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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. Caiha

    Spirituality is a cop out? Religion is a cop out, to avoid any sense of personal responsibility for your situation.

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

      it's like little kids tree houses.. they create fantastic stories, have their secrets and make up rules. Wish these religious would grow u and join civilized man. Oops, they don't believe they evolved.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • divorced dad

      Amen.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  2. james

    As an atheist I have more respect for people who practice their faith privately. As opposed to the millions of sheep who flock into brain washing corporations to have some pedophile tell them how to think and vote. Church attendance has been steadily dropping for centuries. Religion is dying. As it should.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  3. OpenEye

    One thing that people seem to forget...

    The scriptures were written by men.

    Then again....so is Hustler Magazine.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  4. AGeek

    Dear Alan, Your premise is flawed, your point is moot, and your argument could be defeated by my dog on her sickest day. What a sad, sorry little man you are. A slave to the archaic and inane.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  5. Nic

    Wow, what a horrible article. This belongs in the opinion pages of some back-water Southern
    Baptist town.

    MY definition of the 'me' generation is the baby boomers. They act like the world was given to them with no strings attached. They want all their social security yet want to retire at 65, they want to vote for a war but refuse to vote for tax increases to pay for it. They want all the benefits of free spending but then decide to kick the can down the road and claim my generation is selfish.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  6. weedouthate

    Attaining genuine spirituality during one's lifetime is a process of root out one's inner weeds making room to sow the seeds of peace, love, and respect in each other. It has been proven that humankind has the tendency to pervert even the basic laws of God and nature to manipulate the masses. If people following religious dogma would look into the inner interpretations, of their repsective beliefs or religions, the world would be a lot better off. All of the three modern Western religions and many of the eastern philosophies are rooted in gardening. Ask any gardener, that this activity conditions the soul for discovering the broadband spiritual realm with and in some cases without religious ritual. Acknowleging one's inner weeds if you will is the first step towards spirituality. Taking positive steps to root these out, through nurturing acts of lovingkindness or even symbolically rooting out weeds is the first step. Let's weed out hate and sow the seeds of peace

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  7. Lighten Up

    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha

    It is a ridiculous statement to claim that art and literature wouldn't exist without Christianity. Europeans have a long history of epic tales and visual arts long before the Christ worshipers showed up.

    We all look for ways that we relate to the world and our place in it. We are are unique yet interconnected. On religion is a good as another, a hodgepodge or none at all. We all find our place eventually.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  8. Derek

    Well I went through a religious phase when I was very young because i wanted to "know about god" so my mom put me in sunday school. Then an "atheist" phase when I was a teen, Then I went through the spiritual phase... Now I am trying to go through an enlightenment phase. Reading on the concepts of enlightenment and trying to be a better person while letting nothing bother me. It is tough and I have a long way to get to become "enlightened" I am trying. When i see the word "happiness" it's a defense.... happiness can't exist without unhappiness therefor they are the same. We gotta stop looking at things as bad or good, but that they are. Everyones including my own opinions don't matter that much because they are easily looked over... the only things that come out of them are attack and defense..... people who are legit with becoming "enlightened" aren't included in these stories because most of the time it's an attack.... and people who study enlightenment do have strong values and beliefs they don't turn a blind eye, but rather have a deeper understanding of the situation as a whole. I would recommend it to anyone because you don't have to fight, justify, argue to be a great inspiration to others. I am not a hippy either rather I was a jock in highschool and labels don't bother me either! stop trying to "be" happy and just "be" you can have Peace without happiness. Think!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  9. BF

    Seriously? People are finally getting wise to the fact that religion–all of them–is fabricated BS. Get over yourself, sir. In fact, how about getting a clue too. Religion is B.S.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  10. James

    In the early days of human civilization, religions were relevant. But now they are becoming more and more out dated. Blind beliefs in religious doctrines can be dangerous. Many people are wrongfully percecuted based on religious beliefs. Galeleo was sent to jail for declaring earth not the centre of the universe and that earth was not flat. This was unacceptable to religious leaders and Galeleo was charged with blasphemy. He ofcourse had to recant his own theory to escape jail term. Belief in God has to be experience base. Human intelligence is not equipped to comprehend Him. We don't have all the answers. All the religious texts give very dim indication of Him. Therefore relentless spiritual journey begins to experience Him. But in doing so, watch out your conduct. Try to be honourable, compassionate, jealousy devoid, unselfish and live to be blessings to other. I think the author sees danger of people falling out from good conduct if they reject religions.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  11. Rachel

    Why the stock photo of a shirtless hippie on a beach? I suppose the author thinks all "spiritual but not religious" people look like that? I'm a young professional and totally resent this close-minded article. Boo, CNN!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • 200 TON HAMMER

      Wisdom is the Teacher Knowledge is the Student,Understanding is the RoadMap on a Pathway.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • who me?

