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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. Mark

    A "cop out?" Sounds like somebody thinks "spirituality" means guilt, exclusion, and contempt, or you just ain't "religious!" What a crock!! You wouldn't know spirituality if it bit you on the ass!!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  2. Martin

    Hilarious, people that believe in imaginary beings complaining about other people imagining other things .. cop-out? seriously? what was that Christians love to say... anything good that happens is a miracle and a gift from God, anything horrendous and terrible that happens and that's God working in mysterious ways...

    September 30, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  3. stock2mal

    The content of this entire article hinges on a false dilemma fallacy. There are ways to live one's life aside from believing or not believing in Christianity, although I am hopeful that as we progress into the future a few hundred more years, more people will finally start to reject the hogwash that is The Bible.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  4. Joe G.

    I'll take my personal relationship with God over some be-suited hilligan screeching fables at me out of some dusty old book any day. You can take your commitment to to the circus that is organized religion, and the concomitant works associated with it and toss them in your dust bin. I'll choose a one-on-one relationship of experience over your recycled pablum. Keep what you have. Even better, keep it to yourself. :)

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  5. Lois

    True spirituality speaks to practices/beliefs that are aimed at or the result of a direct experience of "god".

    Religions are based on the teachings of a man (usually) who has had a significant and maybe on-ongoing direct experience and shared it. Then people (usually those in power) made up a bunch of rules about what this man/woman experienced and called it their religion and judged (hated/killed) other people that do not believe their religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Absolutely

      I am not saying there is a "god" as religions claim, just that when there is a direct experience of being one with all – that is what people usually think – that it is their god.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Pattypal

      Well said, thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  6. raul

    Germany's Catholic Church will deny worshippers the right to Holy Communion and religious burials if people do not pay a special church tax.
    A newly-enforced German bishops' decree says anyone failing to pay the tax – an extra 8% of their income tax bill – will no longer be considered a Catholic.
    All people in Germany must pay this tax if they want to worship in either Catholic or protestant churches, or Jewish synagogues

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2208520/German-Catholics-denied-Holy-Communion-religious-burial-refuse-pay-church-tax.html#ixzz27x2ROVyZ
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  7. Interloper

    I figure it's Sunday and CNN is trying to stir up a little controversy.This is pure crap and who gives a damn what the writer thinks. The problem with society is Mind your business and leave others alone if they are not harming you. What happened to the old adage "Live and let live?"

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • RPC

      That applies to you too. Mind your own business and let the author live

      September 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  8. Agnes

    Maybe if there was an organized religion that did not discriminate against women and/or gays and/or etc., etc., AND did not protect its pedophiles and/or other abusers, open-minded people would flock to it. Even Buddhism, one of the most accepting religions (though not technically a religion), discriminates horribly against women in it's practices. I can't think of any religion that truly practices what it preaches. Maybe we're all just tired of the BS.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  9. Gustav

    Excellent article, Mr Miller, and all the sniping comments by religion-haters only proves your point even more. Why believe in real truth - that actually confronts the deep multiplicity of what it means to be human, and actually change your life - when you can believe in your own shallow truth that simply adds to one's self-justification and denial of reality, and remain the way you are? In other words, why grow up when one can remain a silly child? I expect my comment - like yours - to generate more banal protestations by all the petulant children out there.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • rick

      why do you feel that religion offers the "real truth"?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • jumanji777

      Religion haters? No. But those would would question the need to slaughter men women and children just so invaders can take their promised land. Yesterday was spears, slings, and arrows doing it. Today is drones. So long as we have a culture of the love of power rather than the power of love, we are doomed to this darkness. But people are waking up, Stepping out of the pews, going for walks in the forest, the real cathedral, and rejecting a one size all mind control pogram.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  10. John Locke

    Since when is being spiritual but not religious not agnosticism? If the point of religion is to bring peace and guide a culture toward certain specific behaviors, primarily for order and the preservation of the good qualities of society, then how can one say that one religion is better than another or that a "religion-less" person who STILL acts the SAME way (i.e. does right unto their neighbors, lives according to the thing the bible suggests) but is more tolerant is not as high quality a citizen as another who is associated with a Major League Religious Team?

