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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. Jackie Hartman

    What Alan Miller fails to address is the reason why people are rejecting formal religions. These religions that have answered the questions of life are now seen as outdated and so often controlling doctrinal statements that really have a hidden agenda of power. Mr. Miller wants us to choose one. To accept a religion that gives us answers. Has it occurred to Mr. Miller that we cannot know answers to these questions? All major religions have a history of patriarchy. They have pitted their believers against other believers boasting of their correctness. This is all man-made rhetoric. While humans do want answers to these questions, and many are given the comfort of the answers provided by a religion, others have started seeing through perpetrated 'facts' as contrived. There is angst for many without answers but that is our reality. The wonderful advances given to us through science such as the Hubble telescope have absolutely overturned the creation stories of these religions. I am comforted to see individuals think for themselves and not be a follower of a line of fiction. My own proclamation has always been "Religion is me telling you that a god told me what to tell you to do." And wouldn't that be ridiculous!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  2. Pey

    Bottom line. Is there a positive outcome for the individual and society or not? If being 'spiritual but not religious' creates a happy person who makes a change for the common good, then it's a positive phenomenon. If being a part of a rigid religious community on the other hand creates disharmony in society, then better to do without organized religion. Ask yourself this, when was the last time people were killed or a war started between factions of "spiritual but not religious" people vs. all the religious sects in the world today?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  3. Andrea

    I have a difficult time believing that the writer of this article really believes what he has written. While not everyone that follows a specific religion believes that their religion is the only path... many people do. I find that those who are "spiritual" but not followers of a specific religion are people who do not condemn others for their beliefs. They accept people and their right to decide for themselves... they do not push their beliefs on others. You may say that this is because they have no beliefs... untrue. I believe that everyone needs to follow their own path and discover their beliefs as they educate themselves or are educated through school. If they choose to follow a specific religion... good for them; if they choose not to follow a religion but be a spiritual person that's fine too. EVERYONE has the right to choose for themselves without threatening those that do not choose the same path. ALL life is valuable.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  4. Centrist and Realist

    While I appreciate the sentiment behind Miller's article, I think he missed one point. Many "spiritual but not religious" people simply grew tired of the dogma's of organized religions. The churches today are fraught with contradictions and a focus on money. Maybe, if organized religions can fix this, some of the "spiritual but not religious" people may return to the churches.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  5. John

    What a gross characterization of "spiritual, not religious." The fact is, people are realizing religion for what it is–Man's best guess at God, but a guess that is outdated, wrong, and above all, not created by any God himself. Man has created God. People who reject religion but are still seeking a higher truth based on their personal experiences can be spiritual, but not religious. To me, it's the logical position. To demand that people take a stand when they may not be certain is stupid rigidity. It's no sin to realize that what's being taught in most formal religions is false, and to try and find your own path. If I may say so, if there's a god, then it's godly!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  6. Neil

    While organized religion has played an important role in history, for both good and bad, as we become a single global community religion serves as much to divide as to unite ( e.g. See Middle East). The trend the author dislikes is more an acknowledgement that the organized religions all possess central themes of moral behavior which most everyone embraces (Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddist, etc) and we more and more reject the assertion that only one religion is "right". I have meet good, moral people from all backgrounds and it is hard to imagine them going to "hell" because they don't buy into the specific teachings of one church. Religion is an important moral compass, but I think the so called "spiritual" view acknowledges the key point there is no single right path – rather many right paths based in the basic teachings of all the great religions. The Author should continue to try to live a good life and not judge others because we're not part of his club.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Let's Keep Evolving

      Spot on! We MUST begin to move away from the religious silos of the past and seek unified values on a world stage! It's humanity's only hope in m opinion.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  7. kelf62

    This guy is so off-base it's not funny. I've been a Catholic and a Protestant, and have come to realize that religion is man's way of imposing his own beliefs on another individual. Religion is the reason for wars. Religion is the reason for death, its the reason for distruction and the abuse of power by those who controlling others. I am extremely spiritual, and I believe that a higher power based on love would not condone any of the tunnel-visioned, short-sighted teachings of any of today's major religions. Just think of what the world would be like with only spiritual people respecting others for their beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Ronilyn Mussared

      yes, you are correct.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  8. mm

    Oddly, two of my comments, very mild ones, just got censored by the religious author.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • midwest rail

      There are no censors here – only a word filter.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  9. Stephen

    Let me try an analogy to explain to the author what spiritual but not religious means.

