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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. steve

    The exact reason I don't assosiacte with any religion is because of people like this author. Groing up in the modern world where I have been exposed to many different religions and cultures it is evident that no one group has all the answers, all the truths. That idea leads to group think and, taken to the extreme, ultimately war.
    The author makes the assumption that people who consider themselves spiritual and not religious are evading some amount of responsibility to conform to religious principles and improve their character. But, this is not true. Rather than assume people who think differently than you are lazy, self-absorbed, etc. maybe you should try getting to know them. You might be suprised.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  2. dsi

    How does narrow minded bigotry qualify as an elevated level of principles?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Glenn

    God didn't create religion, man did.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • snowboarder

      man created gods, too.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  4. bgwarburton

    Mr Miller sites no research, surveys, studies or even opinion polls to validate his characterizations of the “spiritual but not religious” self-identifiers. It seems this article is written from mere subjective experiences from a likely very, very small group of unfortunate folks who had the displeasure of speaking with him. I can’t help but laugh at his lack of intellectual rigor in constructing his position, in which he demonstrates the very lack of depth in understanding he is attributing to the “spiritual but not religious”. Very funny.
    Mr Miller, I assure you that your characterizations could not be further from the truth. Those of the spiritual but not religious mindset with whom I have come into contact have engaged in a rigorous study of faith(s). I don’t have the energy to go on but I certainly could. In the meantime, I’ll pray that you can come to see that anyone who is seeking a personal connection to God, regardless of the path by which they travel to get there, is indeed deeply favored and blessed by Him.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  5. _aleph_

    Wow, I couldn't even read the entire piece. Such a closed mind. Does Miller really think that I should feel bad about not swallowing some dogma, hook, line and sinker? I'm spiritually at peace without the need for a priest or preacher telling me where I've gone wrong.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  6. graciegal

    Luckily he isn't talking about me... I'm neither spiritual NOR religious. I'm smart.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Silly1

      Congrats, do you have the bumper sticker to prove it though?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Dave S

      My friends love to tell me that I'm spiritual because I'm an Atheist. What ever makes them happy but, I'm with you.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  7. Christie

    First off...let me say that I completely respect everyone's right to their own opinions and views, and I hope you'll show me and my opinions the same respect, even if you don't agree with them. That being said... While I'm not surprised at the overwhelming number of posts that disagree with the author, (this is CNN.com, after all) I know exactly what the author is trying to say here, but he also did a horrible job articulating it. And, I couldn't AGREE with him more. I think people who say they're "Spiritual but not Religious" do so because it keeps them from being accountable for their actions. No higher power to answer to? Great! No rules to follow? Great! Doesn't the very fact that you call yourself "spiritual" (SPIRIT being the root word), mean that you acknowledge that there's something (or things) out there that can't be seen? So why is it so hard to believe that it's possible that there is a God out there that will one day hold you accountable for your actions here on earth? Because it doesn't fit in with your comfortable way of living, that's why. Because if it makes you second guess your own actions and motivations, you just might feel uncomfortable and (gonna use a church word here) convicted, and WE CAN'T HAVE THAT, CAN WE? There...I've said my peace. Hope you all have a wonderful day. :)

    October 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Lost In Space

      I think it is a first step toward atheism. And once they find out that you don't need a "higher power" to scare them to do good things for others, many of them eventually do become atheists.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Christie and @Lost in Space.

      Yes – to both of your posts, except that the author clearly didn't do a horrible job – just look at the responses!

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

      Yes, because all religious people are more pious, accountable, trustworthy than spiritual people because they are held accountable by a god and follow all the rules. When does that happen? Get real.

