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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. mmmgreenleaf

    What an idiotic article. Be religious! Give money to the church (all churches are just businesses...)...no!

    You go worship your dead zombie leader jebus, and leave me out of it. Fairy tales are for kids.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • stefsays

      your a crackhead...

      October 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • stefsays

      my reply was inregards to the article not you greenleaf. oops...

      October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  2. Getjuliet

    "All Black people eat watermellon and carry Tech-9's." That's the kind of stereotyping we see here in the profile of "spiritual people" carved in this article. A "strawman" argument is set up to tear people down for beliefs that are completely misrepresented in the first place. Religious bigotry is alive and well in America. Apparently so is irresponsible journalism. i just didnt expect to see it published in mainstream press. Is nothing sacred?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  3. Louise

    Religion is the greatest form of slavery this planet has ever known!!!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  4. Zeppelin

    Religion is a cop out in the face of accepting death and the end of your conscious existence.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  5. waitasec

    religion is, after all, just an opinion...

    October 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  6. MissyW

    I am spiritual but not religious after being born into the catholic faith. Enough said.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  7. nojinx

    "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."

    That is demonstrably false. The printing press is what made reading a reality for the masses.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      The printing press was invented to mass produce books, especially the Bible. Before the printing press, scribes had to copy books page by page, a very time consuming and expensive process.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • nojinx

      Exactly, Bill. Before the press, reading was for the elite class and the clergy.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And the clergy were opposed to allowing the general populace having access to the bible.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Johnny

      And the first book printed with movable metal type was...?

      The Gutenberg Bible.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  8. Anne

    Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  9. Zeus Christ

    organized religion requires a lot of money.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  10. Sergey

    I find it disappointing that the author, while doing a fine job of pointing out the shortcomings and weaknesses of post modernism, offers as an alternative the flawed and rightfully declining faith-without-evidence world of organized religion. A better alternative is scientific skepticism and humanism with a moral founding based in human solidarity and a systematic way to distinguish truth from fiction. 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is indeed a cop-out. But it is a step in the right direction. Instead of going back to the world of certainty without evidence the right step is forward into the new enlightenment.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • derp

      I was going to offer up some witty intellectual retort to this writers stupid opinion.

      However, you pretty much nailed it.

      Thanks!!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Huebert

      What Sergey said.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Jeff

    Your post seems like a cop-out itself. Is it fair to be critical of those who take a little from here and there? – when one can argue that the evolution of the three major western religions is just that. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all take from the Old Testament and all have Jesus as at least a prophet. Each takes what they want from that heritage and worships in their own way. Not unlike the "spirituals" who take from both Eastern and Western Philosophy. In general I'd agree with the observation that this is a movement against organizations not religions. Its a travesty for example that there are not Bishops and Cardinals in prison over what happened in the Catholic Church – it is no wonder there is a movement away from organization. I will cede the point that the lack of organized religion poses a challenge for child raising. Its difficult to find a structured way to provide children direction. Would be much easier to "cop-out" and lean on a hypocritical organization to spew dogma at my kids. But I choose not to.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  12. Zeus Christ

    spirits are not real. neither are ghosts, fairies, and gods.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Spirituality doesn't necessarily mean believing in "spirits" the way you're thinking of.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Tom in ATL

      When you breathe your last breath, I'm guessing you'll try to change your mind on that statement. Unfortunately for you (and millions of others), it will be too late. There's still time to meet the Holy Spirit. Spend a little time reading your Bible and see how He transforms your life. Start with the book of John. GOD is much bigger than you think.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Tom, some would argue with what you just said and say "God is much bigger than YOU and the men who wrote your "bible" think".

      October 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  13. TheSchmaltz

    It's far less dangerous than being religious without being spiritual.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  14. Chuck

    Spirituality is realizing the God within, which in turn makes the human reflect on the goodness within oneself. The moment you realize this, you grasp the essence of the Golden Rule, and hence become a better human, and as a result achieve what every religion aims for. I fail to understand Alan's stance on this. Following a religious dogma without grasping the essence of spirituality is the core cause for the turmoil we have witnessed in our history, and are witnessing today. Personally, the official stance of any religious organization that you will not reach heaven if you dont believe in a specific God is an anathema to spirituality. More people have been killed in the name of religion than any other issue. So Alan, please show me one instance where a person was killed in the name of spirituality.

    If being solely spiritual (and not religious) makes me closer to being an atheist, then so be it.

    Atleast, I will not kill in the name of what I believe in, and focus on the goodness (and God) within myself and others.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Actually there are all types of spirituality. What you think is spirituality might not be for someone else who practices spirituality.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Tom in ATL

      "grasp the essence of the Golden Rule"? "become a better human"? that sounds great for our society at large. But what about your eternal destiny? your 'spirituality' does nothing. There is a clear answer. Read your Bible and let GOD transform your life. Start with the book of John and see your life change for eternity.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  15. freedom4all

    The person who wrote this is a sheep and a coward. I know many religious people that don't even understand what it means to be spiritual. It takes courage to seek the truth in life. Who is this guy? What a nit wit.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      He's just another biased prejudiced religious fanatic; they're a dime a dozen, churned out by churches that seek to control every move you make and want as much of your money as they can get their grubby filthy hands on.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Tom in ATL

      @ DeeCee1000.... how profound. NOT. How did you come to hate GOD so much? Spend a few minutes investigating for yourself. Read your Bible and let GOD transform your life for the better. There's no magic to it.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  16. emma

    "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."

    Exactly the point! That is what individuals DON'T want, they don't want a rigid set of doctrine or beliefs; they want to feel connected to others and themselves and the world through respect and compassion, not flog an ideology that tells them what to believe and how to act and on what basis to judge and often condemn others.

    If I wanted to be a sheep or a lemming, I'll join Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

    No thanks.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Madtown

      Right emma. And to take it a step further, the principles that religions adhere to are man-made anyway! No set of man-made principles(religion) is any better/worse than any other.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  17. K|M

    All significant research on your so-called "me" generation of self-obsessed individuals shows that it is one of the most selfless and least selfish generations mankind has ever seen. Just because you personally need and find value in religious structure doesn't mean others do. Believe it or not, there is a huge mass of people that will do what is right and seek enlightenment without having to be told to or instructed on how to go about that. You should be careful about making public statements and attacking a group of people that you clearly have no understanding of. All your are showing the world is you are ignorant, not enlightened.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  18. scanboy

    According to the faith in which I was raised (but have since rejected) Mr. Allen's involvement in establishing bars and clubs that serve alcohol and others is unambiguously sinful of worst kind - encouraging others to sin.

    When you are ready to ask the most fundamental "who is the I of my awareness?" read The Tree of Knowledge.

    Embodied consciousness is the starting point. Entheology allows for spirituality without duality.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  19. HamsterDancer

    CNN

    BY THE HUGE AMOUNT OF COMMENTS HERE I FEEL YOU ARE PRETTY MUCH OBLIGATED TO HAVE AN ESSAY WITH THE OPPOSING POINT OF VIEW BY A REPUTABLE COLUMNIST.

    Sorry, only writing this in capitals so the editorial staff will notice it.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  20. jamessavik

    The danger as I see it is that people are thinking for themselves and not letting some priest or parson do their thinking for them.

    If this were to persist, we would find little use those that try to think for us.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Well it should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church used to punish people for questioning the things they taught. They still hate people who question their authority btw.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Silly1

      What's even weirder is that parents used to punish children for questioning what they were told. Nowadays it is much easier since everyone is always right and good no matter what. Yeah Tommy just gutted the neighbors cat, but he is just exploring his spirituality....

      October 1, 2012 at 11:59 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.