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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. Bobert

    This guy doesnt really know what he's talking about. What gives an official "leader" of one of the established religions more authority to interpret religious thought or to define god? When I transitioned to adulthood I looked at Church leaders (mostly Christian) and saw them as people: flawed and oftentimes naive from lack of real world experience. BTW – there is no such thing as "karma sutra"...its kama sutra.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  2. sugarKube

    Some idiots will fall for anything.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  3. Francie Marais

    Your summary statement "Being spiritual but not religious AVOIDS having to think too hard about having to decide." is twisted in my opinion. Many spiritual people are challenged and challenges oneself to think, to be open minded to life, its meaning, to understand, to learn, to educate oneself, to embrace values and principles, to be non judgemental, to search for the meaning of life. All too often, the religious person AVOIDS having to think – they are told what to think, where they are going, what to do and believe they have conquered death, they are sinners and forgiven – what do you mean, they have to decide?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  4. Matt

    People attack others for thier religious beliefs and practices because it makes them challenge thier own.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  5. Thomas

    Can you get anymore biased in a news article, CNN? Some of us don't wish to be brainwashed into spirituality and beliefs by those who love control, admire greed, and feel like they are the only ones with the answers. Some of us are able to think for ourselves and search for the true meaning of life, not just swallow whatever is fed to us.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  6. Robert

    Sorry if you are upset that people no longer want to give money to you so that you can tell them how to think.

    I am not spiritual at all.....I am atheist. My thoughts are that if there is a god, he will judge you on how you lived, not on how many times a week you went to church, or what you profess to believe. I do know that I will not be giving my money to build another shiny building.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Mark Carroll

      I totally agree. I grew up in a Southern Religious family but, am agnostic. I have a hard time with a God that is petty and will punish for whether or not you believed he was there. I find it more logical that a Just God would be impressed that you were a good person even though you did not think someone was keeping score. Also, for some people, belief is not a voluntary thing. You can't force yourself to believe something that you don't. (At least I can't)

      September 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  7. Shame on you CNN

    I rarely comment on articles but after reading this one I found myself irritated by the authors ignorance. After scrolling down and reading the responses I was shocked at the overwhelming consensus most of which seemed to be more informed than the actual author. Instead of lashing out at the author's ignorance which as been accomplished in full I'll direct my comments towards CNN ignorance instead. First of all the editors which put this through should be reprimanded and secondly theres a plethora of news outlets to choose from so I advise CNN to refrain from publishing such crap before I consider alternative sources.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  8. Pete Clarke

    The feeling of humanness comes from within as does the feeling of right & wrong. Most organized religion is big business and in many cases corrupt. My life will be spent pondering the questions of life, being kind and probably not looking forward to an after life of virgins, clean water, or other things a human body might need for survival. I believe in science and rely on what I feel. Why not ! The writers argument is without merit, just wondering why CNN chose this for a front page article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  9. Patrick Doyle

    Alan Miller you are an idiot and a bigot. "It is better to be thought a fool and say nothing, than to speak and have it confirmed."

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  10. yellerdog

    What a ridiculous article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  11. Robert

    Ultimately, the spiritual relationship is between the person and God. As a lifelong observer, it seem to me that morality is not the exclusive perview of those who have faith or attend organized religious functions. Are we not taking into account our individuality if we only ask God to to help us. When all is said and done, we have to live with ourselves.

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

      You are right Robert and the prayer should be help us all or help me help everyone else. And the reality is that the best prayer is acceptance because so much is out of our control.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  12. Just Me

    I doubt that many people even understand what spirituality is. If you don't know who the HOLY SPIRIT is, then, you lack knowledge what it is.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • NoTheism

      And if you think you know about the existence of supernatural things, chances are you a missing a screw or two.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Just Me

      NoTheism – And if you think you know that there is no GOD, chances are you a missing a complete brain and a heart. If you can prove that there is no God, I am willing to listen. Deal?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • who me?

      I believe a tea-pot is orbiting the earth.I STRONGLY believe this.Can you prove me wrong?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  13. Scotty-Rocket

    I can't believe they let this knucklehead post this. Let people be.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  14. ricardo1968

    The only thing that matters ulitmately is compassion. Everything will fall into place if you try to do some good, and try to do no harm. Also, the bible is the not the impetus for widespread literacy. The Romans were a very literate society until the dark ages came, when literacy was destroyed. Some actually blame Christianity for that, though I'm sure thats a gross oversimplification.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  15. Anita

    How dare anyone question someone else's spiritualism. If you are a good person, treat others the way you want to be treated to kindness, fairness, and empathy, that is good enough. You do not need to go to church, temple, mosque to "prove" you are religious. In the end, it's between you and your God – no one else. People need to stop judging.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Just Me

      Well said, Anita. Even though many have claimed to be spiritual and not acknowledge Christ.

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

      @Just Me, yes, but you're begging the question, why should one acknowledge Christ when one can have a direct relationship with their god? (As far as I know, Jesus was a son of god–and perhaps not even the only one.. who knows–so why not cut out the middle man?)

      September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Just Me

      NoTheism – How many god(s) have you heard of that are much more known then Jesus Christ? How many do you claim t believe? In your case, science is the god of atheism and without their knowledge and technology, you would be lost.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  16. abbotn

    Positive thinking f any kind it healthy for the brain. See neuroplasticity, http://www.normandoidge.com/. For the same reason, delusion of any type is poisonous to the brain.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  17. nobikiniatoll

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” - Napoleon Bonaparte

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  18. My beagles

    Dan,
    I understand how you see those things....you are right about the world has come to the churches....that I agree. People was are basically self-centered. Preachers today are preaching things to keep people in their church instead preaching the truth. The biggest and the most important thing about spirituality is, we were created for God. God gave us a free-will. Those who
    want to know God, there are blessings, spiritual growth, and a regeneration of the our soul, inwhich is the mind, will, and emotions. Only those who put their trust FULLY in Jesus will get this. The ones you see..don't want this bad enough.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  19. Jeannie

    I have labeled myself spiritual but not religious and did so after researching different religions. I have since learned most religions have a common thread of doing good, being morally and ethically good. I now have chosen to look for the good in all people, not judge. I am the cheerleader at my office, the one everyone comes to when they have to vent or need a helping hand! I am the ONLY one who does not attend "church". I do read, meditate and pray on a daily basis, I do it so I can grow as a human being because I choose to. I don't do it because I am told I have to and if I don't I will be judged.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  20. KevinG

    I think the abandonment of religion is a natural progression in our spiritual understanding. We created our religions and the points of view on our spirituality reads and feels from a different world. We can only stretch and reinterpret for so long before eventually we have to abandon what we know is false. I think we are coming to a point when we can no longer make the old religions fit into a world that has changed so much and we simply have to leave them behind. The "spiritual" movement is our search for what we believe, now that our religions no longer speak to us. Will we make new religions as we did when we changed into Christianity from the old myths of gods? Who can tell, but dismissing what is happening and asserting that it's a form of narcissism is simple minded. This author is another 'conservative' unnerved by things they don't understand and fear. Many of us are moving on and that makes them nervous and angry. They'll just have to get used to it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:52 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.