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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. Daniel

    Maybe some people do not want to inflexible belief structure of the church where every scientific discovery is considered blasphemy. These spiritual people are making an attempt to make a better connection between themselves and their spiritual soul, trying to find their way with an open mind. I consider myself to be an agnostic because while I may not believe their is a supreme being we have not disproved beyond a doubt that one does not exist, and as a person of curiosity I refuse to shut my mind to any possibility however remote the chances are. Even though I am not a "spiritual" person I do often meditate as it is an excellent tool to not only clear your mind but also make it stronger as well as allowing me to find a since of peace that meditation offers.

    For me their peace is comparable to when I format my computer with all my programs backed up on my external drives, It allows me to remove all the destructive viruses and mal-ware (thoughts) while keeping the ones that are essential and ad value to my life.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  2. liz marsh

    As an athiest my moral compass is being good for goodness' sake. I'm a caring, honest, ethical person not in hope of some eternal reward, or in fear of some eternal damnation - but rather because it's the right thing to do.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • cm

      Not all believers do the right thing out of fear. You know this. There are many souls in prison who believe in God and have done horrible things just as those who don't believe in anything do horrible things. Good for you that you have a conscience.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  3. Doc Magnus

    Paul Meyer is right. If religion is passing out of fashion it's because the religious drove believers away. Whether it's Jihadis, pedophile priests or lunatic evangelicals, the cost of participation has become too high for many to pay. That doesn't mean, however, the non-religious don't think deeply about meaning and commit to beliefs – just that they're not doing it within four walls, but within their heart

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  4. John T.

    Another trash article on 'CNN Opinion.' This article has nothing in terms of analysis, facts, reason, pursuasive authority... nothing. He doesn't mention all of the absolute harm, destruction, mayhem etc. that orgainized religion has caused in the world....Crusades? Suicide Bombers? Let's not even broach the catholic church and their pedophile monsters... or the monsters in that 'organized' religion that shuffled them around. The author then accuses the 'spiritual but not religous' crowd of being 'self absorbed,' but offers no proof whatsoever that they are any more self absorbed than their 'religous' counterparts.'

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  5. SteveInMN

    You can learn all you need to know about modern mainstream religion by following the money. The goal of the religion business is picking pockets through mind control. I don't need religious CEOs to tell me what to think, how to think, who to love, who to vote for, or on what day I can drag my ox out of a pit – much, MUCH, better off thinking for myself, Thanks!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  6. whatever

    What a pathetic article by someone clearly trying to justify the need for hanging on to organized religions that are dying. What is inherently wrong about adopting the best of multiple religions or developing your own sense of morality. Is it necessary any worse than what has been done under the name of religion? This guy thinks he's got the inside track to God. I don't the know the truth.....but I believe my admitting that at least points me in a better direction than people like him who assume they have all the answers.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Lightnaugust

      Totally agree! What a pathetic approach to a complex subject. The movement is one of UNITY of all people regardless of religion. I can see value in all religions and appreciate and respect them all. I can find commonality in the human experience and work with all people for the common good. This is the underlying mission of Spirituality. I recognize the God in all things....

      This article is rubbish.

      Namaste.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  7. move32

    hey Alan, You're an idiot.. you know alot about nothing

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  8. Allen

    Our understanding of God is a natural progression. Judaism, established that there is One God, ruler of the Universe, then Christianity came and told us that he is a God of Love. Then the renaissance happened and the renaissance helped move God from the monopoly of the Vatican to be more personal, and helped bring about the Protestant reformation. Now we are experiencing the final stage of enlightenment where we gather the spiritual and true elements of each religion and most of us nowadays understand that we have a personal connection with a loving God, without even having to be Christian. That's my take on it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  9. dad

    Ridiculous. I provide as much logic and evidence in one word then you did in 500.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  10. In Reason I Trust

    Was there a point to this badly written article?

    Anyway, the less religion the better, adults believing in magic souls is an embarrassment to the entire human race.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Da King

      Someday, you'll SEE.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Mike

      Did you see the Progressive ad up in the corner? That's the point. These supposed idiotic articles are designed to bring you to this page to see that ad, and others. CNN isn't a billion dollar enterprise because they are stupid.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  11. Me

    typical story for CNN Communist News Network

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  12. Laura

    I'm insulted that some think of my views as a "cop-out". I am not decided on any faith, and have been that way for decades. I am extremely comfortable with my beliefs. The decision to not believe at this point is something I have thought through and explored for a very very long time. Now this new wave of non-believers comes through and makes my very strong beliefs look like a joke. It's really no one's business-and with the way organized religion is so violent and greedy and dishonest in today's structure, I don't blame anyone for not wanting to partake. And that has zero to do with my reasons for being Agnostic. I don't attack those who believe, why should they attack us?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  13. aginghippy

