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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. Xander

    Where's Christopher Hitchens when you need him?!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • No2Atheism

      In hell wishing he would have preached Christ instead of atheism.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • romgard182

      unfortunately he is dead.. but his legacy remains alive and well

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Realist

      wow.. you're brainwashed

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • romgard182

      No2Atheism hitchens was a great thinker and always worked for the goodness of the world and for the liberty of mankind.. hes done more for humanity alone then a 10000000 of you

      September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Bobby

      @No2Atheism: Do you have evidence for that claim? I didn't think so.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      It's always so sad to see Christianists like No2 attack other Americans for not sharing his beliefs.

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

      @No2Atheism: You have proof of this? Pictures of Christopher Hitchens writhing in hell? Something objective? Didn't think so. Better leave the lights on, the boogeyman might get you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • ggmeiw

      No2Atheism – may as well call yourself; No2Reason

      September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  2. MagicPanties

    Yes, take a stand and stop believing in imaginary beings just because you were taught that as a child.
    Do you still believe in Santa Claus?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • No2Atheism

      LOL and you have "Magic", do you believe in it? So, why should the rest believe as you do?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      Why should you be allowed to try to force US to believe what YOU "believe," No2?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  3. divorced dad

    My heart goes out to the author as she struggles to hold on to a belief that all answers must be handed down to her by a group of individuals who dictate what we must believe and feel. In searching for answers within myself I have become a much more fulfilled and content individual. No. I don't trust organized religion. And you just confirmed to me that I'm on the right path. What a desperate attempt to hold on to what she is trying to believe. In truth it sounds more like she wants what we have for there is absolutely no substance to her argument.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  4. J Jones

    This article is laughable.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  5. Norm

    People aren't "rejecting" formal religion.
    Parents aren't teaching it to their children anymore.
    Religion is taught in the home.
    Not in schools.

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

      Slight problem with your logic. If people were teaching religion to their children and now "people" are not, what happened to the generation that was taught religion. They rejected it, that's what. Therefore you are wrong.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  6. Evelyn

    An ignorant, superficial blurb of nothingness. "Christianity has been interwoven" with Western history since the conversion of Constantine because it was adopted by a militaristic, imperialist people bent on ruling the world. It remained so. Miller commits the very mistakes he accuses the "spiritual" of doing - glossing over the important stuff. The traditional Christian churches must answer for over a millenia of forcing their beliefs on others, with destroying indigenous cultures, etc - all in the name of Jesus. The Catholic church is a joke full of pedophiles and other forms of corruption. Its response to its public disgrace - arrogance and dismissiveness until FORCED to contend with its own sins - has not gone unnoticed. Now some of the former disgraced pedophiles and their supporters urged Rome to turn against American nuns as if THEY were the problem. It's disgusting. Organized religion is a failure. Miller should asks what it is doing to answer to the world for its failures and sins. We do not have to serve it. To walk away from corrupted organizations IS a positive, soul-affirming decision. Beyond that, even the notion that "spiritual people" must "offer something positive" as an alternative is a ridiculous, white-bread American assumption that one is ALWAYS supposed to be positive. Weird. Miller fails to recognize his own hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance, and shallowness.

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

      Ironic, isn't it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Vince

      Most of what you write is true. But, I would ask you and anyone for that matter, who was Jesus? Was everything made up by the Catholic church? Is he a complete myth? Too many years of my life was spent in anger and hatred towards the things you mention, until I realized that his life can in fact "save" lifes, not from sin or any other gimmicks made up by the church as a controlling mechanism, but from a life without purpose, meaning and most importantly, peace of mind in a very crazy world.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Ray

      What I find interesting in your text is the generalization of Christianity to organized religion. Isn't it amazing that people who start bashing Catholic church (a single example of organized religion) typically end up concluding organized religion (as a whole) is a failure. If a scientist studying on a certain breed of plants made a similar generalization, he/she would lose his job. For one to make such statement he/she should offer conclusive evidence of failure of all organized religions of present and past.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. john

    i think the author has it exactly BACKWARDS. People who are spiritual but not religious are moving in the right direction. Away from worship. Worship is the most evil concept man has ever created and until we move from it, the world will continue to be torn apart by religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Ray

      Please enlight us with the specifics of worshiping dangers.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. annieL

