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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. 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 10:25 am |
    • myersfamily

      amazing history lesson. You should write text books.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Jason

      wow myersfamily doesn't get satire at all...you should stay away from The Onion, it would blow your mind.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Wes Scott

      palintwit said: "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."

      Obviously, your journey toward enlightenment is a very long one and you are never going to get there until you first step out of the door and begin seeking that path. One would think you were looking in a mirror and talking to yourself when you wrote the above quoted statement.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  2. WilliamTells

    Here one finds a disquieting example of the price to be paid for "disregard of sound doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:3 producinig John 14:17 ignorance).

    And one can thank the spiritually-bereft mainline denominations for it!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • WilliamTells

      Solution? Find yourself a full-gospel proclaiming (Philippians 3:10;1 Cor. 2:2;Romans 8:11) Pentecostal church!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Joseph L.

      Spiritually sound doctrine?.......Doesn't exist. I see you have very little education in Christian history and the origin of the Bible. Educate yourself and let go of this childish and primitive belief system. We have to protect our children from being exposed to these destructive, ignorant, negative beliefs.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  3. rickb57

    I think he is saying that there are alot of agnostics out there. Which is very true and it is more common with the youth. They are brought up in a different world than I was. i was raised in a strict Catholic school. Tough nuns. I mean tough. I knew one that could take on some linebackers. I think the parents are to blame very much as they just ignored the subject. And its a very tough subject to discuss in a group because you are always going to have believers, non believers and people from different faiths.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Jason

      I fail to see your statement that you were bullied into Catholicism by threatening nuns in the tender years of youth as an argument in favor of the practice.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Joseph L.

      It is a very good thing that more youth consider themselves agnostic. That means more people are THINKING critically and examining these ancient primitive beleifs we were raised with. I went to Catholic schools growing up and thankfully today I am a former Christian. I am Spiritual but not involved in organized religion. This is a sign of a more evolved and advanced understanding of life and spirituality. Hopefully this will continue and future generations will not fall victim to the brainwashing we endured.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  4. JtotheB

    I couldn't disagree with this article more. But, that's just like the conservative, religious right, ostracize everyone who doesn't completely agree with you. It may be true that a few people use the "spiritual but not religious" to avoid answering any real questions about religion. But, I would say that a very large segment of the people who claim it are just tired of the over politicized, dogmatic rhetoric and hatred spewed from the mouths of people who claim religion. He doesn't like it when people practice a more eclectic mix of religion because that only goes to show how outrageous some religious beliefs are. Very , very close minded, but hey, what do you expect from a religious guy.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • David Rice

      Excellent response. Could not have said it better – so I didn't. :)

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  5. NorthVanCan

    Honestly , I haver never heard a decent argument for being religious. Never have and pretty sure I never will.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  6. Captain Obvious

    So thinking for yourself, and finding your own relationship with God is a cop out, but having dogma handed to you on a platter, for you to accept without question is not a cop out?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  7. stmess

    Science is difficult. Spirituality is diffcult. Religion is easy to follow.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Jason

      Yup, and because it's so easy to follow, it's followers are more likely to be completely certain of their own groundless beliefs and completely ignorant of other opinions, as our friend Mr. Miller demonstrates here.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  8. Really

    I am glad this article shows a lot of trying-ness and backed up with statistics and facts to show all the people Alan is taking about and is not sitting on the fence or feeling-ness to describe a made up set of people...oh wait

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  9. Holdengreen

    Love is my religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  10. Eric of Reseda, CA

    Miller is the spiritual descendent of those that insisted the world was flat and went apoplectic of people suggested otherwise. He would have been among the first to light the pyres that burned those that said the Earth revolves around the Sun. he p[eobably would have been one of the loudest to scream, "Witch!" because some woman was left-handed.

    It is virtually impossible for the religious to accept the fact that they are dinosaurs, relics of a violent, ignorant past. Yes, I believe in G-d, but you BETTER believe i don't align myself with the Santorums of the world, or the Vaticans of the world, or the Imams of the world, etc. They are women-hating, Earth-hating, violent, manipulative, fear-mongering, etc. Why would ANYone want to be a part of what these people represent, now that we see just how much damage they cause humanity?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  11. Jason

    I find it difficult to accept that someone else should tell me not that I should believe, but how I should believe. A person can go to church his or her whole life but not benefit from it. A church is a great place to expose you to what other people believe but should not define what you do. Only your own personal connection to God can save you. No other man can absolve your sins. That is between you and God alone. This author is confusing spiritual with faithful. There are those who are not Chrslistian and who follow their own path and unfortunately there always will be. That does not mean that anybody who does not regularly go to church is a bad person. Faith is the key, not being "spiritual". Religion without faith is useless. You must decide what your own connection to God is and not take somebody else's word is.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Spiritual people who don't attend churches have a "church" of their own; it's called the internet.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  12. lpjart

    I don't usually comment on articles with a quote, but I believe the Dalai Lama said it far better than I could have on my own. "This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."

