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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 (9,994 Responses)
  1. confessionsofawalkaway

    In other words, anything but Christian = terrible.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  2. Barbara Harmon

    Did his guy even interview someone who is spiritual but not regilous? Because he has no idea what this truely means and appears to make some outrageous accusations with absolutely no basis in fact.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  3. William

    Maybe people are not ‘fence-sitting’, as you so inelegantly stated, but rather like myself have made a firm intelligent decision that religions are the cause of some of the most devastating periods in man’s brief history on this planet and hopefully one day we will get past the need to use religions as a crutch for a weak mind and instead select lifestyles such as Buddhism to evolve.

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

      fact is...nothing ismore dangereous then religion. It truly is the root of all evil.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  4. Tim

    the dangers of following religion have been many–the Inquisition, Jim Jones massacer, Waco, witch trials, pediphile priests, Heavens Gate, etc.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Robert Brown

      That is why we are told to test the spirits to see whether they be of God.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      If she weighs the same as a duck, she's made of wood and therefore a witch.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Jasi

    If you convince a bunch of depressed people (because that's 33% of America folks) that life is better on the other side and there are people who are not like you, who are different and don't believe what you believe, you're going to have problems.

    Rules are simple. Do good, be good, live your best in now and you can handle anything tomorrow brings. Because we have as a people, always have and always will, persevere.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  6. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of generations of inbreeding. Historians have theorized that the south lost the civil war due to the number of mentally challenged soldiers in the Confederate army, a direct result of this inbreeding.

    Also, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance and Smokey and The Bandit

    October 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Darw1n

      LOL

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

      Thank you for a great morning laugh.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Tim

      Interesting opinion. LOL

      October 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. Tom

    Anyone who is religious or spiritual is an idiot.
    Simple as that.

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

      I think everyone needs some kind of "spiritual" experience, but I define that to include good music at a concert, being a sports fan, a surfer, a mountain climber, a hunter, or any of a hundred similar activities that touch people emotionally on some deep level.

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

      Anyone who make's an argument against anyone or any idea by simply calling others idiot, is truly lacking any real ability to articulate logical reason for their opposition. It's an epic example of the pot calling the kettle black.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Tom

      @Ron: Through my years I have found it impossible to have a logical argument with religious people, so now I just resort to name calling.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  8. Darw1n

    Ok, Allen, for you everything needs to be either black or white? And, of course, those who don't agree with you are wrong. I think you're just a dick.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Erika

      Haha... I couldn't agree more!

      October 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  9. Charles

    Yes, an individual can live both a spiritual and an ethical life filled with virtue without the oversight of a church and/or men who really don't work nor have familes. The clergy along with their drones fear these people and they should.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • highplainsparson

      Pastoring a church is the most difficult work I've ever done, having served in the military and worked in the private sector. And I do have a family.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  10. Willow

    There are a great many people who still believe in God but do not hate gay people. It is the church's stance on social issues that is turning the younger generation away. If the church actually focused on love instead of prejudice, which was what the entire religion was originally supposed to be about instead of being used as an excuse to be prejudiced, they would not be losing so many people. It is the church's stance on social issues that is causing younger people to not want to be associated with organized religion. Until the church changes its stance, they can be ensured that many young people will keep leaving in droves.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Tim

      There seems to be no shortage of lemmings though. The term "Mega Church" is a modern pheonomeno of recent coinage.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  11. Matthew

    Getting off the fence and assuming one is righteous in one believes is the bigger problem in this world. I'd think twice before criticizing those who refuse to hang a sign around their neck and decide to stand for real priciples and human values than for church dogma and religious doctrine. What a fool. But I would'nt expect much more from CNN.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  12. Brad

    Stupidest article I've ever read on CNN...and that's saying something.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  13. Vikram

    You doesn't seem to be neither Religious nor spiritual. Had you practiced either of them even to a smaller degree you wouldn't be seeing so much of difference in your opinions and you wouldn't be writing such blog

    Based on my experience Religion is more towards introduction to the ultimate source and Spirituality is the individual pursuit towards the ultimate and this is applicable to all civilizations and has nothing to do with Buddha or Jesus.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  14. Olbap

    This is such a load of fatuous non-sense. "Spiritual but not religious" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And it's not "dangerous", nor a cop-out. Spirituality can be about the advancement of the human spirit and that in itself can mean personal growth, becoming more in touch with our surroundings, with the energy around us, with other people, being kind to others...etc etc. Religious doctrine has nothing to do with it. The fact that religious people would associate this with believing in a higher power just propaganda.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  15. Erik

    This article is shameful. Why must one take a position on the unknowable? Believing fervently in that which is unprovable just leads to conflict.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Petercha

      It does NOT lead to conflict, Erik. For example, I respectfully disagree with the doctrines of the Mormon church, but I see no need to argue with them.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • tallulah13

      It's not always about you, petey.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Petercha

      Who said it was? And the name is "Peter", not "Petey".

      October 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  16. steelerguin

    Loved the article. From many of the comments it looks like a lot of people got their "spiritual but not religious" panties in a wad and their "spiritual but not religious" feelings hurt. Truth hurts, huh?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • truth be trolled

      I think I smell a disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer".

      October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Sarah

      I'll take my lessons on truth from someone who DOESN'T believe people who wear two different types of fabrics together should be stoned to death thank you very much.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  17. jeff

    Well, people are not machines, our existence is different, at the very least we are driven by emotion. At the same time, google and other search engines have made it easy to understand that the origins of the worlds major religions are based in human power and control. As people come to realize that the concept of 'God' is just an ancient human fabrication 'spiritual but not religious' seems to be a rational way to deal with this dichotomy. Alan seems to be insisting people take an untenable position.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  18. Colin

    Can a Christian please help me? I am having trouble distinguishing the third example of circular reasoning from the first two. Perhaps you can explain the difference.

    “I believe Obama is a great man because his biography says so, and the reason I believe his biography is that it is about Obama, who is a great man.”

    “I believe David Koresh was a wise and great prophet because the Branch Davidians wrote a book saying he is. I believe that book because it was inspired by David Koresh, a wise and great prophet.”

    “I believe God exists because it says so in the Bible. I believe the Bible because it is the inspired word of God.”

    October 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Petercha

      Is this a real question, Colin? If it is, I'd be happy to help you.

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

      it is

      October 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  19. Kay Zee

    really disappointed that this appears on CNN website. I would expect this sort of elitest drivel on how one can and can not be connected to the universe from Fox News but not CNN. Oh well, I guess CNN has just as much right to be absolutely ridiculous and absurd.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Deanelon

      Well said.

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

      agreed!

      October 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  20. Tom Wilson

    How does one practice "Spitual but not religious" a friend once asked. I hadn't tried to summarize in my mind until that pointed question. With out much thought I blurted out " I try to practice total forgiveness and non judgement delived with kindness" as if the answer came from my spirit with out my "ego mind" getting in the way. Everyone is right, based on the universe they come from. Just for 1 minute try to imagine if every soul choose this way to BE.....i don't think we, as a race would be on our own 10 yard line of Spirtual Evolution anymore.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:21 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.