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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. Liz D.

    Um.... that is Kama Sutra, not Karma Sutra. Just sayin'.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  2. TC

    To Chad: I was raised a Catholic, however I am a free thinker. I believe that Emmanuel Kant had it right that religion uses the masses and controls them with fear. When I pray at night, I pray to God that I may live in love and light. That I may every day get close to understanding our universe, and that I live a good life the way it was intended.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Chad

      When you say "you pray to God" do you mean the God of Israel whose Son Jesus Christ came to earth, or are you talking about some other meta-physical concept that you have labeled "God"?

      Who are you praying to?

      January 2, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
    • TC

      To Chad again: To the divine creator and sometimes to Jesus. But never, do I pray that someone else will think like me to justify my opinion. I feel I have a very personal relationship with God, and...well...it is my life, my journey and I don't expect anyone else can walk it for me.

      January 2, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • Chad

      Right, to each his own, in my opinion all that is required for salvation is a belief in Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. No church membership required.
      I was just wondering if you were one of those that defines "god" abstractly as a notion, or if you had the concrete personal God of Israel in mind.

      January 2, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • TC

      My concerns are that by disrespecting the paths of other while they are on them...trying to make sense of life is a dangerous game. This article is doing that and I feel it is force feeding religion down the throats of those who are seeking spirituality and knowledge. They should be commended and then left alone to find their way. Overly religious articles that damn, like this one, scare people away all together.

      January 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • Anon

      You're both delusional nutjobs.

      January 6, 2013 at 1:27 am |
  3. TC

    And one more thing....as for fence sitting...I have very strong opinions. They are not yours, but it does not mean I sit on a fence, it mean I do not agree with you. Furthermore, this ME generation you discuss is exactly how you sound. Thinking only of yourself and the opinions of your religion. There is no room for any others. You act as if our creator is your personal property. I heard a quote from a movie once..."God must grow weary of being called on all sides of war" Is this any different.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
  4. TC

    This article is exactly why I say I am spiritual and not religious. I believe in God, I pray every night, I am kind to others, I share and often feel as if I am more selfless then those around me. And...then I read this. Someone who does not understand that I do not want to follow a group so that they may have confirmation for THEMSELVES that there is a God. You see, they often believe someone in the recesses of their minds, that the more people they can convince to think their way the more their preachings must be true. I say find your guts to face this life on your own merits and thinking. Don't be so lazy. I only have respect for religions that respect my rights to spirituality. This article/opinion and references to other opinions...sound desperate.

    January 2, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • Chad

      When you say "you pray to God" do you mean the God of Israel whose Son Jesus Christ came to earth, or are you talking about some other meta-physical concept that you have labeled "God"?

      January 2, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  5. Bee

    What you call god is just TERMINOLOGY. I am spiritual but not religious... And why is it the important thing that it must have a certain name or organization- your missing the point if you are arguing about that.

    December 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  6. John Pascoe

    Spirituality implies a belief in something immaterial or incorporeal (it doesn’t define what ‘it’ is, that’s up to the person who has these feelings); whereas religiousity implies a belief in the same thing, but with the added codes of conduct that a religion adds – if you like, spirituality is the belief that comes first, and religiousity is the specific forms that that belief takes. A person cannot be religious without being spiritual first, but a person can certainly be spiritual without being religious. Many of the world’s tribal peoples are animists – they believe in spirits living in water, trees, rocks, etc. It’s a very basic form of belief, and it neither implies nor produces any specific forms of worship or codes of conduct. These people are spiritual but not religious. Similarly, any small child that hasn’t yet been exposed to any religion may well have spiritual feelings – they may wonder what happens when we die, if we have a soul, if there’s something other than what we can physically sense, etc. But they haven’t yet developed or codified that belief into something more specific.

    On another note, perhaps if there weren’t so many religious people doing such horrible things, or taking their beliefs to the extreme, or using those beliefs to justify their abhorrent opinions or behaviour, perhaps more people would be happy to admit to being religious, rather than just spiritual?

    December 29, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  7. love

    read the bible , believe and trust and seek and pray to the lORD and you will be saved , death will not matter life while still hard will be easier to get through , even if struggles appear ...these are the words from phropets in biblical times and Jersus himself..all you have to do is love ....if you do not believe this , why are you so angry that other sdo believe it ... it is ultimitaly up to the individual ....I will never understand an athetiest trying so hard to convince peopel there is no God...I can understand a christian telling others about christ ...they want other sto have the Joy of the Lord in your heart something un=touvhed by any thig else in this world...as God said love your enemies as your friends..athiest you have heard the truth if you dont want to believe then live your life the way you want no one is stopping you ..you have free will..

