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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 (9,993 Responses)
  1. DM Kumar

    The spiritual-not-religious camp takes the position of embarking on a journey of self discovery. J Krishnamurti said this so well: "Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. If you would attain to the mountain-top you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices."

    I rest my case.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • ConcernedC

      Well said, Kumar, could not agree with you any more. Like the Buddha said: “A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving and fearless then he in his individual pursuit of truth called wise. Many people think excitement is happiness.... But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”

      October 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  2. ALan Miller is a

    TTTTTTTRRRRROOOOLLLLL IN THE DUNGEON!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Bob Conway

      Ha! Yes. Can easily see Professor Quirrell fainting right after saying that.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  3. Allah

    Alan Miller has no clue. He expects 'spiritual' people to fit into a box he creates... it doesn't work that way. Alan comes from a mindset steeped in dogma, spirituality transcends those limitations. Organized religion is a pox on humanity.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • RockoT

      What is the point of you coming onto cnn.com and typing in that statement?

      You don't recognize that your logic refutes itself? You obviously intended for your statement to be held in some regard – not dismissed as drivel.

      Since you cannot help anyone on their journey – why did you try? SInce this attack on organized religion is only your opinion gleened through self discovery, and valid for nobody else – why bother pretending otherwise?

      Obviously you bother because you are no different from organized religion in seeking to impose your vision on others.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Derp

      Rocko...why are you bothering commenting? Do you understand that in your comment you made all of us question why you are on CNN, on this board, commenting? Do you have something to prove? Maybe it is your rhetoric that you hold in high regard that you need to flash everyone here with? Maybe it is your belief that you are somehow "above it all" and therefore able to give what you think is an elevated opinion. You look ridiculous. Go away

      October 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  4. This article is complete nonsen...

    IF I were the King of the FOOOOORRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRESSSST

    October 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  5. Jordan

    The author is way to narrow-minded to be writing an article like this. Completely prejudice....

    October 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Allah

      agreed.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Noooooo. . .a harcore religious person prejudiced? LOL. But seriously, if people like him would take the courage and time to step away from it for a while their minds, hearts and eyes would open up and the world and humanity would really be much better off. What a shame. But on the brighter side, reading cra* like this author's only convinces me more that religions are totally whacked.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  6. SurelyUjest

    The author of this article does little to move away from the critism we have for he and others like him. He is joined at the hip to doctrine and the old way of looking at things. He wants to measure what people believe by their devotion to books written before man could fly let alone the invention of penicillian and other healing drugs. We who are "spritiual but not religious" are contesting exactly his thinking. We are questioning all faiths and all books in a search for a greater truth of acceptance and tolerance rather than ridgitiy, that he regardless of his work wriggling cannot escape. To add that the "KJB" was responsible for literacy and research is totally ignoring the fact that the church had the money and the inclination to educate and indoctrinate the masses for MORE power and MORE money. This way they were able to weild power next to kings and parliments equally. Ignoring the fact that all the Koran, Bible, Tora and other doctrines (not necessarily Buddism) seem to want to group people in to groups and control there thinking and questions. We are escapeing your milleninnia old grasp of the human societal condition and are thinking ( using our god given free will if you will) to learn question and grow. Then you mock and make fun of people wanting to feel good and belong a greater community. The intimidation is over only old cats like you are trying to hold us back.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  7. Meh

    assume this....d0uchebag

    October 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  8. Robin

    Just because you can not decide exactly how you feel does not make you a bad person. Personal crisis in life, can challenge what you once thought to be the way you felt. That being said it is obvious that this has happened to me. I guess I am a so called fence-sitter.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  9. Humanity's Sanity, Please

    This article, besides being poorly written, is told by someone who clearly does not prescribe to the aforementioned "spiritual but not religious movement." I am most pleased that this special individual, Alan Miller, is 'Special to CNN', indicating that CNN's religion blogs can (and rightly should) pass on all future submissions of his.
    CNN please, if you are in such desperate need of bloggers, religion or otherwise, contact me and I'd be happy to oblige with submissions. I will not be playa hatin' as Mr. Miller has so eloquently done.
    And someone please go to this "Battle of Ideas" in London, where it appears Mr. Miller will be speaking, and happily and distastefully as possible shoot down any garbage he tries to spread; it certainly seems he's ill-equipped to discuss such topics as religion, spirituality, etc.

    Thank you,
    -Humanity's Sanity, Please

    October 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  10. Rob

    This guy is clueless to say "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." suggests that he knows every belief of someone who is “spiritual but not religious”. I put myself in the “spiritual but not religious” camp and this guy doesn't know my beliefs or set of principles. Think for yourselves, and you will likely see how great it is not to be a clone.

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

      I wish my words would of come out as well as yours! Thank you!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • morgancarlson

      The clone mentality definitely needs to go. We might have fewer wars if only one person gets worked up about an offense to their beliefs while the rest stop and think about what it means. Currently we have a borderline offense rippling through entire religious nations and creating chaos. Who can really sit back and comment "that's the better scenario".

      October 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • RockoT

      Rob is the judge of who has valuable things to say, and who is clueless.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  11. mk

    Spirituality and religion are in no way similar. Here's one definition of spirituality, but generally they all say some version of this: Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”
    Spirituality encourages an open mind; a personal quest. Religion dictates exactly how and what to think and actually forbids any independent thought or questioning, any variation from what is dictated. It's all spelled out, just accept it and shut up.
    I'm spiritual therefore I could never accept religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  12. Steven

    The author assumes a lot and ascribes generalities to a group of individuals that, by his own admission, are an unorganized and unaffiliated bunch of people. You can't in one breath identify the spiritual crowd as separate individuals rejecting one belief or set of beliefs, and then in the next claim they share the same ideas about sin and only want to "experience nice things."

