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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. elr

    I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Grew up and confirmed Methodist, and the amount of hypocrisy I witnessed as a young person changed my view of religion. It may be true that you have to stand for something or you will fall for anything, so I can't stand by and watch the hypocrisy, not of religion, but of the people who are religious. My god and my views don't have to apply to everyone and everything, god gave each one of us a conscience and that is my guide.

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

    someone I know thinks she is tied to the universe and that no matter what, the universe will provide. she is vehemently anti organized religion and ridicules it. I just stand back and watch. the universe does NOT provide for her. yet she says it s because she was around negative types who made her attract negativity from the universe. to each his own, but wow. she has no concept of how judgmental and mean she is to her family and others about this. interesting.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  3. Soul Bear

    "THE MESSAGE"... has been sent to you...I have important information about your message. It's a message of peace, love and spirituality. Not about money, cults, website etc. During these strange and challenging times we're all seeking and stalking with the intent to find our dreams...and I'm here to provide you with guidance about your message to help your dreams come true... With all the negative talk and thoughts we've all seen change...the world is changing and leaving behind what we use to live. It's unnerving for all of us to go through this but have faith... >>>YOU ALL HAVE BEEN SENT A MESSAGE<<< It's unsettled you and that's how you feel. Some of you have noticed your message...Some have received your message...few have understood the message...even fewer have acted on your message. Hopefully you'll take the time to open your mind to this experience to move towards a more peaceful place in your heart. ...THE CIRCLE IS ENDING SOON...BUT A NEW CIRCLE WILL BE CREATED!!! and our lives and descendants will be better...it's going to be ok!!! I hope you seek your message and find a way to act on it! WADO!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  4. Just-A-Guy

    I would rather spend an afternoon with a free-thinking, spiritual-but-not-religious, questioning tradition and seeking the truth individual than spend a moment with a traditionalist whose every thought is pre-determined by a lifetime of religious brainwashing. But that is just me. Oh and by the way, this story is just a load of hog-poop.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Glenn

      I totally agree.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Jennifer Maddrell

      yeppers ... the Alan Miller's of the world make me proud of my personal free will choice to be "spiritual but not religious"

      October 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  5. ryan

    Surely you jest... I'm a recovering Catholic and when I tapped into my spiritual side I do so missing the church but after two drunken priests, one child molester and a priest that simply stopped showing up to mass, I left. There is a side of me that needs the spiritual realm but its not fulfilled by a church any more– certainly not my the apathy and atrophy of the Catholic Church. sorry, but your article is way off. If we were living in Martin Luther's time, this article would be about "saying you're a protestant" is a cop-out.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  6. Corey

    Taking word from 1 book as complete fact is the REAL cop out. Your one-and-done quick solution to your need to validate your own existence. Lazy. Copped, the heck, out.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  7. Steve

    The way I see it, this "spritual but not religious" is called "Godianity". What's wrong with just having a strong relationship with God, that's what Jesus had, he didn't seem to have a religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • ryan

      Would it be inappropriate to say, "Amen", at this point? lol

      October 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Raj Alexander

      Jesus also said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me, just in case you spiritual types missed that.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Jake

      I'm pretty sure Jesus was a jew.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  8. New Orleans Oracle

    This article is very bias and punitive, which is in large part why people are seeking greater spirituality. The question is why is the world in chaos with all of the religion that exits? My take is that we eat dead animals (the forbidden food), we fail to promote the real powers (Mind, body & soul), while the pseudo powers (Military, political, economic, social, religious etc.) control, occupy & manipulate our lives. It is time for the world to come to order ... it is time for death and illness to be eraticated. But of course many will say this is immpossible, yet they will also say that they believe in GOD, within who all things are possible. Let's at least find one day that the whole world prays and asks God to manifest, heal, bless and bring us peace.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Peace on earth. The earth is corrupt. The heart of man is corrupt. Peace on earth, when Jesus comes again.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "Peace on earth. The earth is corrupt. The heart of man is corrupt."

