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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. Stewart.

    The crux of the matter is here : 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.
    You don't like it because you can't easily identify us or pigeonhole us. Your problem. Not ours.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Satan

      So glad you and believe the same way....

      October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Mary

      Good point. And I also wonder if the author has even bothered to ask these individuals what they believe.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  2. Eduardo

    As the author expressed, "A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action." Those are two very absolute choices given when the choices are infinite. Is it a requirement that to belive in God you also must have scripture? Why? Does that mean before Christianity, Judism, and Islam all other beliefs in a power greater than man are wrong or maybe mislead...I think not. We were given free will for a purpose, to exercise it. And if the free will is to chose to see God differently, then so be it. Better to be Spiritual than oblivion.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Joshua

      Couldn't have said it better! I totally agree.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  3. this guy

    I wish the teaching of religion to a person was illegal until 21. It's much more dangerous to a developing mind than alcohol.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Buhay

      *whew*....Glad that's only your opinion.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • whatabighead

      Right on! It's too sophisticated a subject... kids need 'god & godette made everything, be good because they'll hear about it and you'll be in trouble big time, look what jesus did! DUDE SAILED THAT ONE!! Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and so on. Look at the buddha! 4 noble truths! Lao Tzu, about yin and yang! Indian stuff, Sita Sings the Blues, Gandhi! Radical!'

      October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Bryan

      I totally agree. People are born into one of many religions and then manipulated using fear and guilt to not only believe everything that is told to them but to completely avoid all rational arguments contrary to it.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Jay

      Yea that's taking it a bit too far. As a Catholic from a young age, I understand the brainwashing effects of my earlier religion, however even though I choose not to practice/participate in Catholicism today, I don't necessarily believe for a second that those teachings were detrimental to my health, especially when compared to alcohol.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • this guy

      @Jay Alcohol isn't danderous to everyone either, but some turn into raging alcoholics.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • God

      Organized religion has been the cause of more war, fear, and corruption than any other source in all of history. About time people realized you don't need to belong to a "church" or religious organization to be "good".

      October 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  4. Tim

    Let's set aside for the moment that the above article is based on a mind-numbingly sweeping generalization (one that invalidates any "conclusions" it may draw). Just because the christian bible spurred our ancestors to read doesn't make their mythology omportant today. Just because a person or people take wisdom from several different traditions does not invalidate the usefulness, the truth of that wisdom or make that person a "fence-sitter." Exploring the world and various cultures and traditions makes them smarter and more able to deal with diverse people than someone else who accepts the doctrines of their parents and seeks after nothing.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Jill

      Amen

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

    erience 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...

    Christians 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 10:45 am |
  6. Lee

    5 minutes. That's the amount of time from my life lost to this article that I'll never get back. Shame on me for "hoping" that someone of "faith" could write a thoughtful piece on a thought process different than their own. I try to practice what I preach–be open. But, this is possibly the last 5 minutes I spend on this crap. Whether it's idiots burning down Buddhists temples, killing each other over cartoons, picketing clinics, or making signs with "scripture" at football games. You can't escape the stark reality: there is very little difference in the evolution of mankinds' collective thought and reasoning since 1AD. Gawd help us.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  7. meditationadvice

    I meditate, because it is a personal experience of God rather than a blind belief doctrine. Meditation is not easy, it takes years of experience and hard work, which is why I use the great resources offered by a site called TranscendentalTones.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  8. Donny

    How old is this guy? I'll agree have peers who do live by some of those sorts of decisions, but for many it is deeper than that. For me included, it doesn't have to do with fence sitting, it has to do with rigid religious doctrines and the varying degrees of intolerance that comes from them. I care very much about my impact on the world, but something people oft times miss is our ability to help help others can only be exception if we know how to help ourselves first. It is not just to "feel nice". I am in agreement it is a dangerous place to be. Conviction is important, and fence-sitters don't contribute to much very often. However, I feel like the author just doesn't understand. For him generation "me" should be more like their predecessors... which is EXACTLY what we need NOT to happen in many more ways than one.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  9. Bob

    This is one of the most idiotic things I've ever seen. CNN should be ashamed for publishing it.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Joseph Maguire

      agreed their creating new lows for themselves to create dumb conversations.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  10. mk045

    Be a kind person, helpful, a friend to anyone who needs it. That is a good person. Focus on frankly anything else, and you are wasting your time. Jesus himself essentially says this in the NT (unless you cherry-pick your Bible quotes like you do your climate science). Think and believe for yourself, or someone will think and believe for you. Organization and dogma are about power and control, whether it is a pharaoh, Constantine, Napoleon, or Mao; or anyone in between.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Anne Smith

      You are the personification of this article, as are most ot the responses.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  11. Eric

    It seems the author has never heard of Unitarian Universalists.

