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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. Math Ew

    I had to stop reading this article after I read the author's argument. The author is quite misunderstood. I argue a counter-point that if you are spiritual and not religious, you actually DO the research behind all the false stories (scriptures) and fairytales of religion and you get down to what ACTUALLY happened based solely on historical record. I am still trying to figure it out, but until then, the author argues that because I'm spiritual but not particularly religious that I am avoiding important questions and explanations? What explanation do I need have for my BELIEF? The author not only makes little sense, but this article is just one of those controversial pieces written JUST to get people to comment because of how ridiculous this argument is...to put this as the main story on the front page of the site though...come on....seriously? Thumbs down.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • april8992

      I totally agree with you. I am pretty sure I saw a article similar to this once before by CNN. This guy has no clue and is coming clearly from the dominate mind. We are spiritual beings having a human journey. When you awaken to many truths you no longer feel the need to listen to the conventional teachings of church, you know there is something much bigger we are heading towards. We grow, we change. We have spiritually evolved a lot since the beginnings of religion, even the way we view religion has changed, it is taking a softer more loving approach. So change is good, especially when it is coming from a loving place.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  2. Mickey from Columbus

    I would suggest two books to the author: Alcoholics Anonymous and The Spirituality of Imperfection. The notion of "spirituality" iI have gleaned from these two books, coupled with an adherence to the principles of the Twelve Steps of AA has saved my life and brought me closer to a God of my understanding than did years of compulsory attendance at Mass. When I completed my Fifth Step with a priest he told me that, because I had not paid the church for an annulment, and because I was living with my now wife that the Church could not grant me Absolution. Then he added "...but God forgives you." Since that day I have been satisfied that being "spiritual but not religious" is more than enough for this fractured soul.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • RobinNNJ

      Too bad the author is so caught up in the Triangle of Self-Obsession to even consider reading either one of these books.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  3. Ken

    OK I'm done with CNN. Thank you Alan Miller, you were the last straw.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • april8992

      I agree, I have avoided CNN for a longtime now and I am pretty sure I saw something similar a while back. It just happened to pop up and caught my eye. Done with CNN too.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  4. Jase

    I have to disagree with the article from the beginning. I am spiritual not because I am seeking an answer to life or to empower myself with sets of beliefs that can "guide me" so-to-speak, but to simply take time out of my day to relax and reflect on where I am. Recognize this world we live in, and acknowledge how one day I will not be apart of it. I believe this develops genuine appreciation of life. Recognizing the volatility of it brings great rewards and opens my eyes to life's beauty.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Math Ew

      I really like your answer Jase...you make a lot of sense in your beliefs. I am very similar in why I am spiritual as well.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  5. kerri

    So if people don't what he thinks they should do, they are doing nothing and not contributing to society, and they have no moral code. Has he ever talked longer than 10 minutes to someone he describes?
    I doubt it. Also all these values that he doesn't name, but says that Christianity created were created long before Christianity!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  6. Lisa

    Sooo, what....I should just hop to it and "pick one"? Fence-sitting ain't necessarily all bad–one of us may actually find that third possibility we hadn't counted upon; and if not, at least we have hope (and an interesting view) in the meanwhile. What you are espousing is that neither religion nor science are significant in the long run–that it is the making of the decision that is important. Fine. I support your right to believe it. I don't, however, support your method of sharing that belief. Your words, Mr. Miller, are meant to demean others and injure them in that most private of places, and on a Sunday morning no less; you are nothing more than a bully with a digital megaphone. Do you feel better now?

    Awfully glad you aren't making the rules for the rest of us, not that you aren't trying.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Math Ew

      Gosh darn it, the Mormons were right!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  7. Enlightened

    Alan, you have just stepped in your own pile of mud. Your opinion article is both typical, droll and exactly the type of judgmental bile that has turned most contemporary thinkers away from the church and religion as a whole. Rather than practice humanity and respect of everyone and their beliefs, you judge. Your pulpit and leather bound book of creative writing do not offer you a perspective of expertise. Humanity, tolerance, kindness – this spirituality IS religion. The type of religion that is founded within an individual. Knock down the walls of religion that were created by feuding governments and powers that be in the dark ages and instead begin to think for yourself. It's an enlightening world out there.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  8. Eric

    I'm pretty shocked at what can make the front page of CNN Hess days.

