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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. Spiritualbutnotreligious

    Was raised a Methodist until the age of 11. Then decided the dogma preached every Sunday wasn't what I needed to hear. Have researched and read many spiritual-but-not religious books, and the beliefs I've come to embrace include more rounded and deeper practices than those of the narrow, bigoted view points of most Christian religions. I don't need to sit in a building once a week to have someone tell me how to act, respond or believe. Especially when many of those people don't practice what is preached outside of their Sunday get togethers. Spending time in nature should be preached much more as nature encompasses God, the creator, the great spirit, or whatever one feels the universal energy should be called. I find more peace in the woods than in a church, so will continue to spend extra time preserving it so others may spend thier spriritual time there as well.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • dudeuloose

      If God is against what you believe would he be called bigoted?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Terri

      Well said. The author also seems to forget that Jesus taught that God is not found in a church. I found it funny that he found "spiritual but not religious" as fence sitting. It is quite the opposite since the decision to avoid man's created "religion" is definitely making up one's mind. Especially in a society where if you are not religious you are ostracized....as shown by this article.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  2. backslider

    I believe in a deep meaning of my life, that life is worth living and living well but I don't need to memorize old scriptures, donate money to a church or blindly follow opinions fed to me from a man in a pulpit who is fed his opinion for other pulpits/books/ etc.

    Sorry. I can give up unquestioned (just try questioning it and watch how fast you are outcast) rules by a folk who call themselves non judgmental while cherry picking verses to suite their style life.

    I disagree. Spirit is the ghost in the machine...the part of us more than just water and carbon. religion is choices made every day. I get up, every day, and love on my children, keep them fed, do my job come home, see family when I can. I enjoy life RELIGIOUSLY. So, I am spiritual AND religious....just not in the way I'm TOLD. I don't like being TOLD what to do. The sheep that need it, go into your buildings be told how to vote, told where you money should go, told you're worthless from birth and barely worth saving. Fine with me. I choose a different path. But don't take my lack of YOUR version of religion as weakness. Far from it. I say questions show thinking more than recitation.

    The dog that jumps hoops amuses be...but the ones that only try for escape...they're the smart animals.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • backslider

      Yes, there are typo's in there.
      Who can find them all? You'll win a prize!

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

    RELIGION IS A COP-OUT for the weak minded who wants others to 'guide' them rather than have to face the reality of their empty lives!

    October 1, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • k

      Or possibly a recognition that many, many other quite learned people have devoted large swaths of their life to understanding God (as much as we can) ... and choosing to build off of their thoughtful/prayerful conclusions. In scientific research, we always do that. I don't re-formulate Newton's laws (or Lagrange's equations or Hamilton's principle or Maxwell's equations) every time I want to solve a problem. I build my understanding from the learned insights of those who have come before. Why would our study of (and understanding of) religious matters be any different?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  4. Blarg

    From an atheist's perspective, regardless of whether you "feel" or are "told" what your deity is, it's all still unproven guesses. But hey, the more time you all spend tearing each other apart, the less time you spend forcing your beliefs on the rest of us via misbegotten legislation, so by all means, have at it!

    October 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • dudeuloose

      Do you believe in the big bang THEORY? Its a theory buy I'd be willing to bet that you believe as fact.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Blarg

      You don't seem to understand the difference between a layman theory and a Scientific Theory. You should learn the difference. That would allow you to understand why we also have Germ Theory, Queue Theory, Tectonic Plate Theory, and the Theory of Gravity.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  5. Johnny

    Dear Mr. Alan Miller

    You are incorrect. RELIGION IS A COP-OUT!

    Conscience and consequences of actions (despite religious BS) is sufficient in most cases. Law and punishment take care of the rest.

    Religion is MOST CASES PROMOTES SIN (very subtle but the results are devastating). Look around the world...history also proves this.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Jeff

      Religion is a way to control people. Christians, holy rollers are the BIGGEST hypocrites in the world. I grew up in that garbage & finally woke up.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • HA25

      Agreed.
      At least "spritualists" are trying to find truth, rather than being boxed in by the old, disproven and rather silly beliefs in place. It's not about Sin. It's about humanity.
      There's no reason it's one-or-the-other: God vs. Reason. Reason allows us to dismiss God, but not to answer other questions like 'why are we here' and 'what is life'? We are just beginning to explore those without the bonds of religion and for now, it's not a surprise there is a lot of experimenting going on. But that does not make it relativism.

