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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. Tod

    How's this for a cop-out. My beliefs are NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • SMac

      This article draws attention to a point that organized religion has upheld, and from which people have tried to stray to suit their own needs and desires. That point is: Truth is not relative, it is not subjective, it is objective. Truth is inscribed in our very beings; it is a natural law. Thus, this article is taking issue with the concept that people can hijack spirituality to fit their "to each their own" mentality. This is impossible if truth is objective. Moral relativism is what slowly corrodes a free, just and fair society, to the point where an infinite number of things could be considered "right." That will be the downfall of our society.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  2. Kathryn

    "Freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance; the concept is generally recognized also to include the freedom to change religion or not to follow any religion." It's a choice from within to be decided by each. As for the outlook to be judged, makes no sense, to each his own. Plus I do not believe the majority of individuals get up every morning wishing evil to occur, complete opposite. We heal from the inside out!

    October 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Kathryn

      "Humanist" philosophy is my take... especially with the following claims:
      "There are more than 730 established Religions in the world which are broken out into more the 3200 different sections."

      Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_total_number_of_religion_in_the_world#ixzz27xewbFc1

      October 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  3. Adam

    Wow. Way to talk down to your readers. The only reason you are criticizing these people is because you want them to quit being on the fence and "join your side", so to speak. Here's an idea. How about leaving people alone and letting them make their own decisions?

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

    This is one of the saddest, least-intelligent commentaries I have seen. Ann Coulter could probably do better.

    I would say I am spiritual but not religious. I have no difficulty in forming a world view including a moral code based on logic – observation and analysis. Call it natural philosophy if you will though I do not particularly identify with Kant et al. That same logic applied to the human experience with organized religion leads to rejection of religion as a tool for the corrupt to enslave the gullible, not complicated. The author's premise is flawed but since he seems to have an IQ over 80 and the ability to write in complete sentences, I suspect he knows this and is simply trying to provoke a reaction. I personally feel the discussion should be about what exactly he was trying to accomplish with this piece, rather than dignifying the piece itself as a meritorious starting point for discussion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Chris

      Well said. Another issue I have with people that advocate only one way to worship is just in the numbers. What do we have 7 or 8 billion people on the planet today? Its hard for me to imagine a supreme spiritual being that only wants one avenue of prayer or worship or whatever to show our appreciation. And I doubt that any being able to create the universe would be so insecure about the religious lifestyle of such tiny organisms on such a tiny planet in such a vast universe.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Henderson- up the road

      Often people will start off with a silly premise to start a debate/discussion. IE. Is religion a force for good in the world? That is all religions of course. The author may not have intended to get himself shot down the way he has been, perhaps he was tring to be provocative, but I doubt it.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Laughlin

      I would add that I am puzzled as to how or why this person got such a platform. He seems unqualified, not particularly thoughtful and the topic itself is stale.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  5. steven

    I'm "religious" and I think this entire article is garbage, seems like an infomercial for organized religion. So many things to say I'm not even going to bother with writing down all of it...just wanted to say "how does CNN find all these jokers?"

    October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      Well said Steven!

      October 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  6. walter

    I percieve this article as proof that organized religion is on its death bed. The indoctrinated are trying to ensure their grasp of power over the general population. This article is chock full of half-truths and complete lies, attempting to shame people back into the flock. Nice try, but to those who are spiritual, we see right through your attempt, and this serves as yet another reminder why we've moved beyond the need for organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Sarah

      AMEN!

      October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Blarg

      Just like every other change forced upon religion, it is resisting to its utmost, kicking and screaming the whole way. Hopefully, before I die, I'll be able to live in a world not tainted by ancient dogmatic rules for controlling the populace.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  7. Wrasse

    What a narrow-minded, bunch of crap this piece is.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  8. chris giles

    the author luimps all spiritual people into one philosopy. he does not seem to have done any serious research.
    just an uneducated opinion. many spiritual people follow traditional beliefs of right and wrong and fundamental truths.
    They just reject organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  9. PeterTO

    "Spritual but not religious" shows the need to feel something greater that many people hold, but the utter failure of religions to be grounded in the real world as they cling to their dogma. Religion has become too overtly anti-science, ani-rational for a modern, educated populace.

    I suspect this trend will continue as an evolutionary path towards a much more atheist society based on secular humanism.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  10. Jesus Christ

    Wow Alan Miller, it looks like you really don't have your finger on the pulse of reality in today's age. In case you hadn't noticed (I mean, do you READ the news at all) most of the world is being torn apart by people who INSIST that someone else believe in the religion that "they" belong to.
    Spirituality is an inner sense that an individual feels. Religion is something that someone is TOLD to believe, follow, "or else." Let's see...if SERIOUSLY given the option, which one do you think the majority of (thinking) people would chose?

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

      Really? Mao killed millions and millions ... and he advocated an atheistic view. Stalin, same boat. Hitler? Ditto. While individuals have used religion to initiate killing (on large scales sometimes) ... there are plenty of other examples where people didn't. In fact, the history of the 20th century seems to suggest that atheists have been a bigger problem (at least in that century).

      October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      Jesus Christ, k, do you think I'm talking about atheism? You're as daft as the writer of this article. And don't EVEN try to go down the road of what leader in history was an atheist because you need to be taught some history and introduced to the CRUSADES, THE INQUISITION, etc....ALL in the name of your silly RELIGION!

