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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. Gregg

    This article was total garbage. We choose not to follow today’s organized religion because we are educated enough to see how much destructive damage they have caused throughout history and still do cause on a daily bases. CNN would do well to keep these types of opinion pieces off its pages. I worked for the Catholic Church for many years and I seen firsthand the financial corruption, the oppression of women’s rights, and deception of its followers for financial gain. Look at the countless innocent lives that have been lost over religion. We chose to be spiritual because we haven’t lost faith in god, but have lost faith in the humans who claim to represent him. We choose to be spiritual because we can see with our own eyes the amazing world we live in and how beautiful it can be when not manipulated by religion. It God is all knowing and all forgiving then surely he will understand why we have chosen not to adhere to any organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Melchizedek

      But how understanding would He be of someone who just ignored what he had to say? It is all well and good to dislike the negatives of organized religion, even organizers do, but there is a great deal outside of Catholicism. You had a negative experience; how does that make O.R. false?

      October 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • John the Guy

      @Melchizedek
      Tell me why the christian crowd cannot see beyond their own narrow belief system? You HE has no influence over those billions of people that do not believe in your god, get over your judgemental self.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Melchizedek

      Tell me why the christian crowd cannot see beyond their own narrow belief system? You HE has no influence over those billions of people that do not believe in your god, get over your judgemental self.
      @John the Guy What narrow belief system? Christian theology is massive, and cannot be called narrow. Would you care to level accusation against a particular tenant of my faith or assert its narrow-mindedness? If the latter please be sure to include specific instances so a response may be formulated.

      You, John, do not know a lily-white thing about me or my beliefs. Just because I have a belief does not make me "judgemental." Either I am wrong or I am right. Either the sky is blue or it isn't. If you find it more a of greenish-teal then lets have a discussion about it but don't call me judgmental for thinking its blue.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • katfish

      Very well said Gregg. It is the human element that has corrupted God's teachings for their own selfish reasons. That is why so many people choose a personal relationship with God instead. Non-religious does not mean we have abandoned God.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Melchizedek

      @Katfish How has man corrupted those teachings? Saying it doesn't make it so. Present a real argument and show just how it is as you say.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • katfish

      Mel: After reading all of your posts I don't believe it's in anyone's best interest to respond to you. You seem to want to argue and fight with everyone. (Pretty much what spiritual people try to avoid ... get it now? Probably not) We are all supposed to show proof and give examples to you for our statements but you haven't justified any of your own. Walk on.........

      October 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Melchizedek

      So your judgement of me is that I am not spiritual and do not "get it" because I favor substantive debate that assertive trolls dislike? Show me someone who can discourse then we shall see if he should.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  2. Jesse from KC

    I used to fall into that group, then I realized that there was no need for a God at all, and became Agnostic, because I couldn't disprove God.

    Then I had it pointed out to me (by myself, actually, when debating a fundamentalist Christian) that just because I can't disprove underwear gnomes doesn't mean they exist.

    Then I became an Atheist.

    I feel like those that fall into the "spritual but not religious" camp are on a journey that will eventually lead them to a stance. Let them take their time to reach their own conclusions. Indoctrination at a young age should be considered child abuse, so people going on a spiritual journey should be allowed all the time they need. It is one of the most important questions in our lives.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  3. Smarter than ewe

    I remember how sad I was when I found out Santa Claus wasn't real, same goes for the Easter Bunny. But I got over it. To think that much of the world still believes in a dude with a beard and sandals and all the nonsense that goes with it AND devotes their lives to following this concocted creation scares the crap out of me. But to die because you feel your imaginary person is better than the other guys is true insanity.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  4. Damon

    You failed to mention Philosophy. Everything in the "good" books has been analysed over and over many times by plenty of very intelligent, insightful humans. But I guess understanding all that might be difficult for the masses.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  5. Smart guy

    Allan,

    None of you damn business. That's what my beliefs are. It's not a "cop-out" because I don't owe you any justification of my beliefs at all.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Bryan

      +1 internets for you.

      Who is this joker to run in, call you an unwilling to make a commitment fence-sitter, and then run off as if his opinion mattered? Why is your spiritual path any concern of his at all, so long as you don't use that journey to affect the rights of others.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Sam

      No joke. How can this guy be so insecure about the indecisiveness of others? I wonder if he watches people who take too long staring at two similar products at a store and yells at them to hurry up and decide. Or shouts "JUST GET A DAMN WHOPPER" if the person ahead of him at Burger King takes more than 20 seconds to order. What a loon.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  6. Kiaser Zohsay

    Mark Twain is quoted as saying "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." Similarly, I strive to prevent religion from interfering with my faith. Likewise, I try not judge others who manifest their faith in ways that are different from the mainstream, even more different from mine. Judgmentalism is at the top of a slippery slope that leads to legalism, and legalism is what happens when a group of humans decide that they know how to interpret God's law better than God. Legalism is exactly what turns people away from "organized" religion, and it is what generates so many comments on this article. So instead of telling people that they need to "Get right with God", take a closer look at your own motivations.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  7. indfl

