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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. Michel

    Jesus said: "Get out of her my people". Organized religion has been corrupted by man-made beliefs and tradition. No wonder so many have strayed away from the truth of the written Word. Do this, do that, don't do this and don't do that! We have been set free from all the bondage of the world including religion.

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

    Nothing but we want your money so you are wrong. Money, control and more money.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  3. WU

    Religion is one of many places where man has subsituted authority for the the truth.... and that always ends badly for human beings. Here is the difference between authority and the truth. Authority will tell you that if you all hold hands in church and pray for your neighbor you can heal them. The truth will teach that if you all hold hands in a church and jump up every single person will come down every single time. Wake up.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  4. jack white

    I wouldn't even know where to start in crafting a response to an article like this. I am glad to see CNN post this front and center. People like Alan have used organized religion as a weapon since the birth of organized religion and often turn religion itself into something it never intended to be. I'm a cradle Catholic, so I can write this with total conviction and knowledge of organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  5. Jimbo

    Mr. Miller has totally overlooked the fact the religion itself is a man-made notion, a man-made construct, a man-made idea. Mr. Miller...you need to get over yourself sir... YOU are wrong on this one.

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

    This is like saying that moral behavior can only come from religion. Does the author think that atheists or agnostics believe that things like stealing or killing are okay because they don't accept a religion? Religion has become a business. They constantly say that we can't know the mind of God, yet they constantly try to tell us what things in the Bible really mean. They say that we have free will and then tell us that something reflects God's will. They tell us that people have gone to a better place when they die, yet everyone struggles to not die.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  7. FactoidLover

    Two observations concerning this narrow-minded commentary. All regions of the world outside Europe have created terrific art and architecture without the influence of the King James Bible. Everyone picks and chooses – even those claiming to adhere to a narrow viewpoint. Among the Christian faith for example, there are denominations that believe most people go to heaven, not many go to heaven, only 144,000 will go to heaven, and that no one goes to heaven.

    Adhering to narrow-minded dogma seems more of a cop-out than remaining open-minded to new information.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  8. The Dude

    Alan miller is a tool who lacks the intelligence to define his own view. A dog who is unable to think for himself and therefore must follow the delusions of long extinct cultures that have little or no relevance to the world we live in.

    Such people are the immortal vermin who allow people like Hitler and the murdering Catholic church of the middle ages to kill with self righteous retribution. Such humans are a hindrance to the evolution of man.

    Religion is poison.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eqKb5ViN_Q&w=640&h=390]

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • George

      Not supporting Alan Millers perspective, but I have a bone to pick with you statement. There are people in history (ie Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot) who were atheists that killed masses of people. For you to blindly associate organized religion to something evil that people/individuals do shows some level of ignorance on your part.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • The Dude

      Stalin was in the Seminary before he got into politics and Pol Pot was a practicing Buddhist monk.

      Try again.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  9. PayTheMembershipFee

    You make the idea of doing good things because they are good and not because you think they please some god is a terrible thing. Whether or not god exists is meaningless toward your way of life. Once again here's another article written about religion in which people are judged by how they live their own personal lives. "This person is different from how I am, therefore I should hate and judge him.". You folks are ADORABLE!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  10. papasancho

    This views expressed in this article are big part of why I don't trust organized religion. I would argue that buying into the pre-packaged rituals and MRE morality of organized religion is much more of a cop out. This author's argument has so many holes in it, but I have a lot better things to do on a lovely Sunday than to sit in front of my computer and argue them. He is not even worth my time.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  11. alientech

    There is no God, you morons. Being spiritual but not religious is just as stupid. You're just as afraid of dying as the religious people and are looking for answers that really aren't there. Your spiritual individual relationship is with what? The same God that the religious people have delusions about. The only difference is that you don't even follow any rules and make them up as you go as long as they are hedonistic.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  12. eba

    The author believes that there is only one way to have a relationship with God, his way. That narrow minded and dangerous way of thinking is one of the reasons many people have left organized religions. Because a relationship with God is personal, no two relationships can be the same, even if two people belong to the same organized religion. Sadly, the author believes that he knows what a "spiritual but not religious" person's relationship is to God, and it's just not good enough, in his opinion. I thought God was the only one who could make that judgement.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • billyk

      You said what I was thinking very well. The tone of the article was accusatory and under informed. His constant use of what I imagine would be air quotes had he been speaking in front of us, is meant to lessen any positive aspect of the subject he was trying to bash. Maybe he should just worry about his own soul and leave ours alone.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  13. Todd

    What is wrong with being judgmental? What if being judgmental (I don't think he has been, it looks as if he is making a judgement based on his experience and research) is his way to "enlightenment"?