    Being spiritual rather than religious is about being the best person you can be, without depending on the easy answers and rigid rules set forth by religion. If we are talking about people making excuses here, how many people have used an ancient comment in a religious book as an excuse to hate another group of people, wage war, suppress the rights of others, or punish those that are different? A person who calls themselves "Spiritual" has no such excuses. They are forced to think about WHY. "Why do I dislike this person? Why do I feel that what they are doing is wrong? Is it because I was told to believe it's wrong, or is there a real reason that this may harm myself, them, or society?" The answers are often surprising, sometimes upsetting, but they force you to take greater personal responsibility for yourself and your beliefs–to act not only in the manner a specific faith tells you you ought to in order to be rewarded, but to act in the manner that is truly best for you and humanity as a whole.

    To be clear, I don't believe religion is inherently wrong or vile. It has its purpose, and for some it is the best possible path. It is not for all, however, and to disregard Spirituality as the "easy way out"–as this article seems to–is to ignore reality. It is far easier to follow rules already written in stone for you, to believe what you are told to believe and follow who you are instructed to follow. Why? because we said so. Far more challenging is it to answer the question "Why?" with complete honesty and lack of bias. Spirituality is laziness? On the contrary. Being spiritual is hard work. Being a good person because it is the right thing to do and not because you hope to be rewarded for it is hard work. I don't call myself spiritual because I think religion is too difficult–I call myself spiritual because I have decided that if I am to be a truly good and productive human being, I cannot let someone else answer the questions for me.

    So, I will continue to attend my "temple" every day, and practice the philosophy of kindness. If one finds that offensive, then that can't be helped.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Only fools would find your desire to be a good person offensive. Part of spirituality is how we react to others who are "offended" by our good intentions. If you believe you are doing the right thing for yourself and others do not be fooled by the negative people who know nothing about you and your spirituality.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  13. Bert L

    If people follow one principle - "Do to others as you would have others do to you" - they will find a basis for morality which is far stronger than any of those preached by the formal religions. This principle will lead to spirituality in the sense of the "American Spirit" and help form strong bonds with all of humanity.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  14. Cher

    We have a pool of knowledge, transferred in the last 2000- 3000 years to us through many generations that have left their own input on the origin of that pool , from diverse resources. Therefore the concept of belief may be universal, the choice is what can you believe in from all that big pool and innate knowledge that we have, whether we connect with it or not.
    I do not see why a person cannot choose selectively the sources to guide the belief. Going to one organization to get a credible notion ot being a good muslim or christian or any other takes away the genuine belief into a more man made direction and from that man made intervention problems stem under the name of God and religeon. This is part of the continuous evolution of the man kind and the more we connect with the innate knowledge perhaps guided by previous sources, the better we are than to rely on what this Priest said or that shiekh said who are equally human like us subjected to the same temptations and same weaknesses like us, they are just labled by other human beings that they are "the ones".

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  15. DeeCee1000

    The Christian bible is not God. This guy is worshipping words on paper, making them out to be something they are not. Christianity is so fragmented with thousands of denominations, how can anyone really know which church is interpreting the bible the way it was meant to be followed? He needs to step back and actually take the time to view the world and his fellow human beings from a different perspective. From his current place, he really can't see much of anything except what he wishes to see and what his pastor tells him to see.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  16. Mark

    Who died and made Alan queen?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • malcolmtbm

      that was good... :)

      September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  17. n

    a good example of the arrogance of religion

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      I agree, very arrogant and doesn't realize it either.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  18. MJB

    I really have to take exception with this – religion was created by MAN, not GOD! According to the Bible, man is not perfect, thus religion is not perfect but GOD is. I agree with the others that have said "religion is just another form of control".

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  19. S Pizzutos

    It seems as if Allan Miller spoke to 2, perhaps 3 people for a few minutes and then decided to write off spirituality. Good one. Religion is made of man and much of it is rooted in control and power. What do 'spiritual but not religious' people stand for? Why are you demanding a set of rules and observations to validate someone's relationship and belief in God? I'll tell you this much, I have NEVER heard of a spiritual but not religious person advocating WAR and KILLING in the name of God. Your article makes you seem foolish and immature.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  20. Jesse Johnson

    Mr Miller's post is disingenuous at worst and specious at best. When I first spoke these words 7 years ago, in response to the question "Are you religious?", for me it was a natural, honest answer. I did not think about it. These words are still true for me today. I did not realize that I was part of a 'movement'. Thank you Mr. Miller for that clarification. Unlike Mr Miller, who can speak for every person that says a specific set of words, I can only speak for myself. My relationship with the divine or spirit, is personal. I do not need or want another to define for me how that relationship should manifest. Nor have I sought to imply or suggest to anyone that I am better, deeper or have a more profound connection with spirit than another. Good luck Mr Miller. I hope you find that which you are seeking.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:23 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.