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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. Ryan

    To condemn anyone's choice in what to believe sounds rather shortsighted and judgmental.

    Perhaps the fixation on money from large organized religion combined with the hypocrisy and coverups, has left parishioners feeling detached from virtue. After-all, if this is a house of God, yet terrible and UN-Godly things are continuing to happen there, than what does such a place offer?

    Perhaps it is the fact that the absolution coming from leading figures and texts, are looking less and less plausible. Evolution versus Genesis, stories of lore versus what we know of history, and it comes down to the belief in facts of faith versus facts of science. Religion often asks those to reject the search for knowledge and simply accept what the faith believes and holds true, in a more cynical and smarter world, these are clashing.

    Religion is becoming less and less relevant, at this point, it should serve to make people live better lives, and with the hate and backwards views, it sometimes spews, no wonder those are choosing to take the good they see from it and use it to guide them, sounds like evolution to me.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  2. jaime

    "Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices."

    this "article" is full of self importance and the hope that the lesser intelligent will bend towards a hierarchal belief system. as if ala carte religion doesn't already exist....

    abrahamic religions=the worst thing to ever happen to humanity.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  3. Bob

    "Spiritual but not religious" is just something people call themselves when they don't really believe in God or anything spiritual, but are open to the concept, as long as it doesn't include the commitment and sacrifice associated with organized religion. It's almost exactly the same as being agnostic, but with a nudge to side of believing there is something out there.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • TJ

      "Spiritual but not religious" means that not only are people open to the idea, but usually DO believe in a god or higher power. They choose to form their own beliefs and worship, or celebrate, or just believe whatever they would like based on their own experience...

      The "not religious" part comes from not wanting to subscribe to a predetermined doctrine.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Bob

      Correct, nowadays, in the customer driven world of capitalism, people want to make up their own belief system as they go along to suit their current condition so they can feel like no matter what they do, they are right. They don't want the inconvenience of learning from thousands of years of interaction with God in terms of experience, prayer, revelation, and writings, because it would force them to be uncomfortable, to transform themselves into what they know God wants them to be, which is a servant in His name, not a casual bystander. In this sense, I agree with the author that eventually everyone is going to be forced to pick a side anyway, but I also know that for most it will happen naturally in due time.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • TheSchmaltz

      They think there's something out there and they're making up their own beliefs about it instead of copying the ones someone made up a long time ago. Time and tradition doesn't make yours any more correct.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • snowboarder

      people dislike sacrificing rational thought for religion. you can hardly blame them.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • HPNIII

      You are simply wrong.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Bob

      Actually, it does. When millions of people share a common experience for over 2000 years straight and have that experience reinfoced by growth, revelation, and miraculous happenings, not to mention the millions of people who have been so convinced of their revelation as to die for that belief, that builds a very strong case for that belief system being more valid than one that some person makes up according to their own whim.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  4. Dana D.

    Is this guy a member of the army trying to coerce people into a regulated doctrine type of religion? If people truly followed the simple teachings of each religion peace would reign on the earth and in the hearts of each individual. No thanks, mister, you take the thousands of rules written and maintained by each organized religion/business that dispense fear to their members if they don't follow along.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  5. theozarker

    I'm an atheist. I have consciousness, conscience and empathy. Why would I need a god or a set of religious rules to tell me that I should treat the earth as my home and treat others with the same respect and empathy I want from them? That's my responsibility as a human being. I shouldn't have to have it pounded into my head by some invented deity with a list of rules.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  6. Ram

    Karma Sutra ? really ? What are you reading ?

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

      I guess the "Karma" sutra is the hindu version?

      October 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  7. TJ

    YES! Join organized religion today!!! Where we will tell you what to think and give you the details on how to live your life, a belief system on how the world and man was created, what happens when you die, and who god is!!!

    No critical thinking required!!! All you need is FAITH! :-)

    October 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  8. iceblue

    I am 41 years old – I do not fit into your assumption that spiritual, but not religious is a younger generation fad. I find it more important for people to follow an enlightened path that is pure in nature. I feel that my focus on living a good life, being kind to others and praying to god every night is more important than me showing up at a brick building every Sunday to recite memorized words that hold no meaning.
    Being spiritual, but not religious has lead this catholic raised girl to meet the man of her dreams – a spiritual but not religious Muslim raised man. That would not have been possible had we both been religious people.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  9. searingwind75

    Opinion pieces are based on opinion, but unless you are going to have a counter-argument posted alongside – it makes it irrelevant other than alienating and offending people with this conversation piece.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  10. Ridiculous Blog

    You're just upset because people are beginning to wise up. That threatens the validity of what you believe.. So, you are wrote a blog that is clearly paranoid. Keep it up.. I'm sure your guilt ridden rhetoric is gonna have these "spiritualists" lining up to convert! Way to go....

    October 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  11. snowboarder

    the religious are fearful of losing control of the masses.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  12. ED

    And its funny how so many zealots like the author attack the notion of "not knowing" or living in doubt. As if they ACTUALLY know something. Its just a false sense of all knowing knowledge from these zealots, who claim to have the answers but in reality they know absolutely nothing at all concerning existence and reality

    October 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  13. parvo00

    This article is hilarious.

    The "danger" of 'spiritual, but not religious'?

    'Spiritual but not religious' is a "cop-out"

    AYFKMWTS?

    Organized religion is the biggest cop-out in the history of mankind.

    At its very root it reflects an unwillingness to face the harsh realities of life and nature, to refuse logic and science, the nature of your own being and existence as a complex pile of organic matter.

    It reflects a preference to live in a world of magical fairy stories and make believe, where a kind, omnipotent father figure is always there to explain away anything you can't/won't/refuse to get your head around, with a simple "because that's the way [xyz deity] made it."

