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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. Jason Jones

    Religious / Spiritual - what a bunch of morons.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  2. MW Johnson

    Wow! Maybe the writer really needs to understand that these large churches have FAILED. They don't do what they say, they act horrible to people, there is no respect, they have become political...I will take my "feel good" beliefs any day over the hate, greed, and violence of the church.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  3. jtwrenn

    I was once a Christian but reject the religion once I began questioning it and seeing that many of the things I was taught through the religion did not match my own experiences. This was a decision based on evidence that came to me through my life experience and compared to the stories, and rules I was taught from the Bible, and by members of the church. It was not done on a whim, or because I did not want what religion offered. In fact the idea of a book that tells me how spirituality actually works, and that can tell me what god is sounds terribly comforting...but it was not true for me.

    Your article seems to relay the idea that being without religion is easier than being a believer. I think the opposite is true. Spiritual but not religious is a bit of a middle road, but the lack of structure is often far harder than having a simple path laid out.

    Unfortunately the whole article does not describe people who are actually spiritual anymore than those that decry religion are talking about good religious followers. Instead you complain about new age hippies more than people who find their own way and some peace in it. It is like listening to a right wing fanatic scream about all Muslims being terrorists, and hating religions other than their own because they met one person who was an idiot.

    Some religious people are idiots and zealots. Some spiritual people are lazy hippies and just want to avoid rules. Lets not throw the babies out with the bath water. Oh and one more thing...why does anyone care what someone else believes anyway? Focus on what they do when it affects others, and stay out of their beliefs...it has nothing to do with you.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  4. Peg

    Kudos to Mr. Miller. Of course this would not be a "popular" stance. The guilty taketh the truth to be hard. He is not angry, he is brave enough to explore and write about something that most people don't want to think about. Pride and the need to be feel good about ourselves no matter what we do, blinds us to truth. It is so much more comfortable not to put ourselves on the line by accepting every kind of behavior except "religiouosity".

    October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Peg,

      indeed so!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • ED

      What truth are you suggesting we're blinded to? I sincerely hope its not any kind of nonsensical false truth religion tries to sell you

      October 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Taketh the truth"?

      Do you speak like that to appear godly?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @ED,

      the issue is one of wearing "religiosity" like it is the latest fashion – when they won't publicly embrace either
      1. true faith or
      2. disbelief.

      It is a way of hiding in plain sight.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  5. dilbertr93010

    A belief in God and scripture is not mutually inclusive. God speaks in a voice designed for the listener. Scripture is a mix of the divine, divinely inspired, and the word of man. The key is to be open to the voice of God as He speaks to you. His voice is your guide, and allow it to divine what is His word vs. human in scripture. Religion/Church is merely a vehicle to be with God. For some it is appropriate, but for others it's necessary to walk alone at times. Let God decide. Listen and you will hear His voice.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • MrMumbles

      Exactly, who does he think he is to tell others how they should be connecting with God personally?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Paul

    Religion, in all forms, is a constantly evolving, transforming social-based process. The "absolutes" that are inherent today in the structure of all organized religions were quite different 800 years ago, where the world was the center of the universe, slaverly was totally acceptable, and overt racism was supported in the "name of God". I would submit that much of the scientific and social progress that has transpired since the Dark Ages was driven by those who didn't drink the Kool-Aid of organized religion, but who dared to strike-out on their own spiritual path, without necessarily "tossing out" the concept of a higher power in our lives. We are all free to look at the world from our own perspectives, and there are many more than two choices (organized dogma vs. "enlightenment") that a person can choose to follow. Only those who feel that today's version of their religion is the only way to achieve salvation feel the pressure to pidgeon-hole others into one category or another. Too bad they won't be around for the next thousand years, as it is certain that today's Christian (or any other religion) "absolutes" will be mostly unrecognizable to them in the year 2112. Society has developed not by forcing or encouraging people to fit into specific molds that fit predetermined thinking, but to allow them freedom to listen, think and decide for themselves.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Pat Jay

      Can we give the brother an amen?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  7. Vern Sawyer

    Drugs > God

    October 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Vern Sawyer

      Because drugs exist.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Yeah, we can all tell you're a great genius by your posts. LOL

      October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Vern Sawyer

      I have an IQ of 155. I actually am a genius by any reasonable definition of the term. I'm also an extraordinarily hateful person, and I want everyone less intelligent than me to die of pancreatic cancer. My being a jerk does not change the fact that I can think circles around you and am in med school learning to be a neurologist. What's your GPA? Mine's 3.9. It's not 4.0 because my sociology teacher was a disgusting obese lesbian who docked me points for not being an anarcho-syndicalist.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Perhaps you should take a few more courses in English grammar, "genius". LOL.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • sam stone

      I call my god Silly Cybin

      October 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  8. gf

    I think one part of this came out of the strict religious traditions that highlighted hypocrisy, exhibited pride in self-ability to carry out religious ordinances or 'procedures', and were founded in mere tradition rather than from some higher power or actual scriptural foundation. In so doing, people have become alienated and disillusioned with "religion".

    A whole other section deals with people unwilling to make a choice with fear of exclusion, they want to create their own definition of what and how to believe, or perhaps they feel existing definitions are lacking or don't fit what they want.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  9. mrjackson777

    "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." James 1:27 Mankind has used religion to his own end since the Ten Commandments were handed out. If you read the Bible, it clearly shows the people of Jesus's own "religion" are the ones who executed Him. We are not to make our religions our God, nor are we to make Gods of ourselves.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Being a good human being by helping those in need doesn't actually belong to any "religion"; it belongs to humanity as a whole.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  10. Vern Sawyer

    "I'm spiritual but not religious" is another way of saying "I'm mentally retarded, but I'm smart enough to talk, sort of".