    December 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  8. Secular

    I respect that these are your opinions, Miller, however I would also like to share that people like you who have such rigid, judgmental, intolerance are the reason why people are leaving the church in mass amounts. I also do not appreciate that this article assumes so much about the non-religious culture. I cannot speak for anybody but myself (an important lesson for you, Miller) however, I can assure you that not a single assumption made in this article applies to myself.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Hannah
    As an afterword, I find it interesting that you feel the need to defend God at all. God knows that I love him and I know that God loves me, but you're take is certainly an interesting one.

    December 12, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Anon

      The belief in your imaginary god is slowly dying. The sooner the better.

      January 6, 2013 at 1:32 am |
  9. kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    I Accepted Jesus christ as my lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners. Even once we are saved by christs merciful grace we will still experience adversity to mold us to adhering to the truth.
    We will slip... But not fall of the ship ...carrying us onward to perfection in christs grace.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith ....above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read romans or corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are by faith above reason in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved
    Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door,
    And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
    The, looking in, I saw upon the floor
    Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
    “How many anvils have you had,” said I,
    “To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
    “Just one,” said he, and then with twinkling eye,
    “The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
    And so, thought I, the anvil of God’s Word,
    For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
    Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
    The anvil is unharmed – the hammers gone.

    Truth is..exclusive

    December 11, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  10. Mel

    There is nothing wrong with not committing to specific beliefs, to remain undecided. At times this may indicate laziness, but it can also indicate honesty and humility. Attempting to pigeon-hole yourself into a set of beliefs when you lack the actual conviction to do so hardly helps your spiritual growth. It is much more important to be committed to principles that guide the way you live your life than to explanations of what exists beyond this life.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  11. hoop

    The Spiritual: Seekers of Knowledge vs. The Religious: Seekers of Reward.

    November 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  12. might as well make money selling hope

    An all-powerful, all-knowing creator only has to show himself, but the fact that (unless you believe the voices that ancient schizophrenics heard were the best 'it' could do at communicating with humans) 'it' hasn't does not prove 'it' does not exist. Cult-leading frauds know with confidence that it is impossible to prove something does NOT exist, so that leaves the door of opportunity wide open. Note that I am not saying a god does not exist. I AM saying that religious shysters do and they shamelessly believe: "Nobody can disprove our claim so we might as well make a $h!tload of money with it." The hope they cynically get rich selling is simply the hope that there is a better life than one filled with people like televangelists who use people.

    November 29, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  13. Trajk Logik

    You say that being spiritual but not religious is removing all the man-made things about God and thinking for yourself about what God is and wants. This is a ridiculous argument because you are still accepting the existence of the God of the the religion you were raised with. You still accept that a soul exists, or that there is life after death, or that God is personable and interested in your life. You still accept many of the attributes of God that you grew up with.

    The problem isn't that people don't want to search for the truth. It's that they only want to find a truth that in consoling. But in the search for TRUTH, you are not guaranteed that the REAL TRUTH will be consoling. You are imposing your own subjective biases on what the truth is, rather than actually doing an objective search and realize that the truth may not be what you want it to be, or that it may not be consoling. But that is the price we pay for seeking the actual truth rather than some anthropomorphic, self-promoting, self-important truths.

    November 28, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  14. Andrew

    I am christian but NOT religious!!! Ok you think this is a cop out? It is my belief that religion has done nothing but contorted GOD's original plan to conform to a political and financial power. I have studied many different religious beliefs and one thing always stands out! Power over the people. If you look into religious history you can see the changing of country, and religious laws depending on current times desires. Now as its said in the bible "I am the same now then and forever" religion cannot change just because the current ruler desires something, weather its personal or political. The moment we think we know what God is, understand we are lost!!! GOD is and will always be more than our weak human minds can ever fathom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 28, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Anon

      You're another nutjob as well. Go seek psychiatric therapy.

      January 6, 2013 at 1:29 am |
  15. Mac

    The pope debunks IT. To sell a book.

    November 27, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  16. Alan Miller

    Further to this piece, we held a NY Salon Battle Satellite event with The New School where panelists debated this issue. The aim of The Battle of Ideas Satellite Festival is to engage the public in debate and discussion with regard to the key issues of our time. You can see it here:

    November 27, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  17. mario

    @mlg4035
    Reject at your risk. live the life that you want. but don't criticize others just because it makes u feel uncomfortable.

    November 24, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  18. Choir Loft

    THE PROBLEM oh naive one, is that mankind DOES NOT seek the truth and DOES NOT want God's interference in their lives. Most of mankind (in the west anyway) believes that they are captains of their own fate and that no one has the right to tell them what to do or how to live. Authority is not our friend especially spiritual authority, especially God.

