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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: My Take • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. The Janissaire

    "I'm Spiritual without being Religious" is like the pot calling the kettle black – both sit on the stove and are subject to the same fire they sit upon to do thei intended purposes. To say that you are Spiritual is to admit that you are practincing some sort of religious expression period. EVERYONE BELIEVES IN SOMETHING – period – it it's making money – that's your reigion. Even atheists believe in something – it might not be God but it is something. Ie. they want to reaise their kids 'properly', then the 'properly' (whatever they deem is proper) then is their religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • miketofdal

      BELIEF and RELIGION are two very different things. Get a dictionary. Period.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Cheryl

      I have no religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  2. Will S

    Another's faith or lack of it is really none of my business.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • miketofdal

      Wow. I think yours is the most honest – and perhaps the most courteous and thoughtful – comment on this page. Thanks!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  3. James

    Religions, faiths or spirituality has to be experienced. For example if my child asks me " Does God exists ? I may hand him or her my religious texts that gives dim description of God or I may say "find out for yourself ! ". I like the later option. If God exists, He is incomprehensible. But I do believe you can experience Him in deep and disciplined meditation or even in church, temple or home when you are engaged in prayer or singing in His praise. Religions are doctrinenated and then you live with dogmas all your life. This poses danger to world. People kill people in the name of religion. Thats why spirituality is preferred. But people, make sure you subscribe to the highest code of conduct while you are spiritual to make you spiritually complete.
    Source of code of conduct are religious books (if you want to rely on them) or use your common sense and concious and the law of your country. Be a good human being. We become christian, Hindu, Muslim etc in an instant when we are born but in thousands of years of human civilization we are failing to become good human beings.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  4. whatcha?

    It's a cop-out because it's not a firm choice for 2 sides? Why are there only 2 sides? Why can't there be more? Maybe for some people, just reaching that point of questioning was a challenging decision.

    Learn to open your mind.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Qwert

      QuacK, quack quuuack? Quack.... Quack quack quack.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  5. jasoncdanforth

    Spiritual but not religious is still steeped in the hogwash of paranormal, extraterrestrial, or supernatural crap we have no evidence for. But I respect people who believe in spiritualism over religious adherence. Religion is the vehicle in which evil is delievered into the world and perpetuated, overriding our humanistic instincts about how we should treat people. Spiritualism informed our humanistic ideas of morality, but religion introduced commandments from on high to kill in the name of another being and the ability to foist responsibility for your actions on a god that always loves you and is the definition of good. Forgiveness of sins is a get out of jail free card, so what do believers do? They behave the exact opposite of what is expected of them, knowing forgiveness is free. What a terrible invention!

    I tell you, if the bible is right, jesus is coming back, and there will be a judgement, there are atheists who disconnected their morality from the church who will be rewarded and pious christians who will burn.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Nii

      It is terrible that members of another religion who are basically denying that they are a religion always hide behind others issues to snipe at the other side. Jasoncdanforth Atheism is a religion. The central philosophy or doctrine is Empiricism. It is awell-honed out philosophy centuries old. In fact it is older than Christianity. Why hasn't it been as successful. Often because of synchretism and inherent negativity.
      Spiritualism is not spirituality. Look them up in a dictionary at least or even better a theology dictionary online. Very different. Likewise religiosity is not the same as religion. All religions including Atheism appeal to two types of people- the religious and the spiritual.
      Spirituality is a way in which people focus on achieving love, joy, peace, honesty, tolerance, humility and gentleness by learning to practise charitable love and through acts of charity.
      Religiosity aims at achieving personal happiness by being a pious adherent to the rules of your particular religion and helpng to curtail others.
      All negativity of religion stems from religiosity while the positives come from spirituality. Religions are supposed to teach spirituality just like a university degree is only the starting point of a profession. Those who make the degree the attainment only freeze while those who focus on the profession achieve.
      Likewise religious people freeze while spiritual people soar.

      October 10, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  6. jj

    The great spiritual masters had an individual relationship with the spiritual realm, transcendental experiences. It was their disciples who founded religions, which put barriers between worshippers and transcendental experiences. Ritual is not spirituality.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. dennis

    I'll take the commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action, thank you.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  8. Advocate

    Spirituality is combining our flawed understanding of our worldview with our flawed understanding of our creator. Religion (at its best) is combining somebody elses flawed worldview with their flawed understanding of our creator and then trying to interpret it.

