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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. sokesky

    That guy sitting on the beach looks so very happy. I don't see the problem here.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  2. Carlos Chino

    Reblogged this on Carlos Chino.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  3. nicolethecat

    This article is clearly written by someone who wants to take a stance. I am apart of the spiritual and not religious and I must say I have very much wanted to take a stance, but the hypocrisy that surrounds so many religions has turned me off. You say that "spiritual-but not religious" types don't think too hard about religion and life? UNTRUE. This is something that I have thought about more than ANYTHING. I have considered all religions. I have studied everything from Judaism, to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, to Paganism. My conclusion is that there is a universal truth to them all. Maybe what you are not seeing is that there is a NEW form of humanistic spirituality being born in the generation. Maybe we do not need the cliches of the past to guide us into the future. Isn't is important for mankind to unite as one and go forward together with more understanding than what we started with? How is sticking to your one religion and not considering others a beneficial things.
    In addition, there are plenty of positives brought about be being spiritual and not religious. Tolerance is one of them. Do not be afraid of not having finite rules to follow. It sounds as though you would like people to stay in their groups and color within the lines. How boring.
    People are changing, the internet is helping us learn about one another. Why would you want to stop people from moving into a different direction? Sounds like you're afraid for people to leave their religion and not be bound to something. Sounds like cloaked bigotry.
    However, you might not be a bigot at all. I can't say for sure. I can say though that you have no right to say that people who are spiritual but not religious do not think about religion, and philosophy.
    You might want to do more research before you write an article like this. You should probably talk to these weirdo spiritual but not religious types to see what their real thoughts and feelings are. I bet you will be surprised.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • tyrobb0806

      I agree 100% with nicolethecat!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Nii

      Thanks Nicole. I searched long and hard for a religion myself. I only settled on Christianity after I read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis where he gave me a spiritual outlook on the religions without bigot-ting any. I as a Christian abhor doctrinal uniformity and as a result I'm Anglican. However after all this I hate religiosity but not religion. A religion will always spawn two sets of adherents-spiritual or religious. Religiosity always causes the problems people see in religion while spirituality is what we admire. Hope more people leave religiosity behind.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Whome

      Nicole – well put. I suspect his religious beliefs will likely prevent him from thinking for himself.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Mark12_31

      I would respectfully submit to you that there are not enough commonalities across religions to conclude universalism, as appealing as it is. I was in that state of mind for many years because I did not understand the true message of the Christian Bible, although I thought I did, having been raised in a Catholic family. The breakthrough for me was understanding that God, our creator, loves his creation. And despite our nature to do things against what He's asked us to do (just like a rebellious 2 year old) God has never stopped pursuing us, and went to the great length of sacrificing himself to pay the price of our rebellion. It is the ultimate story of Love, Justice, and Hope. Exactly what we want in any great hero story. It's too good to be true, and is rejected as such by many. But those who dare hope that it could be true are transformed. Islam and Judaism do not offer this – God judges you on your good works and following rules. Christianity acknowledges we can't earn our way to Heaven, but have to humble ourselves and admit we need God. Buddhism does not offer a personal relationship with your Creator, so what is the anchor that continues you to follow it, other than yourself? I urge you to keep seeking and studying.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  4. Brent

    Why is it that when one doesn't subscribe to a particular religion, others believe that NOTHING positive is put in its place?

    The reality is that people do good and treat other people well every day without invoking religion as a reason.

    Religion may have started it, but once we move past the primitive legends that were used to keep people in line we can grow more when we learn that we can be moral without being afraid of an afterlife.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  5. enlightened

    If it happens to work then it's his/her will but if it doesn't it just wasn't his/ her plan. That's the cop-out in organized religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Mark12_31

      You are viewing "it happens to work" or "it doesn't" on your own terms. Everything that happens "works" according to God's plan. We just don't always agree with it or understand it.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  6. dave

    Fortunately, we know exactly what Jesus thought about this. His disciples asked him, what is the greatest comandment. Jesus said "Belong the to right church and makes sure everyone sees you go there on Sunday." -- Just kidding, Jesus said Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything religion tells us after that is less important.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • onesmallcatch

      only problem is when you don't love yourself so much cuz people keep blasting your self-loving abilities to smitherins – so they can get a vote (or oil, or a good idea to battle about ....)
      after a while – it becomes easier to hate
      don't you think?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  7. govt slug

