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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. TetterkeT

    Dumbest article I've read on the Internet this week (and its only Monday).

    October 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  2. scallywag

    In reality, no one should have the audacity to tell others how to believe. That's the big problem with Christo- Islamo based religions.
    Actually, the biggest 'dangers about spiritual versus religious that concerns the false priests in America is the reduced amounts in the collection plates.. thats what really scares the hypocrites. Keep the sheep inline. So you have propaganda stories like this piece of tripe here.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Greg Daulton

    What a great article. Simple. Logical. Profound.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Yeah, if you have the IQ of a lizard and happen to be attracted to jerks.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Greg,

      with 7,700 posts since Saturday night, there's no question that this was a truly excellent piece.

      "Truthiness" is now sacred in our society. It should be challenged more often.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • sally

      This thing was and awful article. I think more people are upset at how someone makes a big generalization, and then tries to support it from very shaky, narrow-minded statements. And if you can't even spell Kama Sutra, then you're an idiot. I'm sure there are a lot of rational Christians who don't like this article as well.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • JT

      And 100% wrong!

      October 2, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  4. Sigh

    This is a one-dimensional, thin, hypocritically self-indulgent, sanctimonious, myopic piece. His definitions and priorities are good and, if you disagree, you are bad and... self-indulgent. ... I wonder why people balk at that kind of thinking. ... Physician, heal thyself.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  5. snowboarder

    spirituality is a person standing in a silent room and convincing themselves that they hear something.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  6. rgtoomuch

    Just a question for the athiest people? Why argue that God does not exist? If in your mind God does not exist, why does it matter if others believe in him? What harm has come to you because people have faith in God and follow thier religious beliefs? I would like to understand why people feel this way.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Brian

      Because way too many people vote and influence a government that is supposed to represent ALL of us, in the name of "God". If you want to live by a certain religion, great...you SHOULD live by it. But don't project your beliefs and "rules of God" on to the rest of us.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ Brian....Thank you for the response. Now I see where some people are coming from. I believe in sharing this world with others. I am of the old school mentality of live and let live.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Sigh

      I turn your question around: what harm comes to your beliefs by the mere truth that some others don't share them? It is religous doctrine that people of certain faiths convert others; I never met a "non-believer" who tried to convert anyone. Have you heard of the Inquisition? The Crusades? Ancient Rome? ... History is replete with examples of Believers and the violent harm they do to, not only non-believers, but to people who simply believe differently than they. Your questions have no contextual basis, are without comprehension of history, and are devoid of insight or hindsight.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      Are there other reasons Athiests feel the way they do about the subject of God?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Gawdless

      It's self defense. Many of the Religious insist that those outside the religion adhere to the rules of the religion. I.E Gay Marriage – If you think it's a sin, why do you care if others do it. Don't do it yourself. Others see it as freeing others from self delusion. There are other reasons as well but that should get you started :)

      October 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ Sigh.....on the contrary Sigh, I am not here to convert anyone. You have free will to follow your own path where it may lead you. I just want to see why Athiests think the way they do.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • snowboarder

      rgt – if it was only about belief. unfortunately, we must be ever vigilant against the encroachment of that belief in government attempting to supress the rights of their fellows and insinuate their beliefs into curriculum.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ Gawdless....thank you for your imput. I can see how that can get on some nerves.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ snowboarder....Government should never be allowed to do that to either athiests or believers. So are you saying it is the government that is the root of the problem? I am just trying to understand what you are saying

      October 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @rgtoomuch,

      It really doesn't matter what other people believe. If they find that their faith helps them, that's great.

      The distinction becomes important when religious groups try to legislate their opinions.

      Other than that, live and let live.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • snowboarder

      rgt – it is the religious continually attempting to insinuate their beliefs into government for the masses. it is not a problem with the government, but a problem with the people.

      when religion is ensconced in government there can be no liberty.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV....Bravo. I am in agreement with what you are saying. Live and Let Live. But I am still trying to understand the Athiests anger towards God fearing people.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ snowboarder.....thus the seperation of church and state. For some reason, they become intermingled. Is this why Athiests feel the way they do?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @rgtoomuch,

      it comes out of fear and a minority mentality.

      In the colonial period atheism was illegal. During McCarthyism it was cast as synonymous with Communism. It is still laregly socially unacceptable. The "spiritual but not religious" movement is a reflection of the fact that atheists are still social outcasts.

      The religious right is afraid of secularism and atheism in particular. Ever since the Regan adminstration, the religious right has grown more powerful and more aligned with right-wing politics with a clear and unashamed agenda to "Christianize" secular law in the US. Atheists fear this movement and fight it.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • rgtoomuch

      @ I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV...Wow, now that is an explaination. Thanks. It had a bit of history added to it. I guess i was taken by your answer because it was very intelligently put. I am quite sure there are other reasons but what you gave me leaves me something to ponder.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  7. Anybody know how to read?

    What's really amazing about denial is all the antichrists claiming they are 'free' of religion and are living in the most oppressive time of history in ye olde USA. They used their freedom to make the gubmint their god!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • new voter

      That's a tard remark if I ever heard one. You need to like get a life.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Who made you a god to tell me what I need?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  8. Seeker

    In Genesis, God tells us that humans are bent towards sin. It is our nature. One conclusion is that sometimes the very thing we "feel" to be OK, is (in reality) the sinful, aka. wrong, thing to do. The Bible gives us an arbitrary, perfect code (that is not human originated) that tells us what is "right". And it will not always be the thing you want to do or feel. Furthermore, it is sometimes the "bad" experience that teaches us the most. That is another way of saying that suffering usually teaches the best lesson. So always striving for the no-conflict, no-pain result is self-negating. So it is a cop-out as most relativistic theologies are.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • words

