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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. Anarchrist

    If "spiritual but not religious" is a step in what it takes for grown people to stop believing in lies and fairy tales, and start moving towards true equality for all, I can't find fault in it.

    Yes, it's sad that "spiritual" people tend to remain indifferent while oppressive and fascist devout people try to inflict their beliefs upon others, but in terms of the larger picture I can accept it if it is a sign that one day we will all be a bit more logical.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  2. Vic

    There is nothing in this article that I agree with. My own relationship is with the Lord, not any denomination. The gentleman has his own belief as do I. Having grown up in a very religious family was tough at times. Religion or Spiritual – just semantics to me. Wish we did not have to separate ourselves into any category. I have heard and read articles with the same basic theme over the years. I believe we should examine ourselves, pray and look for guidance from God. Only He can and will direct your path in the way the you should go.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Julia

      I'd be happy if people would just stop telling eachother what to think. We can share beliefs and what not but nobody can come across as an expert in the unkown.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • ...

      Your 'relationship' with the lard? Are you practicing buggery?

      October 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  3. BW

    This person is a perfect example of whats wrong with the human thought process that has led us to the crappy existence that we experience today...this guy needs and everyone that thinks like him should never have a public venue to speak their stupidity.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  4. Mr. Smith

    Like others have said, this is one of the most ignorant articles I have ever read. Mr. Miller totally misses that point that the "spiritual, but not religious" folks are not ambivalent, but have turned inward to seek the truth of the mysteries of the human existence. They are no longer relying on outdated religious doctrine that has ruled for ages. It's time we stop living in the world of separation and condemnation and into the world of unity and compassion.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  5. john Callahan

    Ignorance is the only sin! This article may foster dialog, but it is ignorant to the idea of being spiritual. Spirituality is a way of "being" within the world. Religion is, and always will be, a club, and a business.Being spiritual "is" seeking understanding of Divinity. Ah but does this fly in the face of the people in the club, who scream from the rooftops that unless you are in "our" club, you will not get to heaven? Ego driven "anything" doesn't serve mankind and only continues to foster ignorance. #1 we all must work to relinquish our attachments i.e. Ego. #2 Anyone who says they know what God wants for you, is a lair. Only through your own spiritual discipline, can you find Truth. The Creators Divinity is everywhere but only when we seek it without judgement of others, can we really find it.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  6. Julia

    Think what you want too. It's your own life and death/afterlife(?). Nobody should (or in reality CAN) make any decisions for anybody else.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  7. JGANUKEAPELSD

    JGA Phillip Anthony Biondo for President 2012 of the Fraternity Party! Kegs party at the White House! Free College like k-12. Free Healthcare. All safe drugs over the counter. Escorts legal. Casinos legal. The American Citizens are not intelligent enough to elect me. Evolution, big bang, God of Universe and Milky Way. I'm suing the supreme court Apes for freedom of Religion, I suffer from severe depression because holy medicines, primarily thc, psilocybin, mescaline, lsd, and dmt are illegal, in fact I committed suicide. Superhuman AI: 2045. Navy Nuclear Spaceships. Meditate. I'm a Sapien, what are you? Does Obama or Romney believe in global warming? We are like deer in the headlights.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  8. Marissa Luca

    I think this writer's analysis is entirely shallow, one-sided, and presumptuous. Clearly, this is not an idea that has been researched in any deep or curious fashion and I genuinely don't even think it warrants being published.

    Call me rash, arrogant, or cutting, but I think completely lumping a huge group of individuals that happen to share the same description of their beliefs, and quite frankly, how can you blame them when they are potentially talking to someone that is willing to delve so incompletely into the 'why' of these individual's motivations.

    I think the flaw in the reasoning behind the article is less about the superficiality of someone's response to such a loaded question such as, are you religious or just spiritual, and speaks more to the fact that I think a majority of people that say this probably don't feel safe with the asker. There are so many evaluations, forms of ridicule, and assumptions made about what is "normal", expected, or accepted in society that I think it's a small miracle people choose to answer at all.

    How about we take the time to see how people are living their lives, how they treat their families and those that cannot offer them anything in return, and you'll see the truth of their character manifest. After all, hasn't it been argued over hundreds of years that merely calling oneself a Christian, a Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., doesn't mean that you live like one?

