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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

    maybe the willingness of people like mr.Miller to lump all of the "others" together and clearly define them is part of what's chasing folks away from dominating doctrines like christianity. he seems to grasp a few pieces of who spiritualists are and shape the rest from his rigid ideas. he can continue to blog about this issue, the cling-ons will read it and agree. people like me will not invest much more time or effort listening to him, but will pursue this beautiful creation we call earth and know better it's mysteries

    October 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  2. Horus

    So basically the author is judging those who take a path of "I'm not sure"....hmmm....go figure. And enough with the morality crap. Morality comes from within. It is a choice to be a decent person, or not. No God required. The difference is "believers" can justify their poor choices by asking for forgiveness from some imagined being. Moral code can be (and is) accomplished via law – again, no Gods required.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  3. joe800

    ..so much better to let someone ELSE twist and influence the message or dogma a religion seeks to take control of ones life via...better to let the men in charge set rules, processes and the correct way .... better to just shut up and stop thinking about it and drink the koolaid and do as youre told....

    October 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  4. Flora

    I agree with Tom, someone indeed feels threatened.
    I rejected religion years ago when church after church showed me the man at the pulpit infusing his own bias, misinterpretation and ego into what was supposed to be God's word. I searched for many years for a way to reach God through "acceptable" means only to find time and time again the church twisting Christ's words while demanding money so they could build these mega-churches and have the pastor ride in a luxury car.

    People are seeking truth and not finding it. If the author wants to look for reasons folks are leaving organized religion, do not take the easy way out and just blame the "me" generation but those who would rewrite his precious Bible to accommodate money grubbing egomaniacs who sin like crazy behind closed doors (Anyone remember Jim Bakker?) I am appalled by what these greedy men have done to scripture. Where is Mr. Miller's outrage towards that?

    Christianity is no longer led by Christ's word. THAT'S the reason so many have wandered off. I no longer consider myself a Christian, although I believe Jesus was a messiah. Just not the only one. And by exploring other religions and other paths over the past 30 or so years I have become closer to God, closer I believe, than I ever would have become with man standing in the way. I am a better person, a better parent, and have more peace in my heart because I have left religion behind me. I'm sure there will be Christians who will try and skewer my words here into some Devil-laced belief, but that's their fear and honestly, not my problem. My relationship with God is mine, and mine alone, and I like it this way.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  5. Sonofchrist

    " Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." - Really? Isn't is easier to just follow the heard an be religious. Most of the religious folks only follow that path because their parents and family have done so in the past. Theirs not a whole lot of thinking when you are just following the heard.

    On the other hand, those choosing to not to follow the heard and recognize that religion has probably killed more people on earth than anything else,have a lot of thinking and decisions to make.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  6. tim

    I was wondering what the singer for counting crows was doing now a days.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  7. DavidWebster

    While my fuller reply is at http://dispirited.org/2012/10/01/cnn-spiritual-but-not-religious-and-being-angry/ – I am amazed how angry people are – and that they are taking this purely as a defence of faith...

    October 1, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • youdontheartherealreasons

      You do not know the real reasons some are angry at cnn using religion to divide and conquer the minds and hearts and souls and whatever from the people because it is election time – and politics and war and peace is all that matters right now – because they will not let you hear the real reasons – because they would be complicit in the chaos and anger.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • miketofdal

      that bs didn't work because there aren't that many angry people posting. most of it is very rational thought...for spirituality.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  8. Kent

    Religious Right involvement= true, Child Abuse in the church=true, The Crusades=true, Organized religion associated with terrorism=true.
    I have practice Buddhism for many years now, including studies, and attending a center for Buddhist practices for over 4-5 years. Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy of being a truely harmonious, human being that puts others before themselves. I used to attend the mega churches with the laser light show, horrible band, and million dollar salary preacher.....which one does Miller say is the "me" idea? This country was formed on the freedom of religion, which would include not following a religion if one chooses. It is up to the individual. Our individual rights are being taken away daily so please don't tell us how to enjoy our peace and reflection.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  9. richunix

    I wish more people were “Spiritual” vice religious fundamentalist. For two thousand year we have heard the same story and it gets bolder and boulder as the years advance. Now to a point where most of the rank and file can no longer separate history from fantasy. Now that the Vatican has outright declared the Coptic papyrus fragment as a “fake” not because it could be (it not a fake, but rather a wakeup call) , because it threaten the very existence of the their religion as it stands. Someday mankind (all nations) will throw off religious shackles and realize that WE are who we our (not created by some deity) and WE can and will make this a better place to live without the fear created by those who wish to control our thought, action…our very lives.
    Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that 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.”