    Its strange that a citizen of a culture that exalts the supreme value of the individual should criticize individuals who exercise their right to find divine truth on their own. Tired of hearing the "Me generation self-obsessed" critique of the self-directed seekers. All religion is about "me" and is "self-obsessed." Nobody joins any religion for anything but self-improvement or self-salvation or self-righteousness. It's ALL about self, dear sir.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Suedatajo

      Well written .Religion is about feeding ego.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  9. Mark

    This is by far the most ridiculous, uneducated article I've ever seen at CNN. You should be ashamed at yourself for having the inability to acknowledge spiritual beliefs which outdate your man made christianity by thousands of years. You're "religion" as you so choose to call it has literally done nothing but cause this worlds core problems for the last 2000 years. Cultures dating back 5 times as long would have never thought to project such arrogance.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • babaelf

      What Mark posted 9/30 @10.08 AM is right on ‘the mark.’ This whiner Alan Miller character is obviously a religious lu-lu. The priesthoods of ALL religions will be the last ones to find God. They are corrupt. And so-called Holy Scriptures have been described thusly: “The heart has been squeezed out of these religions, leaving an empty shell of dogmas, priesthoods, external rites and rituals with incomplete, altered and misleading scriptures –“dead bones not even worthy to be thrown to the dogs” are the exact words, the Master used, cutting with a sharp sword the epidemic of idolatrous scripture worship, so religiously correct and rampant in America and in all fundamentalist world religions today. He further counseled: “The scriptures are like rotten bones, rotted, and are food for worms. Theosophy and philosophy are like good bones, rotted, and are food for vultures. The writings of inspired poets are like fresh bones, food for dogs. The writings of spiritually advanced saints are like flesh, and food for tigers. The writings of living Perfect Masters are like brain – food for men! Good bones when rotted have some semblance of bone, but rotten bones are like filth. So, you may go through scriptures superficially, but only to drive away the barking dogs when necessary; as when you’re called upon to answer the queries of the priests, ministers and the orthodox. A scoundrel is better than these orthodox people; at least appears as he is. People recognize him and take precautions to stay away. But these orthodox are dangerous devils in the guise of saints! Lazy, good-for-nothing loafers are often courageous by nature, prepared for any eventuality. They’re not even afraid to die. But these zealots are cowards; dangerous hypocritical posers! Black sheep wearing clothes of a holy one! For that, the sword is needed, whereby God enters the lion’s den and slays all hypocritical orthodoxy. To love God in the most practical way is to love our fellow beings. If we feel for others in the same way as we feel for our own dear ones, we love God.
      If instead of seeing faults in others, we look within ourselves, we are loving God. If instead of robbing others to help ourselves, we rob ourselves to help others, we love God. If we suffer in the suffering of others and feel happy in the happiness of others, we are loving God. If instead of worrying over our own misfortunes,we think of ourselves more fortunate than many, many others, we are loving God. If we endure our lot with patience and contentment,
      accepting it as His Will, we are loving God. If we understand and feel that the greatest act of devotion and worship to God is not to hurt or harm any of His beings, we are loving God. To love God as He ought to be loved, we must live for God and die for God, knowing that the goal of all life is to love God, and find Him as our own Self. –Meher Baba

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  10. RacialVictim

    Perhaps people who believe in god don't want to be a member of an organized religion that allows itself to become an organized collective of those who commit crimes and the leadership that enables the crimes to continue as long as the collection plates keep coming in filled with donations.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Jordan

      well said

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  11. JosephDC

    For CNN to highlight this as a feature story on their home page is vile! Imagine if there was a similar "opinion" highlighted the same way against Islam, or Catholics, or Southern Baptists.
    What's going on CNN? Trying to mimic Fox?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  12. BU

    The "Danger" is really that these religious power-mongers are getting less money from the sad suckers that buy into the mythology.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  13. Jon DSM

    CNN- when you headline someone's opinion that I'm lost being spiritual instead of religious, I'm having a hard time distinguishing you from Fox News. I guess you're not in the news business anymore, and you leave independent thinkers like myself even fewer places to turn to for actual, unbiased news.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  14. Pierre Forget

    Nice try, just like "Bob" says and try to read "The Nature of personal reality", a Seth book written by Jane Roberts. There is much more to spirituality without religious affiliation.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  15. Kay

    Yes, interesting that CNN would lead with an Opinion like this. And Alan Miller, respectfully, I couldn't disagree with you more. However, the responses will show the WORLD how we can discuss his point of view without (hopefully) resorting to violence.
    Although I spent my first 9 years in a Unitarian church, our parents pretty much left it up to us to discover our own spirituality. My sister eventually converted to Judaism (on her own I might add) and my brothers and I are probably lumped into the group of people that your opinion targets.
    Personally, I'm very happy that no religion was shoved down our throats as children. And now, that the world has become smaller with the invention of the internet I feel we need to consider what the Dalai Lama says today...

