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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. your an idiot

    Not once in this does the author touch on how its being a danger to others somebody got made fun of by some hippies at a concert and cant get over it. Do go on tho about how people kill and take land in the name of religious gods. Zionist propaganda engulfs the media this is one person who doesnt solo out the fact that suicide bombers are not hippies and how they dont even harm themself besides taking LSD or some other trippout. Lets forget christians started as a cult and whos to say any of these so-called radical hippies wont spawn a religion in 2000years.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  2. Voodoo Idol

    It's no more of a cop out than any other form of spirituality is. There are no spirits. There is no god. It's all myth and fantasy.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  3. Alan

    Uh, what church did Jesus go to? Was he Catholic? Protestant? Two things for sure: He was "spiritual" and he told us to follow his lead.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Jim

      Erm. He was a practicing Jew. He taught in the temple. Flipped the tables of the money changers. Was brought ito the Holy of Holies. Celebrated the Passover. Completely Jewish.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • TonyBirrittieri

      He was Jewish. It is common knowledge.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88GTUXvp-50&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  5. md22mdrx

    The guy in the picture is more Christ-like than the pope ... but that's not saying much.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  6. Jeff

    Isn't this how it's always been... The younger you are the less likely you are to be very religious? If you believe in God, then you believe in God. It's usually not until you become settled that you find a church that you believe in (if you were not raised in a religion, that is).

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  7. John the Music Critic

    Intresting that the author seems to indicate people who study human history and the diverse religions in the world may want to pick out the best concepts that they find and apply them to the way they live. This guy reminds me of a classical music critic who loves his field and can not relate to the other genres developed and either denegrates them or maintains they are not worthy of consideration becase they do not live up to HIS standards. The choice to believe in god and the scriptures (which of the many gods and scriptures , by the way) or human knowledge, reason and logic is a no-brainer to anyone with an open mnd. Life is a smorgasborg of expieriances pick out what you like and do not be restricted by the dogma and rules of any one religion. Spirituality is what you want it to be, if you want it at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  8. sarah

    Joseph Campbell writes that there is a decline in western religion because the myths taught there no longer resonate with modern life for many people. I am not religious. I also do not believe in God as defined by western religions. But I do not consider myself an atheist because, after much study, I have learned that western philosophy and and science alone can be as lacking in explaining our experiences as religion. The author's declaration that people should either be religious or materialistic shows that he has not seriously questioned why organized religion no longer resonates with many people today. I am really stunned to see such a poorly argued article posted here.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • John the Guy

      He is preaching to the choir. Got to love "being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think to hard about having to decide" is intresting since brainwashing children before they can think for themselves is one of the main tactics of organized religions.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  9. David

    This article came off as being incredibly negative and judgmental, the modern-day stereotype of organized religion. Further, Mr. Miller accuses people who are "spiritual but not religious" of dodging the "hard questions." How strange. I participated in organized religion for a while, and neither the teachings nor most of the followers seemed engaged in thinking. You accepted what was said (or the preacher's take on it) and that was largely it. When you make your own path, you're forced to answer those questions on your own, based on what you've read and experienced. It is much more meaningful, even if Mr. Miller mocks it.

    To answer Mr. Miller's question of what is practiced and what is believed? It's simple: be a good person, and make the world a better place. It's a daily ritual that starts from the moment you wake up and ends when you fall asleep. The only difference between this view and those who attend organized religion is that we "spiritual but not religious" types don't have a doctrine to foist onto others, nor do we give ourselves credit for simply showing up at a place for an hour or two each week.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  10. Dyslexic doG

    whatever rescues people from the belief in a story book written by desert dwelling, bronze age goat herders is a good thing.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  11. 2Smart4Tea

    Hard to see how giving up the delusion of religion is bad – unless you are one of the members of organized religion who stand to lose their job! I see this as a healthy sign that people are moving toward "Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" and away from the easter bunny of religion. In time, religion will die out, and the world will be a much better place. Feel free to attack me, I won't be back – I've learned that it's a waste of time to argue with the mentally ill.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  12. missygoldberg

