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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. lbpaulina

    I'm a scientist, but I do not like to say I'm an atheist. I do not believe in a God who (which?) created everything, because I think it is a too little image of what we can experience in our short life. It might also be a lack of humility. I believe in Christ though, because he moved millions of people through history with his simple, peaceful and forgiveness words. I do not believe in what men built around him for selfish power.
    In the light of today's events, in which arrogance painfully divides human beings, I understand why there are more and more people who refuse to follow what men invented as Religion. Is it so important? No, it is not; maybe it is where a new society wants to go.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Just Me

      Good morning, Ibpaulina. I admire the fact that you believe in Christ. Jesus Christ claimed to be God, the Creator of the cosmos, the one and only way by which we can enter into Heaven. These are high claims!

      “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3).

      “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has rather been found difficult and left untried.”
      —Chesterton

      BTW, Catholics claims to be Christians. Some Christians claim they are not Catholics.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  2. dune17856

    The author has said many things in this article:

    - Organized religion is right because that's' the way it's always been.
    - I have observed a group of people and been able to read their minds and see all sorts of things about how weak their commitment is and that they are sitting on a fence with respect to religion.
    - That if you don't show your belief in the "traditional" way your commitment to living a quality, spiritual, ethical life where you lift up your fellow man is really just a sham.

    But I think his most telling comment is this: "Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices."

    He's really just a hater towards anyone who doesn't "believe" in the fashion HE thinks is the right one and in fact may just be a plain old racist in priests clothing

    What a buffoon and this guy get front page on cnn.com. really? He's just a religion racist as far as I can see. All I can say to him is, Alan, why you so stoooopid?????

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • ricardo1968

      He seems to be doing what religion was invented to do. Assert authority.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  3. Grimmbane

    The faster the masses abandon christianity and all the other corrupt major religions, the better.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  4. 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. The author would benefit from reading history, cultural invasions, and marketing. While the author is delusional in thinking Christianity contributing to reading, music etc. if he is really serious he should read about the cultures that Christian missionaries have destroyed around the world. It is sickening and very violent when a group, in the name of god, cannot tolerate anyone who is not like them or does not believe in their version of god and religion. Christianity like Islam only wants their clones everywhere instead of celebrating cultural and religious diversity.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  5. Melanie

    The author has not done his research but proposes his "belief" of what a person who chooses not to affiliate with a religion is feeling and doing. It is the same as saying all religions are cults or all religions are exclusive. Some people use religion to discriminate and gain wealth, does that mean no one should join a church or religion? Of course not! People behave and conduct their lives on a variety of factors regardless and in spite of religious affiliation. There is nothing wrong with choosing a. Church, a religion or an unconventional path. It matters how you accept life, love others and be there when needed.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  6. David in NC

    As an atheist I am just waiting for these folks to finally wake up all the way and reject all these fairy tales and take real responsibility for their understanding of the world and their place in it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  7. Surfer George

    Either every "Organized Religion" is correct and we will not get to Heaven without following their teachings (everyone goes to Heaven)
    OR
    Every "Organized Religion" is incorrect and we will not get to Heaven by following their teachings (everyone STILL goes to Heaven).

    Having said that, I know (ONLY)for myself that I am an integral part of whatever this is and that I am responsible FOR my own thoughts and actions and responsible TO everyone they touch. I understand and accept the concept and consequences of the "Butterfly Effect," I know that I am not an accident.

    Though imperfect in the eyes of those who dare to judge, I am perfect as I am in my place in the Universe no matter what form I take.

    OH, the author of this piece seems to be a self important "leader" and here is the essence of his nonsense:
    "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."

    His position is that he knows all (or enough to appoint himself arbiter of the boundaries of the debate.
    "Scripture" written by man, selected by men and delivered by man for our indoctrination, in most cases (CERTAINLY in mine) is more about control of other people than it is of helping any of us find our own deepest truth.
    "Organized Religion" tells me I cannot do my own research, I cannot have my own faith, my own feelings, my own God, that I must be indoctrinated. They want my money, they want my children for their "Holy Wars," they want to be held in the highest regard. THEY WANT! We are there to serve them, not God. WAKE UP (if you can – its a choice).

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  8. Alan

    Religion is like government: spiritual government. There to guide, protect, organize, control, keep you in line, separate you from your money, and most important of all, discourage you from thinking for yourself. Alan Miller's version of paradise, no doubt. That kind of religion works for a lot of people, and the Bible correctly refers to them as "sheep." "Spiritual" means to go beyond these things. Miller is working from a false hypothesis. Hw says that all those who seek to be spiritual are flakes. Wrong!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  9. Mark

    Every religion stresses some sort of accountability. Being "spiritual" is the most convenient way to avoid answering for anything.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Surfer George

      Ironic, I talk about judgement and you provide it. Here is what I JUST wrote above:
      "I know (ONLY)for myself that I am an integral part of whatever this is and that I am responsible FOR my own thoughts and actions and responsible TO everyone they touch. I understand and accept the concept and consequences of the "Butterfly Effect," I know that I am not an accident.

