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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. starkey

    Spiritual = God worship Religious = Scripture worship

    Do not religious people pick and choose scripture that applies to their ideas and beliefs?

    If all you were taught about God is wrong, wouldn't you want to know what is right? Sometimes you have to face the facts that what has been taught might be wrong. I mean we don't have people that seriously think the world is flat still do we?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Hebrews 4:12
      For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      robert, you do know those words were written by humans to control humans, then edited by more humans to make money, control more humans and to convert other humans to christanity right?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • starkey

      And?? I believe you prove my point here. I have read this many times before. I know scripture too. But, you miss the point. You can't quote from a book to a person that does not believe the book. That would be like me making quotes from Moby Dick to prove my point. If the Bible is the word of God, then at best it is inspired by God and written by men. And according to the Bible, there was only one perfect man. In fact, if you read, this perfect man was also against religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "If the Bible is the word of God, then at best it is inspired by God and written by men."

      According to who? The people who wrote the book.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • starkey

      "According to who? The people who wrote the book."

      You notice I did say IF? lol that's sort of the point I was trying to make. And I was making it to the people that believe this way. I was raised to believe this, and I myself believed it for many years, but I always had questions, and I was taught not to question God outside of scripture. I understand now that this is wrong.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Matt

      He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
      and its people are like grasshoppers.
      He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
      and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
      Isaiah 40:22

      October 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • I Don't Get It

      Matt,

      What is your point?

      October 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  2. History Bear

    Organized religion is about control. Mankind was driven to learn to read long before christianity and it's fellow belief systems. All religions in the last 2000 years, with the possible exception of buddahism, have been about control and demanding you live your life by a set of principals concocted out of thin air under the guise of getting to a better place. If you don't feel it, honestly believe it, and live by it then it's not real. If you do, then call it what you will it is spiritual by any name.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Barbara Lee Henson

      Belief is an emotional response, not based on logic but on feeling...like love, you either feel it or you don't. Prior to Christianity they worshiped the Greek gods which stimulated great art, astounding science, deep philosophy, great literature. The Dark Ages were a result of suppression not the sharing of knowledge. Burn the books,declared the Church. Burn the heretics.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • The Truth

      All organizations are about control. Control is good, control is needed, without control there are no rules and everyone for themselves. Without control there will be no science, society or anything else you need to survive in a community. Oh and community, there is no community without control. Even animals have organization and control in their own environments. Its the type and level of control that determines if it is good or not.

      To make a blanket statement that all religion is about control is like saying all fats are bad for you. Just like religions there are fats that are good for you and fats to stay clear from and even fats that can be done in moderation.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  3. BDH21

    I just .... THIS merits "front page" news?!?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  4. Brad

    Im one of these spiritual people, and when I say that, I dont mean I believe in God, only that I dont know anything so I claim to never know I do. My beliefs border more on philosophical than religious, and while the two can obviously coincide, the difference is that I would never write an op-ed piece calling those who wont handle snakes "fence sitters."

    October 1, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  5. jeff

    Good article. I often wondered about people who say they're spiritual but not religious. I just don't get it. I think they don't like the religious options, but then what is spirituality really?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • JDodson

      Religion is about embracing the answer. Spirituality is about embracing the question. They are not in conflict with each other. This is the same argument with Creationism vs. Evolution. Creationism embraces the answer. Evolution embraces the question. These things are not in conflict with each other.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Sarah

      If you don't even understand what spirituality IS, how can you claim to have the authority to say that the way you practice religion is superior?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  6. Carwell

    The author sems to miss the point. Spiritual is about understanding, or trying to. Religion is about reward.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  7. mk

    "I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out"

    Got that wrong there, Al. Being religious and blindly following what a priest or book tells you is a cop-out and should only be happening if you are unable to think for yourself.

    "Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you're told. Religion is doing what you're told regardless of what is right."

    October 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • shmndrk

      ! points !
      so well said!
      so yes!
      amen.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  8. Runtime Al

    As Peter Gabriel once sang, "The sheep remain inside their pen, though many times they've seen the way to leave"

    October 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  9. Jon

    My take: "I'm going to believe what my religious leaders tell me just so I don't have to think" is a cop-out.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  10. zach

    What's so wrong with picking and choosing certain ideas from multiple different backgrounds and sources to create a set of principles and doctrines that works for you individually or your small community of spiritual colleagues? It's exactly what Christianity did when it absorbed a large part of the previously Zoroastrian population in the Byzantine regions. There is no "pure" set of doctrines anymore, people have always picked and chosen. The Catholic church has slowly handed down orders that have changed their canon over the years, to meet their own needs. They also picked and chose a small subset of the texts about Jesus to make into their canonical Bible, rejecting a great deal of other scripture. So this rant is completely ridiculous. Get over it.