    Can you pleas back up the assertion that nothing from the visual arts to Bach could be "possible" without the King James Bible? As if the absence of which would result in an unfillable void of inspiration? Preposterous.

    And the idea that looking inward isn't enought to fully connect with something spiritual is hogwash.

    Every religious text is the result of someone looking inward, committing what they find to paper and claiming it was a message from God.

    Yes, I'll come right out and say it. That voice you hear that you think is God is coming from inside you, not the heavens. That is not to say that it isn't God speaking. Maybe it is, but only looking inward can we understand it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  9. Broadcasting

    May you all be touched by his noodley appendage. Ramen!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Acegirlshusband

      I think you show true commitment to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He/She/It will place Blessings on you.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  10. Hogarth

    This writer is a censorious boob. First he generalizes about what the humanist movement is about, and then finishes by perorating about the majesty of the structure of the formal church.
    It is precisely this sort of empty bombast that is the reason so many turn away from the church.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • NKB

      I agree.....also, I reject the "hypocritical" , so called chrisitans who preach the teachings of Christ, and then go out an do everything But follow the teachings of Christ! PS. I was raised an Evangelical Christian, and am almost 70....so they shouldn't just say people who reject organized religion and choose to lead a more Spiritual Life are just the "youth" of today...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  11. FreyaV

    Bravo Chuck Yanikosky!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • joe

      The author of this topic is but yet a child lost in a world of big words he does not yet understand. There is no god fool.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. spk

    I think the most telling phrase he put forth was the "happiness agenda". Not that there is any thing wrong with happiness. And even the bible talks about joy. But I believe that there is something to the idea that spirituality, when it is at its best, is not just a matter of personal happiness, but should also drive us toward a sense of belonging to, and needing to be a power for good in, the world. Shane Claibourne talks about people needing to be ordinary radicals who take responsibility for others. Jesus talked about being forgiving, caring and giving.

    So the danger is not is being "independent" from organized religion. Plenty of people within organized religions are not care, forgiving and giving... look at the megachurches where it is mostly about "believe and get rich". It is about pulling out of this world, with all its ugliness, and not seeking to be a person who creates positive change. Not taking care of those around us.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  13. Conrad

    What a crock! Is this guy feeling threatened by the non-religion movement? "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." No, what it offers is a chance to think for oneself and come to terms with belief–as opposed to being a mindless drudge genuflecting on cue and drinking the Kool-Aid to the extent that you cannot conceive of nor allow the option for other set of ideas. Faith in a higher power is perhaps humanity's most significant achievement–and organized religion where someone claiming the ear of god tells you what to believe is the absolute worst. The sooner that organized religion is tossed in the dustbin of history, the better. And if you think that only religion brings morality, talk tome about the Inquisition, the Hundred Years War, Islamo-fascist terrorism, etc., etc. More people have died because of organized religion than any other cause.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  14. Raj

    TRUTH IS ONE. DIFFERENT SAGES CALL BY DIFFERENT NAMES.

    Organized religion wants everyone to see GOD through their lens.

    Spiritual is seeing the whole world as one. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CREATER AND THE CREATION.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Michael

      Soooo how is what your saying not simply trying to make me see "truth" through YOUR lense? What makes yours so clear?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  15. Ridiculous

    This article is arrogant and insulting. CNN would not publish an article bashing Christians, or Jews, or Muslims. So why is it okay to bash spiritual non religious people? The one down side of being spiritual and not religious is we do not have a organizational structure in which we can condemn CNN for their discriminatory articles. At the same time, this lack of voice makes this article particularly discriminatory and oppressive. The idea that spiritual but non religious is a cop out is misguided. While obviously still influenced by organized practice at least to a degree in our spiritual beliefs, we forgo the comfort that comes along with associating with a group of people who belief the same thing you do. And truly, with all the worlds religions, do you think any religions can really be true beyond the commonalities among most of them? What kind of God would reveal himself in truth to one group of people and not to another? Furthermore, as a spiritual but non religious person, I can say my faith is not a cop-out, but is one which involves a requirement to work for God's will by seeking out a more just society. I swear CNN is moving closer and closer to the shock journalism of FOX news each day.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  16. Gershon

    The author misses the mark on virtually every part of it.

