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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. DisgustedCustomer

    I pulled down my old university copy of Johnson and Blair's "Logical Self-Defense" after reading this little gem.
    May I congratulate the author on his adroit incorporation of every basic logical fallacy. My hat is off to
    CNN, a well, for their editorial judgement.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  2. MM1234

    This opinion piece is pure speculation from someone who is obviously clueless. Did you bother to even interview people with this viewpoint that you are writing about? I believe (and include myself in this) that the main reason people are leaving organized religion is that they cannot tolerate the contradictions within them. The Bible says to love others, but not certain groups. The Koran says to honor women, but also keep them subservient. You can't have it both ways. It just makes the believable text incredulous. While many religious texts have many great morals and codes to live by, in the end, if you don't believe, you don't. And to do so would be lying and pointless. For me, higher power is the love and good will of others and all the wondrous things around us–and I do feel that in my inner spirit, therefore I can be spiritual without religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Damien

      Well I'll tell you this much Allen Miller you are quite opinionated, and terriibly insulting to many who are in that group you admonished, and admonish you did sir.

      I've been this way for many years now, because I believe there are things in this world and universe which do defy explination, but I do not wish to ascribe myself to a church or a specific way of holding faith. To me the concept of sin is just religions way of control and doling out punishment, and that sounds about as much fun as a 7 hour lecture on accounting.

      I have friends of many faiths and those respective faiths are very important to them, rightfully so. There is no reason to scorn them for our differences, but merely learn and appreciate what they bring to you.

      This article seems deeply mired in and finely crafted to say believe in a standard Christian faith and read your bible or you'll become one of those filthy hippies in a commune doing yoga all day, but if you don't change your ways.. woe be to you. Last the term relativists which I actually had to look up seems to ascribe that your morals are based on your relative and respective groups, by default it seems though I can't be sure that he's saying you can't possible make good judgements without proper religion. Insulting indeed sir.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  3. RGB

    The industry of organized religion is loosing its market share. Good. We have enough gold plated cathedrals.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  4. Alan

    This article is a total bunch of BS.
    And THAT is something I have total faith in

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  5. Brian

    Alan miller... something’s you say is true about being Spiritual but much of it is not. Have you ever thought that all religions are based on pretty much the same things? And yet it's the differences that have started wars! So why not take all the similarities and combine them into one... we do not call that a religion because then we would become just one voice in a chorus, fighting to be heard and to dominate other peoples way of thinking. You must also take into account what Science has proven over and over again and also what it has not been able to prove.
    So I say this...Believe what you will and I will do the same. To think you know what's right and figured it all out... or to anyone else on this matter in regards to all forms and types of what one calls religion or spirituality, just proves how much humanity is still in its infancy. I don’t have all the answers nor does anyone else… so stop thinking that your opinion on the matter is what’s right and everyone else that don’t think like you just doesn’t get it. Just believe what you will and we will do the same.
    However I’m sure there is one thing we can all agree on… life goes on in one form or another, so try to make this one a good one :)

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  6. Ted

    The only danger here is to the collections at churches. I am pretty sure the author also is against atheism so if you find books such as Bible not believable or you find the at churches the amount of hate and variance from the good Jesus preached in the Bible you are dangerous? That sounds like someone looking a forced single religion and may be better suited for countries like Afghanistan as they are working out so well..

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  7. Reason

    "...but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an..."

    KARMA Sutra?

    LOL. Proofread much, CNN ?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  8. Jadaho

    Of course we humans aren't responsible for ourselves. Especially at night, in the dark, when the demons come.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  9. Clifton

    If you ask me the real cop out is blindly believing in millenia old doctrines, that don't pass the standards of scientific reasoning and burden of proof that we hold to every other aspect of our existence, rather than putting in the time and effort to think for yourself. But I assume Alan Miller wouldn't ask me since, as a 'Spiritual but not religous person', I am not committed to reason and have no desire to impact the world. This guy, and his article for that matter, are a joke.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Johnm

      I agree completely. The cope out is blindly believing what these churches tell you and then do what they tell you to do. It's time for people to take accountability and establish their own relationships with god. To me that's what being spiritual is all about. Organized religion is just an organized army . It's not always a fighting army but certainly but trying to push people to doing things with even allowing them to think it through.

      The harder part part is to free your mind and discover the mysteries yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  10. Bob N

    This speaks like a typical self-righteous fool. Believe in something traditional or you don't really believe? I was pleased to see the positive people with negative responses of those that disagreed with him. Choose a side? Why? Enlightenment in any form is growth and growth is positive.

    Every paragraph in his article is still the typical traditional dogma with his distorted and delusional viewpoint that it isn't. It always angers me to have someone who sees themselves as some authority of questions that have no answers telling others not to practice anything if it falls outside the realm of their own ignorance.

    Mythological stories have come from all cultures for centuries. I will likely live out the rest of my life wondering how otherwise intelligent people can still believe in so much nonsense. My conclusions are usually a need for people to have something more powerful and intelligent than themselves to believe.

