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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. Raj

    THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPIRITUAL AND RELIGIOUS.

    BUDDHA, KRISHNA, JESUS, MOSES, MOHAMMED WERE SPIRITUAL.

    THOSE WHO SEEK DIVINE LIKE THEM ARE SPIRITUAL, THOSE WHO FOLLOW THEM BLINDLY ARE RELIGIOUS.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  2. Anai Katechesthai

    I can only hope that one day Mr. Miller has a REAL spiritual experience rather than what passes for religious experience in the churches, mosques and synagogues of the world. Religion is the death of authentic spirituality. It's a message that you MUST be spiritual or face eternal punishments. A proverbial gun to the head. Believe in me or I pull the trigger and you agonize in hell for eternity. That's not spirituality. That's criminal. Self-directed, self-guided, self-driven spirituality IS the authentic human spiritual experience – not the McReligions with their McCommunion wafers and McWine sacraments. Why, Mr. Miller, do you think so many people are so unsatisfied with the cold, lifeless, obsolete, hollow experience of McChristianity? Why do you think so many millions of authentic spiritual seekers are finding the courage to leave behind Corporate Christianity and going on their own heroic gnostic journeys to find their own direct experiences of the Mystery of God which no collective beehive "holy" book has ever adequately represented? Wake up Mr. Miller. Wake up. Religions are dying. Why? Because they are obsolete. But also – spirituality is on the rise. You may not like it – but you certainly can't deny or change it. More and more people are ditching the superficial outer forms of Organized Religions and embracing the inner mysteries of self-realized spiritual discovery. Think of it! No more – Christian vs. Muslim holy wars... no more Protestant vs. Catholic terror bombings... just total respect for all individual paths as equally valid and true. While religions divide people up into the "chosen" and the "damned", individual spirituality unites people into One Humanity.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  3. TRUTH_ROCKS

    The biggest problem today with the so called religion is that it is more and more public. How about people keep their religion at personal level instead of making a public spectacle about it? The organized religion is nothing but a numbers game, and has nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment. Christians exploit poverty and Muslims exploit fear to convert. Spiritual but not religious may be a cop out but at least it is not exploitative like organized religions.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  4. youtom

    Wow, really? Since when such nonsense started becoming the featured articles in CNN. The author of this article is vomiting utter nonsense, with baseless arguments. I realized the article and author's arguments make no sense, thus stopped reading after a few paragraphs. Well it is under the belief section, thus I wasn't expecting much, but this is to the extreme. Peace!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  5. Tryagain

    From the NY Salon site – "It welcomes disagreement rather than trying to sweep it under the rug." Yeah right. Way to espouse only one side of the argument. Nicely imbalanced and not worthy of CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  6. truebob

    Coal was essential to the development of our way of life, but we have moved on from that outdated system as well. Hard questions the ask are " Am I plagued by unending feelings of fear and insecurity about the afterlife?" or :"Are the conformist religions making normal people happy or worried?" or "Is the main purpose of my religion to get money so the church can buy things?" or "Why does my church teach me that I am inherently a bad person"?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  7. Jeanine

    Reading this article, I'm left feeling sad for all the people who believe what this man has to say. If one takes a good look at history and even more importantly prehistory, we see a commonality amoung all religions and creation stories. Prior to Chrsitianity there have been several highly evbolved people who were also very 'religious' for lack of a better word). But the way people worshipped thousands of years ago, before even the old Testament (the Summerians for instance) allowed for differences in people's beliefs. The Cretans (or Minoans as many may know them) were a peaceful civization that lasted at least thousand years. Theirs was a matriarchical system where women had political, financial and spiritual power within their society. Some might say, to be really traditional and in keeping with those who came before us, we should look to these people who existed even before the Jews. And for this author to assume somehow that Christians brought reading and cultural advancement to the world is ridiculous. Jewish people don't really have illiteracy. All the people are expected to learn to read and then to be able to interpret, analyze and debate what they read, like the Torah. Taoism, Zen philosophy and Hinduism are all far older practices than Christianity

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  8. CharlesDSM

    In my view, most of those who refuse to subscribe to religion, or even to believe in God, are just too proud to accept what they can't understand. To them, anything that can't be proven can't be true. That's the ultimate difference between believers and non-believers: the willingness or refusal to believe something that's beyond human intellect. The question is: Why do some believe, and others don't? We believers believe that true faith has been infused into our souls. But why not in everyone else? God reserves to keep the reason a mystery. (Btw, to you non-believers: God is merciful. Turn to Him. He awaits you with loving arms.) Mr. Allan Miller, thanks for your article!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Obviously science and facts are beyond *your* intellect.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Mark White

      This all depends on the God you Worship.
      I assure you Aries shows NO mercy.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Lauren

      Charles, I think with respect you have it backwards. Religions are usually easy to understand and offer easy absolute answers. On the other hand, finding your own spiritual solution involves challenging what you really believe to be the truth and searching for the 'best' answer versus simply the easiest one.

