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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. AJD

    Yet another religious "purist" who fears people thinking for themselves instead of being a sheep led by blind and unquestioning obedience. These people see that religion is dying and for good reason and like a dying man are trying to make a last rally hoping it will keep them alive. People are freeing themselves from dogma and out dated notions about life and the meaning of it, they're starting to see through religion to its real purposes which is really about control. I am an atheist myself but I have always appreciated the pagan/wiccan belief "If it harm none, do what thou will." Elegant in its simplicity and basically "gets the job done."

    November 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Eylsium

    It's the other way around. Religion is a spiritual cop out. Ephesians 4:17 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart.

    November 19, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  3. 4spdstick

    religion bad. spirituality good.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  4. cosmicc

    I try not to take offense to an attack on my beliefs, but this one time I'll make an exception. I am an atheist and therefore, cannot consider myself religious. However I consider myself "spiritual" in that I follow meditative practices and have a life philosophy that is heavily influenced by Taoism. I have arrived at this through a long life of conscious searching, study and introspection. I also know may deists who, seeing the commonality across all major religions, reject the dogma of all of them, but still believe in a god. They too have studied long and hard to come to such a decision. For the author to call either approach a cop-out is offensive, whether intentional or not.

    November 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  5. Reflecting Pool

    Christ's teachings were about Compassion. There is no other teaching but Compassion. There is no dogma, no ideology worshipping in this teaching of Compassion. Every great religion has a 'mystical (spiritual) order' where this is fully understood. In Islam it is the Sufi Order. In Christianity, Thomas Merton, St. Francis and Mother Theresa embraced this understanding. That which manifests as dogma and ideology (beliefs & belief systems) has absolutely nothing to do with religion, BUT has everything to do with the dogma of politics. That's why Billy Graham's son unashamedly admits his father "has always been political" (something Christ patently rejected).

    The 'teaching' is Compassion. And only the 'spiritual' consciousness can apprehend it. The "cop-out" is the ideologue who has dogmatized, politicized and butchered the teachings and called the tormented, mutilated result "religion."

    November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  6. Kevin

    When I first read this piece I thought it was from the archives of LIFE magazine circa 1966. This is an old observation. Having said that, I think Mr. Miller is looking at this through dualistic lenses. Dualism always gets in the way of authentic relationship with the divine, even and especially within the context of religion. Furthermore, there was a time when someone who had a profound experience (what they felt was an interaction with the numinous) would say he or she had a “religious experience”….in today’s terms, the experience would have been described as spiritual. It may have occurred through prayer and religious training may have “got” that person to the place where they were able to consider and appreciate the experience, but the experience was of the spirit. Spirit is of God.of the Divine. Religion is “of man” and subject to the limitations of our human traits; even when we put or best foot forward, we don’t quite get it right and often alienate people in ways not intended by God.

    Spiritual/religious is a broad spectrum. It could be seen on a bell curve...there are those on one end who are 100% non-religious but described himself or herself as spiritual and have their own way to contact god or the universe etc. There are those on the other end who blindly follow rules within a church but sadly have no spirituality....and without spirituality, religion is at best meaningless and at worst, dangerous.

    The huge center of the bell curve is filled with church going people who prefer to attend a church but carve their own place out of that. They may not believe in everything that the church teaches, but are overall attracted to the prayer, community or ritual within that faith tradition through which they find a connection to God. And that after all is said and done, is paramount. Miller fails to note that doctrine is changeable and morphs over time, unlike Dogma. This is why so many catholic – including the suburban young, attend catholic mass despite giving no credence to the church's teaching on birth control and gay relationships.
    A priest or Bishop or rabbi may scoff at these ones within their flock; but they need to back off and let God do his or her thing. If they intervene, and criticize and admonish, then they lose.

    Try as we might to define who God is and how s/he works, the Spirit will always blow where it wills. Get into the jet stream and see where it takes you.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  7. Seeker

    By the way, at the end when he says pick the Bible or pick Scientific Reason he also dismisses out of hand all religions other than Christianity as well as alternative practices like Buddhism. My ex-wife is a very bright PhD who converted to Buddhism from Catholicism. I'm sure she would tear this pathetic essay to pieces.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  8. SaraJ

    I can only speak for my own spiritual quest. As a child I experienced our family religion and the religions of friends but while many questions were answered, there were questions I had that the religions I was exposed to could not address. As a young adult I began looking at the religions throughout the world, I read the Qur'an and kebra negast, exposed myself to taoist, judaic and hindu teachings. I slowly came to the realization that I was making my own religion and due to much meditation and fasting was having breakthroughs where major gaps and questions were getting filled and answered. This was and will continue to be a life long effort to understand my place and connectedness in this life....my spirituality. It has been a concerted effort, not one taken lightly or fashionably and surely I am not the only one doing heavy lifting "solo" so to speak.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Daniel

      Well said Sara- True spirituality requires work and sincerity. Seeking peace and joy," above being happy" or what is fashionable. True commitment involves hard choices, many that are not so easy. The other thing- if one looks deeply into various scriptures- Vedic, New Testament, Confucius, le Quoran, etc- and look beyond the associated dogma with each religion, in my experience common themes begin to emerge. Symbolism. At the same time, I do think its helpful to settle on a discipline- at least in my experience.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  9. Daniel

