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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. urbnnmd

    "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." This sums up the problem with his whole argument, that reason, action and belief are not compatible. There's nothing wrong with cultivating a deep sense of being without a belief structure, it just shows his ignorance on many levels. It's a bigoted attack on other religions and the human condition in general.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  2. jason

    Now I know why I don't read the CNN belief blog very often. It's full of short-sighted, poorly written fluff. *Pukes in mouth*

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

    At the root of Christianity is accepting that it's not all about you: that there is something greater than you are. That you can't save yourself: God saved you through Jesus.

    And in today's "Look at Me" Society, that's not what people want. So people make their own religion and their own gods, which lets them keep themselves at the center and do what they want. It's building castles in the sand instead of a shack on a rock. "I'm spiritual but not religious" lets people remain self-centric. They make the rules. Christians (like me) submit. I was a Taoist once. It was nice. It also was all about me as the center. That's the easy way to live. Saying "I'm number two in everything" is harder. And today's culture, hard is too much effort.

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

      Blind baby sheep can follow. How does choosing this path mean more effort? The truth is people like you are just too lazy to think for themselves.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Is this opinion of yours based on anything, Bob? Or is it just your usual unfounded bias on exhibit? You don't know what others believe or why they believe it. If you have any sources, cite them. Otherwise, it's just more silly babble on the same level as the article above.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • snowboarder

      at the root of christianity is the false notion that you actually need saving.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  4. Steve

    There are many things in this Universe that compel people to want to believe in a higher power. Such belief is culturally ingrained in humans. However, organized religion has largely failed to square itself with the world around us, leaving people to find their own set of beliefs that isn't logically inconsistent. For example, I believe that the world is much older than a few thousand years. I believe that the Earth and the stars were not created in the same week. I believe that there was no recent flood that reduced the population of every species to a single pair. I don't believe that a boat carried two of all 10,000,000+ known species for 40 days and 40 nights. I don't believe humans and dinosaurs have ever walked side-by-side. So what can religion do for me?

    There is Catholicism, which has formally accepted evolution, and have declared demonstratively impossible Bible passages as allegory rather than literal truth. However, they also have trouble with protecting little boys, the head of the church wore a Nazi uniform, and they have a bit of a history for torturing logical thinkers that challenge their beliefs.

    I think it is religion that is struggling to ask the hard questions. It's been a few hundred years now without an adequate explanation of why dinosaur fossils exist, or how we can see light from galaxies millions of light years away. These things are no longer for only a small percentage of academic overachievers. Physics and astronomy are popular. There are popular shows like The Cosmos, The Universe, How the Earth Was Made, NOVA, Into the Wormhole, etc. You are dealing with generations that are grew up with Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye. People that can find a Richard Feynman lecture on YouTube.

    What was extremely new just a hundred years ago, is now elementary school fodder today. People understand the gist of relatively, luminosity, and radioactivity. That tells them the Universe is a very old place. For a couple hundred years support for evolutionary theory has been piling up. These things are backed up by evidence that can be predictably repeated, and all are welcome to touch, feel, or observe the evidence themselves. "Take our word for it, everything you just saw is all wrong because a guy said this 3000 years ago" isn't as convincing as it used to be. Until religion can answer things we can see with our own eyes to be correct, or God drops by to tell us about himself, religion is going to continue to lose to logic. Until the church can explain the ever growing fossil record, they are forcing people to search for alternate ways to believe in a higher power without contradicting their knowledge of the world around them.

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

      Hopefully the internet will do to religion what a syringe full of antibiotics does to a disease.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Andy

      Amen to that, brother!

      October 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      The fact that you mention the Catholic faith, I can understand why you've come to this conclusion. Who told you that they were the true Christian that represents The True God? The Catholic faith is the reason why many become atheist, are lost and confused when it come to understanding God's word the Bible and God Himself.

      The Bible does not teach that the earth or the universe are a few thousands of years old, but millions. Scientists and historians has confirmed a range of things spoken of in the Bible dealing with the cosmos, nature, and world powers down to our day.

      If you were to carefully study the Bible with someone who truly know and understand scripture, and you kept an opened mind, leaving "bias" at the door, unlike evolutionist who teach you to leave God at the door, then you might get enlighten and come to understand "What The Bible Really teach!"