      I suppose the article would make more sense if there was a photo of a young professional talking to god at their cubicle.Man,you spiritual people are getting fussy.Perhaps another example of religious bigotry?Nothing new about that,eh?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  12. 200 TON HAMMER

    This is one True Thing that no matter who you are,EarthQuakes Are sending a messege Wisdom Is Comeing Back Soon

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • MagicPanties

      Do you hear voices in your head too?
      Get help.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • who me?

      Hey Kook,earth quakes have been happening since the formation of the planet.If your god actually existed,do you not think he could have found a better way to send us a message,than tornadoes and earth-quakes.If god does exist he is a bungling,incompetent fool.Even the firmest believers MUST admit that.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  13. HKDasa

    If one identifies with spiritualism, then he will make an honest inquiry into these questions:
    Who am I?
    Why am I here?
    Who is the source of everything?
    What is the source of my anxiety?
    What is my destination?
    How do I get there?
    Unfortunately, most organized religions have misinterpreted the scriptures and embarked on fear mongering. When Jesus descended upon earth to preach the path of pure devotional service, foolish people reduced his preachings to exclusivity of Christ. He Himself faught the fanatics, and we have converted His message into massage of fanaticism. Same thing is true of Mohammed, Krishna etc. They all are seeking unconditional surrender to the Lord. So, whichever message gets you to that point, go for it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  14. Jonathan

    Religion is the worst thing man ever created. It controls people which in itself is evil. When i was young i was forced to believe...but as i got older and hit the age of reason i left childish things behind me. Religion will be the downfall of mankind.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  15. SML5

    Wow. Reading this article simply makes me hate organized religion more. He's simply using a new angle on trying to brainwash or frighten people into subscribing to his apparent choice of pre-fabricated "beliefs." To me, subscribing to something isn't even believing on a true, fundamental level. Using your own brain and heart to find a path that makes sense to you seems more personal and real. What is wrong with having your own person relationship with God? I feel like most people know the difference between right and wrong, love and hate etc. I personally don't need a book, wooden pews, stained glass etc. to feel and understand these things. What is wrong with taking the best things from all religions and making them a part of your own ideas about God, life after death etc.? Unless you're a sociopath, I think most people would do just fine without formal religion dictating what you're supposed to think.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  16. dscot

    Spirituality is for those who seek understanding. Religion is for those who seek reward.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  17. fastball

    there's nothing wrong with FAITH...which is merely hope. We have faith that things WILL get better...that if we're good people, good things will come out way.
    What screws it up is believing there is a magic guy in heaven.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  18. Draka

    Spiritualism is non just about experiencing nice things its about doing nice things. I have lived as a dedicated Zen Budhist for years and it is not easy I fail everyday .The author brushes over many of the negative aspects of feeling your religion is the only one but these are legitimate history.More people have been killed in the name of organized religion then most other causes ,

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  19. Christiana Gaudet

    It may be that you have not done enough research. Many of those who identify as "spiritual but not relgious" have done a great deal of study, have adopted a specific doctrine, have volunteered time to help others, and have found substantial healing from their spiritual pursuits.
    Here's what they haven't done. They haven't started wars because their imaginary friend is better than someone else's imaginary friend. They haven't adopted a doctrine of hate. They haven't funded child abuse or discrimination.

    Spirituality opens minds. Religion closes minds. You fear this why?

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

      Well stated, Chritiana.

      It's time to stop brainwashing children, which is the only way organized religions prosper.
      If one actually "thinks" for themself, the silliness of current religious belief is quite clear.

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

    "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either." I'm sorry, not trying?? I've tried and studied MANY different religions/faiths. You definitely can't lump people into a box like that.

    And much to this article's author's chagrin, here's a little quote from the Hua Hu Ching (another book of Taoism) that really rings true for me: "Chanting is no more holy than listening to the murmur of a stream, counting prayer beads no more sacred than simply breathing, religious robes no more spiritual than work clothes."

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 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.