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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. delmathomasjackson

    Extreme's in either direction are dangerous. The world has seen extreme organized religion for centuries. It is no surprise that many people are starting to respond by adopting an oppositional stance. Everyone who is religious is not merely going thru the motions. Everyone who is non religious, is not spiritually lazy or aloof. Spirituality is far too intimate to dictate from the outside – on either side. If doctrine, mantra, and routine provide solace, then please adopt it. If flexibility and self guided study are beneficial, than get it. Hell, combine both, or do neither. Tell you what, I won't judge you as not thinking, and allowing yourself to follow doctrine that you had no input in, if you won't judge me for choosing to follow the notions that make sense to me. Deal?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • just an observation

      @delmathomasjackson: you are too reasonable. what's wrong with you? :-D

      October 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  2. Poundaround

    I disagree with this aricle. It's more of an agnostic stance than a cop out. I would not fault a person for believing there is more to the human condition than biology while having the ability to see the inherent corruption and hypocrisy present in organized religion in it's adherence to doctrine over scripture and political motivations. This article sounds like another fear based alter call. The problem is, when people embrace a religion out of fear that it might be true, this is nothing more than Pascal's wager. It's an empty cup.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  3. James

    Scare 'em back into the fold. Nice try but no thanks.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  4. Huebert

    The author doesn't give any reason as to why anyone would want to be a part of an organized religion. All he says is "spiritualism is bad, and this is why...." But he gives no compelling argument for why organized religion is superior.

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

      Read the article again please!

      October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Huebert

      I read the article you d!ck. It offered no compelling reason for why organized religion has anything special or superior to offer.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  5. Sujith,NE

    I believe in energies...that 'a' higher self looks after all of us...no face..no shape or affinity for one race..he watches over us to make sure we are safe..but the most important part is the belief that we are all connected on a deeper level and that our bodies are just instruments helping us charter through this plethora of interactions (between the like) called 'life'
    More like Buddhism with out Budha.
    Note: I come from a family with very (strong) hindu background.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  6. Sam

    What bunch of crap!

    October 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  7. Joanne

    Dreadful piece. Really, CNN, is this the best you could do?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  8. evinar

    'Danger' of spiritual but not religious? What danger? To organized religion? lol

    Why wouldn't a person less connected to a crowd-think mentality be more respectful of others' beliefs? A person that has discovered FOR THEMSELVES the part of their existence that can't yet be explained would seem to me to respect what others have discovered for THEMSELVES. People would socialize and bond less and less on the kinds of values that form rigid barriers to others' values and more on who THEY are – and when faced with billions of individual people, the reasons for fighting wars become less defined. Islam would be disbanded, as would Christianity and Judaism, and oh! Guess who are fighting all the wars right now?

    Uh oh! Sounds dangerous to me!!

    October 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  9. Tiff

    Ah yes, individuality is what make society dangerous! Mr Alan Miller, while you were comfortably sitting in mass listening to the stories of your maker and solidifying your beliefs in the unknown, us 'non-religious spiritual' people were out feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving our time to those in need.... what did you accomplish in your hour obligation on Sunday? We believe that actions speak louder than words..... why dont you stick to writing about things you have knowledge of rather than warn against those things you do not.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  10. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Writing an article for the sole purpose of inciting a firestorm of web hits for advertising $ is the true cop-out here .. albeit a successful one!

    October 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  11. mk

    There is so very much wrong with this article, beginning with the claim that without the bible, so many things wouldn't be possible.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. Vance

    Spiritualism : Sects of Religion :: Sects of Religion : Original Religion

    October 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  13. LibertyPlease

    I question the author's notion that connecting yourself to a doctrine by blind faith, based on no evidence whatsoever, is a sign of a critcal person willing to question and challenge. The opposite is actually true.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  14. burtonbagbygrose

    "Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"
    For me, it is both. This writer had me until this ending, where he appears to suggest you cannot have one without the other. And I simply do not believe that is the case.
    Again, for me, I believe in God and Scripture while maintaining a commitment to Enlightenment. My Enlightenment comes from God, Scripture, and the amazing people God places in my life.

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

    I think the reason why so many are upset is because many of us have left the traditional path because of our experiences with it and the author likens us to mindless Zombies. I'm 45, and most of my friends are also "spiritual but not religious". Our choice, ain't nobody's business if we do. Today, we make our own communities.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  16. whatabighead

    It's my experience that ONLY my friends who are not attached to a particular tradition , and understand the phrase 'religion in the abstract,' will usually have read more than one of those book, taken more than one seriously, or shown any intellectual honesty or maturity about the subject at all...