    For centuries, men organized card games where the people were compelled to play and to gamble their hard earned money. The organizers fixed the odds in their favor so naturally they would become rich and powerful while giving little in return to their fellow man besides "keep the faith, there's hope for you in the next life". One day two men sat down to play cards without going to the casino and without gambling. They played just for the sheer pleasure it gave them. They knew something greater than the casino owners existed and they decided to find it on their own.

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

      Well said, Stephen! The author has the right to his opinions and his choice of religious/spiritual path, but it says a lot about him that he feels he has the wisdom and knowledge to judge whether anyone else's path is correct. This view is one reason so many people are leaving organized religion. I do attend a church, but it is that respects and encourages me to think for myself and follow whatever spiritual path feels right to me. I wouldn't assume to tell anyone else what their path is, and the author's idea that only organized religion is the right answer and that any other path is a cop-out tells me that he is missing the point entirely.

      I had thought that a deep personal relationship with some kind of higher energy, whether it be God, the universe, our own inner wisdom, nature, or whatever a person feels is the point of the organized religions (well, they say that is the point, but it doesn't bear out in life way too often, and people who comment as the author did make one think that it is about control, money, and power)? It is truly bizarre to sit at one's computer to type an article with a mindset that one can look into every human's heart, no matter where all those people are, and see what is in their heart. It is even more bizarre in my opinion to assume that anyone could know whose spiritual path is a "cop-out" and why anyone would even consider the idea that he could do that, even if it were appropriate to do so.

      I would never attempt to tell the author what he should believe or judge whether it is a cop-out or not. Was this a deadline or need to stir controversy? Mr. Miller, what you assume in your article and your air of having arrived at the wisdom that everyone else should think as you do is exactly why so many have decided that churches are run by people who really don't have all the answers, but who tend to think they do and that everyone else should take their word for what is the "right" answer. The man in your picture looks pretty happy to me and isn't hurting anyone. That is more than I can say for many I see who are leading those organized churches you seem to feel are the right place to be.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  10. tayo

    what a stupid article...i guess he just wanted to get a reaction out of ppl because he's bored. Having been born muslim, attened both methodist and catholic schools, nurtured freindships from all over the world with various religions and beliefs from atheist to zen to wica. I have stepped away from organized religion as well. I could not figure out how we are able to co exsist in this world with every religion thinking it is the only way and so bent ont his that they must force it down others throats. and if you dont accept you become that "poor lost soul".. religion is one of the main causes of why "we" can not get it together. Yes i still believe in God but i have cut out the hipocracy that is the middle man (religion )...if u delve deep enough into an religion you may see we all believe in the same GOD so why all the all the division.. even amongst religions themselves.. in the end we will all end up in the same place so why step on others to get there. live and let live.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Ronilyn Mussared

      I agree with you 100%,tayo!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  11. G. Hawkins

    Great article... I loved it ... .....

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

      Take a stand? OK. I believe that people can and will believe whatever the hell they want to believe. I believe you are an irresponsible and possibly dangerous hack that believes you are a reporter, and I believe you should be fired and never again hired by a news organization again – maybe you should work for Fox News, they could use another irresponsible "journalist".

      October 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • dafuqineats

      argh, that was meant to be a reply to the article. Sorry!