    If we are to believe as the author believes then we should continue to have Holy wars and Jihads over sometimes outdated, ridgid, and contradictorary beliefs because to do otherwise would be just a cop out.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  9. rudy espinoza

    TALK ABOUT THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT! Feeling the little butterflis inside of your head as you hug trees and sing to plants makes one cooko! PLEASE DON'T MISSUNDERSTAND ME, I AM SIMPLY BEING REALISTIC. A little girl in 5th grade brought in a paper from school where it explains "they learned to connect with their innerself in class that week." SHE TOLD US THE TEACHER TOLD THEM TO LAY DOWN AS SHE LED THEM INTO A HIPNOTIC TYPE CHANNELING THING TO "LISTEN TO THE MAN IN WHITE ROBE WITH WHITE BEARD" Not in vain the Word of God says: Do not be deceived for satan himself dresses as an angel of light." YOU SEE THESE ARE FALLEN ANGELS, DEMONS MANIFERSTING THEMSELVES TO THE IGNORANT THAT OPEN THEIR SOUL TO THEIR INVASION. Do not be naive, these demons will only bring you turmoil, and destruction, even if they entice you with silly things. They will drain your mind nad drive you insane. Your mind will be a den of demons of all sorts. IF THEY CALL FOR YOU TO BECOME AN ANTICHRIST YOU ARE ON YOUR WAY TO HELL UNLESS YOU CALL, SCREAM FOR JESUS HELP, HIS REAL ANGELS WILL COME AND PROTECT YOU.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  10. tikiwish

    There are a lot of New-Agers that are under this catagory, but do have certain beliefs. But, they believe we are all universally connected, so there is no room for prejudice.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. Hugo

    Here is the problem, there is no proof that a god exists whatsoever, and the moral teachings of the traditional religions don't make sense to most people today, because they are discriminatory and intolerant by nature, claiming to have the truth, demanding obedience, asking people to live a life they don't want, and yet offering 0 proof. The need for a higher power is the same in many people, life is hard, and sometimes people need psychological comfort, science hasn't disproved god, because there is still a lot we don't know about our universe, or multiverse, and so the door is still open. Yet the options that have been offered thus far (what is referred to as organized religions) are not satisfactory and provide no serious answers either. So instead of implying that these spiritual people are somehow superficial and don't know what they want, the author should concentrate more on defending the merits of believing in an organized religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Emitr

      I agree, Hugo. In the sphere of religion, anything goes, and does, because there are no controls on religious claims except religious claims themselves. For a person to claim "I am spiritual but not religious" has no greater merit or demerit than saying "I am a Christian." When it all boils down, it's all equally sentimentalism.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • justathought

      One good thing about staying connected in some way to organized religion –
      you can go to funerals and weddings without feeling any more discomfort than you normally would given your specific situation ...
      on second thought – maybe you would.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  12. Emitr

    I am not religious and not spiritual. I am a human being, like everyone else is, with empathy, emotion, psychological state, intelligence, and other animal properties. Calling those properties 'spiritual' is a religious assertion; so, "spiritual, but not religious," is an oxymoron.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  13. thegadfly

    Apparently, being "religious but not spiritual" is much more popular here in the US.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  14. conoclast

    The combination of time and the force of gravity account for everything in our universe; why then do we need some manufactured "creator"? Is it simply our own intellectual laziness perhaps?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  15. Cindy

    "not-knowingess" and "not-trying-ness" are NOT real words.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  16. foxymama

    I chuckle at this because I am "religious but not spiritual." I have never been the sort of person to feel spiritual and I consider it a huge flaw. Therefore, I have tried my absolute best to immerse myself and children in the structure of a church that teaches moral lessons, creates a healthy social framework and encourages them to be their best as they connect with God. They will never know that I dont even believe in God....my ability to fake it is creating outstanding teenage children who work hard, serve others and pursue a good future for themselves and others. I could never have done that alone, I am not that good of a parent....how glad I am that I am religious and pretty good at faking spirituality. :)

    October 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  17. Mikemark

    Mr. Miller says: "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". This statement is a crock.