    I have to agree with this article. My complaint about modern society is the laziness, and I had never thought about laziness in religious or spiritural matters. "The Gay" or "The Abortion" is not going to be the downfall of our country; it's going to be the laziness and the disrespect of fellow humans that will be our downfall. Just look at any Wal-mart parking lot and you'll see evidence of laziness.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • yousuck

      way to slug there govt...
      bet you will be glad to go shopping at walmart too
      when you have no job and/or no money after the next wallstreet crash
      walmart and wallstreet
      they go hand in hand
      but don't worry – no one will call you lazy
      most are too busy taking care of their own to care about your sorry a....
      prejudice much?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  8. GOOD NEWS

    It is time to be truly Spiritual, and yes, thus also rightfully Religious now!

    For the Son of Man has thus already come to seek and save those who are lost,

    in the beginning of this Third and Last DAY (=MILLENNIUM) now! (=John 6/27, 40)

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

    ==UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!

    October 9, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  9. Jo

    Hi I'm an Athiest and I have absolutely no respect for other people's beliefs, thanks...That should be the Athiest slogan.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • Brian

      i feel sorry for you if what you say is true. don't be so closed minded... being an Athiest doesn't mean you can't respect other peoples beliefs. I'm sure you're just saying that because it's the internet and no one is physically infront of you, however if what you say is true... then i feel sorry for you. Being an Athiest doesn't mean you can't respect other peoples beliefs, you just don't agree with them.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • monbois

      How is being an atheist being disrespectful toward other people's beliefs? Your comment shows just how disrespectful YOU are to those of us who do not believe in a deity. You're like all the other religious bigots who tell me they're going to pray for me after I tell them I'm atheist, another sign of disrespect. I suspect you're a self-proclaimed Christian. If someone tells you they're a Jew, do you also say, "I'll pray to Jesus for your soul."? You wouldn't dare, because even though most Christian despise Jews, it's still considered inappropriate to disrespect them to their face, yet it's okay to disrespect atheists. Hypocrite.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • monbois

      Huh? How is being spiritual but not going to church a cop-out? A cop-out from what? No one on this earth owes a thing to any organized religion. Churches and temples and religions have always been created by human beings for knowledge, spiritual enrichment and, quite often, profit. A "spiritual" person doesn't owe Alan Miller, Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other religion anything – not a penny of their money nor a second of their time.

      Such self-righteous indignation is part of what has turned so many people away from religion. This article is hardly a good recruitment tool in its attempt to guilt people to worship at an alter (another man-made construct).

      October 9, 2012 at 6:01 am |
  10. Brian

    I'm spiritual... I believe that "the big bang" may have been "god", "creator of heaven and earth" meaning the universe. And that “god” did not create man, but created the building blocks for life including man. This in turn would mean that Creation and/or Evolution are connected and not separate like many believe.

    I can go on and on but the fact is; there is sooo much scientific study and evidence that has proven or disproved, and those things must not be ignored even if it goes against a little piece of what you believe to be true.

    However, humanity still has sooo far to go in regards to advancements IN ALL AREAS for any one person to say with 100% certainty what is the Absolute Truth.

    I believe in what I believe and you believe in what you believe… either way no one on this earth knows everything and at this rate no one will.
    So just live your life doing good and with a smile! Respect everyone and there beliefs, because who knows… maybe… just maybe everyone is holding a little piece of what makes up the whole/real truth ( the who, why, when, how, what was, what is, and what will be) in there beliefs – and maybe… just maybe one day all those pieces will come together and become just another thing called “common knowledge”

    but I have a feeling this will take eons… far beyond our life time. So relax, respect and always strive to improve, not just yourself, but humanity too – in mind and action.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • Brian

      I also believe that humans are not the only species capable of trained/adaptable thought and invention… and that only one planet in the entire vastness of the universe, including our own galaxy, is the only one capable of or possess the building blocks of life (any and all forms of life)

      “God” didn’t just create one planet, or one galaxy and so on… so why assume that he only made it possible for only one planet to possess the building blocks of life or for that matter, give the necessary time for those blocks to evolve into us and all the other species that earth has present or had in the past.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • morethoughts