    I would be more inclined to give credence to a theory that many, if not most people that identify as "spiritual" are people who would otherwise be atheist but for their inability to let go of the basic fear that compels many to maintain a supernatural belief structure.

    Further, the criticism of spiritualists as picking and choosing from an a la carte selection of beliefs falls flat for one simple reason. That's the point. Organized religions do not work for the spiritualist the same way that Republicans and Democrats dont work for Independents. I wouldn't be surprised to find that there is a statistically significant correlation between those two groups either.

    After all, one must go with what makes sense.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Christine

      I am actually in this Spiritual category and can tell you, I am far from athiest. I do believe in God and speak to him on a regular basis. I do seek to find peace and serenity in my life and the way I achieve this is through love and service to God and all of his creations. I do this because I choose to, not out of any fear of retribution and a burning life hereafter. I am not perfect and never will be but God knows that and loves me anyway.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Steven

      Christine,

      Your position is perfectly legitimate, and I hope I didn't imply otherwise. I object with the author's apparent pigeonholing of a group of people that is by definition differentiated on an individual level. Arguing that most spiritualists are transitional atheists isn't a fair argument either (as you pointed out), but at least it doesn't generalize the entire group.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  13. One one

    As others have commented, spiritualism may be a transition step away from traditional religion to atheism.

    Of course there are other places a person could end up besides atheism. But unless a person believes in magic or other supernatural phenomenon, atheism is their most likely destination.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  14. On the Fence

    Clearly Alan Miller has this whole thing figured out. When you don't know the answer to a question, you need to fill in the blanks with something, no matter how illogical it may be. After you have cleared that hurdle, attach yourself to whatever organization most clearly relates to that particular solution. This makes perfect sense to me, where can I send my check to?

    P.S.
    Searching for your own answers could not be farther away from dangerous. If you are lucky, you will see well beyond the tip of your own nose.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  15. morgancarlson

    I had a dream once where god came to me and we talked for a long time about the direction of the world. At the end, he said that there was only one way to make things better here. "You must destroy religion. It is corrupting the world and blinding the people that live here," Note that religion does not equal belief. Religion is all about control while spirituality is completely different. It just helps the timid minds out there to know that millions of others have the exact same thought process. That's why it needs to go.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  16. Flip

    Organized religion was always there to "corral the cattle" and send them off in a direction where their thoughts and actions could be controlled by the leaders of the church.How is Jesus going to "mobilize the troops" when everybody is going every whichadamnway?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • butterraisins

      This issue is pure and simple. The view espoused by the author is idiotic. Ultimately, every individual has to decide for themselves. Deciding to forgo dogma decided on by others is as valid a path, or perhaps more so, than letting others think for you. Thinking things through for yourself does not mean that your beliefs are invalid.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  17. Mark

    The author might want to read Matthew 6 5-6, in which those who pray in public are called hypocrites...I attended "religious" schools from K-12 and for some time in college...In my opinion, religions are big business and mostly fraud...and we support them because they are tax-exempt. It's about time they went away.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  18. Barbara M

    I am Native American, sorry but the millions of my people murdered by Christians keep me from being interested in the "religion". What I have observed over the years is very simple religion and belief are two separate things. Religion is like your clothes, wear the right thing you're okay, it's easy. Belief is like your blood, you need it to be truly alive. There are people that have both, but many stop at religion, it's easy why bother with the hard questions?
    I see fewer and fewer people that want to worship Spirit (or God if you prefer) they want to play God. (see Westboro Baptist haters for instance). I am tired of the politicians that keep trying to turn this country into a theocracy. I am tired of people who assume they're better humans because they walk into a man made building certain days a week. Some of those people are wonderful humans. Many of them are full of themselves, and empty of compassion.
    Spirit is NOT found in a man made building, in a book or a symbol, but in lives in your heart. It is as infinite as the universe and as far from the pitiful, limited comprehension of humans as a computer is from a living being.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • EPUnum

      Well said. FYI Oren Lyons is the faith keeper for the Iroquois Confederacy and one of my morality heroes. The age old philosophy he peddles is gaining ground again, I think. He's on the net and is worth the ear.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Candlewycke

      Barbara, you seem awfully eager to paint Christians as the bad guys against your people. In actual point of fact some of the greatest friends to Native peoples in America were Christian missionaries. In the early days of our country, before the revolution Native people used White colonists to further their own territorial ambitions. Long before Whites became a threat Natives were begging for guns and assistance in fighting their own enemies. Just one case in point, one among thousands is Adrien Van Der Donck, of New Amsterdam who befriended the Natives, learned their language, lived amongst them, advocated on their behalf and for this he was thanked by being bludgeoned in his own home by a Native American.

      I wont claim that white men did nothing bad but the reality is that we did nothing more than what the Natives would have done had they had the numbers to do it. The Cherokee lived in North Carolin and Georgia because the Iroquois drove them off their ancestral land. Tribes made war against one another all across America for everything from territory disputes to crimes committed and even generational grudges. The word Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning Ancient Enemy which is a pretty clear indicator that the Navajo believed them not to be the good guys. The reality is almost never so simple as us against them and by trying to convince yourself that it is you only do a disservice to your own ancestors who were a wonderful mix of human experience, good bad and always interesting.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Chris

      Awesome! Could not have said it better.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  19. ROn Furrgotta

    FASCIST!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  20. Brickell Princess

    That's because religion is wrong and has been wrong for ages and it will never be right for religion brings the darkness.

    God knows no church other than the body temple. God knows no religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:22 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.