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

      The only way I'll "Get over it' is when all of you idiots that continue to perpetuate a lie that's thousands of years old, just stop doing it and join modern society. You people make me physically ill.

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

      I'm not religious, and you couldn't have missed the point of my comment more.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. SimplyMe

    I totally agree with you mk045. This is just another attempt at making people feel quilty because they refuse to believe in someone else's belief. I don't criticize no one belief system out of respect. This is why I rather not belong to any organization because that's all they do is criticize one organization so they can uplift theirs. I am happy in my relationship with God. I also believe that he is happy with the way I'm living my life. I'm living life the way I have intrepret it to be. I refuse to live it the way someone else thinks I should live it according to their interpretation.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  12. Stephen

    Morality is, in fact, relative, despite what any particular brand of "religion" one subscribes to may have to say about it. Because morality is relative, adhering to one particular religion, or no religion at all, doesn't make one any more or less "right", or "moral", than an adherant to any other. Additionally, science has nothing to say about the existence, or lack thereof, of a "god". As such, belief in God and belief in science need not be mutually exclusive.

    Sorry, Mr. Miller, your non-denominational evangelizing misses the religious v. spiritual point entirely.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  13. Steve

    I have been a Roman Catholic my entire life. I attend Mass most Sundays. I use my religion as a vehicle to find spiritual enlightenment. The rules and customs of any good religion should be there to help their members to find or increase their spirituality. Increasing your daily contact with a loving God is what it is all about, regardless of which religion you choose. I follow the teaching so Jesus, not the Pope. Maybe that makes me a "cafeteria Catholic" – I don't care, it works for me. I think it would be more difficult to find spirituality without an organization or group to assist. But the one thing that Jesus preached the most against is moral arogance. If someone says they can find spriituality without religion, according to the teachings of Jesus, we should support them. Jesus was a devoted Jew but never said you had to follow a religion. He said to love your enemies. Not just like them but love them. That's real hard. I can't imagine someone reaching that level of spirituality without some help. But if they can, more power to them. Jesus also said that the only way to heaven is thought him, and that he is God, and that God is love. So that means that the only way to heaven is through Love. Whatever gets to love more is what you need to get to. And if heaven is just a better state of living this life, then what's wrong with that? Love one another, forgive, be happy today, this life can be your heaven.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Mary

      Right. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within you. He didn't say it was within a building or a book.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  14. BillDee

    To the brainwashed, conditioned idiot that penned this article....
    ...exactly a danger to who/whom? ... Brainwashed idiots?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  15. LynneSki

    I consider myself as spiritual but not religious. My experience with organized religion included misogynistic beliefs that women are somehow less connected to God therefor they cannot be priests/ministers, money is a major factor – give to my favorite sister church and if you don't give enough you are bad bad bad people!!!, pay the church and we will pray for you, and my personal favorite – no matter what we do women are just in general bad because of Eve and the original sin, so therefor men have the right to determine what women should/can do.

    I don't think I'm better than someone that goes to church regularly. If they found something that works for them, good for them. I wont say I will never go to church, because I don't know what will happen. So far I haven't found one that is a good spiritual/faith based fit for me.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  16. alywa

    What a truly, utterly, entirely worthless article. Seriously, CNN... there is nothing but "nah nah nah you don't believe in the same things I do but still claim to believe in God" here. But, hey, you got clicks and pageviews, so that's all that matters, right?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  17. Peter

    One of the many things that the spiritual-but-not-religious are trying to escape, is the black and white view of the world that the religious-but-not-spiritual people like the author use.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  18. mike2lane

    This author is at best uninformed. If you happen to read this before reading this article, save yourself 5 minutes of uneducated drivel and watch a Honey Boo Boo clip instead.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  19. eymardcm

    Religion is a sham and has nothing to do with God, which is everything in the universe in its purest form. In reality, religion pushes more people away from God than closer. I'll go as far as saying religion is the anti-Christ.

    October 1, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • froodley

      It's more that everyone is a little christ and a little antichrist, a little hero and a little mistaken villainous fool. Hey, if that's the antichrist, what's the second coming... well, they wrote down everything the guy said, so it's like he's been here the whole time, right?

      October 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  20. SBeebop

    CNN, when are those reality tv shows happening? Wil lyou have cream pi fights and women in bikinis reporting the news? This is GARBAGE

    October 1, 2012 at 10:51 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.