    This article strikes me as slightly incoherent rambling. He jumps from the influence the King James Bible had on Bach..uhmmm Bach was a Lutheran, and the King James version is distinctly different from Lutheran Bible. He then jumps to literacy! "Indeed, it was etc etc 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". This is a blatant error-religious reading had been reserved for an elite clergy until 19th C. Not only that-Arabic literacy was high...while Western Civilization was in the Dark Ages, with almost zero literacy- primarily because of the Koran, not the Bible. He also lumps everyone into one group, and assumes that this group are all new age. Contradicts himself by including MegaChurches! Aren't these fanatical Christians?Governments trying to make people feel good???? Not working to well buddy- read the newspaper. Instead of cho
    Spiritual but not religious is a very general term. There are Christians who remain Christian, but want nothing to do with a denomination...or a weird megachurch- yet still adhere to the teaching of Jesus. There are hocus pocus new age types.
    There are Jews in name only (are they included?). THERE IS NO THESIS in his article, and why it was published on CNN is baffling. He also fails to mention how wonderful the Bible's effect on Indians was... or giving them or slaves "Christian" names.
    There is an argument to be made about the new age feel good type, but he generalizes and makes no sense.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  10. BD70

    Why do you have to be religious in order to believe in a higher power?

    November 18, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  11. Seeker

    It is as if the author has taken every stereotype of "spiritual but no religious" people and used it against them as if it were fact. I could just as easily assume that all religious people cling to their Bible without knowing what it truly says, that they believe blindly, and that they don't even follow what the Bible says–then conclude they are illogical people who need to accept science or learn to adapt to a spiritual but not religious position. Honestly, I've never read such a ridiculous piece of intellectual dishonesty and oversimplification in my life. Utter drivel.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  12. eyeh8goodell

    Well Mr. Miller, my counterpoint would be this as a "spiritual but not religious person". The Bible (or any religious text) was written during a time that was the low water mark for mankind's knowledge and understanding of the not only the world around them, but the universe around them. Anything that couldn't be explained was chalked up to an act of God. Earthquake? GOD'S WRATH!! Flooding? GOD'S WRATH (also, Noah's Ark......which is scientifically impossible on every level of the story). The list goes on and on. As recently as the 16th century the Pope of the Catholic Church called Haley's Comet an "agent of the Devil". Anybody that would base their faith, belief system, or their government legislature on the ridiculous nonsense in these books is simply a pea-brained idiot. Now, those of us who have actually taken the time to research and understand the seemingly infinite, mysterious, and beautiful universe around can see something that is larger than all of us. We're just smart enough to realize that those antiquated works of mythology you speak of are at odds with literally everything we can observe around us. Keep leaving in your lives up to "the gods". Just know it's YOU who appear to be living a giant "cop out", not us.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  13. Matt

    Funny....."cop out".....remove law inforcement. People who are open to many different ideas about who, what or why they exhist and perhaps how to go about living their lives seem to really bother others who believe there is no other way. ? tho....who seems happier???? The guy writing this or the guy he's writing it about? Just a thought:)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. MIKE

    A cop-out. Somehow, morally inferior to the established religiosity.

    Not just different. There are ESTABLISHED ways to God, apparently, and ALL of them – no matter how much they differ from each other – are superior to individual beliefs and paths. It doesn't matter that EVERY ONE OF THOSE ESTABLISHED BELIEFS started as individual beliefs.

    Think what you like. I"m sure that will drastically change the beliefs of those who find the overbearing dogma and self-aggrandizing authority of the established religions unsuitable to their own feelings and beliefs.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  15. Tom

    The ideal meditation is thought-free consciousness. If you are able to achieve it on a regular basis you benefit from it greatly because whatever created the universe was thought-free. The thinking part of the universe, of which humanity is part, evolved from the thought-free part. Now shut up and leave me alone!

    November 18, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  16. Al Franken

    It's weird, the story of Jesus emulates these people who don't want anything to do with religion but want to be one with God.

    Jesus studied in the temples, became a spiritual leader as a Rabbi "teacher" and then was crucified by the religious extremists that he now so called represents.

    amazing.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  17. SB

    2 Cents.

    Religion used to be a means to find answers to complext questions such as 'what happens after death' and 'how did the whole world really begin and when exactly'.

    In today's world, religion is more of a business – there is money, there are goals, there is revenge, there is fear etc. Religion is supposed to have none of this. It is supposed to be simply a foundation that people could use to try to understand this world better.

    That's why, people don't want to associate with religion.

    It is clear that we want our justice system to be fair. And that means, we must treat everyone equal regardless of their religion.

    We also want to have our employees hired regardless of their faith (in general anyway).

    So – it is not surprising that people don't want to talk about religion because it is seen more as a divider of people than uniter. This is very sad situation.

    However, this means that people still need something to understand this world better and find answer to larger questions like 'what happens after death' etc. That's why people say 'I am spiritual'.

    When people say I am not religious – they are simply saying that they don't care for some aspects of the religion that they may not agree with. Associating with religion would associate them with those things that they don't necessarily agree with. Hence the hesitation – and quite justified.

    At the end of the day, people know that humans were 'humans' first and 'religious humans' – later. With the information available to everyone, people know that religions is just something that is acquired by us – it is our choice and we may accept things that we like and may reject things that we dont like about the religion. This is a perfectly rational view and more people like rational views about religions....(no blind faith).

    November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  18. Fiona

    Why is CNN running this piece of rubbish AGAIN? It's two months old, and it was nothing more than shyte stirring the first time it ran.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • jim

      Just to rile us all up.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  19. Chedar

    Here is a practice of being spiritual but not religious;

    http://www.parami.org/buddhistanswers/what_about_god.htm

    November 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  20. Fred

    Mr. Miller, your article merely reflects your lack of knowledge of spirituality. Your comments come from a position of fear and therefore you feel empowered to judge.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:56 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.