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

      Most Christians and others insisting upon a single tradition 'winning' spend their lives doing the amazing contortionist apologetics to avoid saying 'yeah, it's just one, i think I've got one decent worldview and one acceptable, noteworthy avatar to mention.' Well, why? Everyone else already knows that about your thing.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  17. Tannim

    The author seems to have a distinct lack of understanding of the differences between organized religion and personal faith. Furthermore, he rejects the obvious and valid point that people should not need a middleman in the form of a church when interacting with whatever gods they believe in. That and he doesn't seem to understand, unlike Aristotle, that one can have morality and ethics without organized or any type of religion. As such, his entire premise is invalid, and this article is a waste of electrons.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  18. integralarc

    I think the author pointed to a real problem. A problem that needs more than just this polemic of modern(science) traditional and postmodern ( Self sensitive). And his point about the self feeling, being purely subjective and needs outside structure to develop, otherwise it becomes regressive needs to be heard. But also the conflict of authority, power, and the imbalance this can have leads one to sit on the fence. The answer to this self referent spirituality happens at the next level of development. Call it post postmodern. Its called integral and can be studied at integrallife.com. Not a going back to previous modern and traditional methods of spirituality but a inclusion of the best of traditional, modern, and postmodern with a negation of what can be pathological at each of those levels. Alan points out the issue with the postmodern, and the replies point at the problems of modern and traditional modes. And what if neither of these levels can solve the need for a spirituality that is not partial to just the subjective nor partial to just externally excepted structures of orientation. If this article has struck a nerve then see if the integral understanding brings clarity to the conflict that does not make a polarity out of old/new, spirituality and religion, self and society, belief and faith, practice and self feeling. integrallife.com

    October 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Mantelar

      My position is this – organized religion is used as a tool to control people, whether at the local level, national, or transnational level. And this control is often not in the individuals self-interest. Organized religion has a long history of murder, oppression, censorship, and collusion with the state that ought be characterized as criminal. At any given time, in any given generation, there are large swaths of the population that are marginalized or excluded from it, whether by act of the church or individual act of conscience. The spiritual movement is this generations answer to that. I have read the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Old and New Testament, Book of Mormon, Urantia, Dianetics, and many others and I can tell you that no church that I know of actually makes an effort to incorporate the whole of any one book into its dogma. I choose to believe in a god, an all-father, all-creator, that may or may not be supremely interested in us, but no doubt set this universe in motion for good reasons of his own. I believe because I have been presented with an overwhelming body of evidence supporting it that this universe is very old and that evolution is the natural by product of the dynamic and ordered framework in which this universe exists. It doesn't make life any less god-created than the "magic" version of creation we are stupidly pushing on our children in parts of our country at this time. In fact, I think it makes our existence even more profound, more justified and beautiful in the eyes of god than we could ever imagine. Each of us is a five billion year old success story steeped in more struggle and victory in the face of enormous odds than any of us can fathom. The universe is god's forge of creation and we are steel that he is still hammering out. You see, anyone who actually bothers to read and study religion is not obligated to settle on any one organized expression of it. And in fact, there is a good chance if you study with an open heart and open mind you will not want to take part in one either.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  19. chaba_waba

    Why judge others on how they chose to feel about something as personal as this. Since religion is so personal can anyone say what is right and wrong on how they feel and think about it. I know that was redundant but worth saying twice.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  20. Z.

    "Being nice" predates your religion to the very beginning of humanity, sir, in the Golden Rule.

    According to Jesus, he was spiritual - not religious (did you skip that part?), and, according to Jesus (and all the peaceful leaders - Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucious, etc.) all we need to be and do is to love our Creator with all our hearts and love our neighbor as ourself. Ummm...does any of this sound familiar to you?

    Men (and I do mean men) added all the rest in every religion on the planet, and the majority of it contradicts abiding by the Golden Rule.

    And now quantum physics is beginning to unveil - drum roll, please - ah, what do you know, the necessity of the Golden Rule for our survival and an appreciation of the awesomeness of our Creator's creations!

    According to you, how dare people reach back to the essence of humanity, appreciate that essence in all cultures, try to honor the Golden Rule and strive to forge a personal relationship with God!

    Well, I'm sending prayers your way...

    October 1, 2012 at 10:13 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.