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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. anon

    More like religion is in danger of 'spiritual, but not religious' becoming even more popular.

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

    Seriously CNN - this light weight piece looks like it was written by a 7th grader....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • David

      Not if you account for our "14th in the world" education system. At this rate, it will soon take a high school graduate to write this article ;)

      September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  3. Deneen

    The "Karma Sutra"?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  4. Lainie

    Spoken like a true 'religious, not spiritual' being. This is why I am disillusioned by organized religion and the people you find there, and also why I am increasingly disillusioned by the media who push this unbalanced and hateful drivel on the rest of us. The reason why we are turning away from the media and religion in droves is that we are tired of being force-fed guidance which is lacking in substance, isn't balanced and has no relevance to whom most people in society are today. I prefer to live my life without a middle-man – one is not required to have a translator in a direct relationship with God, nor do they they need the media to tell them what is important in the world. I hate to break it to you, the enlightened not only feel, but they think for themselves too.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  5. Brett E

    Mr. Miller, maybe you need to get off the fence and either use "facts" or use someone's "actual opinions" as a basis for your argument instead of your "perceptions". You are using quotation marks to protect yourself. That is lazy writing.
    Also, just because I don't believe that Moses parted the Red Sea doesn't mean I don't also believe in a God. If I'm going to trust my spiritual guidance to an imperfect human then why not trust myself. Many people of recent generations have been spiritually abandoned. Who are YOU to question ANYONE for trying to find their own way?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • annie

      I agree with you. And, to me, the bigger danger are all these so-called established religions that enjoy practicing intolerance and going to war to kill people–usually in direct violation of their teachings of love, etc. I don't want to be part of a religion that practices hypocrisy so easily and rampantly.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  6. Islamisevil

    What a retarded article.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Realist

      christian/muslim,, all the same

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Atheism = Religion

      The most evil group rejected and known in the USA.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • David

      Statistics show that Atheists have a higher level of education, higher IQ and higher incomes. Atheists have lower rates of divorce and are under-represented in prisons. A recent Pew Foundation poll also found that Atheists had a greater knowledge of world religions than religious folks. But correct... they are indeed discriminated against.

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

      @No2Atheism That says more about USA than Atheism

      September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • No2Atheism

      David – Atheism is known for their crimes and most of them do have very low IQ's, are on welfare, fills the prisons more then Christians, and are also know the highest suicidal people in America.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Tom – Of course, that's because we have more border line Atheist/Agnostics then people actually following God. No wonder we are the most hated people all over the world. If it wasn't for the TRUE followers of Christ, this country would have been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  7. Dzerres

    Ha. The problem with the church crowd is that being spiritual without being religious doesn't bring in any money and thereby no direct control of people's lives. What good is belonging to a mega-church if you can't buy TV time to condemn and ridicule everyone else's beliefs?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Wake Up

      It's unfortunate, Dzerres, that you do not realize that this is not about money but about saving your soul. If you don't care enough about having your soul saved then you will unfortunately have to face the consequences of your actions.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  8. the Book of Life

    I wonder if the author had Joel Osteen in mind when he authored this? Excellent article for me to read the first thing on a Sunday morning.... thank you

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • MagicPanties

      Yes, this article (and Joel too) helped me with the morning dump.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Something To Think About

      Let me tell you something, Magic-p, if it helped you with your morning-d, then God only help you when you get Full Diarrhea at your judgment after seeing the error in your ways and the way you think. But by then it will be too late to change your ways and your thinking so be prepared to just let it flow until you're up to your neck in it! Now Think About It.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  9. Who is this guy?

    So glad that I am not the least bit concerned with this guy's opinion. It is extremely arrogant to make a rash judgement about someone whom you have never met and can determine whether or not they have a firm grasp on their own beliefs (fence sitting?). I consider myself spiritual and can define my solid belief system quite well, thank you very much. It's Sunday morning – shouldn't this guy be in church judging others with his comrades who are also "thinking too hard"?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  10. B McCarthy

    Unadulterated Crap. This would fit in well with the toxic priestly control freaks who have and still do control organized religion and religious thinking. Spirituality has always been a singular journey. It does not require a holy interpreter to present the "correct" thinking of the unknowable. Religion is about Power and Control. Pick a god, any god from the ages and you see a political tool to enforce behavior exercised by those whose fanaticism or cynicism takes precedent.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • lulu

      This article is crap!! cant believe CNN......really reaching for material,

      September 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  11. Dave

    Hello, Even tho I'm 62, and proud to be SBNR, I understand the reason SBNR is more prevalent among youngsters is they are not as stupid as the brain washed older generation that is hyper hypocritically "religious"...and not at all spiritual. Like Lloyd Blankbrain doing "God's work" and so many business claiming to be "christian" for $ is the mantra of too many...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  12. Justine Jones

    So is the choice between atheism or joining a set religion? I'm confused...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • someGuy

      "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."