      October 1, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Steve

      @Gabriel

      No, I was raised Baptist, and taught young Earth creationism. Today, I find that Baptists still wholeheartedly dismiss Darwin, or ignore the issue completely. I mention Catholicism because it's the only one that has adjusted its position on evolutionary theory. As for the age of the Earth, (arguably) the smartest man to ever live among us deduced that according to the Bible, the Earth is approximately 7000 years old. That was Isaac Newton himself. Newton was a devout Christian and perhaps humanity's greatest scholar. I'd be hard pressed to call him a liar and say the Bible does not suggest a young Earth. He started with creation and followed through each generation. The only realistic way I've seen to refute Newton's estimate would be to call into question the length of what a day meant during the creation process, and that fails to account for 200,000 years of modern human remains.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Bill

      Steve, I feel that you're reacting to a very specific and often misguided form of Christianity that has cropped up (especially in the US).. There are great Christian resources out there that attempt to address the tough questions raised by science in an attempt to reconcile both the heart and mind of Christianity. Perhaps you're familiar with some of them: http://www.biologos.com and http://www.reasonablefaith.org are good places to start.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Shaggy

    These people are just accomplishing step one of escaping the hold of oppressive religious cults, realizing that organized religions are obvious scams created to concentrate money and power in the hands of a few. Most don't make it past that step since the idea of magic unseen powers controlling your life is so ingrained in them by religions, but it's a good first step to rationalism. A certain percentage advance to the idea that they can rely on thousands of years of secular philosophy and literature, and move past a fear of magic. It is true that the King James bible is referenced in a good deal of pre 20th century literature, but so was ancient Roman/Greek mythology. It was part of the background of the well educated, but no longer.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  6. Bible Clown©

    What the heck is this dude talking about? I've never heard of anyone having the kind of beliefs he's nattering about. Does he build straw men for a living? I'm not religious, but I believe in a lot of abstract things like love and friendship and loyalty; so that's a bad thing because it doesn't put money in the collection plate?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  7. spectraprism

    The problem this author advocates is that of thinking anyone has the ONE COMPLETE TRUE WAY- and everything and everyone else therefore NOT advocating it completely must be wrong. This is dogmatIc, archaic, leads to extremism and is completely incorrect. not being challenged into blindly following whatever scripture is not showing softness of any kind- it's showing you have a brain to draw your own personal conclusions that work and make sense to YOU.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  8. All you need is love

    CNN should reexamine themselves as a newsworthy organization. This is just awful. Shame on you!

    October 1, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Bible Clown©

      "CNN should reexamine themselves as a newsworthy organization" This is a 'religion blog.'

      October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  9. George

    Is that Pauly Shore at the beach?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  10. myweightinwords

    This reads very much like an outsider trying to pass judgement on something he doesn't understand.

    Spiritual, but not religious can also describe a large number of people who have very solid, very defined beliefs but do not feel the need to dress them in doctrine and dogma and ritual.

    Big religious instituitions have the decided handicap of being big, of being a huge mass of human beings who are fallible and imperfect. The religion may have begun with like minded souls coming together for comfort, strength, unity...but ultimately the "connection" fades under rules and obligations, the origins of which are lost and forgotten.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  11. mike

    Summary: "whhaaaa, people are rejecting MY fantasy".

    October 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  12. Anney

    I am a 62 year old female, and consider myself of a "spiritual" bent. I was raised Catholic, and have studied many religions. I feel this piece is insulting, and shows very little understanding of what people who don't ascribe to a particular religion really "feel" (since this seems to be a bad word with this guy). I pray, meditate (I guess he would think this is "New Agey") treat people the way I want to be treated. I think the teachings of Jesus have been so twisted by organized religion that I cannot call myself a Christian in this day and age. This does not make me in a "world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either" This blog is ignorant, judgmental of others' beliefs, and critical, without really a bit of understanding. Don't know where he's getting his information about "spiritual, no religious".

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

      I agree with you Anney. The person writing this article is way out of the realm of "getting it"

      October 1, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    There is only one real cop-out ... God(s) did it!

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

    And many of the works of art were commissioned by those promoting organized religion. The artists often times created this works while in protest and when you look at the art with a spiritual eye, you will see the blasphamy as was the artist's true intention. This author is not fully educated... wake the flock up!

