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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 (9,994 Responses)
  1. Skeptimist

    Mr. Miller's opinions and accusations are far too shallow for the deep water he pretends – or fears – to navigate. CNN would better serve their audience by selecting contributors with credentials appropriate to the topic.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  2. dickelocker

    Allan Miller seems worried we people are losing our sense of Community - shared values which unite a culture and civilization. Happily, the secular state has replaced many aspects of social bonding formed by going to church. Schools, Universities, business ethics, citizenship as in voting, mass media, even driving en masse on our super highways, provide a collective consciousness.

    He lists several spiritual tomes which form the basis of religious beliefs, as if most people are unaware of the basic concepts of our collective consciousness. He completely ignores the writings of the Classical Greeks & Romans - Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Herodotus, Tacitus, Cicero, etc. which the Renaissance re-discovered in the 1400-1500's and which overthrew the iron grip of the Catholic Church by re-inventing the secular state, and liberating the masses to interpret the Bible as they wish. These Greek & Latin works, the basis of the Enlightenment, are no longer part of the school curriculum since the early 1900's, just like religious studies.

    The way to Salvation and away from Sin is both individual and collective, as is the writing of laws, and common sense mores. Science and Humanism are intertwined with the spiritual, all of which are as ancient as religions. What we lack as a common core of reading and knowledge, those "ideas" which are the subject of common debate, have been overthrown by specilization and explosion of knowledge, and the proliferation of media to disseminate individualistic logical, spiritual and emotional gestalts. The world is now one human civilization, intercommunicating as never before through a plethora of new and old media. The BIble says "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I (God-Jesus)." If I choose to watch church on TV, or to similarly participate via media in a Vedic ritual, I don't think I or the world are less spiritual or religious for doing so. The Tea Party & Occupy movements are just the latest manifestation of how people now congregate to express their spiritual values, outside of Church.

    The literate, rational, and spiritual responses to this blog clearly disprove Mr. Miller's thesis. We, together, show a "religious" commonality which transcends the old, hide-bound religious establishments, and look forward to a time when dogmatism of every stripe is subsumed by a new tolerance and spiritual commonality. That our communication and consciousness are less seldom expressed through "going to church" & "studying the Bible" is a positive reflection of our emerging world-view and the vigorous diversity now allowed and nurtured through our collective World Community. Mr. Miller can't see this on-going religious re-defining, leading to world Peace, and a more caring society. So let him grovel in his sin-based world which demands harsh judgment and war-based Apocalypse - a throw-back to Medieval universal religious control. I think we all are doing quite well with our new-fangled ways, especially compared to the religious abuses of the past. rel

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Skeptimist

      Thank you. I enjoyed reading your informed and substantive comments. Mr. Miller's primary focus is business and marketing so it is understandable that he is alarmed by the growth of independent thinking amongst his customer base. That same fear has become pandemic in the American corporate arena, as manifested in the absurd religiosity of our political theater.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  3. mohillic

    wow, I was going to compose a response to this article but the overwheleming response seems to have done the job for me. I can only hope the author of this article has learned a valuable lesson about religious and spiritual beliefs. Those of us that choose to reject the church do not necessarily reject the bible and the lessons it imparts upon us. And we don't all take the book to some extreme level of interpretation.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  4. Alex

    religion is the testament to man's unwavering ignorance and pride.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  5. uncle fester

    Now CNN tolerates articles that slander other people's beliefs. So, are we going to see articles on CNN now saying that all Jews are greedy? Or that all Muslims are terrorists? If not, why does CNN publish something like this?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  6. w5cdt

    Some people are fed up with organized religion because they feel they are part of a "franchise" which largely benefits the clergy in the upper ranks. The Catholic church encourages large families which just happen to benefit the church and its wealth. So when people say they are spiritual but not religious I think they are rejecting the enfranchisement and dogma but not necessarily rejecting a belief system.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  7. Acegirlshusband

    I wonder if Mr. Miller feels the same way about "Indpenedents" who can't or won't choose a party affiliation?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • w5cdt

      I think that argument could in fact be made.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  8. Ibanezerscrooge

    I posted this on another blog entry ut noone has reponded so I'll try again. In line with the comments John made below me I issue a challenge:

    In ALL of history is there ANY single fact about the observable Universe that had a widely accepted scientific explanation, but that was later found to be supernatural in origin through religious study and thought and is accepted as the most likely explanation by the learned community today? Just one. That's all I ask for.

    On the other side, how many facts can you name that were once thought to be of supernatural origin that have since been found to have a completely naturalistic explanation based on scientific findings about our observable Universe. Some of which are even officially accepted as the genuine explanation by high-ranking members of major faiths?