      Though imperfect in the eyes of those who dare to judge, I am perfect as I am in my place in the Universe no matter what form I take."

      I THINK that shows a sense of knowing, a sense of awareness that we have a responsibility to each other. People like me just don't allow people like you to decide HOW we should do that.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Melanie

      I disagree Mark, religion does not necessarily hold a higher accountability anymore than not choosing a religion means you are less accountable. I mean think about it, isn't a large part of lack of accountability a rationalization? "We can kill because the ends justify the means or we can discriminate because we interpret the bible.this way..." Basing an action on religious grounds just seems to give people a longer leash not a shorter one.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  10. trixie

    one the other hand, organized religion isn't all it's cracked up to be, either- the author mentions a few by name- Terrorism, Wahhabism, the crusades, the latest rampant pedophilia, and while we're at it, let's look at most of the wars over the past couple of thousand years. not all, but most. And please don't forget the political role the Catholic Church has played over the centuries...

    There are many scriptures, but the bible is composed of only a few- would it be useful to ask, who decided these scriptures? who was the "Editor" of the Bible? What purpose was behind this compilation of books?

    As much as organized religion gives us a base, it also creates intolerance.

    Some of us do not confuse faith with religion. We do not ignore the need to continuously improve ourselves, or the lives of others around us. We don't just want to "feel good", we choose to live on our own terms and not be told what to do.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  11. ramaart

    this article is a joke and all of you who believe in the scriptures, bibles, belief systems of others – live in a projected reality which deviates from your personal heart path and literally throws you out of context with the true reality that is wholly-individual to every one human being. i do not say that listening to wisdom is bad, but once you draw a picture of something that is not there, that is not mutually experienced or known by all parties, and try to manipulate others in believing in this or that,- then this is pure evil. those people simply put attach a demonic spirit to the host receiver and play into, into the projection, and end up sucking their lives and misdirecting them into death without letting them know their true heritage as human beings. religion was our heritage, we must learn from mistakes and become more spiritual rather than religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  12. Julie

    This is the usual spouting of the uniformed, undereducated, individual who
    has not done his research before writing an article. Today, he finds himself
    laughing at all of the posts because he still thinks he is right.

    Alan,
    It would be a much more amazing world if we each took the time to understand
    others' beliefs. I am very much spiritual. I say my prayers every night to a
    God who loves. I tuck my kids in bed and tell them how much they are loved.
    I practice kindness, understanding, and I give more than I take. I enjoy
    meditation, forgiveness, the outdoors and taking care of others. I work to
    end violence against women in our world.

    I was brought up in a church that preferred that children be removed if they
    were making noise during the service, but they preached patience and
    forgiveness.

    Faith brings hope. Religion allows opinions to take the form of power. Yes,
    religion has brought us some things of great value. Our past always shapes
    our future. I agree with you there.

    But those who are spiritual are not avoiding making a choice about black vs.
    white. They are seeking and finding a path that honors peace, love, and joy.

    Finally, I find it sad that you think a search for happiness is somehow
    selfish. Smiles are contagious. Love is the greatest gift. Happy people
    don't create problems for others, they offer a place to feel at peace.

    But those of us who are happy are not selfish. We find the good in the
    situations around us, we make the most of our days. We help others. We
    smile.

    I am betting that your God looks down and smiles at us and then wonders why,
    with all the power you hold in the words that you write, that you are not
    doing more than just stirring another pot.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  13. Rooz

    You miss the whole point of being spiritual but not religious. Religion is a man made set of rules that sprang years after any of the prophets were around. These rules set forth some good, but mainly set forth to control men and women. Religion is more of a business model than a way to god or a higher power- whatever you wanna call it. The funny thing is that this is the view of a "non believer" i.e. my self. Spiritual beings are in search of the truth and see each other-see each man woman and child as an equal-as a human-as a fellow being. Spiritual is one's way of connecting to uncertainty and the unknown. To do so we must look within and within our kin. I don't need a man made book for that- what i need are my eyes, ears, my sense of touch, smell, taste-my ability to feel and to feel love-to give and receive-the ability to understand kindness and to be kind. To know that no matter what, we are of the same. To know that we fault and fall short sometimes- to understand that to do so we learn and grow-to think and challenge.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  14. David

    This author accuses "spiritual but not religious" people of dodging the hard questions? Quite the contrary, it is the people who are slaves to organized religion who have not had to deal with the hard questions, their answers are force fed to them by a dogmatic priesthood and told to never question their authority, and in accepting their version of the truth, they never even face a decision on what to believe, let alone make such a decision

    September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  15. LM

    I really take offense to this article. CNN, this is a low point. I tend to lean toward being eclectic in my spiritual beliefs...I embrace what Jesus teaches as well as the wisdom of The Dali Lama. The problem I have with organized religion are the extremists...the ones who are so intolerant of other belief systems they can't see past their own noses. Sorry, but I've "been there done that" and I'm not going back.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • wTom

