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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. wildelephantmind

    Myopic article that proves little more than the author's total lack of understanding of the evolution of religious thought. Further, he seems to be entrenched in the 'little history' of Judeo Christianity, demonstrating a disregard for the rest of the world bordering on providence. God is not something, or some one if your faith draws you to such a conclusion, on which to take a stand. God is to be encountered and embraced in the realm where faith, belief and knowledge intertwine. I would shrug this bit off as so much morning reading fodder but, sadly, such demanding interpretation, such closed thought, is the stuff of radicalism and the seed of conflict.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  2. NoDogma

    The idea that one's God is captured in the oral tradition of bronze-aged nomads and that a creator of a universe as complex and truly awesome cares about a primate species' rituals, rules and dogma is the most absurd concept I can think of. Truly infantile and downright embarrassing.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  3. Yaweh

    It's a logical progression toward the truth. The truth that there indeed are no gods.

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

      Exactly right. It still boggles my mind that people can blindly have faith in something where no tangible evidence exists and in fact there is tangible evidence to the contrary. If being "spirtual" helps to self-medicate or prevent someone from going off the deep-end then I am in complete favor of it. People just aren't willing to accept that there is nothing after death.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  4. Jake

    Wow, this guy is a moron. "Religion" is the easy way out (if you're dumb enough for it to be an option). How do the rest of us figure out what our principles are? We use our brain! We use compassion and experiences to determine what is important. We don't simply follow some ancient, out-dated, and often highly immoral religious book to blindly determine right from wrong.

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

    Religious organizations have starved people of the spirituality they crave to feed their souls since shortly after Jesus spoke to the first throng of followers. They don't promote a spiritual connection to God they merely attempt to be the authoritarian spigot of *knowledge*. The push-pull between modern (or even ancient) science and religion is control over truth and who should dictate what is and isn't truthful. Science distributes knowledge tested by multiple, independent people and expects the methods used to establish the truth to be public and open to discourse and debate. Religion is based on hearsay, claims of ancient people making impossible statements, and dogma with a goal of submission to hierarchical male authority. Science may fail occasionally at establishing a statistically relevant bit of truth but at least goes about the practice honestly. Religion is merely for weak minds that are unable to do the heavy lifting required in society.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  6. Janis

    The author is wrong on so many levels. One can have beliefs and principles that they live by without organized religion. The thought process that being spiritual is only about feeling good is insulting, and trivilizing to those that have strong belief in a supreme being, but reject the notion that God can only be found in a building called a church. Religion is about control, spiritualism is about God. I chose to have a relationship with my creator. I don't need the church to be the "middle man". The bible is a book. It was written by men. It has some useful stories and some useful principles. It is not the word of God. If the author chooses to live his life governed by a book written by men, editied by Constatine, and declared the word of God by the Catholic church, that is his buisness. However, many of us choose to seek our thruths in other ways.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  7. Jernau

    Organized religions presence as societal advances occurred does not make technology exclusive to it. If the writer had actually bothered to study the rise of western civilization he would be aware that Greek philosophy is more due the credit he's giving Christianity here, if anything Christianity would not have existed without Greek philosophy.

    The writer then claims that spiritual but not religious offers no body of principles. Some Christian's seem to have it in their head that they have a monopoly on ethics and morals. Perhaps if they had not found Jesus they would lack any morals, but for the rest of us out there, who actually think deeply about what is right and wrong rather than just listening to someone else tell us what to do, we do just fine.

    Many organized religions would have you believe that relativism is sign of moral corruption, and yet when you look at their own histories and testament's closely you see their support of slavery, and murder. When pressed about these issues, they always say, "That was a different time"... a relativism based argument.

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

      Damn, Jernau, outstanding response, seriously. I personally struggle with this topic, mainly because of upbringing (stern religion) but, I too have wondered if/why we as humans would be punished for just using common sense in our everyday lives to define a moral compass. What I was taught as a child yet experience as an adult are conflicting more and more everyday but it's comments like yours that help stabilize my thoughts.

      Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Satan

    Muhahahahahahhahahahahaha.... I am winning the war

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

      Shame you don't exist...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  9. The Writeswift Blog

    This guy does not deserve a CNN page. While there may be some truth in a sentence or two, he neither explains it well nor expresses his thoughts clearly, thus his argument falls flat. Is CNN really this desperate for something to fill its website? And this, added to the multiplicity of other lame excuses for stories and the numerous grammatical errors, makes me question CNN's editorial management. Need a journalist who can flesh out stories with depth and express coherent ideas that are meaningful to your audience? You have my email, editors...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  10. Sandra

    Me and most of the "spiritual but not religious" people I know are not on any fence. We have very solid beliefs about what exsists beyond life and there is just as much structure and order to our beliefs as any religion. In fact the things all others believe exsist are in our afterlife as well. The author must have had a debate with some person along the lines that said this of themselves and did not have an explanation to back it up. This blog seems uninformed to me.

