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.
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.
This morning there was a knock at my door. When I answered the door I found a well groomed, nicely dressed couple. The man spoke first:
John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."
Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."
Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"
John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."
Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"
John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."
Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."
Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"
Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."
John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."
Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"
Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."
Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"
John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."
Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"
Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts
out of you."
Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"
John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."
Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"
John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."
Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"
Mary: "Well, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."
Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"
John: "In this town, Hank is the same as good luck. All good things are attributed to Hank'"
Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."
John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."
Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."
Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."
Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"
John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."
Me: "Who's Karl?"
Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."
Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"
John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."
From the Desk of Karl
1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
2. Use alcohol in moderation.
3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
4. Eat right.
5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
6. The moon is made of green cheese.
7. Everything Hank says is right.
8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
9. Don't use alcohol.
10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.
Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."
Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."
Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."
John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."
Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"
Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."
Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"
Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."
Me: "How do you figure that?"
Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"
Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."
John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."
Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."
John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."
Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."
Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."
Me: "I'm not really an expert, but I think the theory that the Moon was somehow 'captured' by the Earth has been discounted*. Besides, not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it cheese."
John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists make mistakes, but we know Hank is always right!"
Me: "We do?"
Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."
Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"
John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."
Me: "But...oh, never mind.
Kiss Hanks ass or he will kick the guts out of you...
There are tears streaming down my face. This is a riot....keep it coming, Colin.
Perfectly conveys all religion. Well done.
spirituality and following a religion are a personal journey and the author is demanding that those he refers to as 'on the fence' to very neatly fit inside one (presuming Christianity) box. maybe younger generations are self-conscious about not behaving as sheep, but to say that each individual to whom religion/spirituality is important are 'sitting on the fence' or not willing to take a stand is inaccurate and arrogant. very ungodly to judge others for their beliefs, no? ;)
I think if he weren't an idiot, this guy might have simply said "faith without works is dead", in most cases this is not an argument for the sit, kneel stand, hate crowd of organized religion. But since he is clearly not very bright, I suppose we will never know
Some people are quick to point out that what we believe is merely a fairy tale. But nobody has died and come back to say that heaven is or isn't real. So, an atheist's claim that you simply die, and that's it, is as much a fairy tale as what I believe, and frankly, I prefer mine to theirs.
I....this just makes no sense to me.
You are a stupid person.
Worthless article. Author's opinion is lame, and author should mind his own business.
Too bad, my belief system. The Golden Rule is all one needs to live a good life. The rest is POLITICS.
So, Mike, how are you doing with that, do you always do to others as you would have them do to you?
Wow, you could talk for days on this issue. This article is as deep as a puddle. It is way easier, and more comforting to have blind faith. It is much harder to look inside, really see the world for what it is, and still grow in a positive way, that creates positivity to everything around you. It seems religions teach from fear, and punishment. This article could have been written so much better, with both sides of the issue. We can clearly see where this author stands. To each his own, and it's that easy.
how deep should 800 words be?
I find it strange that someone with no faith informs everyone of how and why Christians believe. I would think that would be like a secretary telling everyone how a mechanic puts a motor together. Perhaps you should defer to Christians to explain why they believe as they do. You are clearly not an expert on the subject. Also, you shouldn't put "all so-and-so's" into a group together. Perhaps different people have different feelings. You know, tolerance, the kind you give to every other group of people on the planet.
You're saying people must either conform to a rigid set of religious beliefs, or else just say they're atheist/agnostic? Most of these people just think there must be a higher power of some kind, but don't know what. Is it now not okay to not be completely sure of a set of religious principles? Honestly, where do you get off telling people what they can and can't believe? This article is nothing short of idiotic. And that's my rant of the day.
This is actually amusing to me b/c I consider 'giving it all up to God' and 'It must be God's will.' a cop out. It just means you don't want to deal or don't have the capacity to deal with reality.