      I cringe at thinking that the guys in their funny hats
      and the guys with the side hair braids and prayer aprons
      and the guys who mostely wear pajamas (i guess it is hot or they or poor – don't know)
      and the guys who wear robes
      and the women who wear robes and head coverings
      all of which i have seen in pictures and media – but never met personally
      all of them are wondering when the guys with funny hats, side hair braids and prayer aprons, robes, and pajamas ... and their mates when they are going to finally have a chance to kill each other ... because their holy books say they are supposed to (or something).
      that is a fairy tale made too real these days
      I say we get out of their land, tell them to leave us alone, and let them duke it out (or not)
      we've got our own country to tend and defend
      thank you very much

      October 9, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • youareprobablyright

      true
      maybe after they finally have this grand holy war that they long for so much
      and see the destruction that is wrought
      maybe then they will be less willing to defend an outdated, nonfactual, political dogma that is used and abused by so many to justify war, dissent, confusion, and dillusion
      wouldn't that be a big relief to all
      no more war mongering religions controlling all our lives
      hallelujah – the angels will sing
      and bells will ring
      throughout the lands
      the great witches of the mideast are put in their place
      and we can all go back
      to celebrating
      the
      Eucharist

      October 9, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Colin

      Amen

      October 9, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Common Sense

      morethoughts , youareprobablyright and Colin... did you not read what Brian said? what does the middle east, muslims, holy war... etc, have to do with anything that was said??
      I think... I think... you guys need some form of extermination of, i assume Muslims or the middle east or whatever...
      why can't you just realise that the only thing that will end the BS is if everyone works not for themselves, but for humanity! and this is never done by erasing a curtain race, religion or belief, because it just creates something else to take its place, and the cycle continues.

      November 2, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  11. Celano

    Um, people made art and music and read before the bible existed. People in cultures that didn't know of the bible made art and music and read before some pest shoved it down their the throats. People who don't believe in the bible still do all of those things, and probably always will as long as there's people anyway. It the nature of the beast, always curious and noisy. You give your silly book too much credit. If it makes you happy though, I am neither religious or spiritual. ^.^

    October 9, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • ricardo1968

      Religion goes back way before the bible. Almost every culture has had a pantheon of deities along with all sorts of ways to explain the mysteries of life.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  12. Aub

    stupid article ... who the hell are you anyway? what i believe and why is none of your business ... religion is a snare and a racket (and so are jehovahs witnesses) ... organized religion is a bunch of political power hungry old people with nothing better to do with their lives than gossip and try to control the younger generation or eachother. The world is evolving to a better place ... one without religion! As a young person ... who was raised in a cult ... tried out churches ... and settled on neither spiritual or religious ... i am glad to be raising my child as a free thinker ... free of the pressure of conforming to some stupid rituals passed down from books that insight war and everything that is the opposite of actual genuine love. People who are not religious tend to be more universally loving and caring than any religious person i've ever met. Just because a person does not hold 'YOUR' values and beliefs does not mean they have no values and beliefs. That is very ignorant. What a stupid article.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:55 am |
  13. Gabriel Malakh

    @hawaiiguest

    Actually, YOU need to show evidence that God does not exist! It's like walking in the middle of the desert and finding a house with all you need to survive, just like our home, EARTH, and saying, 'that house just appeared, they were no builders or architect, it all happened by chance.' Now how foolish would that sound?

    Romans 1:20-22
    For his invisible [qualities] are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship, so that they are inexcusable. 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God nor did they thank him, but they became empty-headed in their reasonings and their unintelligent heart became darkened. 22 Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:48 am |
  14. Jesus is Lord

    Nii -

    You have a very poor understanding of the Bible...your quotes are all wrong. Why don't you get a study Bible based on your understanding it will assist you greatly...I would help but Proverbs talks at length about "he who mocks and mocker becomes the fool". In other words, I will become the fool if I waste my time debating with a foolish people...now that is a correct translation of the Bible...