    It is possible to be a "relativist" and still have a sense of direction. Unitarian Universalism is characterized by support for a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual's theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritarian requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.

    http://www.uua.org

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Eric

      I should add that Unitarian Universalism (and the search for independent truth) is not a new "retrogressive" trend of contemporary society – as the author suggests. As a development of the Transcendental philosophical movement, it has been part of American society since the 1830's and included such great thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Susan B. Anthony.

      To be sure, the search for truth and self-discovery is perhaps as old as humankind.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  12. Donny

    How old is this guy? I'll agree have peers who do live by some of those sorts of decisions, but for many it is deeper than that. For me included, it doesn't have to do with fence sitting, it has to do with rigid religious doctrines and the varying degrees of intolerance that comes from them. I care very much about my impact on the world, but something people oft times miss is our ability to help help others can only be exception if we know how to help ourselves first. It is not just to "feel nice". I am in agreement it is a dangerous place to be. Conviction is important, and fence-sitters don't contribute to much very often. However, I feel like the author just doesn't understand. For him generation "me" should be more like their predecessors... which is EXACTLY what we NOT to happen in many more ways than one.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  13. TruthStandsLoveKnows

    Mr. Miller,
    Again I applaud your willingness to be villified by such "tolerant" commentators. The contradictions in the comments are both humorous and sad at the same time. You sir (and horrible people like me) are not allowed to think or have opinions if it is counter to the majority of the CNN readership. We better get with the program or we shall soon be caged.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  14. GDawg

    "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 quote from the article is crazy. You can be spiritual and religious to whatever degree you want. Everyone's beliefs should be their own to a certain extent. Much better than having religion and opinions of others driven down our throats.
    I do believe a person on their own terms can have a great relationship with a higher power and still follow the principles laid out by the holy books and the commandments.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • ron

      offers no NEGATIVE exposition either

      October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  15. Val

    I totally agree with Devon. I believe in a 'force' or 'power' out there, but not what is pushed on us by established religions and 'priests'.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  16. Paul

    Of course the author doesnt wonder if maybe the church is doing things to drive people away,which it is.You my friend are a cop out and lazy.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  17. russ

    It is faith for us, but if you believe in God (and I do), then you must believe that the originators of faith had reality in their experience, meaning God actually revealed Himself (Herself) to them.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  18. NYOMD

    "Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"

    I will have the second menu item please. The one where you don't believe in made-up stuff.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  19. theindependentthinkerdc

    I can't help but read this article and think that the author is mad at people who don't blindly join an organized religion and trying to bully them back into the fold.

    There is nothing wrong with being "spiritual, but not religious" and believing that while there may be a higher power, megachurches and organized cult followings (e.g. the religious right) aren't the way to express your beliefs.

    It has nothing to do with not making an easy choice or no choice. The choice is to trust yourself and your own heart, which is a much tougher one than blindly following an organized cult that has been brainwashing you since birth.

    The real reason most people in this country are turning away from organized religion is that they see the damage it does everyday in the world. Blessed are the poor? Only if they fund my megachurch. Blessed are the meek? Only if they keep quiet after I have inappropriate relations with them behind the altar.

    And don't even get me started on all the deaths that occur around the world in the name of some sociopathic, self-obsessed "prophet" who led a cult and wrote a book 2000+ years ago. It is time to evolve people and treat organized religon like the horrible, out-dated relic that it is...

    October 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  20. T. McG.

    Yeah yeah – more thinly veiled hell-fire and brimstone stuff. The dead giveaway is the 'God and Scripture' remark at the end. As in, if your version ogf God is not superglues to 'Scripture' well, then – you're up the creek. See it our way or suffer the consequences....I go to church but have a relationship with God as I understand God, thank you very much. If God gave me the same ability to make choices and distinctions as Adam supposedly had when he elected to 'eat of the tree of knowledge' I guess I'd better use that gift to form a constantly improving conscious contact with God. That's certainly not marching in lock step with some heirarchical canonization of thought and comprehension. My earthly work in this area will be done when I get planted. Maybe not, who knows? Sorry to hear the writer of this column has achieved a place of being at the end of the road & found perfection in the form of being another 'religious' that looks down his nose at anyone who might not agree or walk the same path as he does....

    October 1, 2012 at 10:40 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.