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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. Chris

    Allen Miller, you wrote:
    " Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"

    Excuse me but as a Catholic I am going for both goals. It isn't an exclusive either-or dichotomy.

    October 4, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  2. Ryan

    Allan, I simply do not agree with your outlook on this. My "spiritual but not religious outlook" comes from being a roman catholic most of my life. I understood the love and affection, compassion and reason within the stories we read. However the understanding from others within my sect appeared to be filled with lack of compassion toward certain groups (in general, sinners), and not understanding that their book has told them that we are all our fathers children, and deserve love. This has put me off of the Roman Catholic religion specifically and left me with a deep connection toward what I learned from a book that seemed to be inconsistent with the general public outlook. Therefore, why would i want to be part of an organization like that? Why not just believe what i know in my heart to be true and thank my soul for being who I am, meeting the people who I love, and having the strength to worry for those I do not know but are in trouble. That is my spiritual connection with my soul and some sort of belief in a higher power. I do not need to be in a religion to have that blind commitment without having my own free thoughts .

    October 4, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Len F.

      Hey Ryan, I salute you and appreciate your comments. Your own free thoughts pursued with sincerity are very important, just have faith the the Higher Power can and will direct your thoughts, and therefore, your actions, and your life. Peace.

      October 4, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  3. Katie

    Christians and Catholic stole all of thier ideas and forms of worship from Pagans so technically they are the confused pagan ones.

    October 4, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Nii

      Katie
      I am a spiritual Christian. That means what Christ taught is what I seek to practise. His interpretation of the Old Testament is what i use to understand the Bible. You see. Christ was not a pagan. He did not have to be to teach the true meaning of spirituality. Spirituality is not confusion. Many other spiritual people of other religions may call it different things like Enlightenment, Fruit of the Holy Spirit, holiness, wisdom, etc but it all boils down to the same thing. Love, joy, peace, righteousness, humility, peaceability, tolerance, honesty, etc are found in people who love their neighbor as themself. That is not confusion. If you are religious you want a religion to discredit another. A spiritual person looks at essence and if pagans can understand spirituality it does not affect Christians understanding it too.
      Only spiritual people have eternal life regardless of religion. As St Paul will tell you. Religiosity and its rules kill. Spirituality and its fruit give life.
      All of us die but not everyone lives. You gain eternal life on Earth not in the after-life if there is one. Like-wise eternal death is here on Earth not in the After-life if it exists. I have eternal life and its a joy! I hope you learn it.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:05 am |
    • Nii

      Katie
      I am a spiritual Christian. That means what Christ taught is what I seek to practise. His interpretation of the Old Testament is what i use to understand the Bible. You see. Christ was not a pagan. He did not have to be to teach the true meaning of spirituality. Spirituality is not confusion. Many other spiritual people of other religions may call it different things like Enlightenment, Fruit of the Holy Spirit, holiness, wisdom, etc but it all boils down to the same thing. Love, joy, peace, righteousness, humility, peaceability, tolerance, honesty, etc are found in people who love their neighbor as themself. That is not confusion. If you are religious you want a religion to discredit another. A spiritual person looks at essence and if pagans can understand spirituality it does not affect Christians understanding it too.
      Only spiritual people have eternal life regardless of religion. As St Paul will tell you. Religiosity and its rules kill. Spirituality and its fruit give life.
      All of us die but not everyone lives. You gain eternal life on Earth not in the after-life if there is one. Likewise eternal death is here on Earth not in the After-life if it exists. I have eternal life and its a joy! I hope you learn it.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  4. Curt

    Well, Alan, it seems you are missing a vital point about religion; religion is man-made. That assertion might point in the direction of too drastic a paradigm shift for those who have been lulled into believing that even the Christian faith is a religion - which, decidedly, it is not! Take an honest look sometimes when you have a few minutes, and you will quickly see that no mere human being had a hand in establishing the life changing grace which is the core of that faith. All religions are man-made, and require works. Set that against "This grace [the core of the Christian faith] was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time." No man around then to have a hand in the matter! Those who want spirit sans religion, are just as lost as the most ardent of religionists, unless they accept that "Christ IN YOU [is the only] hope of glory." To accomplish this, religion is useless. So is misguided "spirituality." Check it out

    October 4, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  5. Ryan

    I think this article is a good example of why the Belief Blog should be peer-reviewed. Mr. Miller's personally insulting string of internally inconsistent vitriol would have had to address the abundance of evidence that much of the criticism of Religion he labels self-centered, part of the "me" generation, was present since at least Martin Luther and his predecessors. Much of the Protestant Reformation coalesced under the banner of freeing people from the tyranny of having a small group of people interpret the Bible for them. There is nothing new, nothing "me generation," about seeking an individual relationship with God, nor is there anything new about rejecting the dogma of a particular church.