    Religion gives you your crutch to explain the unknown, rather than questioning and learning and understanding.

    It removes the necessity for you to question human morals or to make your own moral decisions, because it lays out a set of simple rules upon which you will always fall back if things get a little too confusing or uncomfortable for independent judgment or consideration.

    It constrains independent thought and free will by defining a specific doctrine in which you must believe and to which you must conform if you wish to be "a follower".

    Organized religious dogma is nothing more than a set of rules laid down through history to keep the ignorant, unwashed masses in check with the threat of ultimate punishment.

    It pains me to see how many people - in this day and age of scientific enlightenment and understanding - still cling stubbornly to outdated beliefs that originated through *lack* of understanding; through appeal to the pack nature of humankind, in yearning for kinship and to "belong" to something greater; and through efforts to control, suppress, and subjugate the masses.

    If you're on the organized religion bandwagon, you don't EVER get to call someone else out for "avoid[ing] having to think too hard about having to decide". Because, by definition, you've already abandoned critical reasoning and independent thought for a nice, simple "10 steps for how to live without having to think for yourself" program.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • parvo00

      PS: I'm not religious or spiritual in any way whatsoever. So my post is not any kind of defense of the "spiritual but not religious" camp.

      I think you're all equally f___ing nuts.

      But the patronizing nature of this article, from one lunatic condemning another for having different lunatic beliefs, is just beyond the pale.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  14. Shari

    For starters, I admit I only read about 2 – 3 paragraphs of this article.

    I find this article insulting and ‘off’; CNN used to be a credible news source – what happened?

    I'm 50 (not young); I have been saying 'I am spiritual but not religious' for probably the past 20 years. My heritage is Jewish.
    I DO have an extremely strong faith in 'G-D' (so I disagree w/the author here); but I do not go to temple (I'm not proud of this; I just don't see a need to go). For the record; and I do realize this has nothing to do w/the article, I LOVE my Jewish food; and I have even been told by a male friend of mine who attended yeshiva and was raised in a kosher home, that I am more Jewish than his sister (I don't think it was said in a complimentary way; but I found it funny!). Sorry, I'm going off on a tangent.

    My point: The article is VERY narrow-minded and not accurate of the facts!

    G-D (a supreme being) has brought me through the death of a 20-year old niece, my sister, my mother, several surgeries and the typical struggles in life – ALL w/in only the last 10 years. I am grateful to G-D, I strongly believe in G-D; and ‘yes, I am not religious’.

    I'm concerned about who reads these articles; it mislabels many wise and good people! There are, for example, employers that might read this and think twice about hiring a person they presume does not believe in G-D (people are prejudice, sadly). On particular interviews, this topic could come in to play.

    I hope people reading this article do realize this is ONLY an opinion!

    October 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  15. Bob

    While I understand the argument, one of it's primary premises is that the "spiritual, not religious" do not adhere to a central theme. In my experience, those that are "spiritual, not religious" adhere to the golden rule, the same rule by which most religions adhere. The vast majority of religions I have encountered believe in loving thy neighbor with some form or retribution for not doing so. The folks that I meet who are Spiritual but not religious are typically driven to it out of love...not necessarily. Your idea of spiritual but not religious is positioned from a rejection of a moral compass, collective or otherwise. Some folks are confident that they are steering themselves from a more pure moral compass than that of those imposed by organized religions which have, unfortunately and due to a few bad apples at the margins, proven themselves to be corruptible.

    It is only due to that specific part of the premises, that spiritual but not religious lacks a moral compass or grounding, that I disagree with your argument.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Tim

      I have yet to read it, but Sam Harris talks about just that in his book, The Moral Landscape. I'll put that on my To Do list. ha ha.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  16. warrenleemedia

    The "real" problem with being "spiritual" and not religious, is less money to oil the Christian machine. I don't know the credentials of this author, but I can deduce his Christian ties by the tone and general stance of this article. Jesus' ultimate teaching was "the kingdom of heaven is within yourself." Sounds like those in the "spiritual not religious" camp are only doing what Jesus said to do. I am surprised everyday by how far off the Christian church is from the actual teachings of their messiah. But yes, less churchgoers means less tides, less resources available for those in power, less control. What would Jesus do? This should be the rationale of a proper Christian. Jesus wouldn't write an article like this, thats for sure. I only hope God lets me watch the faces of all these subscribers when he tells them how wrong they were about this mess.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  17. HamsterDancer

    I am with the majority of commenters here. This guy is cr@pola who is lumping the "spiritual but not religious" into one big pot without differentiation and doesn't even try to understand the ideas behind this. It's narrow minded and also this essay doesn't even fully explain his point of view on why his is better (edited down, perhaps).

    In any case, I hope CNN allows someone reputable to detail the opposing view in the near future.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Hamm

      Miller simply KNOWS that God, Jesus and Conservative Christianity are the ONLY way to go. Case closed in his closed mind. He's just interested in keeping more Christians from leaving the reservation, that's all.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  18. xirume

    Yes, it's dangerous, very dangerous to be an independent believer. Organized religions cannot afford to lose anymore "donation" $$$.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  19. ED

    This article is just awful; just another voice from zealot nation about how its dangerous to not have moral code directly tied to imaginary fairy tale beliefs from the bronze age. About how we're incapable of being good to one another and following moral code in the absence of celestial reward/punishment system. This is how pathetic so many zealots are, they really don't see the point in ever being kind if there isn't incentive from a higher order.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Argh

      Sounds like you could use a re-read.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  20. johnt

    I believe in God. I just don't believe in man.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Hamm

      How does that work when men wrote the Bible?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:56 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.