      October 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  12. Charlie J

    Geez! Straw man arguments, begging the question, What a load of crap! If traditional religion offers me NOTHING why is that my fault? And I know the Bible better than most Christians do.
    For example, one of the things to take from the teachings of Jesus is to not worry about the splinter in other people's eyes when you have a log in your own. I have my hands full trying to figure out how to be a good person without worrying over whether other people go to church enough.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Mike G

      You claim to know the Bible better than most Christians...read it some more.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  13. femmefatale8

    Fear not Alan, here in the South old habits die hard – there are more young people than not who adhere to following religious traditions. And personally, I have to disagree about traditions setting a standard/reigning people in. Many slave masters and dictators throughout history have been recorded as being fiercely dedicated to their beliefs... but they were still terrible people. It's a small percentage, I know, but there's enough room for everyone as long as no one has a stick up their bum. By the way, nice choice for the main photo. Well played. I suppose one of a pot-smoking, long-haired hippie wasn't available?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  14. Sara

    You lost me at "Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world." Is he seriously trying to say SCIENCE doesn't advocate for a literal translation of the world? Religion is all about having faith in things that aren't literal or prove-able. It's the scientific method that demands we look at what is actually happening in the world, therefore literal. Religion and science don't have to compete. For a long time they didn't. If religious people could leave science out of it, they'd be a lot better off and maybe wouldn't be losing so many people to 'spirituality'.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  15. Proud American

    So the 'church' (for whatever organized religion) is losing control and can't rob people of their money anymore. Good. What happens to all that money people put into the 'collection plate'? Its sitting in places like the Vatican and other centers of worship that serves no real purpose other than to be a bunch of filthy rich bigots. Spirituality can't come from a forced set of beliefs, rules, and crap, it comes from within. Forced sets of beliefs and rules are the main cause for crusades, jihads, and most other wars. Those who set the beliefs and rules are leaches and those who follow are merely sheep.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  16. Douglas

    "I do not concern myself with gods and spirits either good or evil nor do I serve any."
    -Lao Tzu

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  17. Mike

    What I find more interesting and revealing than the article is the responses. Granted, I only perused three pages, but the general theme was one of discrediting the author and/or his views. This article is "his take," which I interpret as his perception and thus opinion, but apparently attacked the goodness of every reader who considered themselves part of this "SBNR" movement. Opinion historically is irrational (emotionally based rather than logically based), as was his article and most of the responses that I read. The article's comments mimic this irrational style. Discussion, especially eighteen pages worth, cannot come from rational or fact based dissent (imagine engineers arguing this much over beam deflection data). In writing this article, the Miller set the stage for a prime portrayal humans' defense of their goodness, of an "I'm right, you're wrong, if you say otherwise I will attack what you value."

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • fpga

      So, let's talk about facts. Climate change is real. Our economy is a fiction based the diminishing resource of oil, and over-pumping of the water tables of each continent. Religions center on imaginary beings interacting with a sometimes real history
      of genocide. Religion will most likely transform our children's lives into a living hell, as the 7 billion humans of today transforms
      themselves into the 1 billion people or less are sustainable (much less given the likely effects of climate change). So, lets all go
      to church or yoga class or whatever, and pretend it's not going to happen.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  18. Pattielaine

    How can one condemn spirituality when we are nothing but spirit but again he can't understand that everything in this world contains an opposite and thus his beliefs have opposite beliefs. This world can't operate without one or the other.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • SciGuy

      Nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  19. Greg

    I happy not being Christian. I don't owe Christianity anything. The author is scared that this country is going to slip into some sort of dark ages, but he couldn't be any further from the truth. On percentage, most people in the US still identify as Christian but this guy needs to figure out how to deal with those of us that are not without sounding so condescending. I'm especially frightened by his historical assertion that all of this wouldn't be possible without Christianity. The arrogance is appalling.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  20. Marty in MA

    copout, no. Intellegent, yes.

    Religion is outdated. Science is in.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.