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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. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in tightly cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of years of inbreeding.
    Oddly enough, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance and Smokey and The Bandit.

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

      Sin and crimes happen from failing at being Christian, not from succeeding at being Christian. Chrisitianity survives to help people order their lives, avoid wrong choices – and most, importantly, to find real happiness and freedom in this lifetime. Those who commit themselves to Christ will gain great contentment in this lifetime...but, "wolves in sheeps clothing" will try to steal them away and too many succeed. it is not a matter of big church/little church – it is a matter of lasting intent.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  2. S.M.

    Soooo wouldn't that make Jesus seriously "spiritual non-Religious" for his day? Didn't he question the the current beliefs of his day and go his own way from what was considered organized religion at that time? In fact, wouldn't Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha have all been considered spiritual and not religious since they were the ones that various religious teachings are based on? maybe next great prophet of some new church will be someone who's considered "Spiritual, but not Religious."

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

      Exactly! Great answer! i think the same way!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • someone

      Jesus was a devout Jew.

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

      Not only was Jesus a devout and practicing Jew in his life time, He was the fulfillment of their prophecies. With His coming, He did introduce a turn in Hebrew history and in Israelite belief which was that the special regard reserved for the Hebrew people was now to be shared with Gentile peoples of the world...and, following his Resurrection, twelve of his disciples were called to be Apostles and a Church with Elders, Bishops, Teachers, Deacons and Seventy to go forth was established. From what i can tell...Jesus was all about order and the Church.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  3. Carlos

    This is nonsense. The author seems to be a paid PR officer for some church.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  4. Chris

    To say works of art and music would not be possible without the Bible is ridiculous, and blatantly untrue, as is evidenced by all the art, music and literature created in cultures that never even heard of Christianity until the Crusades. I'm very disappointed in CNN for publishing such a poor excuse for an article.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  5. Drej

    This garbage has less facts than a political attack ad. This really is a headliner on CNN.com? How low can you stoop? You might as well hire Glenn Beck next.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  6. Patrick

    This author is a moron. He needs to take a real look at the real world and who causes most of the problems in this world. From the Spanish Inquisition to the current attacks on embassies. The religions are usually must more fanatical than those who are spiritual. In no way am I say ALL religious people are fanatical. But look at the Westboro Baptist Church.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  7. Lige

    The God I believe in ain't short of cash, Mister.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  8. Suzanne

    Really CNN? I thought you were better than this.

    First off all I want to make it clear that if you are a person that has found a relationship with God through traditional doctrine and you do not cause harm to others, I completely respect those beliefs. What I am saying here is simply my beliefs and I ask that you give me the same respect.

    The think the author is way off. I am one of those “Spiritual but not religious” people. Walking away from my Christian upbringing was not a choice I made lightly. It was a choice I made because in my heart I could not be part of the hypocrisy, intolerance, and judgment I found in structured religion. Looking back on history, I could not, with a good conscience, be a part of anything that I found has caused so much war, suffering and oppression.

    My relationship with god is still very strong and I still follow the “10 Commandments” because while they are adopted by Christianity, they are a basic rule of man which anyone with a good spiritual heart would follow instinctively. In my research I have also found that much of the religion I was brought with has swayed from the original message and been twisted to adopt pagan beliefs and interpreted to support different agendas.

    I have also found that by stepping away from the traditional Christian set of rules, I have been more receptive to following my path and more receptive to finding the joyous and miraculous things about this world. I am a good person, who believes in God, family and that positive actions bring positive results, and that if you follow your heart you will see the path God has intended for you. However, I live the bible belt and I have found, that the moment I say I am not Christian or I am not religious, I am treaded completely differently. Is this something I want a part of? No thank you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  9. CarrotCakeMan

    Isn't it sad this Alan Miller chooses to ATTACK those Americans who won't join his church and give his minster money with which the minister will try to poison our political process? Isn't that the whole problem, right-wing "Christianists" (read how Andrew Sullivan defines "Christianists") resent that we are NOT their "Christianist soldiers" and won't help them force their wacky, peculiar minority "beliefs" on all other Americans? Isn't this what the whole anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda is all about, forcing their shameful and hurtful "beliefs" onto all Americans by misusing the power of the law?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  10. Gus

    I'm glad I scrolled on down and read folks post....so I wouldn't be left feeling guilty for the rest of the day because I love God, but don't go to church. Take a look at what org this guy is the "director" of...The NY Salon. A org that exist to debate and argue about anything and everything....okay, fine. This makes perfect sense...if I was the director of such an organization, I'd probably write articles like this on a regular basis as well to insult people and then draw them into the organization that pays my bill. EPIC FAIL ALAN...us "spiritual, but not religious" folks are not going to be drawn into your cult either! Do as they will, harm none.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Mark in ct

      How can say you both love God and the attacks people are saying here???

