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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. myway

    This article comes off as a little arrogant and uninformed. Miller tries to pigeonhole the group he's discussing. That is too simplistic and doesn't capture the true phenomena occurring in our society. The problem is not the people who are defecting traditional churches. The problem is that churches have dug themselves in trying to stem a tide of "new" and "strange" spiritual ideas. The truth is the West has begun freeing themselves of a tightly controlled religious dogma imposed on us 1700 years ago, when the Romans begun assembling and editing the Bible as we know it. The 16th century reformation was able to evolve because the printing press was invented a few decades earlier. That allowed the spread of previously unavailable information. We're on the threshold of a similar revolution due to the invention of websites on the internet. People have much more information on their fingertips than ever before. The churches will have to deal with that sooner or later. Ridiculing and belittling people who are experimenting with other than traditional religious models will not hold up this process.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  2. JS

    With churches essentially taking sides on political candidates, ballot issues, etc., and refusing to offer at least acceptance to their own members who do not always agree with them, this is simply an individualistic version of the reformation. The Christian churches in the US have only themselves to blame for becoming as rigid and corrupt as the Catholic church had during the time of Martin Luther. The only difference now is that rather than nailing a treatise to the church door, we are simply leaving and finding ways to still experience the divine without all of the extra self-serving political BS that churches seem to try to bring.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  3. kat

    Amen John Y!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  4. Alex

    Spiritual people lead, religious people follow.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  5. newyorkjsw

    alan miller:traditional religion IS a literal form of mind control, in which the relgion be it Judaism or chirsitaisty here in america is
    not just a CULT but a BUSINESS! While they do not have to pay ANY tax, they indeed make a living off of its parishioners.
    (in some cases elaborate church's go WAY beyond the business of making good living).

    YOU SEE ALAN, THE MAJOR RELIGIONS ATTEMPT (IN A BOLD MANNER) TO CLAIM TO KNOW HOW YOU SHOULD LIVE, WHAT U SHOULD THINK, THE ANSWERS TO LIFE ECT ECT. Only one small problem.... they ALL (religions) were created by MEN be it highly enlightened or not. Thus it IS a cult and often if u read the bible it is more about early human
    laws. What is the best method to have your town, city a few thousand years ago LISTEN to the elders rules? Have the author of these rules be GOD! or a direct parner of god, the SON OF GOD or a messenger Moses.
    So while you ALAN worte this piece based on you also being SUCCESSFULLY 'CAPTURED' by- -man made structured religion– and also I bet felt many would say "Harump, Harump" (blazing saddles) in nodding yes to your observation. I say you are showing to much of your weakness and also desperation as a writer! A fox tv new writer if u will, looking for a angry captive audience full of mind numb FLOCK to say yes to YOU!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  6. Mike

    "everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work."

    Haha... What, because you guys say so? The utter arrogance that nothing would "be possible" without the bible is mind numbing. Last I checked the entire Far East didn't have the bible, and they seem to have all the things you argue "wouldn't be possible" without it.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  7. me123me

    Wow an actual reasonable intelligent opinion for once. Its not laced with all the liberal ideology nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Michael B

      Baaaa.... Baaaaa.... Must follow a man because I have no will power to think on my own.....

      September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Max

      Agreed!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  8. mtnman

    God, church, spiritual...somebody needs to clean the up the garbage on that beach.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  9. Mike Vader

    I have to admit I tried to read this with an open mind, but I was saddened, but not very surprised by the author's arrogance.
    He's essentially calling me (and everyone like me) selfish for taking bits and pieces of religions here and there and rejecting what I don't care for. Skipping right ahead to dessert without eating any main courses first.

