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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: My Take • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. doledart

    What an incredible miss on the authors part. Absolute failure to understand the issue he's writing about.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • k

      While I don't wholeheartedly agree with the author, I think your input is (i) overly harsh (I don't see you contributing an op-ed piece) and (ii) unsubstantiated. As for item (ii), you give no details that support your position.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Joe

      Completely agree

      October 1, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • ks

      completely accurate and succinct. this guy whoever he is is so blinded by his chosen dogma that doesn't realize that with his "intelligent dialogue" he unintentionally illustrated a big part of why us "spiritual but not religious" eschew religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  2. Zacula

    Well, I'm agnostic. And this REALLY should have been in the opinion section. But in response, yes. I dislike most organized religions. I am not actually spiritual, and I would like to point out that certain relativist truths (such as the variability of truth itself and the need to understand those around you) make more logical sense than certain religious truths, such as facing a certain city when you pray, stoning anyone who wears mixed fibers, and believing that every single animal was created by an invisible guy over the period of six days, fully-formed and never changing.

    So yes, I think spirituality actually makes MORE sense than religious. I'm not actually spiritual myself, but I've never met a spiritual person who said I was going to hell or who wished me ill will because of the family I was born into. Can't say the same for the religious lot.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  3. Spiritually_undecided

    I think we should have "Battle of the Deities". I will follow the winner. Funny we have not heard directly from the mouth of a deity in such a long time. Why were they able to appear and speak directly to our ancestors but yet not one omnipotent being who has watched us get the messages soooo confused and allowed such pain and destruction in their name over the last several centuries has not given us the common courtesy to just send us a simple and direct message that says "I am ______ , and my message is _______ ." Who is wrong; Christians, Jews, or Muslims? Assuming all other religions are definitely wrong.
    I am so thankful the author was kind enough to tell me how I pray and meditate is wrong and keep up the age old tradition of condemning the viewpoint that is not theirs. Way to go buddie! You don't have to worry if your enlightened.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Dionysus

      Not that you asked but I have developed one really damn effective hangover remedy. I don't really have any message other than party on dude, does that help, life is short.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • learntomeditatetofindgodwithin

      the spiritual part of any religion is hard to find in the chaos of society as it is.
      that is why churches are usually quiet in nature – for inner reflection – to hear god speaking to you within yourself
      to make god personal to you
      religion does teach spirituality – and spirituality teaches religion
      the two are really one and the same
      knock and you shall find – as a good 'ol saying goes ...
      ring a bell – and truly listen – you will hear god

      October 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  4. Patricksday

    Being Spiritual you take responsibility for your own life and being a better human being. Religion is responsible for more wars and Death by an angry vengeful God who is very cruel.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  5. NightOps

    Because finite individuals believe they are more intelligent than an infinite God.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  6. satan

    theres simply no evidence for any gods . . In my opinion following beliefs with out evidence is worse

    October 1, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Legalizeit

      You yourself follow a belief, which is believing in nothing....yep that is a belief....everyone has a belief

      October 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • k

      And, to follow up on what "legalize it" said, what evidence do you have that your "belief" is correct? What data is it based on? Don't you get it. You're saying that you need data to believe in something ... but what in the observable world told you that "only observable things of this world are correct?" In fact, you didn't. It's a metaphysical position that you have chosen without data ... no less than my metaphysical belief in God.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  7. Jay

    I believe this piece says far more about its author than it does any "spiritual, but not religious" person. Way to prove the spiritual-but-not-religious point, Miller.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  8. DavidH

    If you read what he is saying, the author is really attacking not just "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), but every kind of belief that does not come from the Bibile. I am an agnostic, and do not consider myself SBNR, but I disagree completely with his assertion that SBNR "offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind." How you define your place in the universe can certainly provide you with a set of rules to live by without having somebody set them down in writing first, and with or without any sense of god(s). It is sad that Mr. Miller is so incapable of seeing things through someone else's eyes, as that failure is at the root of bigotry.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  9. Teri

    I am 42 years old and at the ripe old age of 9, realized that formal religion was not for me. I would much rather go off by myself and be spiritual than be yelled at by the Southern Baptist Preacher. So, rejecting formal religion is not something new, it is just more accepted these days. I have a lot of friends that I grew up with who have finally made that same trek – moving away from formal religious practices. They all said they knew at a young age, but were not in a position to do anything about it because they were constantly being forced to go to church by overzealous parents telling them they'd burn in hell if they didn't. Religion should be about respect, acceptance, and appreciation for all that you've been give – both individually as the human race as a whole. It should not be about fear, domination or seeing the negative in the world and in other people.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      What else did you know at 9 that you still live by today?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Legalizeit

      you made a decision at the age of 9 because of a resentment created by stereotype, not all Christians are southern baptists ;)

      October 1, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • JJ

      Why don't you just take the next logical step and come into the light of atheism?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  10. Charles

    Is this meant to be taken seriously? I thought a punch line of some sort was coming near the end. Surely this is intended to be a caricature of how modern Christians think.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  11. sadf

    this pathetic rambling article shows exactly WHY people are abandoning churches in droves: They realize that the people speaking are usually just BSing. The writer, in the style of religion, begins with a conclusion and works backwards. He also manages to take the thesis of a whole book incorrectly ("everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work." – wrong. It was inspired by the bible. To say that Bach wouldn't have composed were it not for some people in the desert 1600 years before him is laughable).

