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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. zapparules

    So Mr. Miller... Can you identify for me one – JUST ONE positive, just one good characteristic, action, etc. that REQUIRES god. I can do all the good in the world – I can be the most caring, loving, giving person – AND... and i can do all that without god.
    You tell me what I can't do without a god belief.

    And then I can tell you all about the bad that has been done / is being done – in the name of god.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  2. Michael P Lewis

    I can't believe I so narcissistically posted my comment on this thing and now I can't even see my own comment. What a bummer. I wanted so badly to push my beliefs on others...

    October 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  3. suckItUp

    i am convinced the author's sole intention was to get traffic for his article.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  4. Charlotte

    There is a point to be made with this argument, although I hesitate to say so. I gave up Christainity, it just wasn't true and I knew it. That said, I don't know of any other religion that is any better. Still, I would be a more spiritual person if there were some sort of structure to my thoughts and beliefs, some sort of rules I could respect and live by. Sort of like an exam at the end of the school year, there is an accountability factor in organized religions that doesn't come into play with self decided beliefs. There is a difference between being a 'good person'.. which I and most of us are.. and being a spiritual one. I don't know how to resolve this, but I am willing to listen to everyone's opinion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  5. ndivine

    This guy has no idea what he is talking about. It's all ignorant, made-up drivel. The movement away from organized religion is healthy given the level of corruption present in organized religion as well as the close-mindedness and hypocrisy that is so often displayed. It's entirely reasonable to explore concepts from different religions and philosophies while determining what makes sense and fits one's belief system. Tolerance and compassion are clearly missing from this man's viewpoint. May I recommend some Buddhism? It is an organized religion. Actually, even actual understanding of the teachings of Jesus would suffice.

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

      You advocate that people understand and follow the teachings of Jesus ... but that includes a very distinct belief in organized religion. He was a devout Jew. Moreover, Jesus regularly spoke and acted in the person of God (forgiving sins, for example). Well, if you buy into him as a teacher ... a part of that teaching is that He was/is God. You can choose not to believe in Jesus, but we shouldn't domesticate Him. He wasn't just peace, joy, love (although there was plenty of that too) ... He compelled a choice (believe in Him or not). So make a choice. I think that was the point of this article; don't skirt the issue of what you believe (whatever that may be) ... face it.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  6. Reality

    Putting the kibosh/”google” on religion and spirituality:

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    (simply more immaculately concieved mumbo jumbo akin to the Caears and messiahs of all kinds)

    October 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  7. Steffi

    I am spiritual but not religious. I have found that organized religion has done more harm than good in this world. Why must a person conform to the ideology of a group of possibly misguided people?

    October 1, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Dan G

      You can all pound sand. I'm not going to try and placate you all. You accuse everyone else of being closed minded? Look at this thread, read the thoughts of the "Spiritual".... Very negative. Very disappointing.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  8. andy

    Spiritual but not religious is better translated as this: People know (and accept), that there is no true religion. All religions are false. However, that does not mean that a person cannot seek to find deeper meaning in the walk of life than just existing.

    Unfortunately, if you think your religion isn't false...you're wrong.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  9. Thoughtful 30 something

    This reads like a rant from someone who hates going to Church but loves complaining about it.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  10. Vyr

    You heard it here folks. This guy's version of believing in fantasy is somehow more correct than your own. Given the lecturing tone here, you honestly wonder why people would reject organized religion?

    October 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  11. bmac

    A common belief unites people, religions divide them.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  12. Bwaahaahaaa!

    When did this become a site that allows religion-bashing, or become a "Christian" one? Are Jews "copping out" because they don't believe in Jesus, or the King James Bible? How about Buddhists? Is everyone who doesn't follows this author's ideas a heretic who must be burned at the stake? Let's not forget the Inquisition, or most of the Middle Ages, and all the not-so-laudible things done in the name of Christendom.