I'm a Christian, though not a fan of organized religion, but being "spiritual but not religious" seems to say that one is open to "spirits," which is extremely dangerous as there are plenty of evil spirits out there. Satan is a "higher spirit" in that he is much more powerful than we mortals. He is known to use thought control and to be a great liar, deceiver, and manipulator. If someone just meditates and opens themselves up to the spirit world...well that's just frightening.
You only believe that there are only evil spirits because your religion told to.
Not my religion, mk, Jesus told me there were evil spirits. I've actually been introduced to a few in my lifetime, and if you haven't, you must live in a bubble.
Ignorance and wickedness in human beings is MUCH scarier than the "devils" your religions have made up. I would hate any "pastor" or religion that tries to play mind games with me the way yours obviously is. When you place THAT much trust in religious leaders, it is YOU who are leaving your mind open to evil and wickedness, not from "the devil" but from men who are taking advantage of you. Think about it.
"He [Satan] is known to use thought control and to be a great liar, deceiver, and manipulator."
And so has countless ministers, tele-evangelists, priests, bishops and even the Pope to convince people to follow THEIR religious beliefs. Who can we truly believe? Every religion and even denominations within Christianity say THEY are the only true belief system.
"....known to use mind control" See in the real world when you claim something is "known" you sort of need conclusive evidence. You statement would be better if you wrote "I believe"...because in truth nothing about Gods and spirits is "known" – it's all conjecture.
Good post. I would just add that not all organized religions are all about money. Jesus turned over the money changers tables and ran them out. There are still churches who believe God’s word and love one another and I hope you find one near you. God bless.
I must live in a bubble then, because every time I've seen this so-called "evil" it's usually due to a human or earthly action.
Your concerns are understood, and well-taken. Yes, there are evil spirits wanting to manipulate, control and otherwise deceive people. However, those like me who have a spiritual perspective typically interpret the notion that there is a human spirit that transcends the material world and that all human spirits are the children of God and part of one family. This is the basis of unity, which is at the heart of the how a student with a spiritual perspective approaches Christianity or other great religion.
Julie to me meditation is just my way of comunicating with God. Just like prayer is with Christians. About the devil, I belive that a person should know right from wrong if they choose the wrong path that is there choice. They will suffer the consiquence of there actions either in life here on earth or a spiritual plane somewhere else. In the Bible God gives humans free will. If you live your life for it's highest good there is no spirit evil or not that can sway you from your path.
Apparently Robert Brown was the only one here that actually read my post before replying. I said, right from the start, I am NOT a fan of organized religion. That means I don't have a pastor or religious organization that tells me how to think. Geesh, sometimes you athiests on CNN are so anxious to spout your religion of non-belief that you can't even see what people are saying.
James Viser, your thoughts are very nice, but unfortunately they are not the Christian view, as you attest. Satan messed with our DNA early on, as an angel said in the Apocrypha, "Satan planted a seed in Adam, and look at the evil that has grown from it." Jesus came to fix us so that our souls wouldn't perish at death. Unfortunately, God is not in everybody. God is only in people that invite him in. Jesus said, "I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him...." People can get very far away from God and any resemblance to godliness.
eagander, here is a challenge to you. If you don't know who or what to believe, with a clean and honest heart pray to God and ask him if he is real. Ask him to show you the truth. If he's not there, no harm done. If he is there, you will get the truth. Warning, though, the truth may turn out to be very real to you.
This article is a narrow-minded, over-simplistic piece of garbage.
The fact is that when it comes to religious or spiritual beliefs "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be" is 100% true.
Nobody KNOWS what will happen to your concisouness after you die. Anyone who says any different is lying to you or delusional.
People can believe what they like, but none of us knows what's going to happen.
I'm an atheist and not religious or spiritual.
What a load of "religious-empowered-overreaching-close-minded-isolated-'I'm right and you're wrong'- un-self-refected- BS"
I like this author's style of writing. I can air quote a hundred adjectives too!