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

    Wow. What an arrogant article. Maybe we all need to slap some Jesus fish on our cars, drive around feeling superior to anyone who doesn't think exactly as we do. For a religion that supposedly preaches tolerance, it sure has a lot of intolerant spokesmen.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  12. Oak and Apple Partners LLC

    How such an uniformed article can end up on CNN home page is astonishing! I'm certainly willing to listen to other points of view and welcome them, but let it be an open, honest conversation without underlying judgement and complete lack of knowledge of the subject being discussed. This is a perfect example of what some of us avoid in our spiritual practice, if you want to call it that. It is about living with a sense of self-governing choice and living within certain values and ethics, no matter where they come from. No religion, spiritual organization or thought system has the only answer. There is nothing wrong with being a free agent for good. We don't need yet another voice telling us what we should or shouldn't do.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  13. lindaluttrell

    And so it continues. One person bashing another's belief system.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  14. Believe

    This guy evidently does not read his bible. People are tired of church leaders mis leading them. Where in the bible does it say I have to pay someone for a prayer? Isn't by the spirit of God that we are lead to salvation, not the word of man!
    Just because they don't put on a facade every Sunday and Wednesday does NOT make them less of a Christian.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  15. Spirit Person

    Who is this person? Why can't people just let other people feel good about themselves without taking swipes at them for something they are lacking? The truth is that if too many people 'cop out' it will have a bad effect on orgnaized religion's pocket book because they won't be paying any dues.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  16. Mr. Reality

    I abandoned organized religion long ago. In my experience, churches are full of judgmental, hypocritical people with unjustified superiority complexes who blindly believe whatever they are told instead of studying the Bible and coming to their own conclusions.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • KeninTexas

      And your answer to these hypocrites was to abandon your church instead of staying and fighting for it? That helped, didn't it?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Mr. Reality

      How would you go about kicking out more than half of the congregation? I owe no loyalty to any church. I only owe loyalty to my God, my faith, and myself. Enjoy your unjustified sense of moral superiority, and keep on judging. I'll be busy getting closer to my lord and savior – without interference from the likes of you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  17. Fortunate

    This is an "okay" comparison between religion and "spiritual gypsies"–those who jump around looking for spirituality in different places. As one who has found a spiritual path and has chosen to stay on it, I can say for myself that when you experience true meditation, you don't need rules and laws. You simply don't want to do certain things because they just don't fit with the life of a meditator.

    As for religion, most religions started out as small spiritual groups. They grew into mass movements where much of the original teachings got completely lost by the mis-interpretations of people's egos. But the original teachings in their purest form are beautiful. It's all of the theology that has turned off many people, particularly young people who are not yet set in their ways and are willing to explore their own truth.

    I applaude Mr. Miller for at least making an attempt here, although much of what he writes comes from his head and not from his heart.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  18. nojusticed

    Its just something you say to religious people so they understand that you still have morals and values even without their beliefs. Eventually, trying not to be rude, you slowly walk away and find someone worthwhile to talk to.

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

    "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion..."

    Actually most of them are probably just minding their own business. As someone who is both spiritual and religious, I have no problem with that. In fact, I rather respect it.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Exactly. Alan Miller is the peddler. He's peddling the same old, tired mythology that we've had shoved down our throats for far too long. It's refreshing to see that a lot of people reject that nonsense for what it is and seek alternative philosophies based on logic and reason instead of ancient mythology.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  20. tom LI

    Another fear of this author and those like him, is that people are seeking something truly Spiritual, that the Dogmatic practices of traditional Religions – in his and this nations case Xtianity – can't offer! American Xtianity is deeply lacking anything that resembles a true spiritual journey – where the person has to work and work hard for each step on that journey. American Xtianity is more about getting there NOW, and getting there when I say so! Its not about doing serious personal work on oneself.

    The ideas inherent in the "Name It and Claim It!" type of American Xtianity is one where all someone has to do is show up at some "Spiritual" event, get psyched up with the crowd, and publicly proclaim ones Born Again status as complete and which carries and immediate activation date of salvation that is guaranteed for life! No work, just the individual proclaiming their salvation because they say so! Come get your Microwaved Salvation in under three minutes!

    And to make matters worse these newbies than believe they are in a position to go out and Preach the Word of their God because they are now Saved and Born Again!. Saved on a Friday, preaching on a Monday!

    Many people want more than these offers of salvation if you order within the next hour! Many people realize that it takes actual HARD WORK to delve into ones inner-self and wrangle with all the turmoil and contradictions that make Spiritual work so hard to actually do and more so to live. Its hard work! Its not something you just claim to have done because you performed some ritual at some Organized Religious ceremony/even/concert/revival, etc...!

    Americans want things NOW – and they dont want to work at them, because thats not what the new American Dream teaches any more. The New American Dream is beholden to instant gratification and access to whatever one desires at whatever hour and minute of the day it might be. And American Xtianity has followed that paradigm perfectly.

    What this author is afraid of is that some people want real spiritual practice in their lives and not the take it off the shelf, and wear it type that is being sold out in the Churches and Halls of Worship in all corners of the USA.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 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.