    There is a very tangible, human reason why people who describe themselves as spiritual have rising numbers. Many religions, christianity included, are mixtures of ideas cherry picked from previous ideologies....we are experiencing the same search for balance here. Plus, you cannot simply expect everyone to make a patently dualistic choice between religion and humanist/atheism. Agnosticism is a valid and I believe intelligent way to find meaning in one's search for moral and intellectual guidance. This article is very narrow minded and childish.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  8. Louis

    This argument is all over the place, full of fallacies, and poorly reasoned. It's very much a "them people" rant. So, are you trying to say you don't like people saying they're spiritual, but not religious because it makes them appear indecisive to you? From what you've written they say and believe, I don't think you've listened very closely to them.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Bryan

      Yep. Essentially he seems to be saying "I don't like the WAY you believe, therefore your belief is weak and without substance."

      This whole article is an exercise in the author's personal hubris. Little more.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  9. l'aura

    The spiritual but not religious individuals of this world have freed themselves from the slavery of organized religions which conduct business for profit. The author of this uninspired piece lacking in true research and zero enlightenment would do well to take a journey in solitude so he may hear the true word of God for himself, rather than an interpretation meant to please a mass audience who will feel obligated to part with their hard earned and hard to find money.... wake the flock up!

    October 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  10. spikenol

    waste of time reading this... thought it would be more insightful. I totally agree with the many other comments condemning this article. One additional point that struck me was he author's argument that without Christianity, we would not have some of great works of art that we enjoy today. Although the art would be different, and with a different inspiration, the works would no doubt be just as magnificent. The author makes a cause-effect error in his argument with this point as well as many other points.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Bryan

      Yep, I hate that argument that "if the world were different, it would be different." It has no validity.

      Yes, THE SPECIFIC PIECES OF ART WE KNOW that are based in some way in the Bible might not exist without the Bible, but how many infinite other pieces of art don't exist now because some other religious text–or no religious text at all–wasn't influential? Might they be better? More fulfilling? Certainly, some would be. It is limited and ignorant to say that we only have what we have now because of the influence of Thing X...and THEREFORE Thing X has special validity or universal importance.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  11. WASP

    being spiritual but not religious is being agnostic. basically pledging alligence to no god imperticular, just acknowledging something more powerful than yourself.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • LLR

      A lot of "spiritualism" seems to be about introspection and connecting with nature, neither of which has anything really to do with gods, or the supernatural. Personally, I find attending live concerts of good music a very "spiritual" experience. Perhaps it all revolves around spiritualism actually being vivid emotional experiences that we all need in our lives, and if you can get that from being a sports fan, a camper, a mountain climber, a surfer, or something else then why not. Who ever said that everyone needs to do the exact same thing in order to be "Right" is intolerant of human diversity.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  12. Hamm

    Simply making up answers, which is what the religious do, is also what parents do when they're tired of being questioned by their kids. This guy, Miller, wants all of you to be good little children and just believe whatever the clerics tell you. Don't get curious, he's saying to you, just be good little children and do whatever the "family" has always done.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • mama kindless

      Exactly, Hamm. Do they still teach "the Lottery" in school. If they don't, they ought to.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Hamm

      mama
      Maybe, but The Hunger Games seems to be channeling some of the story, although not the people's willingness to comply happily. It even has the Coal company angle.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  13. wes

    The dangers of being "religious" but not spiritual – extremism , ignorance , violence , hatred , division

    October 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  14. Jorge

    Oh Lord, I just googled the NY Salon and it's one of those nurture and blab circles for those fat-heads with degrees in Art or Philosophy who never get anything done. You know, the types who take forever to write a book that ends up on the back aisle at the discount store and who live off their relatives until they land a gig teaching a fluff course in college. No wonder.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • LLR

      If you want to talk about useless authors 90% of all the books sold in Christian bookstores can't be sold anywhere else.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  15. Lokust

    What an ignorant article. The Dalai Lama is a great example of spirituality. The terrorists that flew into the WTC are a great example of religion. I know which one I see as dangerous.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  16. victor

    The article is based on two arguments; 1) unwilling to take a position on God is somehow problematic, and 2) this unwillingness directly results in "not-trying-ness". Regrettably neither is correct or based on evidence.

    It is reasonable to reserve judgment till most (if not all) facts relevant to a question are unraveled. Judging before obtaining all facts invariably results in error, especially when malicious organizations and people are interested in having you embrace their position – just think of all the zealots killing each other. What’s so wrong if we choose to not participate in such bigotry?