To this I site an old proverb, "He who fart in church sit in own pew"
Like, WOW. I have never seen so many comments.
I am moral, but not religious. Look at what and how people teach their children, then you will truly see whether a person is religious, spiritual, moral, one with the universe or a follower of Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius or Joan Rivers. Look at how they allow their children to behave. THAT says more about a person than ANYTHING else.
nice distinction – "moral". I like your post, but it avoids the question.
Behind this article is the bigger question – belief in a particular set of dogma or disbelief in God altogether.
Yes. I have rules.
Do unto others.
Let me have strength to change what I can, accept what I can't and the ability to tell the difference.
I try to live this way. I've taught my kids to live this way.
You can find elements of all of this in many religions, and I think they are truth.
But that's just me.
Oh, and I think god is an invention.
Religion vs spirituality aside that might be one of the most poorly written articles I've ever read. Shame on you CNN for not requiring your contributors to adhere to the basic rules of essay compilation. I know it's an op-ed piece but is there not a proof-reader? Using sophisticated language is not the only mark of an intellectual. That was terrible, just terrible.
From the article:
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.
Really, and did you verify this by speaking with a lot of spiritual but not religious folk? You make leaps and bounds in your conclusions about other people's beliefs, but, I think it's all made up.
I, for one, am spiritual but not religious, do not bother to subscribe to "something out there," and do believe in personal responsibility to myself and others for my actions. Moreover, it appears to me that my beliefs are none of your business. They certainly do not cause anyone to go rioting and killing, or to have an Inquisition, or to believe that taking care of the Earth doesn't matter because we're in the end-times. Ultimately, my spirituality promotes values (in me) like compassion and love – what's so harmful about that? What about that makes me retarded? I think it makes me easier to get along with, kinder, happier, and more productive.
If you like, you could think of it as a more human kind of atheism. Sometimes, the mind can feel like a torture-chamber. This is the human condition. Spirituality helps people deal with what is painful and unproductive about the human condition, without making them irresponsible or stupid.
i have yet to see any religion propose a rational materialistic explanation for this world.
I am the new messiah. Bow down before your lord and savior. Yes, submit to my divine, erotic will!
For me "Spiritual by not Religious" means that I am not a member of a "Church". To me, being a member of a "Church", requires one to affirm that your Church and it's members are the only form of religious practice that is recognized by God. And the rest of you are going to Hell. That, plus we have to go to War to kill all those who don't believe exactly as I do!
I, for one, refuse to give anyone that power!
Religion hey? hmmm, maybe a few questions can help highlight the difference between religion and rational thought.
The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:
(a) Children’s fairytales;
(b) Medieval mythology;
(c) New age pseudo science; or
I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am
(a) a delusional schizophrenic;
(b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly
(c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or
(d) your average Christian
Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:
(a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;
(b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;
(c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or
(d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.
I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am
(a) A victim of child molestation
(b) A r.ape victim trying to recover
(c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions
(d) A Christian
You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:
(c) NASA astronomer; or
I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am
(a) A failed psychologist
(b) A fraudulent geneticist
(c) A sociologist who never went to college; or
(d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.
The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:
(c) Archeology; or
What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:
(a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they must believe under threat of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;
(b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is one god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;
(c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or
(d) All of the above.
If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:
(a) a deep psychiatric issue;
(b) an irrational fear or phobia;
(c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or
(d) my religious belief.
If I am worried that my children, who I love very much, will not believe something I tell them, such as "smoking is bad for you," I should:
(a) have our family doctor explain to them the various ill effects of smoking.
(b) show them a film produced by the National Inst.itute for Health on the topic.
(c) set a good example for them by not smoking; or
(d) refuse to give them any evidence of the ill effects of smoking, insist they rely on faith and then take them out into the backyard and burn them to death if I ever catch them smoking.
ROTFLMAO!!! B'aaaaahahahaha!! Love it!
Best comment yet!! Couldn't have said it better myself.
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