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

      Yes, surely, every commissioned work is an act of rebellion. Not more than 2 among millions of cases are as you would have it. And that still does not change that fact the Christianity is the impetus for so much good in western civilization, more than any other force.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  15. blam0h1

    Implying that other religions didn't borrow from older religions. What a trash article.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  16. Melchizedek

    Jesus Christ! Somebody has an actual belief. Not just a tentative, relativistic ponderance on the nature of the divine but an actual, concrete, valid (logically, if perhaps not true) idea in which he has faith. And a fire-storm ensues. It is nice to see, on CNN, an actual exchange of ideas. It is too bad any good responses to this article will be drowned out in trolls and more fallacious arguments then the current political state. I should like to see a response that is not merely assertions-nonsequitur. But I will not. To you who read this in the malaise here, for a brief moment my sentiment had life.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      My actual belief is that there are no Gods since I have absolutely no reason to believe any exist. This is not a relativistic ponderance but my absolute belief and I literally catch "Hell" for it everytime I post it.

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

      I love an absolutist. Certainly you do, and as an absolutist I do. And this guy as an absolutist does. The only acceptable view nowadays is that everyone is right. If you don't subscribe to postmodern relativism then you are behind the times. I can get along with, and I have good friends, who have different absolute beliefs, belief in God. The best dialogue happens when we allow ourselves to assume other peoples' fundamental assumptions and see how their beliefs and practices, their organized religions, stem from their fundamental views. THAT is real tolerance an coexistence.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  17. Jen B

    I guess I would describe myself as one of these "spiritual but not religious" folks that the writer regards with contempt. I abandoned organized religion a long time ago, in part because in my view it promotes hypocrisy and intolerance, at the same time believers seem to think they have a monopoly on morality. A fallacy if ever there was one.

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

      In your view it does? Does it or doesn't it? And which organization?

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

      I feel the same about all organized religion. Manipulates the masses to "their way" instead of God's way for political and financial gains. And because "their way" is the "only" way it stirs the fires of predjudice and ultimately hate. They are extremely dangerous. Most of them are hiding their true intentions.
      While I still very much believe in God I have opted out of any religion that opts out anyone else.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Melchizedek

      While I still very much believe in God I have opted out of any religion that opts out anyone else.
      True intentions? Yeah, for 2 millennia now we have been plotting to feed the poor, nefarious. As a church worker I can tell you there is no financial gain in the business; I take a very poor wage so we can send money abroad. And that is our belief, that we should help others. We have that mutual belief and so do do things in service of that belief. Why can't we believe things? If we started church services with "whatever you want to believe is okay, and we are united here by our belief in non-belief." How does our way differ from God's way? As a person who makes a living out of making those two one I would like to hear what I have been doing wrong. Yes, belief in the truth of our belief, or we would not belief it. We also think its the only way, because the belief is also exclusive, Jesus said I am "The way The truth and The life." And that core, that what God says is true, is the sum of our belief. You don't have to belief it; but let us at the very least.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  18. RB

    Exactly how would somebody practicing Advaita Vedanta or any of the true mystical traditions benefit from being part of a religious organization?

    This article is filled with ignorance of religious knowledge.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  19. Tim

    It could be he is doing this to garner publicity–for his mini mall in England , etc. Publicity is always useful. If you're a businessman, which he is. In that sense, we may simply be falling into his snare. A possibility.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  20. richard dock

    This guy somewhat confused about the relationship between a person and god/the universal life force, and the relationship between the individual and the religion/corporate structure which earns it's living by peddling dated dogma and reassurances that it's way is the right way to deal with the universe.
    Religion and it's quest for power are perfectly represented by the dying Catholic Church, Scientology, the various Islamist factions and other zealous groups desperately holding onto their power as the old religions of the world slip away with people becoming more educated. The mainstream Protestant churches are mercifully so diluted that any spiritual connections are about lost (though they do provide useful ethical data base) for some. The Christian sects and cults that celebrate selfishness and greed ("name it and claim it") or propagate divisiveness between people are, hopefully, the last dying gasps of the established organized religions. But maybe I'm dreaming.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • John the Guy

      @richard dock
      Wouldn't it ne nice if we could convert all the churches, temples, etc. into hospitals or homes for the needy and take the wealth of the religions and feed the hungry and care for the sick. Imagine..John Lennon.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Melchizedek

      The last dying gasps he says. While that may be so, similar instances happen through history and the wax an wane of religion is by no mean impervious. But while Christianity dies (or is watered to impotency, as you well point out) in postmodernism it is growing at its fastest rate ever (couldn't find where that stat is from). How would you address that?

      October 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Melchizedek

      @John the Guy
      You do realize that religion gives and does more for the needy than anyone else? The four largest aid organizations and social service nets in the world are religious? The most is given and done by the faithful, we run hospitals and orphanages, far more than the secular world has done.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:54 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.