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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. Luis Wu

    What an utterly stupid article. People are moving away for the established religions (myths) and embracing science, logic and reason instead of ancient mythology and superst!tion. For people to think for themselves instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology as fact seems like a good thing to me. A very good thing.

    Bertrand Russell once said: "Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines." I wholeheartedly believe that.

    All religions stem from ancient myths, legends and superst!tions. Christianity borrowed heavily from other, more ancient myths such as the legends of Osiris and Gilgamesh. It's simply ancient mythology from primitive, tribal societies, nothing more.

    People SHOULD think for themselves using logic, reason and objectivity. If they want to take pieces and parts of many religions or philosophies to build their belief system, I see no problem with that. This guy is obviously a dogmatic Christian. He ignores the fact the the vast majority of the people in the world are not Christians, they are Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Islamic, Jews, non-believers, agnostics or they adhere to tribal religions. Let people make up their own minds.

    It's really none of your business and certainly inappropriate and bigoted to try and push YOUR beliefs on everyone else.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  2. Kay Powell

    This author did not do thorough research. Yes, there are many "feel good" movements out there who pander to shallow and stupid people. And there are many "spiritual but not religious" people who seek our own path to a higher power. We don't want to take someone else's word for something which we consider the very core of human experience. We read, study, discuss, and apply the results to our lives. We seek to grow as humans, mentally and spiritually.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  3. Bob

    This guy couldn't be more wrong. Many of us older folks have discovered that organized religion can be
    very hypocritical. Jesus blasted the organized religious leaders of his day (Pharisees and Sadducces).
    Spirituality as defined by Jesus is the goal, not churchianity.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  4. Pattielaine

    Spirituality answers the mystery of life. Spirituality has brought me closer to God than religion has even done and isn't that what the quest is all about. No one person should preach to anyone on how they communicate with God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  5. disappointed in cnn

    Worst Sunday headline story in some time. Boo.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  6. david

    People are spoiled today. They want a religion that has no rules, no sins. Too many Americans are avoiding God, and wonder why we are in such bad shape.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • The Truth Will Prevail

      So sad, but very true

      September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Michael

      You, like the author, have in the Lincolnian sense have quite eloquently removed all doubt that about your lack of understanding of the subject about which you are talking.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Luis Wu

      No, people are tired of ancient myths and superst!tious nonsense and the bigoted hypocrites that endorse it. They're searching for the truth. And truth cannot be found in ancient myths. But closed minded people people who've been indoctrinated into an established religion since birth will never understand that.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • All hail

      Oh yes, Americans are avoiding god, which underlines our place at the bottom of the pile amongst the other world countries. Give me a break you thoughtless babbling robot. Explain then to us china, with a population of less than 1% Christian, and their rise to the top as a global superpower. We are all waiting.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Horsemanp2

      and which GOD would I be avoiding...the one that you believe in...or someone else's, who may be even less credible. That is part of the problem with organized religion. People that have decided that they are Christians, or Catholics, or Muslim, or any other organized religion, have made their choice. So now they believe, that any one that disagrees with their choice, is misguided.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  7. Dyslexic doG

    Some words of wisdom from Robert Heinlein:
    "The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by H.Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the sacharrine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not recieve this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history."

    September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  8. refugeek

    What drove me into the spiritual-but-not-religious camp in the past was my refusal to believe in the "supernatural." Since then, I've gone through a long journey through atheism, Buddhism, Unitarian-Universalism, Progressive Christianity, and finally into Catholicism. During that journey, I've learned things about the nature of reality that can't be pinned down by science. After all – if a "supernatural" event like a "Material Big Bang" could happen 14 billion years ago, then why couldn't a "supernatural" event like a "Spiritual Big Bang" happen 2 thousand years ago? If scientists today can "supernaturally" teleport information across large distances, using quantum teleportation, then why can't some "being" outside of time/space "supernaturally" teleport information into our world, resulting in "miraculous" phenomena? The list goes on.

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

      Because an infinitely complex supernatural being can't be created. Sure, if you presuppose one exists, then using it to explain the universe kind of makes sense. But similar to the writer of this article, I think it's an intellectual cop-out.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  9. fryuujin

    Well, the one and only true church that will bring you salvation is the Church of the Fonz. say AAAAAH

    September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  10. Chris

    CS Lewis said that in the end there are two groups of people. Those who say to God; "Thy will be done", and those to whom God has said "Thy will be done". Those in hell have chosen the second option.