    I'd rather have a conversation with a discerning person, whether or not they label themselves, and truly understand their motivations and ways of living/exploring their spirituality, than to simply get a one word answer that says very little about one's actions or values.

    I'm all for being able to argue both sides of an issue to better understand it, but I think this person would benefit from a bit of genuine curiosity for an individual's beliefs, rather than assuming that because someone says very little that they are not possibly thinking very deeply about the subject. Maybe this person isn't saying very little.. they're just saying very little to you.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  9. Jack

    the author's argument is completely invalid because it's based upon logical fallacy. he is making the assumption that spiritual but not religious is inherently and always a half-baked attempt at trying to reconcile various threads of world religions, philosophies and such. but where does he get this evidence from? I myself fit into that category. I was born and raised Catholic until I realized that the church is dominated by completely dysfunctional pedophiles. I mean how much more obvious that world religion is messed up can you get than that? think about it. the Catholic Church is clearly the largest pedophilia ring in the world. ironic doesn't even come close to describing out one. so I then took a world religions course in college and then set out on my own study as well. eventually, I came back with my own very solid combination of that which feels right to me. do I have to deal with creepy old men in black robes who molest children? hell no, and I'm glad for that. and speaking about hell, how much more evidence do you need that it's all just made up anyway? after all, the entire concept of hell was created at the Council of Nicaea in four A.D. by men, because the church was losing money because people were no longer paying indulgences. everything about man-made religion is just that: man-made. any element of divine truth that ever was a part of this was lost long ago and the same can be said with every major religion. so since his entire article is based on logical fallacy (i.e. where does he get his evidence from?) and world religions are inherently fraudulent and more so than ever today, his argument is invalid. as Gandhi said, "if you call me a Christian, you insult me. if you call me Christlike, you pay me the highest tribute." words of truth no doubt and spoken by someone who would quickly be denounced by all major religions simply because he is not one of them.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Jack,

      Can you post any information that list the child abuse rates in the Catholic Church compared with other large organizations, be they religious or not?

      October 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • William

      The report stated there were approximately 10,667 reported victims (younger than 18 years) of clergy sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002. That's just the sex abuse part but since the church is so good at cover ups it will be hard to know the honest true facts.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Bill

      Jack, you seem to be reacting against many of the truly horrible crimes that have been committed by christians throughout church history. I understand completely your frustration but hear me out: you can't reject an idea just because it has been misused or misrepresented. You even seem to acknowledge that such atrocities are inconsistent with the values and standards of Christianity. Take time to truly consider the Christian faith, if only so you can better refute it:) Here are some good places to start: http://www.reasonablefaith.org, http://www.biologos.com, http://www.rzim.org

      October 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • ...

      Hey BD. Do your own homework if you are able to think.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Jack

      test – my response is not being posted. it says it is a duplicate that was already posted but it is not showing up.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Jack,

      Check the list of hints on page #174 - that might be a cause of your trouble posting.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Jack

      i am never posting on this completely incompetent website again. tried seven times but it won't let me. what a waste of time. could have been a great conversation.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Jack

      Bill Deacon – "everyone else is doing it so it's okay" is not an argument against flagrant evil/pedophilia. and until you post evidence, you are only peddling a theory. and then even so, do you really not think the catholic church should hold itself to a higher standard ??

      October 1, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Jack

      Bill – thanks for your response. tried writing many more thoughtful responses but CNN won't allow them. will check out websites but i already know plenty about catholicism as i was born and raised one and even became "born again."sadly, it all ended with nothing but guilt and unworthiness.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Jack

      Posted this on one of your other posts, so I don't know if you read it.

      Go to my blog, and either message me directly or post a comment with your responses. I'll look them over and see if I can find the problem.
      I don't think my blog has a word filter so it should go through without a problem.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I've done my own homework on this issue which is why I always ask people who falsely claim the entire Catholic Church is a pedophile ring. The truth is, as horrible as any single case is, that it just ain't so. The figure given above of about 11,000 in 52 years is accurate. That translates to 211 cases/year on average world wide. The most readily available data from abuse advocates says that there are 211,000 cases in the United States each and every year. This means that the world wide abuse by Catholic priests is accountable for less than 1/10 percent of the the cases in the United States alone. Correlating the data in other terms shows that your child is three times as likely to be abused by a public school teacher, Cub Scout leader or your favorite uncle than by a Catholic priest.

