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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. bob

    ok your have an opinion, a belief about this stuff, one cannot decide to have a faith as decisions are so easy to change.. one feels it in the heart! and lives from there.. commitment made in the head is typical of this era..but if you are gonna study religion or christianity in particular start with the language jesus spoke and look into Aramaic and the folks who have studied those interpretations.. the Bible has been translated too many times with too many intentions set in that had not much to do with Jesus's thoughts and teachings..

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  2. laurel barrett

    Its amazing how narrow minded the media has become. My mentor ran a 16 billion dollar media company and taught objective reporting.

    I personally have interviewed spiritual and religious figures from all walks of life who believe in God's spirit. God reigns in all cultures and the way people access this universal source has many paths. Once people awaken to their own power within, the game of life changes for the individual and miracles begin to happen.

    There must be some reason that media is desiring to create fear around finding that spirit in ourselves. If we push the concept of God out, I believe we disconnect people from an internal source of power. If we teach to truth, people awaken to the fact that they have the an immeasurable impact to create the life they dream of and make a difference in the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  3. Captain Obvious

    And here I thought Jesus preached tolerance....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  4. Lu

    I look forward each Sunday to the "Belief" article posted on CNN's webpage. I almost always find them interesting and thought provoking. Today's article really is a disappointment. Spirit is who we are and one's spiritual beliefs come from that – religion is primarily how we observe and practice spiritual beliefs. Again, today's article is disappointing.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  5. Gio

    Offensive, narrow-minded and ignorant... Love all your comments... Does this guy really believe this stuff?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  6. judy

    I am spiritual but not religious because Jesus was he knew the religious leaders of His time and He knew their hearts read about what He had to say to them. Most not all religious leaders today are like those of old. Religion is all about control and division of people. The bottom line in life is to pray and obey God for everyone to work out their own salvation, not judging others but loving them and allowing them to be who they are in their walk with God or without Him. God loves us all but we decide if we want to love Him.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  7. SML5

    Religious people truly lack wisdom as underscored by this article. Did the author proofread what he wrote? In a roundabout, insulting way, it sort of supports the arguments against organized religion. What a tool.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  8. Marco

    I think he is gathering fodder for his upcoming discussio on this subject on Oct. 1st in NY. Check out http://www.nysalon.org. I guess he doesn't have enough of his own thoughts so he needed ours. Pretty smart I must say, even though I disagree with his belief of the hyphenated spiritualist.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  9. Brian

    it sounds like the author of this piece simply does not understand anything that is not rigidly written down to be followed. It sounds like he cannot grasp the notion of free thought and figuring things out for yourself. He is part of the "robot" society to do as your told and to think what your told to think.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  10. John Y

    Sorry Alan, everything is not black or white. There are many shades of gray and colors too! I suggest your inability to fathom spiritual but not religous is a shortcoming on your part, not a lack of effort or commitment by others.

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

      John Y: Bingo! I came here to make a similar comment but you said it better than I was going to. Thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  11. Wes Scott

    The major problem I see in organized religion is that no two people believe exactly the same, and one has to compromise part of what he or she believes in order to fit in with a group. While it may be true that some who are "spiritual, but not religious" are merely seeking their own way and a justification for that way the fact remains that many, probably most, who pursue a "spiritual, but not religious" path do so because they are truly seeking enlightenment and a better way without the compromises fausted upon them by organized religion.

    To be sure, organized religion serves a few very definite purposes. It imposes mind control in order to gain monetary and political control over the entire population of the world. Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals commit heinous acts with young boys. Extremist churches preach politics of hatred and "us aganst them", usually to elect far right, ultra-conservative political leaders for the establishment of a Taliban-type government.

    And, who is to say which book is right? Certainly, the Holy Bible is merely a collection of selected writings chose by the Holy Roman Church and dictated to us as THE "divinely inspired word of God" when, in fact, those were just writings of mortal men chronicling their own personal view of history as they saw and believed it to be.

    Alan Miller seems to fit perfectly with those who blindly accept on faith stories of "miracles" like "virgin birth", walking on water, parting the Red Sea with sticks, turning sticks into snakes, eating an apple and suddenly realizing that you are naked, one family populating the entire earth (it's called incest), the entire earth being destroyed by flood leaving only one family to survive, the earth (again) being populated by a single family (Christians love their incest!) and all the other fairy tales that rational people leave behind.