    Like it or not, nobody seeks the truth of God. Why? Because truth, especially spiritual truth, requires responsibility. Only a child's imaginary conception of God considers otherwise. That's why it is necessary to kill god in the mind as well as everywhere else. We cannot have truth populating our minds and lives. It is far too dangerous and revealing. Mankind prefers to live in the darkness of self-deception and lies.

    Christmas is the Christian season of light and truth. Gluttony gifts and pointless celebration serve to divert the mind from real truth – focusing instead on vanity and style rather than substance and service to God.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    November 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • mlg4035

      Ugh! Typical self-righteous pontification. THIS is what we reject.

      November 23, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • Peteyroo

      God doesn't exist. Christmas is commercial. Christians shoved the holiday down our throats for long we took it over and made it secular. Thanks. Now, if we can just get religion out of Easter.

      November 23, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • tallulah13

      There is not a single shred of proof that your god (or any god) actually exists. Why not grow up and take responsibility for your own existence, instead of waiting for a supernatural parent to reward you for obeying a set of rules created in a different age for a different culture?

      December 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  19. mujib

    brother its true that ones experiences gets him to follow his own comfortable way to follow the path of spirituality. every religion says about oneness of god. why would god confuse us if he really exists, he should be unambiguous to guide mankind, who really are guided people? grotto do some research by Ur own, certainly there is an answer for all if you are sincerely seeking for truth. please click http://www.the deenshow.com

    November 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      The confusion is in the mind of man, not in the revelation of God. Confusion is a self-inflicted condition of one who justifies his own desire to lie, cheat and steal his way through life – and hopefully through eternity as well.

      Except that God holds the keys to eternity and life and death and will not give them up to the fickle mind and hand of man.

      but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      November 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  20. Leigh Anne

    The author shows his lack of understanding of the differences between religion and spirituality in this article. Some graduate hours in spiritual formation are definitely in order! Spirituality is all about the relationship between ourselves and the "One" we are seeking to connect or unite with. Whether that "One" is named the Divine, the Cosmos, Our Higher Power, Our Inner Self or Our Beloved ...or even given no name at all, it makes no difference....it is still a human attempt at connection with something greater than we currently understand.

    It is not about "feeling good", it is about relationship. And why don't we delineate out the "practices and beliefs" of this "relationship"? Chuckle because it is ridiculous to even attempt that. Every relationship is different. For example, what is the RIGHT way to show love to one's Beloved? Does one care for the children of the Beloved? Does one whisper sweet words of affection? Does one sing passionate love songs? Does one bring gifts like flowers or scent? Does one dance slowly or fast with the "Beloved"?...or does one do nothing at all and simply sit in the sweet presence of the "Beloved" and remember? Which one is "right"? Are any wrong?

    Religion on the other hand describes and often prescribes the particular way in which its adherents see and respond to "The Beloved". Often prayers are said a certain way or moral behavior is prescribed.

    Religion comes OUT OF the spiritual experience....but is not the ultimate goal of the spiritual experience in my opinion. For me, the ultimate goal is the loving relationship...with the Divine and the Creation my divine Higher Power exists within and around. To this end, I recycle to care for creation, I pray and meditate to connect more deeply, and I serve my fellow humans in a healing profession to connect more deeply. But that is describing MY relationship with the Beloved.....talk to a hundred other spiritual directors and you will get a hundred other new and exciting answers.

    November 20, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Choir Loft

      Well said, but then CNN is not well known for publishing the words of those who are adept at spiritual matters. The circus of the mind and heart is their specialty.

      but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      November 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Jane

      I wholeheartedly agree with LA. In my Methodist sunday school class we always talked about where we were on our SPIRITUAL journey. I do believe you must find that spirit individually within yourself in your own time frame. It doesnt matter whether you move from Christianity to Hindi to Islam, etc. to find the spirit as long as you are working toward that goal. And I'm not sure that death isn't the end of that journey which leads to the start of your new life in the Spiritual world.

      November 27, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Saraswati

      Agreed, I'm neither spiritual nor religious but this author clearly hadn't a clue what he was talking about. Seriously, he wants every individual to write a few volumes on their personal belief system in order to.... I can't even finish that sentence with a meaningful motivation for what he's implying people should be doing wrt their personal belief systems. And the argument (if you would call it that) further assumes that belief systems that *have* written out and debated their details are, in fact, coherent, meaningful or in some way true. I'd rather meat someone whose belief system what not quite hammered out but based on a few sound premises that written about in detail but based on a couple of crackpot ideas and bad evidence. Really weird article.

      November 27, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • send a message

      If there was an all-powerful, all-knowing "one" out there, he'd have no trouble 'connecting' and 'sharing' with us. Even if 'it' is too self-conscious, hideously ugly or poor at communicating to face us, he would have no problem stringing together a few sentences to send us a personal email message, right???? Use some common sense.

      November 29, 2012 at 2:47 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.