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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. Kev

    Why would we need 'normal religions' to answer the hard questions as Alan Miller claims? Established religions can't even answer the easiest questions, like: How old is the Earth, How did Noah get all those animals on that boat? Etc, etc. What a horrible article written by a small mind.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  2. Dyslexic doG

    enjoy it while it lasts Christians. Another 10 or 20 generations and the human race will look on your God and Jesus the same way as we look on Zeus and Thor and Ra (and santa claus and the tooth fairy) today. What a giggle!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  3. Allen

    I agree with the substance of the article, but not the tone. I am a hospital chaplain( not ordained by any religion) and there are problems with an open spirituality when the chips are down. There is no way to handle illness or death. No grieving rituals or prayers to pull people together. This is what makes a spirituality with sacrifice so important. BUT, I have found most "spiritual but not religious" people open to me and curious about who I am and willing to engage with me about religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    The bible is like a "Nigerian Email" from the bronze-age.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Allen

      Oh my gosh! You're so brilliant! How I do envy your snarky atheism! I only wish I could be so flippant!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Richard Marks

      Perfect! The subject is really not worth anything more than flippancy.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  5. I can prove evolution

    I guess Buddha was just wasting his time according to this guy. Organized religion hinders imagination and strives to keep their sheep in line and following the rules. Who's rules? Man's rules !!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  6. redlace

    You've really identified a problem here, but it's not what you think it is. The question is not "why are they going to non-tradition spiritualism?", but rather, the question is "why are they dedicated to staying spiritual at all?" It would seem obvious that the movement away from organized religions is a function of the realization that the organized religions do not hold the truth that so many people desperately seek. As to why they are pursuing alternative forms of spirituality, it is likely because of societal pressure to conform to some sort of spirituality, as society is much more accepting of any type of spirituality – especially if the alternative is no spirituality. The truth is, faith and spirituality have no place in rational society, though you'll never be able to convince faithers of that. To paraphrase: Humanity needs faith like a fish needs a bicycle. But it's not a matter of need when it comes to faith, it's a matter of want. And we all know how "want" works – wish in one hand, poop in the other, and see which fills up faster.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  7. sncherry

    sad that this pitiful, poorly written and absurd article made it past the first of CNN's editors, much less to publication.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  8. elephantix

    "Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking.... 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."

    That is the problem with moral relativism.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  9. Anonymoose

    I think CNN really needs to pick these editorials a bit better. The comment section is more profound than this Christian pushing zealot. I find it comical that since I don't submit to a particular religion I cannot determine right from wrong? I'm 30 yo with an awesome wife, 3 to daughter and one on the way and religion plays no role in our lives. I will teach my kids the vales of honor and virtue, right and wrong. Any "sane" person can do this without a bible. I refuse I submit to religion based on many facs but my recent favorite is one that proposes the logic that evil televangelist who spread hatred and fear have a place in heaven yet gays who can be the nicest folk in the world haven't... Whatever...Praise Xenu!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  10. tomnikoly

    This guy's out to lunch.

    '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."

    Is this a cleverly disguised "no moral compass" argument? Nonsense. The concept of good and evil is intrinsic to human kind. I't needn't be taught and/or learned by belief in a formal religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  11. Dragonfly

    I was shocked to see the headlines of this article on the front page. This is one persons opinion and yet it made the front page. As a spiritual person I have dove into self discovery and did a lot of soul searching. I am far happier than when I was going to church. I find many religious people are some of the most hateful people and I steer clear of them. I much prefer being around spiritual loving people.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Billy

      "Shocking"?? It is easy for you to accept and have a field day with the constant criticism that organized religions get, yet when the tables are turned you are "shocked"? Don't dish it out if you aren't able to take it yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Satyam Sinha

      Well said. I agree with you. Thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Satyam Sinha

      My thanks are to Dragonfly, just want to be clear.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  12. Jim

    The picture of the half naked hippy who is "meditating" at the beach is an unfair representation of agnostics/refusers of organized religions. Most people have a problem with all of the religions, but theirs. What is so unbelievable that people should just have a problem with all religions?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • mm

      Well said. The author mentions that more spiritual persons, rather than religious, are "peddling" their alternative method of faith. Looks to me that the author is "peddling" an 'us vs. them' type of religion that is about as far away from spirituality as somebody could get.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  13. Dan Green