    Organized religion is all about gaining mind control to control money and political power – and nothing else! That is precisely why its leaders practice the "Do as I say, not as I do" philosophy. Many people today, and they are not all young, are starting to realize this fact and are turning their backs on churches, which are the ultimate houses of ill repute.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Joseph L.

      Great post. Thank You. It's good to know there are still some educated and sane people out there.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  12. displacedhoosier

    "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."

    Isn't that the idea?

    Bill Clinton just recently said something to the effect – "The problem with ideologies is that you have an answer before you look at the evidence." Exactly – and that's the problem. We have "explanations" that tells people exactly what answers they have to have without ever looking at the actual evidence.

    I'll go with my own understanding of right and wrong, thank you, and leave the "explanations" of life (made by a group of people who found the wheel barrel to be a triumph of technology) to anyone who wants to be narrow-minded.

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

      Wow! Your choice of sources to site speaks volumes!

      Ol' "I didn't inhale himself"!

      Count me as . . .well . . . how should I say it . . . impressed?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  13. slason

    The fastest rising knowledge system in the world is atheism. Why is it rising the fastest? Because it's the truth...period.

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

      Question: WHY is it true an aetheist can never be found in either one of two places:

      1, A foxhole and

      2. a deathbed.

      Huh? Say, what??

      September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Max

      Oh, you Enlightened One. Justifying your conclusion with "period". You sound like the people you're criticizing. Oh, you free-thinker you. :)

      September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Joseph L.

      William Tells: You don't have to be atheist to understand that Organized religion such as Chrisitianity, Islam, etc is just man created mythology. It's time to grow up, educate yourself, and THINK.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  14. Jay-spiritual-beilver

    Religion is a pathway to spiritualism. Religion provides a class room for spiritual growth. Then there comes a point when a person can evolve into a spiritual being. They still seek knowledge but understand that faith comes from within oneself once that is understood then structure of religion is no longer needed for the individual because the journey to self enlightenment is a personal one. Between the individual and God. It is a personal awakening which is a pathway to ones higher self seeking an ultimate unity with God. You can become his messenger of faith. It is the example that Jesus has provided through bible teachings.

    Religion is foundation, not a destination. Todays religions are tainted with money. People are recoiling from fanaticism. Each religion claims to hold the only truth. But ironically all have common threads in belief. Spirituality is reaction to all of that. People are just looking to find ultimate truth about existence and the pathway to the next life. They want to transform and become the higher being that most everyone wants to be.

    Spirituality forces the individual to be tolerant of all and responsible for ones moral self. Religion takes away both. In fact, religion has become an excuse for bad behavior and non tolerance.

    The person who wrote the article does understand their own self yet. But is on the way to discovering their own faith. I hope he choses a path to evolve and see that the spiritual person is a person of faith and one who embraces all and shuns none.
    It was Jesus teaches us.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Joseph L.

      But one must understand that Jesus if he existed has no relevance in this day and age. Christianity evolved from political and mythological origins. The stories surrounding Jesus were in fact created and exagerrated and borrowed from other mythogical figures........not to mention the whole story is ridiculous and makes no sense.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  15. Joseph L.

    Spirit but not religious just means they are far more advanced and evolved than members of organized religions that if you do your homework and study Christianity for example it is nothing but a man created myth. The Bible is a corrupted, and forged book. Sorry but that book of man created Fairy tales is unfit for children to read. We need to protect our children from Organized Religion so they don't fal victim to the brainwashing. The author of this article needs to thnk critically, educate himself on the origins of religion and basically grow up.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  16. Deb

    Look where organized religion has got us. No twin towers, wars all across the middle east, christian churches protesting at fallen soldiers funerals, hate groups of christians and muslims. Religion has killed more people than any other reason because of different beliefs. So to point a finger at anyone that refuses to follow that line of belief is absolutely preposterous.

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

    As badly written as i is idiotic. Wait...probably a little more idiotic than badly written.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  18. FreyaV

    IM UU 2 (waving from Frankfurt Germany) ;-)
    This article should be printed and distributed in congregations worldwide as an example of everything we stand against.

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

      Hello FreyaV. I'm an American teabagger, waving from my trailer park.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  19. Ben I

    The biggest danger is now that all those who make money by selling religion will go short on cash...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  20. Meh

    Being spiritual sounds like a better idea than following man made cults.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Joseph L.

      You are 100% correct. Society would be far better off when we let go of these primitive and childish belief systems and Organized religions such as Christianity go extinct. They are starting to now and hopefully as we evolve it will continue.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 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.