      I am surprised CNN actually published this article. It has barely any real substance or fact to it and instead consists mainly of the author making one baseless and false allegation after the other, while using this self-generated data to justify what amounts to bigotry and ignorance. Come on..

      September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Peteyroo

      ChucklesS&M, hyow wrong you are my confused friend. BTW there are no unicorns or leprechauns either.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  9. Drew

    What a stupid article....

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  10. Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

    What a bunch of horse feces.

    Religion is silly. Belief in comic book superheroes is silly. Only children and imbeciles believe things like this with no proof.

    Of course the people whose stock and trade is selling these comic book lies to others will say anything to keep those folks from thinking for themselves. That's obvious to anyone who is actually paying attention. Some folks will go through their whole lives without ever questioning their beliefs. Those people are dangerous.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  11. David Ouellette

    I'm spiritual, as opposed to organized religion, and I very much believe in God and connect with the Source every day. This man needs to do some research on what he's talking about rather than just talking through his hat.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  12. confedkilla

    This article makes too many assumptions and stereotypes. How do you know that these people never read any holy books or follow any scripture? Did you do some soul searching to see if what you have written is accurate and not misleading? I doubt it cause you would have chosen your words better.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  13. Jim

    "They [the Jews] work more effectively against us, than the enemy's armies. They are a hundred times more dangerous to our liberties and the great cause we are engaged in... It is much to be lamented that each state, long ago, has not hunted them down as pest to society and the greatest enemies we have to the happiness of America." �George Washington

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Leo

      False: http://www.snopes.com/quotes/washington/enemies.asp

      September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • cleareye1

      And yet Washington had no problem spending their money to pay his troops.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  14. B21502

    Alan, Alan, Alan
    'If there was one sentence in your article that blows your opinion out of the water it is this :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. Of course your logic fails to consider that the greatest thinkers of our time steered away from bodies of belief and sets of principles. Especially when these very ideals stagnate the creative process of being and feeling.

    I find that the very simple principle of do no harm has served most spiritualists very well. Except of course when a body of belief throws their weight around in an attempt to control. If my money and my time goes to "organized" religion it only serves to spread the very narrow rules and beliefs of the bigger body. By acting as an individual I can touch someones life without fear that I have contributed to some collective wrongdoing that results in war, persecution, and ultimately death of freedom. I don't require or ask for a collective approval for why I do what I do in so long as I understand that my actions are not harmful. This seems like a pretty strong belief system, that clearly identifies a logical explanation and understanding of what I believe to be truth.

    In closing, don't be so fearful of others. You are clearly directed by the organized belief that all who do not believe as you believe are dangerous and misguided not to mention bound for hell. Could any thought be harder to believe. No wonder you need faith. How simple it must be to write off the beliefs of others as simply wrong based on a "bully mentality" of I am bigger and stronger so I win. Sad, very sad

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  15. cleareye1

    New spiritual and traditional religion are just two sides of the same coin allowing people to pretend they have an answer to why we exist at all. People enjoy talking and reasoning with themselves,that's all there is to it. But one day, in the far, far, distant future, we may come to find an answer. Maybe.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  16. Kevin O.

    Some of us don't require idols to have faith. Those of you who require books, statuary, engraved images, etc...I won't judge you, however I won't buy into your philosophy regarding something your religion clearly tells me NOT to give a name nor image to.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  17. rudix

    The real true is at wwTheDimensionMachineDOM

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  18. john

    Why is this even on CNN? What a stupid article...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Upset Voter

      There is a reason that this part of CNN is called belief. If you do not like it there are many other sections.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  19. Archeopteryx

    Congratulations to all of you who are now spiritual but not religious .. we wish you well in your inevitable journey to the true freedom that only Atheism can accomplish.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  20. David

    One other note about how off center this columnist is: In a sweeping survey done some years ago by the New York Times in partnership with the University of Chicago Seminary School of Divinity, participants were asked a series of questions on the religious history, doctrine, texts and beliefs of the 3 main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Participants were able to identify themselves according to their religion, including the main 3, atheist, spiritual but not religious, or other. BY FAR AND AWAY the groups with the highest accuracy were the atheists and spiritual but not religious... so tell me again how spiritual but not religious people are the ones who don't do any thinking or investigation into divinity?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 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.