    October 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  10. Starbelly

    Perhaps those that are Spiritual would like to believe in a higher power without the intolerance or exclusion of Religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  11. John

    I think this is due to the fact that so many organized religions have failed their members in so many ways. You don't have to look far to find someone preaching an extremem version of almost anything and threatening hellfire and eternal damnation to any that believe otherwise. While Mr. Miller's sermon is more main stream than most, It's still "his way or the highway". Fact is, God loves you whether you attend a formal service or not. He never asked for your money, though any number of religions have demanded as much as you can be talked into parting with. God demands very little of us. A simple set of rules to live by and faith. Religion on the otherhand, wants money, power and blind allegiance to ideals that on a great many occasions have nothing to do with God.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  12. Mike

    I'm really disturbed by the purely negative light that the article paints spirituality in. It's supposed to be a way to worship who you want, how you want, without offending anyone or forcing anyone to follow you and to break away from the organized religion or church. We (I am spiritual, but also agnostic) can worship or believe in any one of the gods/deities of the organized religions, but it is not a requirement to go to church or worship in any organized fashion; you do what you want. So please, if we don't do anything to you, (attacking your religion/beliefs) please don't attack mine.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • rochdoc

      In fact the attempt is to hold a mirror as people like you think this is the best way – no commtments, not hurting anybody, can go with anybody while passing cheap shots at those uneducated Christians. In fact being agnostic is the ultimate way of saying I don't want to have anything with God's rules, I want to live by my own, while you get the luxury to keep the unknown as "unknowable".

      October 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  13. Tom Gardosik

    Many of these people might be called "deists" - much the same as many of our founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson (take the time to investigate the Jefferson Bible), and others.

    What a crock indeed.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  14. Michael

    Simply put it is none of any ones business how someone chooses to see their higher power, churches need to get out of politics and the media. Religion is the biggest money scam to date, churches want a say so pay your back taxes and start paying current other then that stay out of peoples business and be quite

    October 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  15. Doc Vestibule

    I really can't stand Unitarians.
    What's the point of joining a religion if not to condemn this and that from a fiery pulpit?
    Get off the fence!

    October 1, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  16. JohnBNY

    This author has no clue. Spiritual relationship but not religious means for most that they have a strong spiritual relationship with what they believe and is not tied to a formal religious group in most cases. Organized religion today is not right for those that want to expand out and feel closer to their spiritual beliefs. This is not a copout but is typically separted from an organized religious group.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  17. cliff

    this article was the dumbest thing i will read today, thanks cnn!

    October 1, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • scott

      I really have to agree with you! This article had nothing of value in it. For some reason a lot of people believe that just because the Bible has been around for a long time it must be true. If someone wants to believe in God or a higher power, fine, if they don't fine. Live and let live, but some extreme religious beliefs have been turned into reasons to start wars and fly planes into buildings, believe what I believe or we will kill you and what about the pysco beliefs of that crazy Westboro so called church that teaches nothing but hate. If there is a God, I would be willing to bet he or she's not happy with the way things have turned out.. How did things ever get this insane..Sorry for rambling, it just came out.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  18. watergirl

    The cries of the dying secular at losing their pool of candidates to convert. What people are now doing is understanding religion for themselves, without it being dictated to them. So many churches are springing up where it is guided by the people, and not someone picked to dictate the rules to them.

    As for morality and what guides you in life, this is the same arguement used for athiests. The spiritual and athiests now have answer to themselves. There isn't anyone to blame anything on, you are responsible for yourself. Which is a far more powerful thing, and one this society needs: holding yourself to your own values.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  19. EDGAR

    THEY NEED THE MONEY .... DO NOT LET THEM THINK BY THEMSELVES ...

    October 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  20. James R Hunt

    Isms are true evil we are all divine and should look at each other as such. Whatever or even chose to have no relationship with whatever might be out there is our absolute right. No mortal will take that away and immortal do not care or play favorites.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:36 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.