    It also allows them to be irresponsible, mean, maybe even deadly, and then ask forgiveness from their chosen imaginary god so they can hurt others in their gods name, so it doesn't have to be their fault, and allows them to keep committing atrocities.

    It's always easier to put the blame and responsibility on someone else isn't it? I never needed a religion to tell me that it is wrong to hate, and it is wrong to hurt others for their beliefs. I do search for some spirituality to help me understand and deal with all the hate and destruction I see in the news everyday.

    I say keep searching. Keep believing in love. Keep speaking out against any organization that segregates and hates and limits the thinking in the minds of young people and crushes their desire to be free and fair and loving to everyone.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  11. Scrooks

    The author's piont of view is EXACTLY why I have rejected organized religion in favor of a private spirituality. I'd rather live my life knowing I'm doing "good" because it's the right thing to do instead of following some ancient doctorine that says I'm going to hell if I don't follow the rules.

    In addition to that, the author leaves no room for other religions – even those monothesitc ones and focuses mainly on Christianity. Really...this article is complete BS.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • lilyq

      Perfect example.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • michelle21689

      I agree with you. I can't side with any organized religion because it doesn't go with what I believe. For example, Christianity says that you must accept Christ if you want to get into heaven and if you don't you go to hell. So I guess Buddhists, Jewish, Muslims, and all the other good people don't get into heaven because of their belief of what they were culturally raised into =\

      October 25, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  12. Sarina Grady

    I find this article incredible offensive and narrow minded. Just because you do not want to participate in one of the organized religions out there does not mean you are lazy and do not want to think too hard, that is ridiculous. Some may just find their own path and they do not need to attend a church or temple to help them get there......and they do believe in god but want to connect with him at their own will. If the author is so subjective, maybe he needs to do some more research before making such bold statements

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • lilyq

      Or maybe the author struck a cord...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  13. Mike

    One could make a much more valid statement about how traditional religious beliefs have slowed down man's progress. over thousands of years. Belief in scientifically invalid Dogmas, a sense that its "in Gods hands", a belief in an afterlife that diminishes the importance and significance of life on earth etc etc. all have played a critical role in slowing down the concept of free will and curious scientific thinking. Einstein himself confessed that his concept of God went well beyond the teachings of any one church. The times of pointing up to the heavens and down to Hell are over. handing over control of your life to another individual who is "closer" to God than you is also a silly proposition. Move on !

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  14. jason

    this is one of the worst articles i have ever read. first of all all primitive religions and thier fairy tales need to be abandoned . however a search for truth and knowledge of our place in this universe and our biological origins should be encouraged and i think not only helps us spiritually but also leads to a better quality of life

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  15. JTE

    I believe the author is correct. There is freedom in the culture of postmodernity and it influences our society in many ways. People are empowered by this freedom. The pattern it has in our faith traditions seems to cause movement away from the norm, the accepted, the handed down, tradition, routine. It seeks the new, inventive, free; all in the name of purity. How can we go forward without rejecting everything that was passed down to us?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  16. Rob L

    While I understand what Mr Miller is trying to say, I still don't agree with it. I see every religion as a path for higher spiritual awareness, being spiritual but not religious is just another one. It is an exploration of understanding one self, where I fit in and more importantly who I am as a true individual. There will always be those who take things to the extreme, which can be found everywhere and any where, but to be more inclusive and appreciate parts of many different religions I see as a form of acceptance. If you can appreciate more you can be tolerant of more, not hateful and not aggressive towards other religions. I grew up Catholic and at one point didn't feel comfortable being in that religion. I did not agree in myself many of their teachings and practices. I took my own path that has been more fulfilling and peaceful, but I don't shy away from conflict or issues with in myself or my community. For my being spiritual is where I feel joy and comfort, a place where I can grow with in myself, learn and be a better person and through that, help others. And really, at the core part of any religion, isn't that what religion does or is supposed to be? A path in which we learn to love who we are, appreciate others for who they are and want to make ourselves and the world around us better?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  17. Mark

    There is no such thing as god. Put him back in the fiction section with the rest of the fairy tale creatures.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  18. charles bowen

    Organized Religion is directly responsible for more atrocites than any other factor leading to the senceless slaughter of innocents...God is Dead the big bang sent him to new heights all that is left of god is the collectice Continuum....Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  19. Embrace All

    History is witness that "religion" ever since its inception has only divided people and have led to bloodshed and wars. Religion has never done any good to mankind.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  20. Kate

    I am one of the 'spiritual but not religious' group. I've been one since my mid-twenties, and that's a long time ago. Of course, I strongly disagree with the author of this piece. I see those of us who've turned our backs on traditional religion as people who are actually 'thinking' about religion. We're not merely following along like lemmings. We've heard what religious leaders have told us, and we've read countless books on a variety of subjects. I could see that most of the things I'd taken for truth during my religious period were things that had been dreamed up by man. And man is not infallible. These teachings simply made no sense and I got tired of being told I had to go by faith. Still, I cling to an idea (perhaps foolishly) that there is a supreme being out there. I don’t think man is sophisticated enough to understand what might actually be behind life as we know it. Until I know of something better, in which I truly believe, I will remain ‘spiritual but not religious’.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:56 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.