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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. Robert Davis

    The writer appears not to understand the underyling belief of those of us that believe in the connection between the spirit and the body but refuse to be boxed into a theological debate of who is right and who is wrong. We must each find our own path. Large mega churches are not gong to help you find it. If anything it is more of an indoctrination they offer so that as long as you believe as they believe you fit in. If you don't then you must be going to hell. Looking back at the Biblical examples of spirituality we see Adam alone with God in the garden....no mega church. When we see Jesus and his disciples, they met in small groups not in 6,000 seat auditoriums. And when addressing the hypocrisy of modern churches of Christ's day, he found them more about selling something to the masses than actually allowing them to work out their own path or spiritual journey. For me, finding what works w/in the many religious thoughts gives a better understanding of what being spiritual means – more of a broad stroke of connectivity that we can all share vs. focusing on where we are different. So if sitting on the fence is what the author assumes I must be doing, then I'm more than happy to sit on that fence instead of getting off of it just because he would prefer I not do so. Find your own way – look inside and you will find the answer and leave those checks at home....I don't need them. In fact, why not use them to actually help community members in need instead of building massive churches. Spiritual I am, religious I'm not.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  2. Katina

    Hate to break it to you, Alan, but "Spiritual But Not Religious" is the first stepping stone to atheism, and the freedom from belief in any supernatural deity. For some, it's even just code for the fact that they are already atheists, but can't publicly state that fact for fear of retribution. Describing themselves as "Spiritual But Not Religious" allows people to eschew religious dogma without being ostracized by a society that still largely believes in it and believes that morality can only be taught in its churches. When society - especially in the United States - finally begins accepting atheism, and stop equating it with dishonest and immoral behavior, many of these people will cease even being "spiritual." And that's a GOOD THING.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • One one

      Bingo !

      October 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • JJ1

      I stated the same thing earlier. It's the thinking for one's self that is the real fear of the Christian cult because when indoctrination by one generation onto the next, the control and power of these cults will vanish and go the way of Greek mythology.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • General Hide

      maybe you should look up Deism, Pan(en)theism, and many other nature and reason based religions. There are many other places to transition from traditional theism other than atheism.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  3. Sarah

    This piece is ridiculous. How presumptious and insecure in his own faith does the author have to be to write a story like this? Especially when the article clearly uses "religion" and "christianity" interchangeably several times throughout the article. Just another misguided evangelist spewing the same "Christian or wrong" crap thats threatened millions more people throughout history than it has helped. Those of us who choose not to follow the rigid confines of Christianity but instead to either follow the path of a different religion/belief or are inspired more by natural forces in our beliefs are NOT self obsessed and are CERTAINLY not trying to take the easy way out – after all, what could be easier than showing up exactly where and when they tell you, believing exactly what they tell you, and practicing exactly how they tell you?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  4. lee

    Spiritual: Adjective: Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

    What does it even mean to be spiritual? What is a spirit? What is a soul? Where can I find these things? Have they ever been demostrated to exist?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  5. Midas

    I do hope that this man is stopped.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  6. OrganicManLives_N_anOraganicUNiverSE

    by ripping out the truth, thereby changing the message, exoterics is the greatest lie (and mankinds biggest failure) the Council of Nice created for all future churches who use the butchered bible as a guide. Way to go Constantine maykind is floundering like a fish out of water.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  7. God is not real

    Typical:

    "If you don't worship like we want you to, you are doing it wrong"

    Religion is a tool to control the masses.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  8. FeralCanadian

    The questioning nature of "spiritual but not religious" also works within a defined religion. I agree with 50% of what my pastor says. With the other 50%, I engage him in discussions with, and we both grow. I believe that organized dogma will not work for everyone, but to say all religion is bad is foolish, because organized religion has positive upsides that individual spirituality will never achieve. Organized religion can promote fundraising to help purchase back to school supplies for less fortunate families. Organized religion can assemble volunteer teams to provide grunt labor for building projects so that less fortunate families don't have to pay as much to get their roof fixed. Arguing over spirituality vs. religion detracts from helping our fellow man.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Deanna

      That is wonderful that your church does all of that. But, we do that too. You don't need to be religious to hold fund raisers or get donations for good causes. I collect clothing, furniture, toys, and books for donations to Goodwill, I donate food for hunger drives, I give to the Red Cross, I give blood, I walk in DC and collect money for Autism and breast cancer awareness, I give to St, Jude’s and to the ASPCA every year. And I raise awareness to all my causes. The companies I have worked for and the neighborhoods I lived in, also do fundraises are gather donations on a regular basis.

