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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. Brandon T

    So I'm a bad person if I don't buy into a fair tale? Might as well start the "Church of Gandalf"

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • dcobranchi

      Someone beat you to it: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Church-Of-Gandalf/149822325110471

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  2. RM13

    Allen Miller is a great example of what is wrong with this world

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Tim

      Absolutely. The guy is an anacrhronism. I suppose he wants everyone to belong to a Mega Church? Which would mean just being a number, just another face in a crowd. And let's not forget the Inquisition and witch trials. And the corruption of the Catholic Church in general, which he only mentions in passing as no big deal. Where did they get this guy anyway?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • retired

      RM13 could not be more correct. I'm a 62 year old retiree that is very spiritual, but not very religious at all. So much for this being a youth movement. Organized religion seems to have a top priority of the perpetuation of their particular religious organization. If one happens to be enlightened enough to know the definition of spiritual (Alan Miller appears not to be in this group), they know it simply means not materialistic. I kind of think we could use more spirituality in our society. If one obtains spirituality through religion, that's fine. But spirituality is definitely attainable without religion, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. To the contrary, there is much right about it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  3. Yankeefan

    What a bunch of bunk. When was the last time a suicide bomber attacked and killed in the name of spirituality. I happen to be a very bad Catholic. I THINK I believe in god but I'm not thrilled with the leadership of my church. If I ever completely lose faith, I'd probably be one of these spiritual cop outs. All religion is faith based. Believing there's something bigger than us that does not fall into the God category is no bigger a stretch of ones imagination than believing in a God.

    Live and let live

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  4. Rick Gurney

    This is the nature of the conflicting between modern thought and post modern thought. The author of this opinion piece is stuck in the dark ages, in terms of intellectual exploration.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  5. Jim

    People are moving away from religion because one gets the feeling that science will eventually answer just about everything. The world was not create in 6 days. jesus never walked on water. And he most certainly never rose from the dead. The whole bible is filled with so many lies that the thing should be filed under fiction in any local library. And for those that believe in a higher power, so what. It's their way of not wanting or not being capable to thinking about the most complex questions that face humankind. Besides, who wants to give money to any organized religion so that they can hide and protect child molesters. I would NEVER let my son set foot in any church unless I accompanied him myself. And the only way my family ever goes to church is because of a funeral or wedding. That's it.

    Jim the atheist

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  6. David Evan Karasek

    I used to go to church everyday but no longer. While I remain a devout Christian I am somewhere between outraged and bored by almost every minister and parish church service, though there are exceptions. I think this sheer feeling of alienation and boredom coupled with the sense that religion (not spirituality) is out of touch with life is the core issue for many of us now, young and not so young. A core reason for this is most modern religion's failure to share knowledge and culture outside of a narrow band of habitual norms. My old mentor used to say "we tend to turn our icons into idols." When spirituality becomes religion it too often becomes an idol. On the other hand we all need to get out more in a way other than to party or march one way or another in some political dimension. That is the function that religion does provide in the instances where it remains spiritual and real. That is the function religion does serve when it is an honest extension of family and community.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  7. Dave

    Religion is the root of all evil – I'm absolutely spiritual and NOT religious on purpose. This author is a fool...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  8. Ben

    This sounds like it was written by a priest who is worried about losing his job. "All those self-obsessed fools using their iPods are going to put the good old-fashioned Walkman out of business" cries the Sony executive. Maybe if his religion were actually compelling enough to bring people in the door, he would have fewer of his followers leaving to find their own direct path to the divine???

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Ivan

      True, it's about filling the pew's so they can pass the tray for handouts. At least the bum on the street doesn't try to tell you he's some authority of how life works.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  9. Renee Marie Jones

    "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."

    Religion offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of its beliefs or principles. "Cuz God Sez" is not an explaination! If you want explainations and understanding you want atheism, not religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  10. Bob

    Seems you are confusing spirituality with hedonism. Try again.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • 200 TON HAMMER

      Spirituality is dead works of mankind,religion is dead works of mankind,Wisdom created man,man drop the Wisdom Ball.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  11. Timothy

    Mr. Miller has touched in a phenomenon that has existed for centuries. People want spirituality without the rigidity and dogma of religion. But he only scratched the surface of the issue. He is complaining that "spiritual but not religious" implies non-commitment. Not true. The commitment is to the search for truth and to an openness about what is true. Persisting in that search and remaining open in the face of all the quick fixes out there (religious and otherwise) is difficult. Religion, I think is too often a straw that people grab out for because its solution is clear and immediate. The search is over–you have found God, Jesus, or whatever." But the search never ends. Part of the problem, which Mr. Miller does not address, is that religion still has an iron grip on the vocabulary of morality, what "good" and "evil" and such things actually mean. We need an accessible secular vocabulary. The Enlightenment was only a start in this direction. The search goes on.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Realist

      religion is an escape from life, an easy way out. How childish religion are.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  12. Julie

    This is a ridiculously poorly made argument. Try doing some actual research in the future. To some extent I actually think there is an argument here, but you certainly haven't proven it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  13. mobustobus

    When trying to answer the big questions, feelings, beliefs, and principles are completely irrelevant. If you were asking "Are plant cell walls made of cellulose?" you wouldn't resort to faith, tradition, and doctrine. Similarly, when answering the question "Does a God exist?", faith and tradition are useless. It's a factual question with a factual answer: yes/no. Regardless of whether Christianity inspired Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, freed the slaves, or whatever great feats you wish to attach to it, that has no bearing on its falsehood in answering factual questions. It may make you a better person, may enrich your life, but that means nothing, really. If you ask what are the facts about the origin of life and the universe, do you really think an invisible man in the sky, talking snakes, walking on water etc. are the best answer we have?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  14. sean

    Thanks for making me feel good about myself! This article is akin to walking around Skid Row in Los Angeles when your feeling bad about yourself. Belief and trust in myself and a life lived for happiness is exactly what we should all be striving for. The Sumerians wrote almost every story the Bible presents

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  15. NoNonesense

    What an IDIOT to even think such a thing, much less write it and much less publish it on a "reputated" website. I feel like what an IDIOT to even read it...it was like an accident...could take my eyes off it. Nevertheless...comeon CNN...you can do better.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  16. bwannabob

    could not disagree more- poorly written article

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  17. Joel

    This may be the dumbest article on "faith" I've ever read, and I do look at Fox news now and again. All religions are thoughts about ideas, none are inherently better than others. This guy seems to forget the lesson of Jesus' death. Jesus was killed because of religious fanatacism. Rigid beliefs, an unwillingness to discuss new ideas and FEAR is what caused Jesus to be murdered. That was his lesson for us and most "Christians" seem to forget that.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  18. kenny

    More ignorance from religious people. Blindly accepting what I was taught as Truth without questioning it is at best a cop-out; at worst it's laziness. Mr. Miller, I have a name suggestion for the next line of ale from your brewery – call it Lemming-Aid

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  19. karen

    The author misses a huge truth when he states that the "spiritual-but-not- religious outlook incorporates little of transformation and those who espouse it want only to feel nice things. As previously noted, members of AA and other 12 step programs are radically transforming themselves through pain and hard work every day after having submitted their will to a higher power.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  20. Realist

    silly religions, these people need to grow up and join the real world.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 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.