      I know we all like facts and provable assertions when it comes to religion so I just thought I would, once again, introduce a little reality to the topic.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Jack,

      All heartbreak over the failures of clergy aside, allow me to invite you back to the mass my brother.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • mike w

      Well that is sad, Billy D, because that means there is even more going on behind locked doors of Catholic private schools, etc. that never meets the light of day. Very sad for those victims. But of course we do know it goes on because we know that celibacy is unnatural and will often play havoc with a man's psyche.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Jack

      sorry about the short comment to follow Bill D, but CNN is censoring every single thing i write. it is bay far the most useless filtering system i have ever experienced and these people should seriously be ashamed of themselves.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Let's assume the rates are as Bill Deacon lists them. There is still a significant difference involved. Have any of the other organizations been accused of systematically hiding the perpetrators to protect them from discovery/prosecution ?

      October 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Jack

      Bill D, it's bad enough that priests ra / pe (need to get past filter) children – the most horrific crime of all. but covering it up constantly is just absolutely unforgivable – especially when they claim to be divinely inspired. and again, shouldn't the church have a higher, if not impeccable, standard for themselves?

      October 1, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Jack,

      If you can't find the flagged word fragments in your posts, please take up hawaiiguest on his offer and post your non-appearing comments on his blog (just click on his blue screen name to go there) - then he or we can help you look for the offending words. I know it's a pain - but it's all we've got here, and most of us just cope with it.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Jack,

      I agree with you. The problem is less the fact that there were priests that committed these horrible crimes, but that the church covered them up.

      In this regard the Catholic Church is no different to Pennsylvania State University, the Boy Scouts of America and the University of Syracuse. Arguably corporations behave essentially the same way – think Enron. It is demonstrably human behavior.

      Should the church be held to a higher standard than the average person?. Yes. I think it should.

      Bill reasonably points out that the extent of the criminal activity was not particularly widespread and this is a pragmatic statement. He does not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I would also suggest that this scandalous behaviour is not a reason to turn your back on Catholic teachings.

      The reason to turn your back on Catholic doctrine is if you no longer believe it. Then the actions of the church, good or bad, are immaterial.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @midwest rail,

      I have heard allegations of the molestation of boys made about Buddhist monasteries. I don't know if they are true or not true and don't have any sources handy.

      I think the sad example of the Penn State football program is a relevant illustration of how these terrible things are permitted to happen.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  10. ryD

    my karma ran over your dogma

    October 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  11. Robert in Atl

    On the contrary, Mr. Miller, the "danger" is from people who just KNOW they are right and want to enforce that opinion on everyone else. See 9/11, Waco, Jonestown, etc., ad infinitum. It takes far more courage to admit you don't know than it does to become a brainwashed follower.

    I suspect your problem with "spiritual" folks is that they are not affirming your personal choice, not sending money and not obeying you or your favorite religious huckster. Man up, Mr. Miller, admit you don't know a thing about the ultimate verities – and leave the honest people alone.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Zigman Bird

      I agree. In my opinion the author is a dope!

      October 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  12. LANEY

    Spiritual-but-not-religious camp definition given in this article is similar to the Gnostic. The Gnostic have the "knowing" and spiritual-but-not-religious camp have the "feeling". Both the Gnostic and the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are taking a stand. The stand that is being taken is that both have shared belief that the hierarchy of order that religion has to offer is not the correct order that is why they are not embracing religion. Both believe that the connection with their faith is intimate and closer to the self. Not thru the "order" of the hierarchy. The rejection of religious order is because of the prejudice that religion has assisted with such as crusades and women being stoned to death. Religion has been used as a "tool" for abuse and violence. Therefore religion has proven to be the opposite of peace. Gnosticism was there before religion and will be there after religion. The authority of religion is being rejected, for good reason. It’s a tool being used for abuse, judgment, prejudiced and violence. Religions authority somehow makes the follower believe that they and their religion can somehow judge others, as if they are superior. The pursuit of peace and harmony is favored over "this set of religions practices. The mentality religion encompasses is only irritating, provoking and escalating violence, worldwide. The spiritual-but-not-religious camp is NOT sitting on the fence, its simply choosing to not participate in said religious mentality but rather live in peace and respectful of all peoples thought, KNOWING that peace and harmony is the way. We can never get to peace and harmony until the tool (aka religion) no longer is there to yield its prejudice, judgment, abuse and violence. The spiritual-but-not-religious camp is able to demonstrate that by doing nothing you are still making a choice and that choice is peace any harmony.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  13. Socal Reggae

