ethics. I have always thought it more of a miracle that whatever the higher power is, created the universe to function through a complex system of scientific laws than just going "click". Is an evolutionary system not more miraculous than everything just being planted like a flower in a garden, to stay as we are forever and never grow? Granted, my beliefs are a bit complicated, but speaking from a Christian standpoint, I find that a God that creates through science is a more complex, wonderous God, truly worthy of awe. A God that just makes things appear with no rhyme or reason is a magician, and not worth my faith. Science is not something to believe in, it is just a tool of discovery.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  11. Joe

    There goes another Christian criticizing others and then droning on and on about how their magical fairy monster in the sky and all other magical fairy monsters aren't as cool.

    People can believe what they want. When will religions types change the phrase, "This is what is right" to "This is what is right for me"?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  12. Sue

    Mr. Miller, I have a "real position" – I do not believe in any gods in any of the (man made up) religions! I have no more idea where the first speck in the cosmos came from then you do, but I will not make up or follow any god story and insist it is the truth.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  13. Eileen

    Having been baptized and raised Catholic as an adult realized although I was drawn to attend church services and participate in the doctrine, I didn't "feel" it. Dogmatic faith created an angst in my soul that led me to seek relief and so I began my search by attending the services of other religious denominations. In search of finding peace with myself I found that all religions provide a basis for a belief system. Perhaps others, like myself, who prefer to use the term "spiritual" rather than "religious" have found peace within our souls. In speaking for myself, this peace has guided me to being the best human being I can by understanding the power of empathy and acting accordingly. Considering religion has been the greatest cause of war throughout our history, perhaps more spirituality could lessen the sharpness of the sword.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  14. JosephPreistlyUU

    oh, you're so much holier the I. Thank you for explaining why what YOU believe in is so superior to what the silly people believe in. And you MUST know what it means to be spiritual, but not religious.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  15. Areya Kiddingme

    Only the Sith deal in absolutes. "You're either for us or against us"! Really? Weak-sauce Alan Miller!

    October 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Areya Kiddingme

      PS-Stating there are only two options with which how one orient's their beliefs is a cop-out in of itself. Go judge-lest-be your own judge dude...shame because you do know how to dance with words, but you're too obtuse.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  16. CA

    I'm sorry that the author feels this way. As a 46 year-old, full time working mom with 2 teenage daughters, and who also was brought up in a fairly strict religious family, I too have left behind the organized religion in place of just "doing the right thing". My biggest problem with most prevelant religions is that men are leading and women simply aren't allowed. I'm sure 2,000 years ago that was perfectly acceptable, but come on people... really? No women in management? I have no problem following male leadership as long as it is possible for a women to play the same role. If it is simply barred, then I have a problem taking it seriously. I truly believe that in God's eyes (anyone's God) I am not a second to anyone based on gender.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • DRLM

      I dont know what religion you follow, but I have seen plenty of women in charge of churches. Where I came from, there were alot of women who either ran a good majority of the religious programs that the chruch had, or were themselves the pastor/priest of the church. I do not disagree that there are some religions out there that are based on the male gender being in charge. The fact is that women always complain about not having equal rights in this, or not having equal rights in that, but when it comes to splitting the bill with men, either in literal terms or in the physical manner of the work presented, women tend to use their guile/charm/or whatever else you want to call it, to get out of the situation. Not saying that there arent some women that are worth their salt, just saying that I know quite a few that werent, but would quickly turn the tides if a man confronted them about it.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Mirosal

      I also like "Morality is doing what's right, no matter what you're told. Religion is doing what you're told, no matter what's right."

      October 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  17. scanboy

    I can't find the source but here's a favorite relevant quote:

    "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

    quote from S. F. Roberts

    October 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  18. Bobby

    The "Karma Sutra" is being listed as a religious text by the author?!
    First off its Kama Sutra, and secondly (and most importantly) its not a religious text.

    The author is an idiot.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  19. BD70

    You can believe in a higher being....pray etc without belonging to a religion. Jesus did it...don't recall him hanging out in any specific church. He traveled and preached goodness and kindness. And as another opinion reflected... was quite the partier. And no I am not the younger generation. I stopped going to church years ago because it was just too cut and dry. Black and white. Too may attended that would just be their mean ole selves again all week long because they could be forgiven on Sunday or Saturday.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • ERSnj

      Jesus didn't go to church? Seriously? Jesus was a practicing Jew. Check your history.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  20. One one

    How many gods are there to believe in?
    God has angles, Satan has demons.
    My god and religion are real and true.
    YOUR religion is just a pile of bull poo.
    They say there’s only ONE god to believe in.
    If you don’t believe, it’s the ultimate sin.
    No more Zeus, Odin, or Thor, MY hero.
    We’re just one god away from the true number…. ZERO.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:53 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.