    Buddy, this "spiritual but not religious" movement is (and always has been) happening because there are LOTS of people who don't believe religion should be a theocracy, or defined by only one path. Or they just get hives from listening to fascism guising as religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  13. jbrasco

    One word, Deism. Google it, since you obviously have no clue about it. The author acts like this is something new. But, he doesn't talk about forced religion either. How many of us are the religion we are due to our parents and families forcing it upon us? How many people claimed to be Christians in the past, just to not be murdered? So, if those same families stayed Christians, would they be true Christians today? Pick up another book, a history one, before you post junk like this!

    October 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  14. Andrew

    Religious is BAD, Spiritual is GOOD. Why fo people associate Organized Religion with Terrorism, The Nutbar Religious Right, Child Abuse and the Crusades? For the same reason we associate the Apple factory with IPhones! People are finally waking up to the fact that organized religion is a bad thing, that empowers the worst elements of us to get away with the worst that they can, Rationalizing everything from child abuse to ethnic cleansing to flying planes into buildings. Thinking for YOURSELF is good. Dogmatic, Organized religion – BAD.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  15. Rachael

    I am one of those spiritual but not religious. But, I do have tenets. Very basic beliefs that require me to do and be my best and to be answerable to myself and the greater good. This idea that we choose not to affiliate with a religion and its man-made tenets (my belief) does not mean we don't have a code of conduct. A way to enlightenment. This is not about being happy or feeling good. This is about finding the belief that fits, that feels right; that gives us reason to be better human beings.
    All spiritual but not religious may not be the best people around, but I say the same about the religious and the Rationalists. Having beliefs, doctines, tneets, rituals, etc. does not make you a better person. An inner sense of right and wrong is a much better indicator of a person's character than their religion or lack teherof.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  16. David

    CNN needs to do a better job at keeping these loons off its pages.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Foeglitarian

      I complete agree with this sentiment. Shame on you CNN

      October 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  17. Will

    I'm not sure how it is in the UK, but in the US, it seems that most major churches ARE being used as tools by politicians and other powerful people (which you seemed to scoff at), and I refuse to allow myself to be VIOLATED spiritually by playing a part in it. As for the ones that aren't, there are none that are theologically agreeable to me, so I'll do it my own way, thank you. My faith is a matter BETWEEN ME AND MY GOD, WITHOUT YOU OR ANYONE ELSE.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • suckItUp

      replace are with have always been.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  18. Tyler

    I was a little disappointed to see no mention in this article of the movement toward a general kind of individualism/solipsism brought on by the digital world. Religions – which have the communal component that "spirituality" lacks – de-emphasize the individual through community ritual and celebration, etc. Maybe because our younger generations are so entrenched in managing their digital egos, they are less comfortable in a setting where their individuality is less emphasized. Taken in consideration with the "everyone of you is different/special" of the Barney generation, maybe towing the dogmatic line of a specific faith tradition is a sort of conformity that Gen y/millennials haven't been programmed for.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  19. JohnnyZ

    I concede to the fact that I know not what lies beyond physical life, yet I know there is something else. Religion provides the precise definition of the supernatural, yet its basis is conceived by man. The number of religions provide countless varieties or their "truth," and I am to subscribe to one of them? Why?

    I will believe what I believe which is that I do not know and will not know the truth until it is my time to die, go, cross over, whatever, and I'll let the religions of the world make fools of themselves along with those who follow.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Horus

      "I know there is something else" – really? How so? Perhaps you should state "I believe there is something else" – that would be more accurate.

      True wisdom is in knowing you know nothing" – Socrates......

      October 1, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  20. suckItUp

    I have 100x more credibility when commenting on this subject. Through some experiences I can say my belief system is just fine for what happens next. Those who have never been through my situation also say it was DMT which caused this experience. I have taken Legit DMT among other psychedelics and This experience was not a trip. There is another "life". It is really not a hard concept to believe. We are currently living in an amazing and unexplainable "reality". The fact something so unexplainable exists in front of our eyes opens the possibility for something equally amazing.

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

      on a side note. the most important people are your true creators. the male and female who brought you into existence.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:13 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.