      October 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • k

      I'm quite well versed in U.S. and European history, thank you. But if you go by raw numbers (or by percent of populations that existed at the time), the crusades, the inquisition, etc. killed a relatively small number of people. That's not to excuse them ... by any means. I completely agree that these were horrible distortions of the message. But religions are, after all, made up entirely of fallible human beings. Lets contrast that with the good work that religion does: missionary work, feeding the poor, working to heal the sick (look at the entire Catholic hospital system, for example), etc. On balance, I would say that religion comes out in the positive side of the ledger.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • WASP

      @mmmmm k: let's start from the year 330 C.E. and move forward to see just how many died at the hands of war-popes. the ones theists like attributing to atheism were commiting such actions out of lust for power, not for a lack of belief.
      you can't kill in the name of no belief in gods.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      Au contraire, "k." You are not well-versed in ANY sort of history if you are not familiar with the real numbers involving senseless murders, burnings, tortures, killings, slaughtering or any other brutal force committed in the name of Christ in the past 2000 years. Please take your ignorance back to FOX NEWS. Your comments are not worth replying to at this point.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • k

      Ok. I'll take my PhD in history from Stanford and go home.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  11. RobM

    The argument that people who attend church and therefore have a deeper connection with the spiritual world is a more of a myth then bible's origin story. People attend church for exactly the opposite reason, so they don't have to think about faith and spirituality. Every Sunday they sit in the pews and let SOMEONE ELSE tell them what to think. Okay, that is an exaggeration too. I am sure there are many people in church on Sunday who seek a deeper relationship with the spiritual world, but there are at least as many who are they for political, financial, social, or a host of other reasons. To suggest that one’s level of faith is based on what they do for an hour or so a week is wrong. While the mantra “spiritual but not religious” might be a cop-out, at least they are not sitting in pews proclaiming that God loves all people while shuttering their doors to people who look or act a little different and arguing that the meek will inherit the earth while they look for ways to cheat on their taxes.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  12. No-Brand Hero

    What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were they just born with a heart full of neutrality?

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

      All humans are born atheists. It's only after we have been indoctrinated into a particular religion, or occasionally switch religions later in life, that we assign ourselves to a particular religion. No one is born Christian, only to Christian parents.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  13. susan

    Wow. The subject of religion never fails to bring out more comments than almost any other topic. I think organized religion has and is good in some respects. In my small community the church is the center, where people come together to help each other and provide support in bad times. It comforts those who have lost loved ones in the wars were are fighting currently. And religion tries to put some sense in this cruel and seemingly senseless world. I am "spiritual" myself but I don't talk about it. My own belief is not "in" God but that there is only one "thing" of which we are all a part. The concept of being separate and apart is something most people can't understand, although I don't find it difficult. The one concept I find impossible to understand is the idea of the Christian Hell. Everyone knows there is no such "place" but they have to pretend to believe because the church says it's so. Not a good way to keep adherents. In any case, it doesn't matter because existence runs in infinite parallels and in one we have Christianity, in another we don't. It all plays out, every permutation. Organized religion is just another construct used to fulfill our ideas. There are basic principles throughout all of this but they are simple and few. Love is at the center.

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

    Re-think how the term "spiritual" is defined. The author here is making the assumption that people who are "spiritual, but not religious" are using spiritual the same way religious people use it. That, in itself, is a big misunderstanding. Think of it this way - when someone is happy and free and maybe a little wild, we say "you can't break their spirit". That sort of "spirit" has zero to do with any religious connotations. Therefore being happy and free, spirit unbroken, alongside a rejection of religious belief could indeed make one "spiritual but not religious" without the supposed cop-out.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  15. Mason Baker

    What I love is that for thousands of years, Romans, Greeks, Pagans, etc had their religion but Judeo-Christianity says that they were myths,....somehow Christianity is not, it is real. "Spirtual" accepts that there is something out there but you just don't know for sure what it is......Sidenot, "Spirtual"people don't get all crazy because other "Spirtual" people don't have the same "spirtual" beliefs. Isn't it better that people not do wrong, not because they are afraid of christian hell but on a belief that it is wrong?

    October 1, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  16. Caleb

    I thought this article was fantastic. I also, feel that there are many people using spirituality to be happy.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Really?

      ...and I thought this article is trying to hard. Why must a person decide to be "over here," or "over there,"? Many out there may realize that, "hey, my beliefs have just as much basis in 'fact,' as that other person's," which is healthy, in my opinion. Too much polarization and forcing someone to choose a camp is keeping lines between everyone. In a time where we should be trying to reach across aisles and work together, this individual thinks that it is helpful to say "PICK SOMETHING!!!" just for the sake of doing so. There is some wisdom within indecision sometimes.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Terri

      Religion belongs to man, not God.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  17. Patti

    I believe in God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, as am I. I believe that "sin" is acting without love. I also, believe in reincarnation AND in heaven. I believe that God provides more than one path/way to learn about and have a relationship with Him. When there is one "right" all else is "wrong" or invalid, which places a wedge between Us. I believe that all holy books are tools for learning. "Religious" organisations place more emphasis on their clubs rules (exclusion) than accepting their brother as is. I'm not sitting on a fence, I am a spiritual being who has yet to find a religion that accepts where I am now.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Danish

      how beleiving in son of god help you or humanity?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Eric

      Patti, sounds like you are a Unitarian Universalist.

      http://www.uua.org

      October 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  18. Johnny

    Religion is no more than a drug like coke or marijuana. I stay away from all of that crap.

    THESE ADDICTIONS ARE BAD. Unfortunately, most people are addicted to one or the other.

    Some, to all of the above...pathetic.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      100% agree. Amen.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  19. Greg

    Miller's entire argument is based on the false premise that one "has to decide", no decision about religion is required. Living a moral and just life is simple integrity, this is possible whether you are atheist, undecided, devout or just don't care at all about the decision.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  20. Coop

    Oh Allen, Allen, Allen.

    ...People who are always minding other peoples business
    end up not taking care of their own business.

    This is America. We get to choose.
    Mind your own business.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:32 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.