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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 (9,994 Responses)
  1. ElizaB18

    As someone who defines myself as spiritual but not religious, I strongly disagree with Mr. Miller. I particularly disagree with his assessment that categorizing myself as such means that I am not thinking deeply about religious issues. I studied religion as an undergraduate, am currently working for an organization that studies faith and public policy, and am hoping to attend graduate school for the study of religion next year. I think deeply, and almost constantly, about faith; however, I do not choose to affiliate myself with a particular religious tradition. I was raised Jewish and I find certain Jewish traditions and practices, particularly that of Shabbat, to be both powerful and beautiful ways of interacting with God. My sense of Jewish heritage means that I would not feel comfortable identifying with a different religious tradition. However, there are other aspects of the Jewish faith with which I am less comfortable, aspects that prevent me from feeling close to God. Rather than blindly follow a faith that I do not entirely agree with, I constantly evaluate both Judaism and other faith traditions in an attempt to find a spirituality that will help me personally to be a more moral and spiritual person. My decision not to affiliate with one religious tradition is born out of my interest in and respect for multiple faiths; it is also born out of my desire to avoid performing by rote or obligation a ritual that does not mean something to me. To do so would, in my opinion, diminish and disrespect my faith in God. I have my own series of rituals, some taken from the Jewish tradition, some that are more personal and individual, that I practice on a daily basis in order to feel close to God and be a more moral person. However, explaining all of this to everyone I meet is a bit complicated, so yes, I fall back on defining myself through the more easily recognizable category of “spiritual but not religious.”

    October 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Iva Pinion

      I completely identify with what you've said. I would add that I believe we do a great disservice to our Creator when we fail to use our gift of intelligence to blindly follow a preset doctrine. Best of luck in your future studies.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Ellen Zuckerman

      Very well said!

      October 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  2. disgusted

    Religion is the cop-out. What could be easier than accepting what you are told or what you read as the 'One Truth' with absolute faith? Just ignoring the contradictions with science and the outdated societal views, and placing your life in the hands of some 'all-knowing' and 'all-powerful' external being is far too easy.

    What's hard is taking personal responsibility for your life, your spirit, knowing yourself, and finding one-ness with the world.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  3. nadimstar

    "When you believe in things you don't understand, you suffer." -stevie wonder

    I was raised a christian baptist, but that was because thats how my mom was raised, now either of us go to church regularly. I don't go at all and she goes once in a blue moon. I am a spiritual person because I'm not stupid and its obvious there are other forces at work here, but I don't want someone telling me what they think it is when nobody really knows. Learning to trust in yourself and your instincts is vital to human survival whether you are involved in an organized religion or not. I believe in people, but not all people's ideas. Some are right and some are wrong, and this is why organized religions often feud, because one side is right and the other is wrong, or in each others religious texts this is so. The one thing we can all agree on is life is for living and loving bottom line. So live and love as you wish, but if you are not doing both of those things, then what is the point, what is your purpose? If you have love in your heart and you don't know what that feeling is, well, try and share it with someone and see how you make them feel. Sharing that love with others is what gives everyone, no matter how insignificant you might feel, a purpose for living and that is to spread the feeling of love. Enjoy humans.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  4. Just me

    I believe that "spiritual but not religious" is indicative of a general dis-trust of organized religion. At least it is in my case. I have many questions about religion but they are all having to do with the organized church, not the beliefs. Most religions teach the basic idea that you should be good to one another and not do intentional harm to anyone and look after each other. That's all. Do you really need to go to a certain building on a certain day and chant certain phrases and sing certain songs in order to practice these basic things? Who decided that we needed to do that? Who wrote these chants and songs? Where in the bible does it say that you must do these things in order to be considered a believer? Was it the organized religion who needs peolpe to attend in order to remain "in business"? I don't trust their motives.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Iva Pinion

      I couldn't agree more. I was raised Catholic, married in a Catholics church, etc ... and all my "faith" ever taught me was to question more. Why does the Church dictate that I benefit a charity "x" amount yet provide the Pope gold-plated toilets (no joke!); why do I have to confess my sins to another mortal to receive forgiveness – can't I just pray directly to the one "whom" I responsible; why must I receive counseling from a virgin celibate when I'm experiencing marriage problems? The Church is not out to benefit followers as individuals, but simply spread its own agenda and short-sided beliefs.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  5. pah

    If religious organizations were not so rigid and inflexible and filled with intolerance and an antipathy towards change in a changing world, maybe there would not be so many people trying to get away from it. Religious leaders do not welcome questions to what they say, generally. They talk about tolerance, but teach intolerance. "Think as I tell you, do as I tell you, you are too stupid to do it for yourself." Gee, I can't understand how anyone could dislike that!

    October 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      Sort of tough to be open to change when you feel that iron age stories represent the word of god

      October 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. One one

    It would be helpful if someone could define "spirit". What exactly is everyone talking about ?