    October 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      You're a perfect example of why people are leaving the church behind.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • ME II

      As opposed to the "religious" who aren't smart enough?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • nojinx

      "I'm religious" is another way of saying "I'm not mentally retarded. This guy over hear told me so, and he speaks for me."

      October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • CraigRB

      Religion was disigned to control the masses. Spirituality comes from within. But, you can believe in God without being religious.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  11. palintwit

    It must be hell to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and realize your Sarah Palin. If it were me, I'd run to the bathroom, stick my head in the toilet and give myself a swirly.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • SillyMan

      Yeah, being rich and not have to work for it sounds terrible. I'd like to visit your hell. Probably filled with bikini models, free beer and delicious fried snacks. Terrible.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  12. One one

    The scientific method is the only proven path to facts, truth, and reality.

    Everything else is either, conjecture, speculation, fantasy, or make believe.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • SillyMan

      Not true. The scientific method depends on having faith in ones senses and the senses of those who are executing the experiments. Because you cannot independently verify the accuracy of your senses, you cannot trust the results of science (or anything else). Of course we all assume that our senses are somewhat reliable, otherwise nothing has meaning, but it is still an assumption.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  13. SillyMan

    Wow. Immense hypocrisy. You complain of "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be" but none of your complaints against these people are based on studies or facts, but what you "feel" them to be. You have assigned them general negative qualities which may or may not be true. You simply "feel" them to be true. You embody all that you claim to have contempt for. True blindness of this magnitude reaches a level of absurdity that becomes a blend of both the comedic and pathetic. Wow.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  14. Bible Clown©

    I believe in science, but also in people. They do crazy things for insane reasons, but they are the only people we have.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  15. pththth

    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha

    October 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  16. hipster

    ridiculous article, ridiculous premise. lame attempt to bring people back into the fold. this is why religion is on its way out, and hopefully sooner rather then later!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Actually, he seems to be saying "either go full Christian and go witch-burning or chuck it all and be an atheist." Yeah, like those are the only choices. My favorite is "decide not to kill anyone or take away their rights based on an ancient book."

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  17. clay

    I believe we all face a decision when it comes to facing God and our relationship to him. It is a decision that is as old as man himself. True, religious bodies the world over have contributed to the seperation that lies between man and his Creator who ever someone may believe that is. My God who I believe is the Creator of all things longs to be at oness with his creation(Man) and for the most part i believe we can all agree on that. But in that agreement we have to aknowledge that something higher put all things in motion and in that statement we agree that we have religion, because religion is nothing more than you aknowledgeing you spritual control of a higher being or calling.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • One one

      "My God who I believe is the Creator of all things longs to be at oness with his creation(Man) and for the most part i believe we can all agree on that"

      I disagree.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "we have to aknowledge that something higher put all things in motion " What? Of course we don't have to acknowledge anything of the sort. What a strange idea.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  18. secondquest

    It seems the man who wrote this article has simply not exposed himself to the experience of being spiritually minded over accepting a supposed truth formed by big churches. There is nothing wrong with religion. Religion taught me how to be a good man, honor, and respect however there is more unexplained in religion than there is explained. There are many paths that go much deeper and the only way to truly know is to feel it. It's a new paradigm guys....the old way of thinking is finished. More and more people are waking up and starting their own spiritual based businesses such as http://www.transcendingvisions.com as a small example. Start ups that want to share with the world spiritual experiences under a loosely structured environment. Meaning take a class here and there...feel it...then judge for yourself if you don't feel angels guiding your path. It's that easy.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • OTOH

      The key word here is "feelings". Feelings are the next step up from flipping a coin in regard to determining the factuality of something.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  19. B

    I think a lot of us "spiritual but not religious" people would get off the fence if there was a common sense religion to jump to. It just seems weird believing in Noah's Ark...or Jesus parting the red sea. or Jesus dieing and being resurrected. Now, I'm not 100% against the idea of those things happening, it just takes a lot of "Faith" to go all in..and common sense says those things didn't happen.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • RobyBoby

      Ha, Jesus parting the red sea....didn't happen. LOL. Good news, I think even the most ardent follower of the Bible, would back you up on that one.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Atheist Hunter

    Call is spiritual call it religious, only a relationship with Jesus Christ can get you to heaven.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • BS Alert

      BS from a hate monger, but a deeply religious one, you are a joke.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Your bigotry and how you see other human beings is the reason I don't believe in religions. Does your "God" approve of bigotry? 'Nuff said.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • clay

      AMEN

      October 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • jumbo

      well, I don't know a lot about Jesus, but what I DO know is that, no matter who I am or what I believe in, he'd give up his seat in heaven for me. Ya might want to try some of that yourself mate.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      You have no authority to speak for god, A..H...

      October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • One one

      The farce is strong in this one.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • sam stone

      A..H...what is keeping you here? Jeebus has a chubby thinking about your silky mouth.....he's a-waitin'

      October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "only a relationship with Jesus Christ " says a guy who calls himself "Atheist Hunter." Gee, Nimrod, I kinda think you'll go to hell for hating your fellow man, so what's it to ya?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:49 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.