    The supernatural/religious worldview is an ever shrinking box that is getting more and more uncomfortable. One day it will be too small for sane people to occupy.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  9. R Lanken

    Castigate the piece if you like, but you cannot escape human nature and yourself. Eviscerate a belief system and another one will simply fill its place. Today, we overturn 2,000 years of long suffering progress towards some sort of civilized, decent society in the name of modernity without a thought given to what will come after. A harsh, intolerant islam waits eagerly to take over, with all that goes with it. Like the Romans before we, we destroy the pillars of our society at our own peril.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  10. 200 TON HAMMER

    religion and spirituality have not solved Global Poverty,Global wars,Global sickness,Global racism,Global famine.if spirituality and religion solved everything
    then why are people from all over the world trying too bring their religion and spirituality too the usa???if its True you would have stayed in your country.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • w5cdt

      Poverty is not an easy problem to solve. Religion or no religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • cleareye1

      As bad as the human condition is it may have been worse without myths.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  11. Mike

    What if you don't believe in any of the major religions?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  12. James linny

    So, because you believe a fairytale written in the Desert some 2000 years ago (and no you cant prove its not)means that those who don't, cant have a relationship with a higher power – Just goes to show the arrogance of the religious right really are incapable of understanding the book they so dearly hide behind – Paranoid Hypocrites.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • harry

      Your Higher Power just called. He left a message: Why you mad?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  13. Countmein

    Yes- I am 50 yrs old and spiritual but not religious. I contemplate how my actions or words will effect others and my environment and TRY to choose the path that I consider "good". I know I cannot change the world, only my little piece of the world and even that is very limited. I do not believe in dantes hell and have not lost any sleep on dwelling on what comes next. Do I "feel good" about my life? Yes, I am at peace with myself. Do I have regrets about my past actions and think about what I could have done differently? Of course, I think that it called learning from our mistakes. Can I do better? Always, but I believe if I keep trying I will have lived a good life. I do not think goodness and evil can be explained in a few pages of a religious text. There are many factors to cause humans to act outside the "norm" or what ever is considered normal at this stage in our evolution.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  14. Brett

    Alan Miller must have written this article not out of impartial and intelligent thinking but rather to get a rise from people. I challenge anyone in any religion to scientiffically prove there is a deity at all. I'm not saying there is or isn't a deity of some sort, but to follow scripture written thousands of years ago at a time when people believed in witches seems.......well not so intelligent. Fence sitters at least leave the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the people that wrote scripture may have conjured up man's idea of life, not some deity. And if a deity did in fact dictate scripture, then that deity is seriously flawed. People that have read the Bible, Quran, etc, and believe it verbatim are the same people we see on the news strapping bombs on themselves or killing in the name of their deity in some twisted way. Whether you believe in a supreme creator or evolution, there's no denying the human being was a major screw up. We are collectively a net negative from every aspect of life. So for now, I'll remain a fence sitter living by common sense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  15. Goddess Worshiper

    Alan Miller, you are certainly right to believe in whatever system of spirituality you wish to. However, you DO NOT have the right to degrade or cause prejudice against anyone else for their spiritual beliefs. What's wrong with the Christian religion? YOU and others like YOU are what is wrong with the Christian religion. Don't get me wrong, there are good Christians out there and I am honored to call those people brother and sister. I would like to suggest to you that you get to know some of the people you are baring false witness against. Oh and they're not all young people. I'm 42 years old and there is a WHOLE demographic of people in their late 30's up to their 70's who are spiritual, but not religious. Check your facts dear.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  16. tafugate

    religion is a psychological opiate to guide you through your day. there is no such thing as a religion that's 100 percent correct, so it's a much more intelligent approach to take the bits and pieces that make you feel best. it's a complete waste of time researching the details of any religion oneself, as theologians have studied them for thousands of years, and they still don't have all the answers. i don't have that kind of time.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  17. Robert

    I knew I hated it when I said "I am spiritual but" hadn't put my finger on why. I don't know that your essay nails why, but its on the right track for me. There is a freedom that I don't care for in the phrase that gives me too much room in the search for existence. However the uncomfortable part of the article is that buffet spirituality will inevitably miss some sort of eternal accountability and truth goes back to the whole idea that I need to belong to some specific religion. Which is a whole lot of work really. Hundreds of religious organizations and yet if god was here there would only be one. Is there one specific one here right now or is it coming. If it was here how would the world treat it blah blah blah. How do I find it? Am I responsible for investigating all of them? So anyway good article, I am open to being more specific and mature in my spiritual approach...but now what? Also I have atheistic tendencies but find them so pious and self centered not really willing develop that concept. Just sayin. Thats what I will do! I will start an atheist church where you are atheist but not a butthead to people that are not. Where instead of pushing the atheist agenda I will seek to do good and lure people that way. So atheist but with a spiritual side.? Thats it! We will be spiritual but not religious!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  18. FreyaV

    ps: And I vote!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  19. Dogs4Pals

    So I've "copped" out of assuming personal responsibility for anything if it interfers with my self satisfaction? Hmm, sounds like pure capitalism. Where do I sign up?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  20. NateFromIndiana

    The biggest danger I see from religion is from people who allow overbearing traditional authorities to talk them into stupid extremes.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
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About this blog

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.