    There is no evidence that individual’s unwillingness to embrace a religion (while acknowledging their spirituality) results in apathy and inaction. One can make such a claim for the nihilists or materialists, but how such a claim can be extended to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” persons is not obvious. There are millions of Americans from my generation who volunteer in their community groups, their local schools, or USAID, or Peace Corps to improve the lives of their fellow men. Is that inaction?

    I don’t understand why Mr. Miller and Mr. Gilgoff are threatened by people searching for other, potentially better, answers. What causes them to want to call people names and demean the pursuit of truth? Its fear – fear just like the loss feared by a religious teachers at a little village madrasah in Pakistan. This same fear, if unchecked, would condemn Galileo or poison Socrates.

    Look for a better answer and any not settling for half-truth that do not hold up to scrutiny is the true religion, it may be the only religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  17. Dan

    "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."

    This is exactly why we reject your religion. You pretend to know all the answers and we mistrust "know it all's". Jesus got it right when he chastised the Pharisee’s for their arrogance.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • HPNIII

      Okay, I am a Spiritual Christian – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and believe in God. So what is wrong with that other than the absence of money in the collection plate. If every religious faith be it Muslim, Catholic, or Hindu dropped all the other stuff and just adhered to those two principles. Don't you think it would be a pretty good world.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Madtown

      Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and believe in God
      ----
      Nothing wrong with that! It's just that you don't need organized religion to believe in these principles. You don't need religion to belive in God! Organized religion brings so much more with it than those principles, judgment and divisiveness for all.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  18. Bob

    I agree with the author, if you don't want religion don't pretend you have some higher connection. Believe what you want.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • old ben

      All religion is pretend, Bob. I guess you didn't get the memo.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • snowboarder

      yes bob, because everyone knows that without organized religion there can not be a spiritual connection.

      sarcasm off.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  19. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    The real danger here is exactly what this author is proposing, making a choice of one OR the other with no middle ground. That will only serve to divide and already divided country. We need more people to take a stance of middle ground .. not more extremists with complete confidence in their rightousness!

    October 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  20. Brian

    It is extremely ironic that many people are lashing out against what this man "feels to be true" when so many of you stand on your own opinions in the same dogmatic fashion. However, Alan on the other hand is simply stating that one needs to seriously ask themselves questions that the individual spiritual movement DOES NOT ANSWER. Questions such as, How was the world created? Is there genuinely right or wrong? If there is right or wrong, who created the standard and why should I expect any one else to follow the standard that I believe is right? Culturally speaking, for some middle eastern cultures, it is ridiculous to believe that a woman should be educated, however the belief contrary to that is ingrained in our western culture. When you sit down and ask yourself these questions you will find that you are aligned with either belief in a creator being or human based knowledge. If you come to the conclusion of a creator being you then must figure out what is expected of you, since you were created...who is that creator being? Is that creator being involved daily in society? Or only during major catastrophes? Maybe, the creator being isn't involved in society at all! These are serious questions of life that deserve serious thought and study... If you don't think of these things you are leading "an un-examined life that isn't worth living" -Socrates

    October 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Madtown

      come to the conclusion of a creator being you then must figure out what is expected of you, since you were created...who is that creator being?
      -----–
      Yes these are important questions, but in my opinion that's where the difference between "spiritual" and "religious" is most significant. Religion asserts to be able to answer these questions, which is simply not true. These are questions, for the most part, we're not equipped to answer and that's ok. A spiritual approach, however, asserts that we don't know the answers to these questions, even if we have a definite hunch that a spiritual side to this life exists.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • ED

      LOL, you think all people who are spiritual but not religious never ponder bigger questions such as how the universe came into existence or why it exists at all ? Just because they don't claim to hold the answer doesn't mean they don't think about it ever. And just because "religion" gives you an answer doesn't mean its the right answer.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • kso

      Actually, we know how the world was created. We just don't know what preceded the big and whether the multiverse is fact or fiction.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • kso

      Actually, we know how the world was created. We just don't know what preceded the big bang and whether the multiverse is fact or fiction.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • mama kindless

      That's right, Madtown. And Brian here evidently doesn't see how righteously judgmental this idiot author is. Judgmental about people based on things of fiction.

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

      "When you sit down and ask yourself these questions you will find that you are aligned with either belief in a creator being or human based knowledge. "

      Your're creating a false dichotomy, Brian. Human beings might not ever truly understand or know the answers to all the questions they ask, and in our humility some of us can acknowledge this possibility. BUT this by no means undermines our science as its the search for truth and discovery. Simply put, one doesn't need to just come to two conclusions you insisted one would end up.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • ED

      I couldnt tell what this guy was implying when he asked about wondering about how the world came to be. If its the planet earth, as someone else mentioned science has a pretty good idea of how this planet formed and how long its been around. SO yeah, Brian, maybe you should read some science books?

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

      brian – religion can not answer those questions either. religious answers are simply made up of whole cloth.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
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