      Love of mine
      Someday you will die
      But I'll be close behind
      I'll follow you into the dark
      No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
      Just our hands clasped so tight
      Waiting for the hint of the spark

      If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
      Illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs
      If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks
      Then I'll follow you into the dark

      In catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule
      I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
      And I held my tongue as she told me "Son fear is the heart of love"
      So I never went back

      If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
      Illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs
      If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks
      Then I'll follow you into the dark

      You and me
      Have seen everything to see
      From Bangkok to Calgary
      And the soles of your shoes
      Are all worn down, the time for sleep is now
      But it's nothing to cry about 'cause we'll hold each other soon
      In the blackest of rooms

      If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
      Illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs
      If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks
      Then I'll follow you into the dark
      And I'll follow you into the dark."
      Death Cab For Cutie – I Will Follow You Into The Dark

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

      I'm so sorry, but I need to inform you that both you and this author obviously know absolutely nothing about the sprituality you are dumb enough to criticize.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  9. aseghir

    I believe the author doesn't get it. The age of ubiquitous and immediate knowledge has finished off what the sixties began, and there's no turning back. Religion and spirituality( how could the author play one against the other? Probably practiced neither) need a new paradigm, this is what the news is all about.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  10. Robert

    Actually, you are mistaken. While knowledge of the Biblical Narrative is incredibly important for the understanding of the Western Canon, and therefore our society, the desire to read the Bible on the part of the laity was not the reason that people started to read in the first place. In fact, the 3rd Lateran Council of 1215 and the Council of Toulouse of 1230 actually outlawed the reading of the Bible. People started to read because poets started to write: writers did use the Bible in their poetry (the topic of my PhD thesis) but the desire to know the Bible firsthand was not why people started reading in the first place. They started reading so that they could imagine places that were not so awful as their actual surroundings, which were made that way thanks in large part to the Catholic Church.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  11. DeeCee1000

    This author is the kind of noise most truly spiritual people would dismiss simply as loud obnoxious noise.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • JohnoT

      It's interesting that you've set yourself up as the judge of who is truly spiritual.

      Most truly spiritual people would thank him for sharing, and not give him labels such as 'obnoxious' – because you are doing the things you claim to hate – labeling to manipulate opinion and silence opposing viewpoints that are different from your own.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Josh DeLapp

      @JohnoT: You do realize you just did the same thing you accused this person of, right? You seem to be setting yourself up as the judge of who is spiritual and who is not.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • JohnoT

      @Josh DeLapp

      Yes, I did realize that. I did it on purpose. First we have religious people. Then we have anti-religious people. Now we have anti-anti-religious people. And you know what, we all did exactly the same thing. Because, in the end, we are all the same. We judge. But I'm not deluded about it.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  12. you2

    On the large-scale- most religions, orders and places of worship think the same. But the closer you look, the deeper you go in the individual's beliefs, the more it breaks down. We all believe in something different. Bibles don't even say the same things. It's all cafeteria-style beliefs. You can't say 'that Old Testament meant something else, or was written for different times' and believe in the divinity of ANY bible.
    And how dare the writer tell me/us that our beliefs aren't valid. Christianity stole most of its beliefs from other religions. A little bit of this, a little bit of that... There are dozens of older religions that deal with the same central-casting characters. A god in the sky, a virgin birth, a son o'god, a martyred death – and of course, drum roll please – the rebirth!
    Just because this version caught on, and has lasted 2000 years, doesn't make it any more valid than anything I believe. My spirituality isn't incorporated, or unionized, like the other big ones. It changes all the time. That's because it's MY beliefs. Not something I blindly follow.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  13. Mikevab

    The writer is obviously religious not spiritual. Why is some form of transformation required? To me being "spiritual" = devout agnostic. There may be some higher being out there but NO group has got it right. I see no problem with "being spiritual but not religious".

    October 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  14. Benlinus

    To the other . . . rest easy in knowing that I think being spiritual is a joke as well; but that is because I am an Atheist so I find Religious people even more amusing :D I don't need fear of an invisible angry old man to scare me into being a good person; I do good things because I am a good person and don't need an instruction manual.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Benlinus

      Author not other.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Mikevab

      Well said!!!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • JFCanton

      What to do with the ginormous number of people who do need a manual, though?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  15. The Truth

    "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either."

    Well I doubt anyone would have to sit on any fences if the religions of the world didn't keep building them. Fences to keep people in this group, keep people out of that group, seclude and exclude us, like a bunch of brainless sheep that need to be herded around through different pen's till all our wool has been fleeced. Well Mr. Alan Miller here is just angry because there are some sheep out of his reach that he's having trouble fleecing and he's gonna gry about it.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • JFCanton

      But if you like the metaphor-the sheep without a fence might be stuck on the common, with not enough grass to sustain them all.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  16. Joseph Campbell

    Hogwash.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "Follow you bliss" eh Joe?

      In this case, the journey needs a destination. "Spiritual but not religious" is NOT a destination.

      That's the real point of the article here.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  17. Karl

    Atheist here. This article simply reminds me of one of the reasons I'm not religious. A recent quote I heard about Christianity; I like your Christ but not your christians; they are so unlike your Christ.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  18. clinky

    It seems pretty clear that CNN has pulled a stunt. They hired this guy to write this outrageously unfounded and offensive garbage just to get a rise out of "spiritual but not religious" people and see how they would react.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  19. SoundGuy

    I meditate and it has had a very positive effect in my life. I use the meditation aids provided by TranscendentalTones.

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

      i run or fish. there has never been a better form of meditation.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  20. Anybody know how to read?

    SBNR, created by desperate men trying to hang onto their helpmates, is the mantra in all 12 step programs. It just goes to show ya how big the drug problem really is. BTW, I think Unca Suga should stay out of it and legalize.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:22 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.