      Then will you finally listen to your own statement and realize that the bible is corrupt as well? Considering MEN wrote and edited it?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Saved

      Oh yeah, men who were directed by the Holy Spirit, but you wouldn't understand that.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  9. kenkajin

    Why is this any different from accepting a religion? Every religion obscures the true nature of the universe. There are no supernatural powers that control the world or dictate morality. The universe is governed by an amazing system of scientific laws, and humanity is driven by our animal instincts together with our higher mental and social functional areas that have allowed us to survive as a species.

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

      +1

      October 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      Please prove your statement. My guess is you cannot.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Xdoc

      Sure you can prove that physics laws govern our universe. Try stopping a moving train by yourself. There you'll learn friction, motion and force all in one lesson :).

      October 1, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  10. Sam

    I checked out the NY Salon page....you are a crook and nutcase Alan Miller.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • John the Guy

      @Sam
      Aren't they all, preachers and prophets for profit, HALLELUJAH!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  11. Cobra6

    In summary, this article says that society would be a better place if everyone just did as they were told, stop trying to be "happy" (sissies!), and stoke their inner anguish as some sort of motivating drive. What a vile and intellectually bankrupt philosophy! According to Alan Miller, there seem to be three types of people: organized religionists whose deep quest for spiritual fulfillment is satisfied by mindlessly memorizing their creed's dogma and putting all doubts aside; athiests who completely reject any spiritual aspect to life whatsoever; and a gaggle of wishy-washy slackers who have copped out by not defining themselves by either of these rigid and self-certain camps. You sir, have alot in common with some bearded men in Central and Southwest Asia who like to stone people.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  12. Shakeart

    The whole premise of this "opinion" is why more and more people are "spiritual but not religious". In the past the masses were given no choice in what they could believe. They had to take the a cookie-cutter one size fits all approach that has been designed to socially engineer their lives, mainly to benefit an elite group of people in power. Many people like aspects of different religions that ring true for them....how is that presumed to be automatically "not knowing and materialistic". It seems the author has not talked to many people who classify themselves under this tag line because if he had he might understand have a richer understanding of his fellow humans. Writing people off for not believing exactly what you believe is exactly the problem! Namaste

    October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Oakspar

      If you only believe whatever it is that you feel like believeing, whatever "feels right" – then your beliefs no longer have the ability to change your behavior – and changing behavior is a good thing for your self and society when those changes are positive.

      Ex. A serial killer feels spiritually heightened every time he kills. Is his sprituality valid? If so, go hop into his panel van.

      That is an extream case, but when it comes to morality – every criminal is merely doing what feels right to them in that moment. It takes strong external beliefs to change the way we feel – otherwise we simply indulge our every selfish and shortsighted goal.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  13. Challenge

    The search to finding God doesn't end when you find your church since God never came from any particular church. It's a life long search that can take many paths as you grow. Good luck in your search!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  14. Sniffit

    God doesn't put babies in people, penises do. Discuss.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  15. SeaTigr

    Why is my choice limited to believing in G*d and Scripture, or believing in science and human reason?

    Why can't I believe in both? To me, the illogical choice is to believe that G*d exists and that He did not create a set of rules (i.e. scientific principles) to govern how the universe operates.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      If there is a god, he gave me this fine mind with which to examine the world around me. He laid out that world in ways that observation and experiment show are consistant. He left hints as to how it all works, and gave me the tools to understand his clues. It is hard to believe that he would want me to ignore all that, in favor of an old book, full of contradictions, which can not be tested in any way, and which says things we now see to be entirely against the ethics we understand so clearly. I do not own my wife, nor my neighbor, and I can beat neither of them. It is also hard to believe that he would want me to ignore the clues that he has left as to his existence, which only occasionally fits into that big book some people insist defines him.

      I can believe in the divine, without sharing your belief in your scripture. Telling me that I must, does nothing to convince me, even if you call me names.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Oakspar

      His point was not to say that you must choose Christianity or Empirical Humanism – rather that people should choose to believe in something: either a traditional religion that puts upon you a set of expectations to meet or a rejection of divinity that gives you a form of Atheism/Agnosticism that holds to reason as a higher truth.