    People who are spiritual but not religious do not become sinners according to religious doctrine. They connect directly with the Divine through many different paths.

    Religious organizations have become ultra-dogmatic in ways that were never intended. Many want to control lives down to the smallest detail. They send anyone who isn't perfect to hell while ignoring their own imperfections.

    Religious organizations have become just another method for many to make money. Try to find a website without a Paypal button. Their message changes by the amount of the collections.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  17. Misses the point

    There may be a so-called "spiritual but not religious" movement, but why are you so critical of it? All religion is meant to make us "feel good" by answering those questions that are impossible to answer. Just because the answers traditionally came to a collective group in a more organized manner, doesn't mean that they are any more legitimate. Why are you so quick to assume that this recent trend comes from self-obsessedness? Our global environment has more interaction amongst peoples and religions, thereby increasing the conflict. Why don't you see this trend being prompted by a genuine goodness in people to seek inclusion, rather than exclusion? We should foster the idea of accepting and respecting each other's beliefs, rather than reinforcing our rigid lines. I'm with the other comments that are disappointed with CNN for publishing this judgmental piece.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  18. SK

    The author indeed seems to have got it wrong, or at least has not expressed his views as he aimed to...He thinks that the "spiritual" people are selfish, there is a "me" in it, etc. Also, he has separated spiritual from the religious. This is far from the truth. People in pursuit of the spiritual do believe in something higher, and do not necessarily beleive in one "God" that is defined by religion. If you look from the religious point of view, the goal of all religions at the core is for humans to find their spiritual self, and grow as spiritual beings. When we read the bible or the gita or quran or any other religious books or teachings, what does it tell- to get over above the limits of the normal human beings who suffer from greed, jealousies, desires, hate, and all these other negative thoughts, emotions, expressions and experiences. In fact, organized religion has caused most misery in the history of human beings everywhere- from medieval times till today. More of "spiritual but not religious" people in fact would be able to share spiritual experiences, which may be unique for everyone, and they still have the freedom to go to churches, mosques or other places of workship – they can read the bible or meditate, they are open minded to accept bits from different religions and thoughts and seek to actualize themselves. May be they can become like a modern Buddha or a sage, who basically got to that level becmause of individual spirituality and freedom from the binds of exisiting religious authoritarian practices.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Social Change and the Future is Calling

      I am little surprised and dissappointed that such an article would appear on CNN as some sort of headline story.
      Is this CNN Sunday School? Some editor should get canned for placing it in on the main page. What happended to the news? Oh yeah, this story probably bumped Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton from their main storylines....neither of which is "newsworthy."

      Let these religious people bellyache and whine as their frustrations are merely a reflection of their belief's growing irrevelance in society. Fast-forward a century or two, and people will study Christianity, Islam, and Judaism like they study Greek mythology. And I really can't believe I wasted a few minutes of my life even responding....maybe the life one 'spiritual' person will benefit knowing that their on the right track.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  19. Thegoodman

    "Take a stand, I say."

    They have. The problem you have is that they are not standing on your side of the line. Anyone who says this phrase (I am an atheist so I also find it a bit annoying, but I am not here to judge them as you are) has taken the stand that they do not like organized religion.

    "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people's business. I live by the golden rule: Treat others as you'd want them to treat you. The religious right wants to tell people how to live." – Jesse Ventura

    Governor Ventura may be a bit wacky, but he has this part down. You are sticking your nose in their business and hiding behind the strength of the numbers in your church of choice. Organized religion is falling apart in the US and will lose it's stronghold on our government in 50 years. The day there are more atheists in our government than theists is the first day our country will truly begin making progress.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  20. Dorkus Maximus

    Where would Christianity be if not for the contributions of pagans? Show me a formal religion and I'll show you a hodgepodge of ideas from earlier religions.

    "Spiritual but not religions" is lame, yes, but it's no more lame than any established religion trying to tell me what's "true" by calling on a book or a bit of theatre.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • joe

      LOL you believe in anything after death

      I guess you little kids believe in wittle santa claus and easter bunny too..

      Awww so cute

      pathetic LOL

      September 30, 2012 at 9:37 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.