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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: Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. Gwynne

    This author is fearful that the "Franchise" system of religious practice is losing its grip. After being a practicing member of three diverse religous communities, I came to realize that there is a common thread that runs through all religions. Religion is a business of enforcing ritualistic routines and extracting funds. It also too often teaches hatred and mistrust of those whose practices and rituals differ from their own. Too many people have been killed over "Coke or Pepsi" religious branding issues. Living in a mindful spiritual way strips all the clutter and clamour of various religious shills touting their wares as the ONLY way to heaven.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  2. George

    This was an interesting read, although not in agreement with the assumption: "spiritual" doesn't mean your religious? Although, appreciative of the fact that is does initiate a dialogue.
    Many of us have grown up within a religious structure: organised church, ritual, doctrine. Many have chosen to keep the tenets of one's faith but have opted out of the organisational aspect. That doesn't mean you don't have sense of faith nor does it mean you've opted to abandon your faith.
    Talking to God, believing in God, doesn't mean you "have to" do things a certain way. Ultimately, it's about how one lives their life, no? ( a cliche, but true).

    September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  3. KewlJoJo

    Given the stark choice you offer, I'll take The Enlightenment, thankee. But spiritual people know this is a false choice. It ain't up to you to decide what they believe in.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  4. Katrina Wogoman

    Wow. I am honestly speechless. If you were seeking emotion, CNN... you got it. This is definitely the worst piece I have ever read on your site...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  5. wrm

    "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."

    ^^ Language like this is what drives people to be "spiritual but not religious."

    September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  6. Brandon

    Simply a terrible article. Terrible.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  7. jeff

    Weak article. Sounds like someone trying to be more authoritative than he is. "But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is 'something out there'..." That's because there *is* something out there we don't understand – and by "we" I mean both scientists and theologians. "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say." It's not "fence sitting" to say that we don't really know what's going on. Nor or those people "not trying". In fact, the "spiritual but not religious" crowd typically think more than the sheep at the local church on Sunday, where you can witness extremes of ignorance, dogma, and hypocrisy. Does the SBNR crowd have everything figured out? No. But the main difference between them and very religious folk is that they are aware of this.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  8. Bryant Lister

    Whether you are in a cult of one or a cult of millions, does not make the immature and illogical beliefs in spirits, ghosts and magical beings any more reasonable. Reality is made of firmer stuff and unfortunately too many people want to lay in a bed of magical thinking that requires the suspension of rationality and intelligent thought.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  9. Scott

    Ugh...another religous nut telling others what they should believe...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  10. sonofanuts

    This article is certainly not worthy of CNN. This might be the most superficial, stereotyping article I have ever read with no real facts or precedence for the arguments and accustations he is making. He does however use lots of big words that don't do add anything to his argument other than making him sound really smart.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  11. Surthurfurd

    What about the dangers of believing in fantasy over reality?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • proud2bsecular

      have to assume you mean the dangers of belief in super-powered snakes, apples, person-swallowing whales, burning speaking bushes and the collective danger of these beliefs culminating in on-going Crusades and generalized self-righteous intolerance.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  12. yogagodess

    Reblogged this on yogagodess and commented:
    What a bunch of pretentious BS.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  13. straycoder

    Modern mankind needs to believe and practise humanity and respect eco system as they these things will keep mankind alive. Being Spirtual is like "fashion" word and no one can really explain what spirtual means. few of my friends explained to me being spirtual means believe in universal power but not one god etc but all of them are not eco friendly at all and my question to them is that how we can be spirtual without respecting nature around us ? no answer and they will try to brush of the question. Most ancient religions started by worshipping nature and then toys to fool people start coming up etc. Then few religion popup believing seeing the "GOD" etc and few religions expand themselves by wars and bloodshed. In nutshell Human needs humanity and being eco friendly if we dont want to experience "Hell" and also believing in humanity and eco friendly does not require prayers , we just need to change our life style :)

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  14. grafixer

    The article ends with, "...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?..." It is CLEAR that independent thought and belief IS an "Enlightenmnet ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action". Any religion that states that those that do not believe the same as they do will "die and go to a firey place" – or suffer some horrific after-life situation – is based on fear, and the separation of their people from the whole. That's simply narrow minded and ignorant. How one lives will make their life a contributing, good and happy one. Hate is no longer accepted by truly spiritual people.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  15. mm

    Alan Miller: What are you "peddling" here?

    Why are you assuming that spiritual people are "peddling" anything?

    Your word/premise of the article...."Peddling"......really?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  16. Gyrogearloose

    Yet one more religious nutcase saying that his way is right, and other ways are wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  17. Rob

    What an arrogant, self serving, holier than thou POS. This is one of the worst articles I have had the misfortune to lay eyes on.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • John the Guy

      The sheepies lap it up and probably pay a good buck to attend, LOL.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  18. algernon

    This article is innane. And since we're on the topic of "innane", most of what CNN and other MSM report these days is innane. Hence (I imagine) the explosion of alternative media.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  19. USMC9298

    I am an atheist, I don't believe in fairy tales. I do believe in order in the universe, and the organized method of understanding it is called science. All religions are tools used by a self elected elite to control the masses. The fact people are seeking answers elsewhere or rather from within themselves is a good thing. Moral or ethical behavior does not require a compass set by a religion where failure to do right is punished in the afterlife, in my mind it has no weight if you only choose to do right because of fear. I do the right thing because it is logically sound. I follow a code enforced by me and no other. It is called being human, without being depraved.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Dee

      Thank you. Great response.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  20. ldrunner202

    Yep, a large group of bright, independent, thoughtful people must be really frightening for religious organizations and those that mindlessly follow them.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • proud2bsecular

      exactly! Great comment.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.