    My God:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QLsJqY9IoU&w=640&h=390]

    October 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Socal Reggae

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QLsJqY9IoU&w=640&h=390]

    October 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  15. The Guy In The Picture

    "Yes sensimilla sensai! I will practice Qi Bong every day!!

    October 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  16. James Viser

    At the core of spiritual thinking is the recognition that people are spiritual beings existing in a physical body, and that all people are part of the same family and children of the same God. This idea facilitates unity, which at the highest form is Love. All great religious traditions address this truth in some way, and the spiritual person will see the things that religions have in common.

    Unfortunately, religious thought hasn't kept pace with the rising tide of people who recognize the essential unity of humanity and that God has spoken to his people since the beginning of creation in one way or another. Religion is made by man, and the spiritual person strives to see the common truths given by God in all of the great religions.

    Contrary to the author's assumption, the true spiritual path is not easy and "feel good." Truly spiritual people work at self discipline daily and are found in all faiths. They are hard workers and observant, especially with themselves. And, that is the hallmark of a truly spiritual person – someone who sees him or her weaknesses in the clear light of reason and the soul, absent of illusion or ego. They see the difference between the "Point A" of who they are today and the "Point B" of who they will become in the future – the image of God in which we were all created. And, they work with persistence to build the character consistent with that vision. Spiritual people see others in all faiths choosing to assume the burden of self discipline and sacrifice of what is not that image. It is not an easy path!

    We spend much time and energy attempting to impose our little wills on each other, and would do better to remain humble and try to serve His Will instead. We will remain separate until we attempt to see ourselves in each other.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Vance

      Very well-spoken point! Thank you for your input, James.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Beth B

      This is such a beautifully written expression of exactly what I feel I am saying when I call myself "spiritual but not religious." The author of the article's recitation of the dogmatic approach of organized religion is what I personally find too restrictive. My choice is to not belong to a religion where I am told what to think and what I must believe. All the religions of the world are man-made. I have studied many religions and all of them boil down to some very simple premises that I believe express the Word of God. All the rest is made up by the men who were in charge at what ever time in history the religion was developing. I live by the Word of God, not the words of some men 2,000 or 5,000 years ago.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • James Viser

      Vance and Beth B, thank you for your comments. If you are so inclined, there are some posts at w w w (dot) j a m e s v i s e r (dot) c o m that you might find interesting.

      October 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Spirited

      We have a winner....

      October 1, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  17. Lawrence

    Dead people do not come back to life...simple as that.

    To be Religious in the Christian context requires you to believe a dead person can be resurrected. As long as this lie is perpetuated, Religion will continue to lose it's place in Western Society.

    I am not young – 45 years old. From as far back as I can remember I have not believed. I can't – even as a child I knew there wasn't an Ark, people don't live in the mouths of whales, people don't walk on water, and they most assuredly don't die and miraculously come back to life.

    Feel free to believe in what you wish – but the inevitable decline of Religion in enlightened societies is happening and will continue to happen. The more secular and free market oriented societies seem to be the most successful ones in terms of quality of life and material prosperity – this is no coincidence.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  18. SickOfLiesInNYC

    Being spiritual without being religious simply means that people find ways to connect to God (or their concept of God) without using the crutch of man-made dogma that only serves to cause hate and fear of "the other" (anyone who does not believe like they do)

    October 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  19. The Guy In The Picture

    "Wow, what a show!" clap clap clap "These surfers are really something!"...

    October 1, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Or: "Man it stings when I get the sunscreen in my eyes"

      October 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  20. Good News

    Yes, there is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    which is supported by an absolutely matchless, Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

    So it is time to be Spiritual, and yes, also rightfully Religious!

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    October 1, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.