    I started to read this with some excitement – love a good argument on religion. How disappointing...this is incredibly dull piece. Not a well formed argument at all and doesn't even begin to explain why not being part of organized religion is better....just that otherwise people are fence sitters, that they need to pick a side. That's all you can come up with?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  13. then you will have to call me a fence-sitter

    We don't live in an all or nothing society. The one thing that we all learned, or re-learned especially after 9/11, is that there are more ideas in the world then what we previously cared to think about. The fact that this author wants the spiritual but not religious to decide on one or the other is a direct misrepresentation of the question we ask: "why do we exist?" The bible, or any other religious book, tries to answer that question. But it does no better job at giving us the whole truth then wikipedia does.

    You can not forsake the proof of science for a religious doctrine that is based on hand-me-down stories. And you can also not forsake those same stories because the truth is: we just don't know everything. The fear of death and the unknown that it represents is very real, so many people bet on the idea that if we do good in our lives, we will go to a better place when we die. That is what those books ultimately teach. Yet science has yet to prove this. So, the practical thing to do is to see both sides in the science/religion coin.

    To choose one or the other in our present state of evolution as a society is to ask us to be ignorant in either one or the other. We are not ignorant. We are not fence-sitting. We are keeping an open mind.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  14. lhayes

    "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." From my perspective as spiritual-but-not-religious, Mr. Miller is completely uninformed and offers the judgmental perspective of especially those fundamental Christians and other religious adherents that their beliefs are the "right" ones. These arrogant beliefs attempt to cram an explanation of the persistent, creative energy of the universe into one book or another, claiming this is how god "thinks" and what god "wants." They attempt to separate us from the universe by claiming god is in "heaven," and if we don't do/believe what their books say that we're going to "hell." My inspiration and transformation has come from my growing recognition that I am not separate from but a part of, a recognition that continues to humble me. Transformation is a process, Mr. Miller; it is not a project.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  15. gene

    The writer might actually learn something if he asked one of these people why they are doing what they're doing. But it's quite obvious that the writer has it all figured out already. Surprised that CNN would publish the likes of that.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  16. peick

    Excellent point. Here is some additional logic to go along with it:

    If a religion is a systematic set of beliefs, and if I say I am spiritual but not religious, expecting you to understand what I mean by that, then spiritual but not religious is actually a religion. Think about it: If everyone means something different by "spiritual but not religious," then it's completely meaningless. It's as if I had said "cow" and expected you to understand I meant "latte."

    So if we all mean something different, the term is meaningless. If we all mean the same thing, then it's a religion. What other choice is there?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  17. Joe O'

    Being spiritual is often an an evolutionary process away from the excesses & abberations often found in large monolithic corporate flocking devices.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  18. The Dude

    Alan miller is a tool who lacks the intelligence to define his own view. A dog who is unable to think for himself and therefore must follow the delusions of long extinct cultures that have little or no relevance to the world we live in.

    Such people are the immortal vermin who allow people like Hitler and the murdering Catholic church of the middle ages to kill with self righteous retribution. Such humans are a hindrance to the evolution of man.

    Religion is poison.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  19. Sw. Vandana Jyothi

    LOL, as if there is a Christian God, a Hindu God, a Muslim God, etc., i.e., a God for each path or religion. There is only one God. The wise call Him/Her/It by various holy Names. Perhaps the one benefit to be derived by sampling different paths to the top of the spiritual mountain is to realize that they all lead to the same place: Love and Knowledge Divine. At the core of all the world's faiths ~ before they were codified, modified and adulterated by enthusiastic adherents, some with personal or political agendas ~ God alone is.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  20. Mike

    The brewer's article was posted on CNN merely to provide a controversial point of view and increase traffic.Today CNN is trolling its readers, rather than the other way around.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Steve Kline

      ...and it gives us all a chance to define ourselves and our spiritial and/or religious beliefs and come to a higher realization of whoe WE ALL really are....thank you Mr. Miller and CNN for this oportunity to grow

      September 30, 2012 at 10:39 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.