      I am glad that churches do good things. But, you don’t need a church to do good things.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  9. Neil

    Basically, this guy is is the prime example of why I will not be religious again. Egotism, self righteous in nature, and a willingness to tell me so are those "qualities" that I left behind in religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  10. Mark

    Like I've always said: "I've got nothing against God, it's his fan club I can't stand".

    October 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Matt

      That should be "as George Carlin always said".

      October 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  11. guest

    Wow CNN...so people are wising up and realize that churches are nothing more than a business and are choosing not to participate...how dare they do such a thing...get over yourself Allen/ CNN/...

    October 1, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Aaron

      I don't think that's what the artical said. Not all groups are just profit making centers. There are real groups of people out there trying to do the right thing.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. LongLastingFlavor

    i am spiritual, but not religious. with the understanding the i believe in a higher being, creator, and can talk to him/her at anytime. i do not need a structure such as a church, a priest or preacher, or to give 10% of my earnings for my creator to listen to my prayers and help me throughout life's complex journey. of course the money hungry churches do not like this way of thinking; it effects their bottom line.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  13. Keith Snyder

    Refusal to accept a system you find objectionable isn't "copping out." If none of the existing systems are acceptable, what choice do you have but to cobble pieces together? Criticize the competence of the cobbling if you want, but requiring people to be radical geniuses with degrees in philosophy so that their attempts are defensible in a debate is the opposite of appreciating a genuine search for truth.

    Which would the God of the New Testament prefer, I wonder...

    October 1, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Madame Mim Jackson

      I believe it was Chesterton who said, "It is not that Christianity has been tried and failed. It is that Christianity has never been tried." I recommend Will Durant's "Caesar and Christ" because Alan sounds just life Cato in his laments about the loss of religious faith among the violent, and heartless Roman state. Maybe modern Christianity is not so modern after all in view of how Caesar co-opted Christianity in 325 A.D to control the plebs. This is not a cynical comment about failure of Christianity but a hope that people in all walks of life will be willing to listen to Christ to put away the sword and feed the hungry.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
      • Keith Snyder

        Putting away swords and feeding hungry are good ideas. The rest of religion, maybe not so much.

        October 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  14. JJ

    Take a hike, Alan.

    I KNOW that you didn't write this article to promote the reading of the The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, but rather because unlike this generation of "'me' generation of self-obsessed" people, you're joining the the past "going senile" generation with all your hilariously off-the-mark generalizations about younger folks.

    I agree with all the people in the comments who said that you and everyone like you should keep your nose out how other people choose to practice religion or connection with god. You have no place to judge and in the end, even if you did – there's nothing you can do about it.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  15. Amadea

    The end point of all religion is to give us hope. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to fulfill the ancient sacrifice of atonement, once and for all, in order to give us a SURE hope of heaven. Only through His atonement and by His grace do we qualify for eternal life. If you are spiritual but not religious what is your hope of eternal life? How do you get there? It seems to me that if you have a guarantee of eternal life by following Christ that would be the way to go. Pretty simple. All else is window dressing. If you are affiliated with a church that is not teaching the Biblical truths of Christ, both Old and New Testaments, find one that is, and be find your sure hope. Life and death are so much easier when once you have this promised hope.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • JJ

      You were serious with that comment, weren't you? Frightening.