      So you can choose either scripture, or science. This is exactly why this article sits so poorly with me, it was clearly written by someone who is a staunch defender of the status quo, and has a hard time imagining a world where truth is A, B, C or D.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  13. Adam W

    If only Hitchens was here to poetically tear this to bits...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  14. Tom R.

    Religion is about hierarchy and ultimately about control. You don't get to control me if I establish and nourish a loving relationship with my Higher Power or God. You don't get to tell me what you think I should do or not do. I can chose to be more Christ like or incorporate Buddhist or Islamic philosophies into that relationship with God. Sorry – I do not want to be part of your Dark Ages, or your Jihad.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  15. jennymay

    So, its MORE dangerous to not swallow some complete doctrine dictated to you by a fellow human based loosely on an ancient text with many inconsistancies, translated many times, written by humans in a time where people were very supersticious? Its more dangerous to perfer to do your own research and find the power of the universe in nature and stillness within yourself? Its more dangerous to acknowledge that one does not have all the answer and never will in this vast universe and to accept the minute that you stop seeking to learn more, is the minute you will never know the truth? Its more dangerus to accept that everyone's journey to find that truth is as personal and different as that individual itself rather than deciding that everyone that doesn't fit into your group is wrong and full of sin? OH PLEASE.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  16. Renton Joe Movies

    As science explains more and more about the universe, the "god did it" explanation applies less and less in our lives. The good news is that there will always be things that we can't explain so "god did it" will always be applicable somewhere. It just won't have the power it once did. Unless we return to a new dark age, which of course is possible as the environment dies and natural resources dwindle. This guy is mad about people who won't commit to "any" religion, which we all know is just the first step of getting people to "his" religion. He paints a great picture of the Idiot Dabbler, a bit of yoga, a tad of feng shui there, he even uses a picture of what looks like a long-haired unemployed moron praying in swimming trunks at the beach to put that tree-hugging everything-should-be-free liberal image (a FoxNews-Conservative's wet dream) into people's minds when they think "spiritual, but not religious".

    Ultimately, the author's goal was not so much to encourage the dabblers to commit, but really more about generating hate amongst the religious for the people who don't commit, which really isn't that hard to do because religious people have a lot to be mad about, seeing as their world is shrinking more and more every day.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  17. Goose

    How does Alan Miller have a job ? I understand opinion pieces but this is so void of logic or coherence...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  18. Xander

    This will blow your mind: I'm not even spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  19. Dr Matrix

    Organized religion is flawed because it was invented by man to address somethin gthey could not comprehend. Throughout the years it then is edited and restructured to fit the needs of the "church". I found myself recognizing problems in the church and looked for a different path. There are recognized churches out there that provide the spiritual community without the ridgid dogma of the old religions or the newer cult offshoots. I found my home in Sciece of Mind and Unity. The church should honor your supreme being and serve man, not man serving the church.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Andrew Payne

      I concur with Science of Mind principles in which all of us are unique vehicles of divine expression. The problem I've found with traditional churches is that power often is surrendered to what the pastor or priest tells is true with emphasis being placed on prescribed interpretations founded by church doctrine. In my opinion, the congregation basically is told what to think, which "liberates" them from thinking for themselves. True liberation for me is learning to think for oneself to promote personal growth. Science of Mind offers guidance but also encourages self-empowerment, personal independence, and positive thinking to promote positive change.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  20. Rock Reynolds

    If I understand the author's point, I think he chose his words poorly.
    Most people who complain about belief in God, use organized religions' definitions of God in their complaints.
    The author has a valid point that religions are worth studying.
    I give very little credence to a person who claims that the Bible is all lies, but hasn't read the Bible.
    I am also astonished at the success of the completely inane argument, that I have to believe all of the Bible or none of the Bible. The "all or none" argument, one of the most retarded statements of all time, has an amazing number of followers, Christian and Athiest.
    I have read the Bible. The Bible is the most important book in the history of the world, like it or not. The Bible contains amazing true stories of God's presence. The Bible also contains lies about the nature of God and the authority of man. The trick is figuring out which part of the Bible is truth and which part is lies. Figuring out truth from lies ain't that hard. The Bible gives some pretty big clues.
    Rock

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Goose

      Rock Reynolds claims the bible contains true stories of God's presence.

      I don't know what is harder to believe... That statement or the name 'rock reynolds'

      September 30, 2012 at 10:08 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.