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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: My Take • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. JOE COSSUTH

    WHILE READING THIS ARTICLE- I STRUGGLED TO LEARN ANYTHING USABLE....BUT FOUND NOTHING....YET THE FEEDBACK WAS VALIDATING....ANYHOW IT WAS ANOTHER FUN EXPERIENCE AND GIFT FROM GOD AS IS ALL THINGS.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  2. Andy

    "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."
    Uh... One of my biggest beliefs is sticking to my morals/principles: being a good friend, brother, son and neighbor. By no means am I religous!!!

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

    Proud cherry-picker here. "God", "the universe" "spirituality"...what have you....it is so much more than we can ever know. I follow my creator....nobody here on earth is going to tell me what to call him, and what to believe, and how to demonstrate my beliefs and where. Yes I believe Jesus lived and people loved him. Yes, I believe in reincarnation. Yes I meditate. Yes I light candles in honor of my deceased loved ones and observe Day of the Dead.
    People like the author really kind of need to let people be. Governments have found new ways to control their populations other than organized religion and its concept of "eternal hell"

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  4. doubting thomas

    Ah, why don't you tell me how to think? That's what the men in cloths want! And if I am just a good, caring, giving person who does not believe in "god" – them I'm damned according to you. Ah, a "loving" god who only is...if you believe in him (otherwise, the loving god has people like you pray we go to hell). Pardon me for not believing in fairy tales told to the uneducated masses to explain earthquakes, tonadoes, warts and the like...so as to control them. There have been millions of good people who have worked to care for those that surround them – should we say they are all children born miraculously? Those of us who do not believe in organized brainwashing, who don't believe some dude created us...we are hardly the type person you describe. If the gospels were true, why can none of it be proven? Your answer..."Faith." How about rational thinking instead! Religion and the belief in god are for those who won't take the time to think for themselves. "In the name of god" is the most dangerous phrase in the history of mankind. You can continue to believe in fairy tales written for the uneducated masses...I'll stick with my belief that who we are is a function of science...of fact, not fiction

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  5. more2bits

    This is a joke. It's a cop-out for humanity to join religions! All religions are a myth created to control your mind.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  6. BobF

    Thomas Paine said it best, "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church."

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  7. slip n' slide

    Alan, no one needs your opinion on their individual quest for peace and happiness.
    Go somewhere else to peddle your wares.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  8. willy

    "fence sitting" I see this in a some young people. A large number of them are registered independents. Mostly because they do not want to be "locked in" to one particular party.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Adam W

      Why would you want to be "locked into" an entire party's platform when it's perfectly acceptable to learn the issues, think for yourself and make your judgements based on your own evaluations? Being "locked in" is not freedom or liberty. Young America gets it.

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

      Well, I am "locked in" to the party I like because I have studied all the parties and I have decided the party that I am locked into generally think the way I think. I'm not afraid to commit. That being said, I have "crossed the line" more then once to support a candidate I felt was better then my parties choice. No one came to my house or threw me out of the party. Those fence riders do not understand that registration does not stop them from voting for the best candidate. They just do not want to do the homework necessary to choose.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  9. H

    There is kernel of truth in this very badly written article, though I was posit most religious people have no depth of belief either, or perhaps even less. Most people truly lelieve that if you just say you are christian and go to church now and then, you get a bunch of goodies. That is far more self absorbed than some dude doing yoga on the beach.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  10. TurkeyGobbler

    I'm surprised this made it on CNN, uniformed, biased, and.... well that's probably the point isn't it.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  11. Eric

    Forgive me if I find it hard to believe that a man claiming to be the son of God died for everyone's sins. Were you trying to convert others to Christianity with your article? I take solace in the fact that in a few more generations, organized religion will only be talked about in history books.

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

      Really, Eric? You think that an article will convert anyone into Christianity? Jesus said, "Many has been called, but only few shall be chosen". So don't worry, you are not chosen as some of us are. No need to believe in Him, that is your free will to do so.

      What you and many unbelievers lack wisdom of is that Jesus Christ NEVER preached on religion but rebuked the leaders of organized religion. So, you may desire or take religion out from the next generation but you will NOT be able to remove Christ from the heart of the one who claims to believe in him. Oh, and if you think that the bible is just is myth, than, so are the history books and science books. Prove me wrong.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  12. MGNJHASHT

    NYVeteran said it all pretty eloquently.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  13. kirikintha

    This is probably the most offensive article I have read in some time on CNN. Claiming that spirituality is a "cop-out" is like saying "If your not a democrat or a republican" then you don't have any business in politics. Just because one decides not to be affiliated with a particular religious sect does not mean you have not done your homework, nor have you decided to not have a grounded set of morals, faith, belief etc.

    I would counter this argument by saying, if you only have blind faith, then you are committing said cop-out yourself, because you will follow blindly without any real understanding of *why* you have faith, only that your mommy and daddy told you to have it.

    For me, I just will not buy into a particular organized religion, because many times it limits one's ability to be closer to one's self, community-at-large and ultimately places yourself into a box – and that is very hard for me to justify. I refuse to place limits on God, and I refuse to place limits on my compassion, understanding and knowledge of the world I engage in.

    It's an easy dig on those who say they are spiritual, because those who claim to have faith seem to be the most easily swayed by someone who does not share their faith. Why bother even having this argument, it is completely pointless, unless your piety compels you to judge people. I for one, leave judgment to the almighty, and just try and treat people as well as I can.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  14. Mike11

    How the heck is this unsubstantiated drivel on CNN's website? This is complete garbage. A younger generation moving away from irrational religious doctrine to explore their own connection with the universe in a more experiential and logical way!? Yeah that's terrible for society. Please someone bring them back to the heard. Their doubt and questioning will only lead to some sort of seeking for truth and answers within themselves and their immediate environment. They will forget how to look to the anchient books written before the age of science for security and comfort. Whatever shall we do?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  15. Chris

    I pity this author, enlightenment and critical thinking do no have to be unpaired with spirituality, what a close minded zealot, take off the blindfold. BTW, CNN's material is getting trashier and trashier, I'm not coming back.

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

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    WOW....Why does a decision have to be made? Seems to me that admitting that one does not know 100% the correct path shows a lot more thought than simply going along with the masses. I am intensely spiritual, and it reflects in how I conduct myself in my day to day life. I have thought long and hard, and because of that I have come to determine that organized religion itself is a cop out, not my "lack of thought"....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  17. jesus

    read some eckhart tolle and you will understand what it means to be spiritual, but not religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  18. mlb

    Wow, is that the best you got? Totally lame arguments for organized religion!! If that is considered worthy of front page of CNN, it just reconfirms the spiritual not religious position. Oh, btw, it is not just young people. I am 51, me and tons of my contemporaries are also in this boat. It is really just the elder generation that is not so much as much a part of it. Look, I grew up with an Aunt, she held herself aloft (and others referred to her) as the ultimate in being a religious person. She did every custom, every step. She also had no real generosity and empathy and warmth toward all of her fellow humans. She was real cold to those who didnt agree with her. She is exactly the reason people turn away. If people like that are held up as the example to follow to be the best religious person, well, I as well as millions of others decided not to follow along with that, and why in the world would we???

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  19. WU

    This guy makes Bill Bennett look like Deepak Chopra.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  20. mary Jane

    Nonsense.. The writer tips his hand at the end, tho. "Which is it? A belief in God and Scripture or. ." In other wordss a belief in the Bible or not The bible has many good lessons to learn, but I do take a stand. I don't believe most of the Bible. There now do you feel better Mr Miller? I took a stand.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:16 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.