    "All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether."

    If we are to survive ourselves we need to find a simple common denominator.

    This statement pretty much sums it up for me – "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech"
    Perhaps that language is LOVE. And they way we speak LOVE in my mind is to do no harm to others and go out into the world and be kind, considerate and helpful to others as well as to all the creatures on this earth.
    Keep it simple people.
    Peace be with you all!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  16. tom LI

    First off, all the ME generation ideas are alive and well and being fostered in Traditional Religious practices in the US and Xtianity is guilty of it as well. All this talk about Personal Relationships with this God, about how everyone sits down and talks with God/Jesus, like they would a regular living friend – is about ME! Its about the individual defining all aspects of their God. Whats more ME than having a God that shares a Sunday drive with ME, or sits and shares a pot of coffee, while I spill my guts to him.? Find me more ME stuff than that?!!!

    Second, this author is afraid of history. Afraid that history wont be stopped by the fears of a few that their stranglehold on ideas are being lost to all the sudden and not so sudden changes in the World like technology, and its tsunami of information. Children can now look up what their teacher, parents, preachers, priests are telling them about Faith and Theology-doctrine and Dogma – and decide on their own like no other time in history. Some could be off the mark, but thats not important when there's so much information available to contradict and outright debunk the traditional means to teach about Spirit and spiritual practices.

    Third, the blame for all this personal defining of Truth sits right in the lap of the Xtian Conservatives and their political compatriots in the GOP who have been waging a war on the Sciences and scientific facts, as well as trying to OWN the beliefs and ideas of our Founding Fathers. They merely say that Scientific facts are not such, because they have the Bible to tell them otherwise, and then they try and tell us that the FF's always intended to make this a Xtian-based and run nation – despite the huge evidence to the contrary. But those facts dont matter when you can arbitrarily pick and choose and insert your own set of facts. These Xtian Fundamentalists, and their ilk in the GOP have been creating their own facts – so why not the average worshiper do the same too? Oh what it gets in the way of their Political and social agendas? Too bad!

    This author like so many of his type is afraid of the reality that the old ways are not working in this new age where we're leaping into the future quickly and where a huge number of the Earths population can freely gather information, and communicate with differing peoples like never before.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • FreyaV

      Excellent response, tomLi. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  17. ragski

    stupid article

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  18. fredfeit

    this sounds remenisent of the inquishion i belive we as humans have a choice and can plainly see that the religions of this world are at the root of all conflicts and war i don't see any gun or political weildingin anyone with a singular personal belief, this article does the same thing as convemtional religions,it promotes conflict between and against everyone this weakens the people and causes desent i do not belive that a dead man is going to rise from the dead save me and give me eternal life that just sounds insane but i feel your conchenceness is eternal by the way who made king james the boss to set the bible strait if i was the great creator and all knowing even as a lowly human i think i could do better than what we have like help me spell better for starters then i would wipe away the ones that cause pain and suffering provide food proper health care and housing and maybe your problems of inability to create real jobs and hope for you and your child. maybe a spelling dictionary will fall from heaven and smack me on the head. you see people are becoming much more intelegent but we just can't spell it out.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  19. Collin

    I believe that Mr. Miller here has his head on backwards. Look at the EASTERN civilizations; Taoism, Confucianism and legalism, all three of those are extremely popular and prevalent over there as well as here. Even Buddhism is not a religion but a spritiual practice and extremely popular all over the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  20. David

    At numerous times in history, Christian leadership burned books, non-christian schools, locked up scientists, regulated art, etc. For example, Roman emperor Theodosius II in 448 CE ordered all non-Christian books to be burned. In 529 CE emperor Justinian ordered the Platonic Academy in Athens closed and its property confiscated. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun. Even today, the church continues to fight against stem cell research and remove basic science (ie big bang and evolution) from schools. I'd love to hear the author substantiate his claim that, "everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work."

    Frankly, both organized religion and individual spirituality have major problems. However, at least individual spirituality seems to be less harmful to the world. Irrational people are most dangerous when they organize into large groups.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 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.