      I don't suppose it's ever occurred to you that no everyone is obsessed with "eternal life" ...? Mind blowing, I'm sure.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Horus

      Have you considered that not everyone is searching for, or hoping for "eternal life"? I value this life, right here, right now and I will enjoy it without the shackles of man-made religions.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Hmmm

      Jesus said to follow him.. call no one your teacher, (preacher, minister, what ever). Why do you tell people to find a church? The new testament is full of warnings about causing division. Do you not realize that denominations are divisions? Why support that same spirit of religion Christ faced in the religious leaders that prompted his execution? Or do you not believe God is able to communicate with individuals without needing interpreters? You will not find anything in Jesus words about building churches but you will find quite a bit in his words about the contrary.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • ER

      You're using your own believes to back up your statement. Why is it so difficult for some people to understand that not everyone believes the lies that come from religion?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  16. warmhorse

    Is it just me or is this whole thing invalidated by showing that white dude in dreadlocks praying on a crowded beach. Looks like something The Onion would post. Then I read the article, wherein a point is never made.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Aaron

      I think he makes his point in the last paragraph.... but I don't think committing to not knowing is bad, per say. His mention of transfomation makes lots of sense.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  17. Joshua

    I choose not to participate in any organized religion. This is not fence-sitting. It is not lack of decisiveness. It is a decision to reject organized religion. The author might be uncomfortable with this, but thankfully America is a pluralistic society with freedom of religion, and I do not need his approval.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  18. CosmicC

    What a crock! Let's get put aside, for a moment, the attack on self-realization and self-direction. This article is infused with the assumption that Christianity is the ascendent religion. While the author recognizes some other religions, he relegates them to a subordinate position. Such arrogance in the supremacy of one's own beliefs is the cause of most of the strife in this world; hardly the goal of a truely religious person. Now, back to the more overt attack: He assumes that "spiritual but not religious" means that everyone is just taking the easy way out and picking what appeals to them from a variety of beliefs. While I won't disagree that some have taken that path, I'd argue that finding truths that work for you through study and introspection is not easy. It's the work of a life time. Those who choose a spiritual path they must construct themselves will have a longer journey than those who just follow someone who went before them, but for many it will be a more meaningful journey and a more complete one.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Mike

      This guy is an arrogant horses ass. Of course young people are anti-everything. Ever heard of the hippie movment? It is better to be spiritual than not.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • k

      "Finding a path that works for you ...". Doesn't this put you at the center of the discussion rather than God? Is it all about you or is it all about Him? Also, you chew the author out for expressing his opinion (it is an opinion piece, after all), but of course he's informed by his beliefs (Christian or otherwise). Your life and your opinion should be informed by your beliefs ... or what's the point of having a set of beliefs?

      October 1, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  19. Glenn Link

    What is the "karma sutra"?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • CosmicC

      The sutures the author will undoubtedly get if there is any basis to the concept of karma.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  20. branchgraft

    The article by Miller seems to be jumping to the conclusion that all persons claiming to be not religious but spiritual are following their own path. For me to say I am "not religious" is more of a protest about mainstream religious practices that it is to say I actually am not "religious". That is to say if you mean holding to a belief in God is actually the definition of being religious. As an example of what I think at least some people are saying might be; Jesus fulfilled the old covenant laws and practices before ushering in the new covenant outline in the old and new testaments of the scriptures. Neither he nor his disciples commissioned the building of churches nor the denominational divisions they subtly promote (promote by example). There is a religious spirit in the human race that may seem on track with God but actually is at enmity with him as he demonstrated by taking a human form that was crucified at the prompts of the religious leaders of the day. It matters little what we understand of the motives in other human beings. God knows who is following him and what reasons they have for saying, "I am not religious." Personally I follow the form of God that demonstrated on a cross the nature of a world estranged from him. Good, bad, and all shades between are all in the same sinking ship. Its a freewill choice to follow God or religion or anything else out there.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • CosmicC

      So, basically, you are a religious, observant Christian, but you don't like organized relgions?

      October 1, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • CJ

      I couldn't have said this better myself. The author seems to be textbook religious by making assumptions about a group of believers only because they do not worship or follow God the way that he thinks they should. Most of the religious rules and provisions found in churches today are not Biblical. I want to get back to the basics and just do what Jesus did without all the fluff that comes with going to church today. Peace and blessings.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:56 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.