      The U.S. was founded by people who were driven from their country due to persecution due to their beliefs. Hmmm, does this sound similar to the current trend? Where will the newly persecuted people run to? I declare myself as spiritual, not religious. I have three things that I practice: 1) connect with and pray to God twice daily (about 10min upon rising, 10min prior to going to sleep) 2) Practice forgiveness – as outlined in A Course In Miracles) 3) Put the Holy Spirit in charge each morning.
      I still do what I feel I need to do – I don't need someone to tell me what to do – I follow what happens to me each day, I do my work, I connect with other people. Actually, we are taught that our greatest lessons are learned by standing in line at Walmart or Costco during peak times such as holidays and Christmas. We are out to become closer to the truth and understand our true nature and connect with more people than we have before – but create and "unveil" our true nature which is spirit.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  16. john j granahan

    Karma Sutra?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Asimj

      I like he clubbed it with quroon. One is a manual of love and other is of hate

      September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  17. Skip Stealey

    I agree with this author. Our country was founded by Christians who followed our Lord. They had sense enough to know that a theocracy would not work and separated church and state. I know that many people feel the Scriptures are "fairy tales" or a "guide", or just think they are one more ancient writing that can be ignored. None of these ideas are true. The Scriptures were God's way of telling us how to live. If you follow what the Bible says, you won't hurt another human, you won't hurt your own health, nor will you try to force anyone to believe as you do. One step further, if you accept Christ, you learn that not only are the Scriptures not fairy tales or all parables to teach a lesson, but that this is a direct communication with our Lord. You can't be "spiritual" without accepting Christ since the only spirit that will help you in any way is the Holy Spirit. The Lord won't force you to believe in Him, but He certainly does reward you when you accept Him. A far as a believe in God? Even God's enemies know that He exists. acknowledging His existence is no different than realizing an apple or car exists. That won't help you. Look into accepting Christ, once you do, you learn what really make a difference in this world. Spiritual but not religious is trying to have the best of both worlds without committing to either.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Jessie

      Very well said Skip & I agree with you completely.

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

      Point in fact, the United States was not really founded by Christians, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Madison and so on were all Deists and Secular Humanists who regarded Christianity as one of the main problems with Europe:

      "I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians."
      -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789 (Richard Price had written to TJ on Oct. 26. about the harm done by religion and wrote "Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?")

      September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      "If you follow what the Bible says, you won't hurt another human, you won't hurt your own health, nor will you try to force anyone to believe as you do."

      You are truly delusional. You must have read the baby bible, because the grown up bible has all sorts of references to performing violence upon disbelievers and ones' self *and* conversion of the "unclean".

      Find a cliff, lemming.

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

      Skip, were you and god having coffee together on the day that he wrote the bible? Perhaps not. So, that takes us back to the reality that the book was written by men, and as we know, men have often used dubious methods for controlling the flock. Religion has been used to control the flock throughout history, and what a sad and bloody history it has been. Perhaps you read those books too?

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

      SO true and very well said. Thank you for replying as I could not have said it any better.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Helen Keene Myles

      I am so happy I live in America. I can believe in what I desire to believe in. I do believe that my savior is quite helpful. There are some events that some non-believers may encounter that would overall reveal a higher being in order for those individual to believe in the same superior. However, I can speak from experience, that when one does encounter a situation where there is no way out, and suddenly, the person experience a sense of freedom and comfort in the same instance, she or he too may believe in the source (or force) I am refering to. The source I am referring to produces love in an individual. Further, the same source responds to meek and humble spirits, not those spirits which aspires to direction from secular means. Also, the source is a Friend and the Friend can be extended to whomever is accepting and whomever believes in John: 3:16. Thank you for reading. Sincerely.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  18. Lisa

    What ever happened to "live and let live"?? Why are other people's beliefs or non-beliefs anyone else's business??? Live your life well, enjoy your friends and family, love your work, believe or don't believe. Be a good human.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • COlady

      You can't control people if they aren't indoctrinated. The world's major religions and power players don't like that!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Jesus

      Lisa, come and join us at the Church of the Latter Day Dude and Dudette. Our message is simple: Dance, Grow Things, and Try Not to be a Dick. Or, in your words " Be a good Human".

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Bobby

      In this Information Age, the best way to gain wisdom is to read from all available sources and then make your own judgement. Not get swayed by some groups threats or offers of rewards in afterlife if you believe as they say. More importantly, religion should not be a basis of dividing humanity into them and us. Believe what makes sense to you and let others believe what they like. Just make sure everyone has access to the information to make their own decisions but not force or even persuade others to take up what you believe in. If its just for our personal spiritual growth, you don't need to even care what others believe.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  19. scatheist

    So the answer is to believe in religon withot any evidence whatsoever. A real convincing aregument. It's all dumb.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • sadia

      Absolutely waste of a minute of my life that I will never get back thanks to Prophet Allan Miller-Messenger of useless, unresearched, views.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  20. Simon Cohen

    The author implies that "true" religions are the answer ignoring historical records about how bad religions were and still are. In spite what religions teach, it is people who created god (not the other way around) in order to explain the world and to control other people.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:50 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.