    But more infuriatingly still, Mr. Miller ignores the epistemological problem of metaphysics–namely, how it is that we as humans can come to know God, God's word, God's will, or whether truly "knowing" any of that in the sense of having reached a complete and flawless understanding is even possible. One major academic criticism of religion is that, even under the assumption that a God who wants us to know Him exists, humans have an inherently flawed understanding of the Divine because our ability to interpret is limited and shaped by our prior experiences. The notion that a small group of self-appointed elites, whose knowledge of God is equally imperfect, whose expertise is impossible to validate, and whose dictates have no external checking mechanism would judge other people whose thoughts are only indirectly accessible to the "expert" in the first place, and especially the notion that they would dictate what and how other people should think and act in all situations without fully understanding either the people or their situations, is at best intellectually unsound, and at worst, exploitative and evil. Mr. Miller's argument doesn't make sense in and of itself, but it is especially insipid when considering his misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the wide swath of different beliefs he callously dismisses with broad brushstrokes.

    CNN would do well to have peers in the field review and comment on these "articles" before letting them go to print. I think that there is some room for dialogue since this blog is not nearly as time-sensitive as the rest of their website, but the blog as it is now is paradoxically also of far lower quality than the material that is written in presumably much less time.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Ryan

      righteous!

      October 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Len F.

      Hey, Ryan, CNN should have asked you to write the article, not Alan Miller. Your prose is excellent, your arguments are clear, and appeal elegantly to the rational mind.

      October 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Rob

      Ryan, your problems of religious epistemology aren't particularly academic. Even if they were, this wouldn't this be the right place for Miller to exposit the "Sensus Divinitatis" as understood by Aquinas, Calvin, the Scottish Common Sense Realists, or more recently analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga. There are other places to have the issues you've handed Miller answered in full.

      October 4, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  6. Amy Forsythe

    So the author finds it impossible that thinking human beings can live morally without a corporate handbook as a guide? (along with all the accompanying rules). You are kidding no one but yourself, friend, and every holy book is exactly a book of rules, edited over time by politicians and priests to promote whatever ideals they're pushing at the moment.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Andy

      Dear Amy,
      I am hoping that this was written just to get everyone "riled up revved up and raved up." It could not have been serious. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The premise that the spiritual cannot exist without a "religion system" is reversed around. A religion system cannot exist without the spirituality arriving first. Just the logic and opinion I have, and I am a very "spiritual" atheist in the good way.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • Nii

      Andy
      Thanks so much. Spirituality does precede religion. Religion is an attempt to codify spiritual experience. If you can grasp the essence of spirituality you then realise that religion is vastly inferior to spirituality. This is the Bible's message in a nutshell. Though as a spiritual Christian I have to wade through the imperfection of the written Word it grants me insight into the essence of the Spiritual Word which grants me eternal life or Enlightenment as some may call it.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  7. PRISM 1234

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3_Ufa9pdbQ&w=640&h=390]

    Ther is NO OTHER WAY!

    October 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • sam stone

      prissy....well, congrats, you have AN OPINION like everybody else

      October 4, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Chef Sun

      You probably meant to spell Thor is the only way. Son of Odin, mighty god of thunder. Thor is my personal god protector.

      October 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  8. BlindFaithisSin

    One could argue the opposite - that practicing a faith and being religious is a cop out. Most do it out of fear - the fear of afterlife punishment, or fear or community rejection or prosecution. It takes courage to abandon established doctrines and lead your life by your own choices and free agency. How safe it seems to have a church give you all the trite answers! If there is a soul, I think it would be better to have lived authentically and accept the consequences (if any) than to have lived by someone else's rules and be oh so disappointed they were wrong.

    October 4, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Rob

      "Most [religious adherents] do it out of fear – the fear of afterlife punishment, or fear or community rejection or prosecution"

      What or where is your data for this?