      In other words, a theist or non-theist worldview that puts a stand outside of your own feelings to compel your actions at a level higher than instinct.

      It is not a right and wrong choice he is presenting, rather an appeal to choose one side or the other, rather than waddling arround in one's own filth in the middle. He isn't critizing religion, rationalist, or anyone else who has a solid worldview.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • starkey

      @Rbnlegnd101

      I couldn't agree with you more. :)

      October 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  16. someguy

    All religion and "spirtuality" are ridiculous myth-gone-wild. Staring up a the stars, or walking in the woods at night, or loving another person, are not "spirtual" things. They're just awesome parts of living. Enjoy "just this" and stop trying to give credit to some mythical beast in the sky.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  17. Huebert

    Spiritual but religious is not a cop-out, It is an awareness of the fact that any inst.itution that claims to have all of the answers is full of cr@p.

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

      Exactly my feeling.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  18. snowboarder

    the courage to question religion is a virtue.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  19. mouse

    why the frell is there even a blog for this kind of garbage, this is not news its smoke&mirrors

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

    Good article, well written. Get off the fence and tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ and what he has done to save mankind.

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

      Amen. Jesus died for you.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " Get off the fence and tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ and what he has done to save mankind."

      And what has he done exactly?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • WASP

      @rick: what did this "jesus" do to save humans? i look at the world and seeing nothing that was made better by some demi-god "dieing" and coming back again. it looks like the same hungry war-torn world it has always been.............so what did he change? other than the amount of money in your wallet after sunday service. LMFAO

      October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Huebert

      @Robert

      Jesus died almost 2000 years before I was born. What ever he did, I was certainly not on his mind at the time.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Huebert, he died for you too.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Huebert

      @Robert

      When you say that Jesus died, for me what do you mean exactly?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Huebert, It means a lot of things, most importantly that you can be reconciled to God.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Huebert

      @Robert

      So when you say that "Jesus died for me" you mean that I can be reconciled with god, correct? How does Jesus dying for me relate to me being able to reconcile with god?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Veritas

      Robert. Presuming for a second that there is a god – how did you determine that your god out of thousands is the one?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Huebert,
      First, you would have to agree with God that you are a sinner, for all have sinned. Next, you would have to believe that Jesus died to pay your sin debt, for the wages of sin is death. Then by faith you would have to accept his free gift of salvation and be born again.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Veritas,
      He told me so.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Huebert

      So Jesus dying paid my "sin debt" and that allows me to reconcile with god, correct? I have three questions.
      1) If all have sinned does that not indicate an unreasonable standard for sin?
      2) How does Jesus dying pay my debt?
      3) If Jesus paid my debt why do I have to believe he did? If someone paid off my mortgage it is paid off, regardless of weather or not I believe it happened.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Huebert,
      1. I suppose it seems unreasonable to you. Notice I said you would have to agree with God. God set the standard, not me, and not you. He says come let us reason together.
      2. God’s requirement again. In the old testament the blood of animals was required to cover up sin. The blood of Jesus takes it away forever.
      3. God again. Your faith, belief, or trust in him is how you are reborn spiritually.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Huebert

      Robert

      1) God specifically does not say "let us reason together". If god had asked my opinion I would have told him that using an unattainable standard is silly. It's like asking students to get twenty correct answers on a ten question test. No matter what they do or how talented they are, they are going to fail.

      2) Why is blood required to cover up or remove sin?

      3) If Jesus paid my debt why do I have to believe he did? If someone paid off my mortgage it is paid off, regardless of weather or not I believe it happened. (yes it is a reprint, that is because you didn't answer it the first time.)

      October 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      He was boiled for our sins. May you be touched by his noodly appendage.

      R'amen.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Huebert,
      1. God saying come let us reason together, Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
      2. God says the life is in the blood and the wages of sin is death. Blood =Life, Sin=Death, so Sin + BLOOD = LIFE
      3. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” You must believe to receive.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Huebert

      Robert

      I see communication is not possible between us, though thank you for discussing with me. I hope you have a nice day.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
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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.