      September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  11. Nate

    No, actually, it's religion that is a cop-out.

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

      Indeed.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. drkent3

    What a load of BS! Humans would have endeavored to learn, to read, to explore, to invent – whether there was a Bible or not. How does one explain non-Christian societies doing these things otherwise? This is nothing more than a self-righteous attempt to justify the writer's own 'need' to associate with people who believe like himself in order for him to 'feel' good about his own 'spiritual' choice. If an all powerful creator wishes to be known to an individual, it is ludicrous to claim that this can only be accomplished though some group association. God didn't build churches or develop religion, people did.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  13. abcdxyz

    Let's face it–if the organized churches were meeting people spiritual needs, they wouldn't leave those churches and become "spiritual but not religious." And it's not just the young, either. In my late 50's, I still define myself as a Christian, but many Christians would not recognize my brand of "their" religion, and I can no longer affiliate myself with any specific denomination or church.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  14. Doug Hayes

    Few people involved in organized religions follow all of the laws and interpretations of the beleif system completely. it is also a hodge podge of interpretation and a smorgasboard beleifs. A great deal of energy is spent on defending and maintaining the system, which takes away from any meaningful search for meaning. The "spiritual but not religious"in my opinion is a step towards moving away from ancient mysticism to explain the unknown aspects of our existence to a more humanistic and scientific understanding of our universe.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  15. Melanie

    Justme, you agree with Anita but did you miss her main point about judging? Lol

    September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  16. Tori

    God is Divine. He loves all of His Children. There is man-made and there is God. God brings His children into the Kingdom in His Time. Not in your time. He teaches people should love and respect each other.

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

      do you have school tomorrow?

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

      If your god was so all-powerful, Tori, it wouldn't need you seeking out free advertizing for it here.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  17. Joseph

    Like everything else man-made, organized religion is both good and evil but ultimately corruptible. I choose, like may rational, freethinking people, to believe there is much I do not know, rely on science, etc. Organized religion is nothing more than white noise.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  18. Goose

    Crappy article.

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

      To the contrary A. Miller. It is much harder to look at the hard questions and not just get in line and take the easy road to speritual enlightenment. Not all of us were brain washed at a young age and have to reconcile what we know is fact with what our hearts and minds want to believe. The church off any faith is simply a tool to spread and controll there masses. Don't look down on those looking for answers in a natural human way. I think therefor I am.... I think about sperituallity therefor I am speritual. End of story.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  19. mobustobus

    This guy is the type who would have had no qualms burning you at the stake a few centuries ago because you blasphemed the holy word of God. It is only through the Enlightenment and modern age that he and his kind have been shackled and neutered, so that now that can only insult you with words rather than treat you to a grand inquisition like they would be inclined to do.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Dustin Goldsen

      They are not as powerless as you think. We have seen how they control governments and sponsor terrorism in the middle east. In this country they still get people elected to Congress who push religious control by schools and want the government to control women's reproductive systems.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  20. Cat

    Bunk: People were drawing on cave walls, making music, and the early Sumerians could show you a thing or too about a canon of literature well before the Kings James version of the Bible was set loose on the world. To imply that none of the arts we enjoy today would have progressed or developed without the KJ Bible is a self-stroking fantasy.

    Before 'the masses' were even permitted to read the Bible, it was read to them–by clergy–and the subsequent meaning (belief about what it meant) was also a hand-me-down from the clergy–who were front-line soliders for the Pope and/or King. Desire is no proof that the thing desired was/is/or ever will be worth the effort. It was that freedom for individuals to think their own thoughts about the Bible that terrified the Church. Much of that inherited bias, hatred, and idiotic pandering to a potentially ever-angry deity on a cloud with a clipboard taking notes is STILL with us. So..the Church needn't have worried.

    For those that do imagine 'spiritual vs. religious' will get them back to Eden or provide the path to Utopia; they will outgrow this, it's a phase, not unlike the stage new converts or newly Baptised Christians experience. They will move beyond it.

    Fortunately, in the US [as of this writing) failure to toe the line of any religious dogma is no longer a burning or hanging offense.

    Relax and 'be'. You can do it and be a 'good' person too, Alan.

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

      Most values that organized religions and other cults profess have existed for many centuries before the so-called prophets. There is only once rule to follow, the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated-that is only truth and will still exist longer after Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc are gone.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 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.