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

      I take you have been there and know this for a fact.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • The Truth Will Prevail

      Don't wait until it's too late to believe the truth. CS Lewis is right.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Luis Wu

      All the gods that have been worshiped since the beginning of history would fill 10 football stadiums. But of course, YOURS is the only one that's real. Try THINKING for a change instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology as fact.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  11. marge

    Maybe people turn away from organized religious groups because when they get older they realize that nobody knows anything about what lies beyond. And talking about what lies beyond is what religion is all about.
    So much time , words and energy wasted on a topic that nobody has ever known anything about.
    Look at comments here. There's an awful lot, because of what I just said. Everyone feels qualified to discuss the topic. From kids to old people. As opposed to an actual science for instance.
    As long as nobody knows anything about it, why not just pick a spiritual philosophy that you thing will help get you through life as harmoniously as possible and stick with it. What's wrong with that? It's the only thing that sounds right to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    – Epicurus [341–270 B.C.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Patrick

      The evil you refer to is not real. Nothing here is real. It's a fractal world and we experience a fractal existance in a pointless attempt to play the role of god. We dream here. All of us sleep and dream of the experience of hell (life). But it's not forever. Just till we're ready to wake up and go home. The Bible says Adam fell into a deep sleep while Eve was created. There is no reference to his ever waking back up. Dreams seem real to the dreamer.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  13. CSR

    The problem with your argument is that it makes not distinction between the religious and the "spiritual but not religious" and those that simply choose to believe some, part or none of the judeo-christian (insert name of other organized religion here) fundatmental teachings. As if those who espouse some historical or modern day religion are the only ones who have a claim on a legitimate belief system...You should be ashamed of yourself; but I'm sure you represent the former and of course, your opinion is the only right one. Never mind that organized religion (with all of its contradiction) is the historical and modern-day scourge.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  14. Searles O'Dubhain

    There is absolutely nothing wrong in being spiritual and not religious. There is a lot wrong with being spiritual and not accountable or responsible for the impact of one's actions on others and the world. Religion attempts to address the impact of people on the world through dogma and commandments which have to be accepted through belief alone. These are mandated in a religion and are rejected by those whose spirit starves for connection and life. It would be far better for everyone to be spiritual with awareness for actions; for relationships with Nature; for the ways of physics; for why morals help right actions; for how communities get the work of life done.

    Religions that preach but do not teach how one actually fits into the greater world but which purport to provide and easy way out through belief alone in deity, are now diminishing in the centrality of their grasp on power. Human awareness is at a stage where each of us has the ability to better act in an informed manner that is in synch with how things are rather than how we are told they should be. The truth of the world is to be found in a clear mind and a study of the world's ways. The truth of spirit is to be found within each of us even as it is to be found in everything that sustains life and provides us with a future.

    The old ways of boxing humanity off from the ways that things actually work and preventing people from contributing to the success of life are dying. The new ways are those that will take us into living in balance and harmony through achieving an understanding for how things really work. Let's not act like we know how things are because someone told us or a book said so. Let's learn and grow in wisdom to the point that we discover that our truth, the truth of life and the universe and the truth of spirit all manifest from the same origins. Belief in spirit does not mean one should not think and understand. It means that one is connected to how things really are instead of blindly following belief. Belief is discarded for experience and knowledge. Spirit is what gives action and life to everything. It is not religion that sees clearly in an "I told you so" manner. It is actual understanding and awareness through consciousness and personal truth that will bring humanity out of the caves and to the stars.

    So get out of your expensive SUV's and go out into Nature and the world and do something good because it's the right thing to do for everyone and especially for yourself and leave the dogma for those who are empty of true spirit.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  15. anwaw

    This author still dwells in the realm of duality. His conclusion that one must choose either organized religion or materialism reveals his primitive level of development. We who are more enlightened must not judge, for he needs outlets like this article to help him along his journey. I will keep him in my prayers that he someday experiences what many of us have and experiences the oneness that is life rather than these false dualities.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  16. Jonathan

    A very pathetic religious person is butthurt that he's having trouble converting people to adhere to his religion. Spirituality is nonsense as well, but at least the "spiritual but not religious" people won't harm others for the sake of religion, and are generally far more open-minded than religious people. Even though it's false, I've never seen belief in general spirituality harm anyone, but I've seen religion harm so many people in so many ways.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  17. Dyslexic doG

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
    – Isaac Asimov

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Jonathan

      Very true. Reading the bible was the most important factor to me becoming an atheist. And I know many other people who probably would become atheists if they read the bible.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  18. Reality

    Religion is a cop-out that avoids having to deal with important questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Allen

      In fact, it struggles with far more difficult ones.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  19. r2g

    I've personally seen the full force of religion. I think I'll keep my beliefs, thank you.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  20. Paul

    I am spiritual and not religious because I cannot stand what organized religion stands for: greed useless indoctrination, and following an agenda that perpetuates some obtuse viewpoint because the bible says so.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Allen

      Thank GOD that most young spiritual but not religious people are nicer, more open minded and far more tolerant than all the snarky, ill informed atheists who feel the need to attack every religious post on the internet. You guys are seen as far more silly and dangerous BY THEM than we are, FYI.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:54 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.