    October 9, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • The Committee

      I think perhaps this article was submitted to encourage discussion. The argument is insufficient.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Joseph B

      Why waste time reading a fairy tale which has no scientific evidence to support that any of the events ever really happened. Only arrogant people believe their religion is somehow superior to everyone elses beliefs.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Nii

      Mr Jesus is lord
      "The ways of God are foolishness to them that are perishing". Did you read that too in your study Bibles?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:00 am |
    • Jo

      Pretty much most of these new religious hating nuts have no real understanding of the Bible, or any other religion for that matter other than Christianity, They get their knowledge from google and youtube videos and their stoned buddie's opinions. If they really had a good argument they would attack other faiths as well but they never do because that would take too much time and Christianity is the most popular and easist to attack and mock.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:36 am |
    • Nii

      Jo
      Though a Christian I am not religious in the sense of religiosity. Spiritual Christians see the things that Atheists talk about concerning religious Christians too. On this post it is a religious Christian lumping all spiritual people together and blindly mauling them with words. I don't think anyone is helped by that. It only helps religious folk of other religions to discredit Christanity. I am spiritual but not religious. I understand the Bible very much thank you. And above all I defend all religions even Atheism. It is religiosity I hate.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:13 am |
  15. ok

    Mr. Miller, you are now (or have you already), spoken at a "Battle of Ideas" conference in London.
    sooo ... what are you going to talk about? Are you still going to throw stones at people in the West for no apparent reason?
    What is the subject of your ideas that you are going to promote to these other conference attendees?
    Do you think they will believe you, and then take their learned prejudice and bigotry from you to spread further into the world?
    Please tell us what you plan to do with your new found knowledge of these people – since you obviously had none before?
    Why do you propose to take spirituality out of religion and/or religion out of spirituality in the first place?
    What is your evil plan – you remind me of evil – not sure exactly why at this point in time – but you do.
    sorry
    what was that you're saying ... go away ... go to heaven where you belong ... leave me in peace in my hell???
    ok ... done
    thanks for the insults s f .
    hope noone listens to you.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Internetfacts

      Interesting thesis and hypothesis, but unsatisfying conclusion. Of COURSE a person can choose one over the other. And define spirituality as one sees fit. The universe is a very big place with plenty of space and time to argue this to death and still have room left over. Chill.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:52 am |
    • notok

      why should this man be given free reign to disturb so many people for no obvious reason but to carry on the war like trend this world has been cast into since the beginning of the usa presidential voting season – by people backed by the war-lord one percent – for their pleasure? You are right, i would have liked to not have this abuse thrown in our collective faces – all for the benefit of a vote – or not. this guy truly sucks for doing this – and i for one – am adamant that it is not ok.
      would not want to put my mark of agreement to it at all – and am angry others would think this type of manipulation is ok when it could mean the death and destruction of millions upon millions.
      I was watching what was going on ... that's all ... too many lies and to much distortion of truths to fool the masses into believing things are ok – when they are not.
      at least o wasn't smiling like it was ok
      this presidential election sucks as bad as the last – worse even – considering what has been done to get the masses interested in voting – namely – going after religious affiliations – then riling those who they think are not affiliated to religions – shame and blame for a vote. wars too boot.
      it sucks big time

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 am |
  16. End Religion

    i get fascinated by a thing for a time. I'll be gone soon enough. Maybe. Glad to have other sane people on here. There's a shortage.

    October 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  17. thinkbeforeyouspeak

    In my opinion the problem with religion, as a whole, is that it is used to control the masses. The reason we have so many churches in this country is because each one just splinters off from the others because the flock refuses to submit to whatever control the church mandates. Religious doctrine are used throughout the world to justify murder, larceny, molestation and just about every other thing under the sun. So what is wrong with being spiritual? Why is that a cop-out? Well I will tell you why.. Because organized religion cannot take your money from you if you do not attend church. They cannot form some type of a coalition without like minded followers and most of all they cannot tell you what to believe. It really is a shame that people can't see things for themselves and make decisions based on ideas that they actually formulated. Just like every other aspect of our society it is just easier for someone else to tell you what to believe and how to live "your" life!!

    October 8, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  18. hawaiiguest

    @jordan

    "i have to ask you how you believe man cam into being ...... also there is plenty of evidence for a creator god i would argue more then any other view on how life came to be"

    Completely irrelevant on the "how life came into being" part. Lack of explanation for something does not equal god. You actually need evidence for your assertion that god exists.

    October 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  19. jordan

    i see all of your comments asking people for evidence and talking about how foolish it is to believe in a god..... i have to ask you how you believe man cam into being ...... also there is plenty of evidence for a creator god i would argue more then any other view on how life came to be

    October 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  20. MadeULookAzzhole

    I'm spiritual, not religious came about for me because I got told if I'm Baptist, I'm fine and all the rest are going to hell. Then, a priest gave me a candy bar and told me if I told everyone, I'd go to hell. Well, between the two, I know I'm fine, but them??? Gotta wonder!

    October 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.