    October 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @One one,

      that's exactly the point.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  7. snowboarder

    from this article, it appears the religous are feeling threatened by independent thinking.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  8. Ricardo

    Incredibly shallow analysis. Being religious does not make one hole or make one believe in certain set of values. I feel this is more of a defense from a religious zealot that feels like the grip is waning away. I've done good and bad deeds in my life, but I've never thought about the "sin" or "religious value" behind them. I think people are inherently good and we'll do good regardless of whether we are religious, spiritual or atheist.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • OOO

      I think you boiled it down pretty good.
      What's interesting is that his frustration with people who are "spiritual" is similar to an atheists. That they can't really define what spiritual is. However his take on it is "Why don't they get off the fence and be a part of a religion" whereas an athiest's take on it might be "Why don't you finally admit that you really don't believe in a supernatural god that is watching you".

      October 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • One one

      I'm not so sure. The author says: "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."

      I take that to mean people are reluctant to give up their gods and therefore do not accept the atheists view.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • OOO

      But don't you think that reluctance is mainly due to their upbringing (and to indoctrination)? It's the path I first went through before finally making that final step to athiesim.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • stillthinking

      the author of this article has no clue beyond his own pew
      and he is not so comfortable with the choices he is being asked to make
      and he looks down the pew and see that some people have left
      and is unconsciously made jealous thinking these people are happier than him
      and how can they be so happy AND not be part of the hell pew that he is too afraid to leave
      so now he is truly unhappy
      not only is he stuck to his hell pew
      he has to control his imagination that others live in heaven who never had to endure his hell
      so
      yeah
      unfair
      and he then tries to project his unhappiness at his hell onto the world of those whom he perceives to be happier
      cuz
      misery loves company
      especially if it needs
      your
      vote
      even if it means making you hate the other or themselves because they represent the other
      to hell with the pew and happiness
      he says
      just vote
      even if you are happy and not on the pew

      October 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  9. Yeppers

    Considering than many religions have wrung out every last drop of spirituality, it's not necesarily by choice that so many are "spiritual but not religious." The opposite is also true–many are "relgious but not spiritual"

    October 1, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Ricardo

      Very well said!

      October 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Iva Pinion

      Very well said. Some might argue that the younger generation of spiritualists lack the hypocrisy and cynicism of religious followers, as they are living what they truly believe rather than blindly following a given doctrine.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      My Take: 'I'm religious but not spiritual' is commonplace'

      At least with many of the self-professed Christians who post here.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  10. snowboarder

    the feeling of spirituality is just another of the traits which make up an individual. some part nature. some part nurture. that instills in a person the "feeling" of spiritual connection. probably not unlike the trait which instills in a person an attraction to a member of their own gender.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Lost In Space

      Why do you speciffically pick "probably not unlike the trait which instills in a person an attraction to a member of their own gender" as a comparison point? Seems like you are trying to insinuate something.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • snowboarder

      space – just another trait. probably completely outside of the control of the individual.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Jimbob

    no. just no.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  12. One one

    If spiritualism is really a "movement" are we going to eventually see them organize themselves into denominations and churches ?

    October 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  13. Keturah Mase

    I totally disagree with everything that Alan says.....but yes, he is allowed to say it. The 'spiritual' people that I have met over my lifetime far outshine (in every conceivable way) those that were brought up by and stayed with a church. Religion is a very personal thing and should be treated as such. I am with the Dalai Lama, who I believe said – "My religion is kindness".

    October 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  14. Eli Cabelly

    "Spiritual but not religious" simply means that they're believers, but they don't believe any of the current religions. That's all.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • One one

      Believers in what ?

      October 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  15. Dave

    A sense of spirituality spawned by the awe of nature and the universe, and understood through the scientific method, are all we need to be perfectly well rounded human beings. It's ALL explainable.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  16. clinky

    The article doesn't past the high-school English test: would this essay get a passing grade for research, evidence put toward relevant support, fairness, and reasoning skills in junior-year English class? It fails in all four areas. Not passable in high school and not worth publishing on CNN.

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

    The moment it is defined is the moment we stop searching. We cannot define our spiritual existence, nor were we meant to. Life is here for both physical and non expansion. It is not until death that we find absolute answers. The author is misunderstanding the concept. The mission is not to define anything, it is to question everything. There is no questioning an absolute belief.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  18. Wayne

    Mr Alan Miller, sir, you are stupid. This is not just a short poke at you, you truly must be stupid... as in low IQ, unable to reason on your own, unable to think beyond a certain point. I hope that very few people actually listen to what you have to say or swallow what you are serving. End of story.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  19. eram

    Just another busybody meddling in people's belief systems. Who gave Alan Miller the right to judge what is a cop out and what is a legitimate belief system? Sounds pretty arrogant.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  20. snowboarder

    religious beliefs in society are continually evolving, just like everything else.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Dyna

      I agree, this article fails to acknowledge that and lacks the depth to be of value.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:25 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.