    Some here say it is wrong to make a judgement, yet go and make their own judgement without knowing the man or anything about him (other than what he wrote here). What is the standard?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • mdesilvia

      I think the point would be this: If you (we) create our own spiritual awareness based on our own thoughts our own heart or what we want it to be an that is considered correct and others can not judge it than we go down a path of no Absolute truth. One than can saw, that their faith is the one faith for them and that faith allows them to go to heaven because they say so based on what they want. There must be a Absolute truth, with out it, than all the Hitlers and Muslims of the world and the hate groups of the world are right and we would be wrong. Is there a Zillion heavens and hells just to allow each of us to decide our own fate? I think not, again that would not allow for absolute truth. Now if you believe in this personal spirituality that you can make for yourself, you can not judge me at all for my words, if you do than you are a Hypocrite in saying we each create our own by denying me mine... so before warned....

      September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  14. Roto

    I solved all this. No God. No Jesus, except the man (no deity). That's it. No church. Period.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  15. treblemaker

    Why am I not surprised that not one person on this blog agrees with the author? Not only do I agree with him, but I'll even take it one step further-Christianity itself has been tainted by the "feel-good" "new age" ooh-wee-ooh" spiritualism of the day in a desperate attempt to fit in to today's culture. The amount of denominations within any faith that exists today proves my point that nobody has the right message. Even though the 12-step "higher power as you understand him" concept has saved millions of lives, it's all the same message of personal fulfillment that has led ALL OF US astray. The eternal unseen spirit that is God sees personal fulfillment at the expense of helping others less fortunate as BLASPHEMY!! (Greed is good? Wake up!!) Only by submitting yourself to God and depending on His grace and mercy to get you through each day will guarantee the peace of mind and heart that you desperately crave. More later.

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

      Watch yourself. Christianity was once upon a time a "new age " religion, misunderstood and not tolerated by people of other faiths. I seem to recall some persecution, no? Maybe tolerance should be the first thing on that list of yours to do good things for your fellow man, or woman.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  16. Sagebrush Shorty

    So what?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  17. ichbindaswortistich

    I can only agree with Alan. In my view, this fence-sitting is a phenomenon common to all of our society’s aspects. People are afraid of commitment and responsibility. Furthermore, today there are far more choices than there used to be only a few decades ago. Nowadays, you can make almost every decision at the last minute; you can make or cancel any appointment anywhere and any time. Since most people appear to be unable to cope with making decisions, the aforementioned possibilities are most welcome to them and, unfortunately, increase the tendency to avoiding behaviour in their turn.
    As concerns religion versus spirituality, the tendency seems to adhere to the slogan, ‘It is good to believe in something, just let it not be anything particular.’

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  18. Matt

    This poor guy obviously has daddy issues.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  19. Monroe DeVos

    The fact that this article printed by CNN is a travesty in of and of itself. The article is biased, uninformed, and based on NOTHING! I have always believed that religion is a very personal thing and I have no problem with any religion that espouses kindness, goodness, and self awareness. What I do have a problem with is people trying to "push" their individual, personal belief on me. I have been exposed to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity which is far more than can I say for people who push their beliefs on me on this country by inserting it into politics. Articles like this are an example of the bigger problem of naivete when it comes to understanding their fellow humans.

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

      Obviously, anything you disagree with a travesty. Can you please list the subjects it's OK for CNN to have in an opinion article so we don't offend you in the future.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  20. Bobo

    There are some good points that are made, but the over all tone is whiny. The generalization of the "not religious" is where the writer fails at communicating what is at the heart of this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 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.