    The point the author fails to address is the most important one – people are abandoning organized religion because it isn't logically tenable. Perhaps "spiritualism" lacks rigid moral code – but what value is a moral code grounded in false belief?

    October 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  12. Jesse

    This article is spot-on. People nowadays want a church or movement that will conform to their own beliefs instead of having to conform to the beliefs of a church. There doesn't seem to be a need to be challenged spiritually anymore. There is no growth because nobody wants to take a good hard look at the ugly aspects in our lives. Without an authority all you have is a collection of opinions; there is no concrete definition of right or wrong. In the church community you find the manifestation of thousands of years of wisdom and the collective strength of community that we need throughout our journey of life. God know our hearts better than we do; we need each other and the support of a body in communion with Him. Does this mean that the church is perfect? Absolutely not, because there is also a human dimension to the church. But while there was one apostle to betray Jesus there were 11 more to carry on the faith. That the church still exists today is a powerful testament to the movement of Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of people.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Pope Beenandisadick

      A church is nothing more than a way to control people and generate funds-The church is simply a TAX placed on whorship by the state. Simple....

      October 1, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Horus

      It's a bit ironic that you speak of people not wishing to conform to 2000 year old conjecture while criticizing the lack of "growth" – Conformity limits growth. As for the staying power of religion – well, in the history of man the current versions aren't all that lasting; and....fear is a powerful motivator for the ignorant.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • ED

      This article just irritates me. Speaks volumes of the irrational nonsense zealot nation continues to spew and force on reality. Like oh the horror of not having a fairy tale story to base our morals around, and that we actually have to take self responsibility for our morality as a species towards one another, without the reward/punishment consequences of dogmatic stone age nonsense.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  13. Beavis

    oh BOY

    October 1, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  14. ED

    Ok, what exactly is "dangerous"? You think having a spiritual perspective, like maybe in a pantheist way, is "dangerous"? Religion doesn't have a monopoly on spirituality, fyi. One can take a completely naturalist view on the universe and still hold a spiritual perspective on the universe as a whole, since there is MUCH we still don't understand. Spirituality doesn't need to imply greater power in a supernatural sense, it can apply greater natural order that isn't understood yet by our species. religion just tries to hijack spirituality and zealots like the author try to monopolize as the only source of healthy spirituality, monotheism spirituality is completely self centered too. there is an idea of greater importance in relation to the rest of the cosmos, and that some omnipotent being is looking out for you personally, that everything here, or in the universe for that matter, exists with us in mind.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  15. Robert Brown

    Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
    See what happened to the children of Israel when they strayed from God and worshipped any old way they thought was best.
    Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
    There are many problems in churches find one with a body of believers who believe Jesus is God’s son, the Bible is true, and where they love one another.
    1 John 4:1, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
    There is only one spirit that gives peace, joy, and happiness. All the others will ultimately lead to your destruction.
    Finally, consider the words of Jesus as he explained being born again to Nicodemus, John 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

    October 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  16. PSN

    This article proves that religion is the danger, not the spiritual. This guy is basically touting Christianity as the number one religion and arguing that if you don't believe in it, you're the danger. That's exactly why many, including myself, anti-religion folks dropped religion to begin with. The author talks about how the non-religious "pick and choose" what they believe in; so do the religious. The difference is that the non-religious aren't pushing their choices and picks onto anyone else, unlike their religious counterparts. This article is just ridiculous.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  17. Jim

    Terrible article. Absolute drivel.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  18. David

    Talk about false dichotomy..."Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"

    October 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  19. Aaron

    Presumptive, poorly written article. Kind of an ambiguous group to be trying to specify so much of, don't you think?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  20. Patrick

    "When your body and your ego and your dreams are gone, you will know that you will last forever. Perhaps you think this is accomplished through death, but nothing is accomplished through death, because death is nothing. Everything is accomplished through life, and life is of the mind and in the mind. The body neither lives nor dies, because it cannot contain you who are life. If we share the same mind, you can overcome death because I did. Death is an attempt to resolve conflict by not deciding at all. Like any other impossible solution the ego attempts, it will not work.
    God did not make the body, because it is destructible, and therefore not of the Kingdom. The body is the symbol of what does not exist. The Holy Spirit, as always, takes what you have made and translates it into a learning device. Again as always, He reinterprets what the ego uses as argument for separation into a demonstration against it. If the mind can heal the body, but the body cannot heal the mind, then the mind must be stronger than the body. Every miracle demonstrates this." A Course in Miracles

    October 1, 2012 at 8:59 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.