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

      But, you're assuming that people who associate as spiritual, not religious act poorly or sin more than religious people. While that may be the case some times, it's certainly not the case all the time. And, spiritual people can believe in God.
      Cheers! Your post was very polite and heartfelt.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • snowboarder

      every person is accountable to our secular laws and to civil society. no imaginary retribution is necessary.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • bgwarburton

      No, no, no. Who says anywhere that being spiritual but not affiliating with a religious faith or denomination means that there is an absence of belief in God? And, for my atheist friends I'll argue that a lack of belief in God does not someone does not feel they don't have rules to follow.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Johnny

      Christie, people who require a divine, judgmental being and the fear of eternal damnation in order to treat their fellow inhabitants with kindness and respect, scare me – and obviously the inverse thought scares religists like you. If the only doctrine organized religions proposed was The Golden Rule, and they kept their noses out of people's private lives, you'd find much less resistance from rational thinkers. Islamist extremists (not most Muslims) believe they're led be divine influence too, that theirs is the 'true' way, and they are divinely required to use their twisted doctrine for terror and intimidation. Religion polarizes people and causes destruction and hatred. It's time we stop fearing our own, natural mortality and believing in mythical beings to protect us from harm. It didn't work out well for the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Mayas, etc, etc...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  8. PamOh

    You are, in fact, totally incorrect. I am spiritual, because I have a firm belief in God and believe that I am accountable for how I conduct my life – here and now. I am not religious because I refuse to believe the dogma and BS spewed at me, regardless of which direction (religion) it comes from. I am perfectly comfortable taking my chances that what I believe is right and true, so there is no "danger" at all, except in your mind (perhaps because I'm not validating you by agreeing to your version of God?) *shrug* Another version will come along, I'm sure...

    October 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Squeezebox

      To quote the Bible (I know it's one of the 4 Gopspels, but I can't remember chapter and verse) "What is truth?"

      October 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • A Pastafairian

      @PamOh
      If you like beer, pasta and partying, do I have a religion for you. The Flying Spaghetti Monster encourages female adherants and unlike other religions, ladies can rise to the highest ranks of the devout.
      RAmen...theFSM

      October 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  9. Hansel

    This is a great article. You know, our guy Jesus had something to say about this, Matt. 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
    You're building on sand, little lambs....you "spiritual" people, you rationalists, you self-proclaimed pagans. Everything looks good now, when times are peaceful and good, it all looks equivalent…until the bad times come (metaphorically, rains and floods) and your beliefs and philosophies fail you and the real fools are exposed. And it ain't the Christians or Jews! Your beliefs will prove to be not worth the air it took to breathe them out. Because when the going gets tough, the truth is all that really matters. Good luck to you, little lambs.....

    October 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  10. Robbie C

    Sad to see this ignorant expression of being spiritual. Being spiritual means being one with the universe. The universe does not consist of jealousy, hate, animosity, judgment, therefore being spiritual does not find truth in these feelings/emotions. The spiritual person knows these are acts of EGO, and therefore don't identify with them. To say there are no set beliefs is the ego just trying to compare being spiritual to a religion. It's okay to accept things without labeling them as "a belief". Leave "spiritual" people alone. Saddened to see this published on CNN.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • ME II

      "Being spiritual means being one with the universe."
      According to whom?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      MEll, according to lots of people practicing certain types of spiritualities. There are all types. There are even all types within certain churches like the Catholic Church for example. . . not that I'm Catholic, but I've studied enough to know.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Blarkoflot

      "The universe does not consist of jealousy, hate, animosity, judgment," You're right of course, none of those things exist – it's just the guys who write the dictionary as such pranksters, making up things that don't exist in the universe.

      Anyway, we need not spend any time discussing things that don't exist – the universe has real problems, that thoughtful people will want to solve. Why are you saddened to see anything published on CNN? Please remember that sadness doesn't exist in the universe – I mean you are saddling yourself with a problem based on your belief that sadness exists, but, that's just dogma, reject that.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • ME II

      "There are all types"
      That's my point. Who are you, or Robbie C, to define "spiritual"?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  11. cj90210

    I believe one's relationship with God is a very personal one and it's a FACT that organized religion has been the cause of more deaths than all the plagues combined. Anyone who worships a vengeful, hateful God does not know the true teachings of Jesus Christ (who never called for anyone's death that I am aware of). As for the Bible (probably written by a mad man), well that's another story!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  12. Charle

    I don't know about the rest of you all, but with great reverence and serious thought I have embraced the Kama Sutra, repeatedly and with deep and long lasting appreciation for all it has to offer...

    October 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Just a John

      Never managed to get around to getting to the last page, but had a whole lot of satisfaction in the effort.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  13. David Flores II

    Yes Madtown, you are correct in your interpretation of regional religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  14. Sonia Perez

    "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."