      Religion's greatest failing is it presumes an answer to questions that do need answering, thus dissuading people from trying to find the real truth.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  6. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of generations of inbreeding.
    Oddly enough, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance and Smokey and The Bandit

    October 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Mark

      Sounds like you"ve got it all figured out. (eyes rolling)

      October 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  7. Madhu S Vashist

    Very sneaky Mr. writer, The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, There is no such book as the Karma Sutra and at the same time putting Karma Surtra before Quran will get another Ambassodor killed if I understand what you did there through subliminal stimuli..

    October 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  8. gilly

    i'm all for any movement that dilutes the poison that is religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  9. ChuckB

    Who suffers the most because individuals take charge of their spiritual lives? The clergy, of course. The lost members are lost revenue. At the present pretty much any and every religious perspective is in print. Anyone with average reading comprehension can peruse the religious options. There is no need for a professional clergy. It would be much better if individuals concentrate on saving their own souls and stop trying to regulate the behavior of others.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  10. Office Worker

    This is vile. Absolutely nasty. I'm not religious, spiritual or anything. I'm a happy atheist and basically this guy is attacking everybody who doesn't wish to be in his little club. Pass.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  11. Ryan

    What a tremendously horribly written article. The author doesn't even try to outline why this issue must be approached in a dichotomous manner, that there are only two "real" positions. These people clearly believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle, not on the extremes.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  12. ladycayt

    I love people who claim to have no belief in God or anything .... don't they understand that that IS a belief? We ALL believe in something. Even the belief in ourselves is a nationally recognized religion called Humanism. We are all spiritual about something.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  13. Jason

    Wow I couldn't disagree more with this guy. Being spiritual but not religious means you have accepted the fact that human beings have no capacity to understand the divine. You realize that all the religions are man made creations and not the spoken word of a supreme being or beings. Thus restricting yourself to a specific dogma becomes impossible. You are then free to take aspects from other practices that you find work for you and incorporate them into your own life, or become atheist which many of us are not willing to do. Yes, this can make you spiritually lazy as you may never develop inner discipline, however no more so than the vast majority of Church goers and lay people today. Plus you are able to gain a better appreciation of the worlds religions and practices than you would otherwise be able to do if you were restricted to a specific dogma, thus making you more tolerant and accepting. This is is what I would call progress, the evolution of religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Madtown

      Well said Jason, I agree completely.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  14. Justin

    Go start a superpac and stop writing – you're obviously not very good at it.

    I'll admit I struggled with the "spiritual but not religious" feel for years. Then it hit me – I'm NOT spiritual, I'm an atheist and that "spiritual" feeling was a leftover want for conformity in a very Christian community where I grew up.

    However, being an atheist, or even agnostic, has not stopped me from driving to better myself every day, or to do my best to help others or to improve the world in even the smallest sense. Instead of wasting Sundays reading a poorly translated text and throwing my money into some strangers pockets (I do that enough with taxes anyways) I can help a neighbor, spend time with my family, or volunteer in the community and do something tangible that will actually affect others and the world.

    I do admit that organized religion DID make huge contributions to Western society when it was fledgling and young, but it is by far not the end-all, be-all that we can't live without. The thing that bothers me the most from op-eds like this one is the insinuation that people cannot be moral or live life to the fullest without someone telling them how to live. I'm thankful for life, and my parents and a list of mentors in the community at large taught me how to live. If we all spent more time living and actually DOING something good, rather than contemplating and philosophizing about it in a religious context, the world would be a better place.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  15. Taylor

    This is an incredibly naive and close-minded article.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  16. rob

    Clearly a low intellect, narrow-minded, bird brain writer grasping for writing fodder.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  17. DandyStryker

    The non-belief in non-existent gods, and refusal to follow the con men who promote them, is a good thing.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  18. Juanita

    Spirituality trumps canned religion 'all day long'. I have read many books, by many writers, ancient and new. I have listened to many voices. I have questioned. I agree with Socrates, who said, "The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living". That is what spiritual people do...examine. Internally and externally. The majority of Christians in this country would be Muslims if they had been born in the Middle East – and vice versa, because they simply accept what they are told – word and ritual. No thank you. I prefer an honest atheist to someone who is falsely religious. I hope the author is correct when he says that 'sprituality' is expanding and 'religiosity' is shrinking. It's time.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  19. Nick J

    This guy is an absolute idiot.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  20. mongo46538

    Religion is the root of all Evil

    and also so your saying that the American Indians are all full of crap?

    Fool

    October 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Jacob

      You're the fool , you just state an over generalized statement about all religion which is around 75 percent of the planet practicing some form of religion I prefer to be agnostic and not associate with any of them but you can not group that many people in being the source of evil.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:31 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.