    Thia article takes the stance that it is a "cop out" to not follow a traditional, established religion, but he's leaving out the concept of "common sense". A lot of people reject traditional faiths because while the basic tenants of love, acceptance, charity, etc are sound, the "rules" for compliance, and the stories of ancient civilizations and miracles are silly, and people know it. It's clear to many that organized religion is solely an invention of mankind. I'm never going to believe the majority of silly fairy tales in the Bible, or believe in Hell, or that Jesus was born from a virgin, or that Moses parted the Red Sea, and so on. My brain just rejects those things. However, I don't reject the possibility of a higher being of some kind, but I just don't know what this being is like, so why is it a copout to say that I believe there's something responsible for the making of our universe, and I am grateful for my life and want to try and help people, but I don't believe in organized religion. I don't mean to belittle people that have these beliefs, but I just can't believe in these stories myself.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • TonyB

      Dan, you reject the ideas of the Christian religion, but still believe in a higher being? Why? If there is a higher being, why is it impossible to believe He may have done miracles? Have you actually read the New Testament? They are eyewitness accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus. Dozens of people who followed him were compelled to write down his story for a reason, are every single one of them fabricating his works? Perhaps you find the message of Jesus incovenient.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  14. Douglas

    From the intro... "spiritual but not religious is a cop-out and avoids dealing with important questions". Please. The whole "God did it and that's all the explantation I need" bit is really the ultimate cop-out and avoidance of questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • TonyB

      That is a fallacy that is perpetuated by those who don't like organized religion. If you actually study the religion you would find that most religions explore the reasoning behind why God may have done the things he has done. Only few religions do not invite questions, as asking questions is central to finding truth. No religion should be afraid of truth, because God himself is truth and truth cannot contradict itself.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  15. Matt 2

    This article IS dumb. As humanity progresses forward we are slowly accepting the fact that there is no such thing as god.

    I'm sorry, It's the truth, deal with it.

    The Spiritual-but-not-Religious "movement" is a stepping stone to accepting this reality. The faults of organized religion (corruption, child abuse, bigotry, terrorism, whatever..) are simply accelerating this process of acceptance. People are simply still uncomfortable saying that they do not believe in god, because if there is no god then all of our grandmothers are WRONG.

    Eventually (in a century or two), humanity will view the notion of God like we view the previously held belief that the world was flat. It will be thought of as a humorous consequence to our ignorance. And this article will sound even stupider.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Douglas

      @Matt... there seem to be three reasons people embrace religion. They were either brainwashed by religious parents, want to be part of The Establishment so bad they can taste it, or are fundamentally simple-minded. You can't fix this stuff.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Satyam

      @Matt2. You have said it so well. And liked the little humor you have added in your writing. Thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • TonyB

      How arrogant you are! You think something that has been around for thousands of years is going to go away in just a few hundred? Humans are hard-wired by nature to believe that there is something larger than themselves. Religion in some form will always exist, and the message of religion gives people hope. Have you even read the eyewitness accounts of the works of Jesus? Have you contemplated the message he proclaimed? Or do you just reject it because it contradicts with your own personal behaviors?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  16. sorryIreadthis

    I don't think Jesus would write such a negative, scathing letter to his children. I believe Al should spend some more time reading the good book and leave the judging to his God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  17. DAJ

    Obviously the author has no idea what Spirtual But Not Religious is about. It has nothing to do with being a "me", "self-obsessed" generation that doesn't want to follow "rules or doctrines." And it surely has nothing to do with yoga, Zen, and other spiritual-based practices, although they are options for people to explore. The bottom line is that people want a deeper relationship with God, and religion, too often, gets in the way of finding that relationship. From criminal activities, to churches involvement in politics, to mangling/misunderstanding/wrongly-interpreting the scripture, churches have too many agendas that have nothing to do with God and are sending people on the wrong path.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  18. Poclevious

    Fail !!! This guy totally fails to make his point.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  19. Patrick

    Churches are good business. How can a church harbor millions of tax free dollars while people go hungry and die of starvation? Seems to me that any church that harbors money while people suffer is a church that is nothing to do with God. But it is good business.. : )

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  20. Mark Indiana

    If you have witnessed "magic" you are a religious person. I have not seen "magic". I was raised Christian and I do beieve there is something out there, but consider myself spiritual. The poor GOP loose many of it's old sheep every day. Younger people are more free thinking and breaking away from the concept of magic and leaning more towards science.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 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.