    ACTUALLY this is not true. About a year ago I let go of my LDS (mormon) beliefs. Since then I have found that I have had to think harder about things to really decide where I stand. The thing about organized religion, the LDS faith in particular, is that there is already a set of beliefs that one can chose to adopt or not. And once you adopt the basic beliefs, you are expected to automatically adopt any other belief that comes along with that particular religion even though one may not reason and/or feel that certain aspects are right. There is a quote from a past LDS president, Ezra Taft Benson, that basically says "when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done." The LDS prophets promise not to lead the church "astray". You don't have to think about it anymore, they already gave you the answer- and if you come up with a different answer, through prayer to god, then you are getting an answer from the devil!!!! Sounds awesome right?! NO. Critical thinking is not encouraged because there are already answers to all your questions- their answers. This is wrong. I personally feel that a true spiritual person isn't a "fence-sitter" but someone who strives to live an authentic life by being in tune with their self, making decisions that fit their personal life and not living to please any organization. I feel that a good spiritual person will treat others how they wish to be treated, The Golden Rule. This is basic, but allows everyone freedom to be themselves while also allowing others the same because they would want others to do good to them. When a group of people have a strict set of rules that they agreed to obey, it's easy to judge & misjudge each other if one doesn't live it exactly. And that group also judges others, outside the group, in a harsh manner because they feel the group is the one with the right answers- everyone else is lost and/or evil. If organized religion were done away with, then we could possibly live in peace allowing others the rights we enjoy because we want the same from them. There would be no agenda when people get together but to enjoy each other instead of judging each other's lives.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  15. CraigRB

    I'm spiritual, I believe in God but I'm not religious. Enough said.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  16. us_1776

    There is no god !

    Get over it..

    .

    October 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Amen!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @76er,

      The author presents this option in his second last sentence. It's subtle, but it's there.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  17. Steve

    The exact reason I don't assosiacte with any religion is because of people like this author. Groing up in the modern world where I have been exposed to many different religions and cultures it is evident that no one group has all the answers, all the truths. That idea leads to group think and, taken to the extreme, ultimately war.
    The author makes the assumption that people who consider themselves spiritual and not religious are evading some amount of responsibility to conform to religious principles and improve their character. But, this is not true. Rather than assume people who think differently than you are lazy, self-absorbed, etc. maybe you should try getting to know them. You might be surprised.

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

      THANK YOU!!!

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

      Agree, but on one hand, I have yet to find anyone who could adequately explain what spiritual means?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Steve,

      so what do people who are "spiritual but not religious" REALLY believe in?

      Or is this a personal fad like emo glasses, skinny jeans or fedoras that are too small to fit?

      'Truthiness' as a subst'tute for real faith or the realization that it's all make believe? That's the challenge here. By the HUGE volume of posts it has clearly hit a nerve.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • steve

      Why is it so important what someone believes?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  18. Fletcher

    Danger of religious but not spiritual: See the history of warfare, torture, greed...

    October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Mikeindm

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
    As opposed to?? Being a Catholic that uses birth control and supports gay marriage? I don't see your point. I'm a Christian that doesn't belong to a denomination. A spiritual Christian. Not a member of a religious denomination.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  20. Robert Holt

    Spiritual but not religious? How about saved. Knowing Christ as Savior is the important thing.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Prejududiced much?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • BS Alert

      Saved from what, pray tell?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • ED

      Saved by an act of vicarious redemption sent from the imaginary sky fairy? No thanks to that nonsense

      October 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • sam stone

      Free people do not need to be saved

      October 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • sam stone

      Apparently saved from the wrath of the all loving god who knew from the beginning all that would happen, but let it happen anyway

      October 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • One one

      Good point. I shall now pray. Dear heavenly father, I give thanks for killing your son to end the eternal curse of your wrath & vengeance you put upon me because, in the beginning, two people wanted knowledge. Unlike the unsaved godless trash who deserve to burn, I do not seek knowledge. I seek only your approval by submitting to your absurd, conflicting, and egotistical demands. And though you never show yourself, I believe in you, for if I have thoughts of doubt, you will send me to hell to burn forever… because, although you love me, you hate my thoughts. Amen.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.