    This breaks down to the very simple point of this article: The nation "should be" Christian. The nation "should be" how the author thinks the world should be. This is also the same thinking (of baby boomer generation) that is causing so many problems with debt and the education bubble. Because life in America "should be" that you go to school, get a job, and be happy, these same people are preaching to do so when an expensive investment like college is NOT getting you jobs or any guarantee. To follow rules that worked in PAST times but don't apply today. It's common sense we should be focusing on the way the world is instead of what it SHOULD be. And if you think a person is a good person because they act like your ideal religion, don't ask about their religion. Just like them because they behave in the way you approve. If not, don't associate with them. Simple. If you spent more time focusing on your own life than stressing what the rest of the world believes (which doesn't affect your life in the slightest) you'd be happier and more productive.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  11. Pamela Sanderson

    Ah yes, the King James bible. The best selling fictional work ever published.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • RPC

      That's what you may "believe".... but your belief doesn't mean it is true.... otherwise, come forth and present solid reasonable arguments for which you think it is fiction.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Pamela Sanderson

      I will come forward with "proof" as soon as any religion comes forth with proof that any of these stories have a shred of accuracy and credibility. When one must suspend all knowledge and logic and take something on "faith" in the absence of any verifiable fact then it will always be a best selling work of fiction.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Caron

      RPC – you cooked your own goose. "just because you believe it, doesn't make it true."

      September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  12. Yep

    I didn't say I was an athiest, I said "who are you to decide what is healthy for MY child?"

    September 30, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Caron

      Even you are not qualified to decide what is healthy for YOUR child. Your child is a human being to whom you owe the right to have his or her own mind and thought. Don't brainwash your child and don't let others brainwash your child. Free your child's mind - teach him or her how to think - not what to think.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  13. Mike in Bucks County

    The reason that more people, especially younger people, drift from organized religion but retain a faith in a god is because we finally live in a world where it is okay to question religious "authority". And the result of that is that you see how flawed, disappointing and, sometimes, evil (e.g. Catholic Church, Islam) that religion is. What I question is why people continue to hold on to the belief of a god at all. It's okay to admit that you've been duped and there is not some spirit in the sky watching over your every move and waiting to judge you when you die.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  14. The dude

    Alan Miller: nothing more than a paid troll. Luckily i moved away from your fairy tales of spirituality n gods a long time ago. Flame on religious ones, im sure someone out there will threaten me with death or hell. Lol. Why cant you threaten people with naked women or something? why so negative? :P

    September 30, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  15. aw016

    I may not be religious, but you, "sir", are going to hell.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  16. pmmarion

    What a bunch of kaka doodoo..

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Interloper

      So aptly put my friend

      September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  17. badskippy

    Face it Mr. Miller – you are speaking to an empy room – the smart ones have all left the building, and all you have left are the cattle that require someone to lead them around by the nose.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  18. codifex

    If I were not already a Christian, I think I would probably be a Buddist.

    Of all the non Christian religious ideas in the world, Buddism seem to me to be the most worthy. Buddist are a kind of holy bum. They are taught not to worry about material things. Don't worry where your next meal comes from. Don't worry where you will sleep. Do not acquire material possessions – they will possess you and cloud your soul. Do not seek to force people to your way of thinking but demonstrate peace of mind and be a worthy example.

    Maybe that is what these young people are looking for.

    Christianity, on the other hand, says that we are all unworthy to begin with but our debt has been paid. All we need do is accept the gift. I think there is a epiphany that must be experienced before it even makes sense.

    As far as organized religion is concerned – it doesn't matter what religion you speak of – they can all be organized. Often, people seeking power get into the organization and use the religion for their own purposes – seeking to turn their flock, so to speak, into sheep for the shearing. So it has always been.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Eric

      This is the most ignorant description of Buddhism I have ever read.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  19. Hollywood

    I pity people who live without faith. They are often bitter and defensive individuals who live empty and sarcastic lives. Just my opinion. Lol.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Eric

      When you have adopted faith you have rejected true wisdom.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Ken

      I hope the irony of this comment isn't lost on everyone.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Joe

      I pity people with faith. They live pointless, misappropriated lives devoid of sarcasm.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • kerri

      So if people don't what he thinks they should do, they are doing nothing and not contributing to society and they have no moral code. Has he ever talked longer than 10 minutes to someone he describes? I doubt it, and all these values that he doesn't name, be says that Christianity created were created long before Christianity!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  20. rickinmo

    Your IQ is obviously below 60, most likely married to a relative, your father is also your uncle and however many years you've lived on this planet, you've failed to learn anything. Other than that-You're OK.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:27 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.