    I also have little patience for those who claim to be spiritual but not religious, but for a very different reason. In essence, they are basically just agnostic. They don't buy into the inconsistencies and contradictions of organized religion, but aren't quite ready to simply rid themselves of the concept of God. The author is correct that they are fence sitting, but not out of laziness or lack of conviction, but rather out of fear.
    Fear is the glue that holds all religions together. Fear of death, fear of punishment and fear of losing the big wish granting genie in the sky keep otherwise rational folks from abandoning what they know to be absolute nonsense. I would encourage these fence sitters to join the ranks of atheists who have embraced truth and reason. Atheists lead good lives because we know that we have but one life to live, that we are part of the human family and that only through cooperation and empathy for our fellow humans can any of us hope to be happy and fulfilled. The theist seems to behave in a moral and ethical manor only out of fear of burning in hell.
    Kindness, compassion and ethical and moral behavior are not a result of religion; those superior qualities pre-date religion and exist despite religion's contrary influence throughout the ages.
    If there is a trend among our youngest citizens toward fence sitting and eventual abandonment of religion, it is the result of increased dissemination of information and exposure to the great voices of reason who have become more widely heard as of late. The voices of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late and great Christopher Hitchens are among those who have dared to expose religion for what it is. Those youngsters who haven't been thoroughly brainwashed by parents, grandparents and other authority figures are a thorn in the side to fundamentalist dinosaurs like the author of this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • TrueStory

      I detest pseudo-intellectual hippies. Agnostism has nothing to do with fear. Einstein detested atheism. Morality, beyond our born instincts and genetic behavior and cultural upbringings, is entirely subjective and arbitrary.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • aginghippy

      @TrueStory,
      I sense a lot of hatred in your response; you must be a theist. What does Einstein have to do with this discussion?
      So, OTHER than our instincts, genetic influence AND our culture, morality is arbitrary, you say. I absolutely agree. However, nowhere in that list did you mention religion. That's the point, you pompous a$$.
      By the way, the "hippy" part of my handle is not to be taken too seriously. The "pseudo-intellectual" insult is open for debate.
      Have a lovely day!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  14. That guy in that picture is looking upward, why?

    People in general are becoming spiritual and evolutionists are becoming religious ;)

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Jones,NY

      Becoming spiritual is a fad, add a dose of karma sutra to spirituality and you will never regret becoming spiritual.
      Is this an ad for viagra?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  15. Nigel Tufnel

    What's funny is that the author thinks this is a new problem. It is not. As far back as the days of Confucius and Lao Tzu the argument between conformists who sought order above all vs. non conformists who sought peace above all was making it's way to books (such as they were).

    So, while I share the sentiment or opinion of the responders that I've read so far that the author is preaching conformity and throwing out accusations to us non-conformists akin to "when did you stop beating your wife?" but in addition, I'd like to ask him and the rest of the conformist religious people, what good are you, and also point out that if you are loosing the hearts and minds of the people the only answer I can think of is that you have failed. You have failed to provide answers, you have failed to be good, you have failed to serve and your dogmas are unworthy of our allegiance. So long as you blame, culture, media, the influence of radically dangerous Taoist principles, or whatever else you want to, you'll continue to see yourselves as helpless victims. Jesus said if your eye causes you to sin, throw it out. I say, if your culture causes you to remain in conflict with the world, throw it out. If your dogma excuses mass death for profit, kill it. If your holy texts cause you to see those of your dogma as partners, and those who are not as enemies, burn it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  16. CatSh

    The author needs to do a bit more reading on how Christianity as we know it was formed. Jesus began his teaching by going against the strict interpretation of religious law in the Torah and current Jewish practice. He taught of a 'feel good' God that ioved us like a father and not the strict judging deity. The next 200 years of Christianity is filled with dozens of interpretations and beliefs. Jesus left us some central ideas and not a complete body of religious thought. The RELIGION oh Christianity evolved over 2000 years and only began to centralize into one creed some 200 years after Jesus when the first Bible was compiled.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  17. Goozleberry

    The "danger" of spiritual-but-not-religious people is that it is much harder for churches to extract money from them.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  18. Vic Day

    Disappointing. Despite the fact that Mr. Miller bemoans the diminishing of serious religious study, his argument is not in the least bit serious. He chooses to single out a lazy minority of those who embrace spirituality over structured religions. The people he describes are easy, facile targets. And his arguments against them are, obviously, equally facile. However, there are many who take the choice to step away from structured religions very seriously. They don't just grab a "hodge-podge" of things. Rather, they investigate beliefs and practices quite deeply before constructing their views on spirituality. There is indeed a serious discussion (rather than a debate) to be had on why more and more people are making this choice. Shame on CNN for deciding to publish this weak polemic.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  19. Andrew

    While I do argue individual spiritualism is merely a cop out from the real faith since it is merely taking a religion and designing it around your own personal beliefs.
    I'm agnostic. So I pretty much have forsaken all other modern day religions for various reasons. I do belief that if you are going to follow a particular faith you are cheating it by choosing to ignore certain parts of its of it mainly the less than ethical ones where you treat women as second class citizens and can own slaves. That and the ridiculous punishments that seem to contradict core beliefs and above all else I dislike completely following some mystical master who decides everything for us and we should follow without question. I'm too American to not question those who demand my undying loyalty and would damn me to a eternity of suffering if I did not.
    I feel like people are simply lying to themselves when they take this spiritual approach and would rather see them just shed their religion entirely and live their lives they see fit but with moral conviction since while I do find the bible is loaded with crap there are still some underlying teachings within it that I think as people we have developed over time such as doing onto others you would like done to yourself. Humans after all have been around longer than these religions themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  20. AlGhandy

    "Karma sutra"? Really? Authors has to do at least minimal research on topic if he has no clue what he is writing about. Kama and Karma two absolutely different words. And using in a sentence " Kama Sutra or Qur'an" either incredibly stupid or intentionally provocative. Judging by the rest of the article, it is probably first.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 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.