    I consider myself "spiritual, but not religious". I do not, however, consider myself as a part of any "movement", because my own spiritual development is based on my own personal insights. Someone once said "What is God but the search for God?" and perhaps this is a key. My own spiritual quest ranges from Spinoza to zen to haiku to American Indian notions about a "sacred landscape" — and more. It is, in essence, moral in that it values life and living and being-in-the-world. It is about my relationship to nature and the cosmos. It also is about how I relate to my fellow human beings. Exposition? Understanding? Explanation? I have no problems with any of this. I can understand and explain/exposit. And it's all very much about principles and it is also definitely and defiantly POSITIVE.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Abolish

      You exemplify exactly what he stated in the article. Your personal search, spirituality, doctrine to doctrine to differing philosophy, etc...The point was that this is a "cop-out", ie, a means of not saying one way or another. Most people dont realize it I guess, maybe they really believe that stuff. However, the truth is as was stated, you either believe in one of the religions, God, etc...or not. There is no middle ground, there is just unwillingness to admit and accept the negative connotations that come with denying religion. Maybe many havent really thought it out, which is highly likely given the spiritual crowd, but you have to own up someday.
      I too feel a connection with the world and my fellow humans, that doesnt mean i think theres a god or its "spiritual", it just is. There are unfortunately not many better descriptors than spiritual to describe transcendent feelings as of now, but there will be, especially since the word seems to be currently identified with those unwilling to take a side.
      For the record, there is certainly no god as the religions of the world have posited, and if there was such a being, we can continue to exist as if it didnt care, which is obvious.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  18. Whome

    I think religious people are like Golum with his precious – they love it and self-consumed yet turn into vicious animals when someone tries to take it away from them or say otherwise. Religion runs spells around your brain like that ring.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Quest4truth

      That's a nice way of putting it. Anyone who does not comply to them are sinners for these people.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  19. Former Church-Goer

    When non-believers criticize Christians, Christians often defend themselves by saying "We're not all like that. Don't judge us by our worst members." Unfortunately, I think Alan Miller is doing the same thing. The group of those who are "spiritual but not religious" is no different than any other group. 10% are above average, 10% are below average and 80% are average. Mr. Miller is simply making a generalization, no different than Athiests saying that Christians are money-grubbers or pedophile defenders. Think about this, Mr. Miller: You're saying that anyone who doesn't go to church is just lazy. Does that really sound reasonable to you?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • justathought

      save yourself the headache of trying to figure it out – the guy is an unreasonable erk for writing and publishing this piece when he did – just another war-lord puppet on his own narcissistic mission to shame and blame others – he is part of a nonprofit – so he had to pick religion to stage his vote you lazy whatevers – his little political ploy hidden in religion – really a sorry show of citizenship.
      many are simply throwing his rocks back at him

      October 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  20. Quest4truth

    There are too many people who concern themselves with the salvation of others. What they deem inappropriate, who knows, might be the way for the other person. A lot of posts here say how Jesus atoned for the sins of others. They say they follow Christ, but even having studied the Bible all their life (or in some cases, having taught about Christ all their life), they still don't get the idea behind Christ's work. Things that have been so stressed upon (eg. over indulgence in lust, no hatred towards others, love everyone as your own etc.), the so called Christians who stand up to remove sin from the face of the Earth and bring everyone to the "right path" forget their path maybe the wrong one. If all of you were to follow your own religion with the spirit that has been laid before you, you would find that no matter what path you take, each of those path would lead you to that ultimate goal. "Judge not others for you may be judged".

    People put way too much stress on religion, which is merely a path that is to take you to the destination. Every religion (subtly) tells you about God. All the religious books of the world have analogies and are encrypted so any no-brainer, or someone who does not contemplate the words in their heart would not get it. And these people who take the words literally and don't put into the effort of pondering end up being religious extremists. And you can see these extremists posting their comments here too. Their understanding is so little, even though their scholarly knowledge has won them medals and great recognitions – they may be very good at speaking and attracting people but inside, they are mere hollow pots. The paths are for us to walk and religions are paths only. The destination which we all should strive for is – God. Why do people bother so much about wrong and right while they have no idea what wrong or right is. They have read it and that's all they know. There are like parrots who know only how to recite without any understanding of what they are saying.

    Not following any organized religion and yet doing something from your heart (and doing good to others) is much much better than following an organized religion and walking with your eyes blindfolded – following the dogmas and rituals and proclaiming that if other's are not in the same boat as you are in, they are going to sink in the sea of sin. The realm of God is infinitely greater than any of your minds can comprehend. The ways of God are infinite.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:06 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.