      October 4, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Rob

      "Most [religious adherents] do it out of fear – the fear of afterlife punishment, or fear or community rejection or prosecution"

      What or where is your data for this claim?

      October 4, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • sam stone

      Rob: I don't know whether it is most religious adherents who do it out of fear, but those who do so seem to be well represented on these blogs. How often do we read proxy warnings along the lines of "if you don't believe, hell awaits"?

      October 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Max

      Rob, have you ever heard of Pascal's Wager?

      October 4, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Rob

      Same Stone: Why take the fire and brimstone preachers on this blog as representative of Christians as a whole, much less adherents of all religions?

      Max: Yes, I have. I was a Philosophy & Religion major in college.

      October 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Tim

      I consider myself "spiritual but not religious" because while I believe in a higher power, I doubt that any of the world's major religions have all the answers. Why is that so hard to understand?

      October 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • sam stone

      rob: i don't take them as representative of christians as a whole

      October 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  9. Julia

    One man's fish is another man's poison.

    October 4, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  10. Best News

    FALL SPECIAL!!

    Blood of Jesus
    Water of Jesus

    Your choice – 2oz. or 4oz. gold decorative bottles.
    (special ends 10/31/2012)

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

    October 4, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  11. Best News

    Sorry, duplicate comments below were not intentional.
    Please, read the first one and ignore the others.

    October 4, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • sam stone

      Better yet, we can ignore all your posts

      October 4, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  12. Good News

    We may be truly Spiritual, and also righfully Religious now,

    because GOD has thus sent the "Ultimate Proof" here:

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

    =UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES=

    October 4, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  13. Best News

    There is only one real GOD
    and His one true RELIGION

    that is revealed in an absolutely Matchless,
    most Powerful and Superb MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

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

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

    =UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES=

    October 4, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  14. Best News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    that is revealed in an absolutely Matchless, most Powerful and Superb MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

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

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

    =UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES=

    October 4, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  15. Best News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    that is revealed in an absolutely Matchless, most Wonderful and Superb MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

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

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

    **UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES**

    October 4, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  16. saggyroy

    I was just wondering why the belief blog is under the opinion section......hmmmmmm

    October 4, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  17. Huh

    This article is a lazy, superficial, often absurd exposition on a serious topic. What in the world does a "cop out" even mean? Where does one get the sense of authority to say that another person must subscribe to some organized ideology to be taken seriously? Especially when there are dozens or hundreds of such ideologies, most of which have track records ranging from controversial to heinous? How does the author manage to lump together all "spiritual independents" into one condescending stereotype?

    The irony is that it is not the "spiritual but not religious", but rather the author of this article, who indeed "avoids having to think too hard".

    October 4, 2012 at 5:52 am |
  18. PeterVN

    Like that great blog post said, religion is for the ignorant, the gullible, the cowardly, and the stupid, and for those who would profit from them.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • Julia

      That's an opinion I do not share. Many people enjoy comparative religious studies, or forms of religions that are not profitable to anyone.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  19. Property in Lucknow

    I appreciate you sharing this blog.Thanks
    Property in Lucknow

    October 4, 2012 at 2:45 am |
  20. Terminal Ferocity

    Taliban and al-Qaeda warlords have brutally attacked Sufi devotees – the 'spiritual' wing of their own Islamic religion. The dogma wing attacking the spiritual wing that teaches compassion, because the dogma can't co-exist with the notion of compassion. Deadly skirmishes – as old as all of human history. Some are hopelessly imprisoned inside their ideological preferences and they can see nothing outside the prison gates. Plato spoke of it in his "Cave Shadow Allegory." They're just stuck. And no 'hammer & chisel' rescue effort is ever going to dislodge them. You can't force a thirsty goat to drink. Just show them the watering hole and leave them to their own choices.

    October 4, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Nii

      As Christ said a spiritual person is like the wind. No one knows how he got here and neither do they know where he is to go.
      It is sad when religious people think they are the only religionists in town. Piety is not so highly rated among the spiritual. Charitable love is what the spiritual think on. I am a spiritual Christian and I am glad for it. I know spiritual Hindus, Atheists and Muslims too. We click. Religious Christians can't stand me though.

      October 4, 2012 at 3:41 am |
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About this blog

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.