    Well Alan, don't let us stop you from skipping meat on Fridays, putting cash into a gold collection plate, separating meat and milk, handing out biblical cartoons on the boardwalk, condemning birth control, and most importantly – sitting in judgment and considering yourself superior to someone with a different belief.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  10. Shawn N

    ridiculous article that has no place here on cnn

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  11. Tim

    I would attend his seminar if I could. Just for a good laugh.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  12. Mike

    Mr. Miller,
    I'm middled aged, being in my 40's and I was raised in a Christian household. I consider myself "Spiritual, but not Religious" and what is the problem with that? I read about religions and philosophy, and I probably find the closest connection with some of the Taoist teachings. But if anything, I would say that more and more people picking to be spiritual over religious represents the next level of humans thinking for themselves. There was a lot of resistance and fear when the reformation occurred and churches began breaking off from the Catholic church in Europe and Great Britain. LIke wise, I think there is a lot of fear from organized religion right now, because the next big change is happening as people like myself and others start to ask more questions and seek more answers – rather then blindly except the teachings of religious teachers or books that are hundreds of years old and filled with editing, mistakes, and the removal of key sections. I mean, who has more faith? The individual that latches onto one religion and blindly accepts it as the truth? Or the person that realizes what's going on in the universe and with God is something that still needs to be explored, questioned, and figured out? I think if anything, the next big change is occurring and the results will be positive, not negative in the long run.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • MIkeB

      The problem is you stand for nothing. You can commit only to not knowing, a position that can encourage hatred and violence as much as it can encourage love and peace, because it is a blank slate. It's nothing but questions.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Michael B

      Mike B... you arrogant SOB. How dare you judge the original Michael? Or does your religion allow you to take on selective superiority? You dont know what he "stands for"... he stands for learning and exploring.. making a journey out of his life. Not blindly accepting the "truth" as a flawed man has told you to accept. More people have been, and continue to be, murdered by organized religion than other forms of hatred. Yes, organized religion is a thinly veiled form of hatred...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Jake

      Mike B, you have this misinformed view that "committing to believing" something (another way of saying "faith") is a good thing. It is not. It is a horrible thing to commit to believing something even when more and more evidence suggests that your initial view was wrong. It's like saying it's a good thing that people committed to believing that smoking didn't cause cancer for so long, despite evidence to the contrary. The concept you describe can be called faith and when your position is shown to be wrong, it's called denial. I realize religion teaches this as a virtue (or no one would continue to believe it), but it is not.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Mike

      This is a response to MikeB. MikeB, Before Buddhism, didn't Buddha himself then stand for nothing? Before Christianity, didn't Jesus himself stand for nothing as he said his teaching were the NEW word and he drew the hatred of the Pharisees as he did not want to blindly believe the old teachings? What about the people that believed that the world was flat and the Sun was the center of the universe and would persecute people as heretics? Did Copernicus and Galileo stand for nothing? Think about what you are saying. I do believe in something and I stand for something. I believe in discovery, learning, growth, and questioning the status quo. If anything my moral compass and my sense of right and wrong is stronger now then ever because I'm not constrained by one mode of thinking about things.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  13. Ruby

    Alan Miller has drawn a line in the sand in the middle of nowhere. To reject the wisdom and insight of those spiritual people who dare to form their own path to higher understanding is to deny the very people whose teachings are the foundation of all the religions that exist today.
    I say press on free thinkers, find your joy and find new paths to faith in our present age and degree of enlightenment. And do share what you discover with the rest of us.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  14. stmess

    Religion – until you relalize that too many wars had that for an excuse.

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

      And the wars that atheism did? Stalin comes to mind? Atheism is a religion of self worship, so how is it any better then the rest of the religions when both are evil?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Jake

      Ugh, this again? Stalin might have been an atheist, but that is not what drove his decisions. Hitler was a Christian, and that's not what drove his decisions either.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  15. Paul Myers

    'Spiritual but not Religious' is a significant step in the right direction. God is The unifying force of all creation. God does not create division, only humans like to do that. There is one God over all, and within us all. Anything that is divisive is not of God, and organized religion is divisive, and therefore not of God. Just look at all of the different religions and denominations within that religion we have. It's all false. Trust in God...not organized religions.

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

    Never commented on any blog on the internet prior to this, but this perverted moron is the very reason that I went looking for myself to find a path uncluttered by self absorbed "I'm right-Your wrong" dick heads.... countering him would be a waste of time!

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

    Great–the people that brought about the decline of civilization, and thrust science and art chained into the basement for over a thousand years of the Dark Ages, and fought like hell to keep it there by burning at the stake anyone who disagreed, are now taking credit for all cultural advances that has happened despite them...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  18. MIkeB

    I have more respect for atheists than these spiritual clowns. Those "spiritual" types can't handle the commitment that comes with religion. At least the atheists can commit to believing something. The spiritualists are just wandering souls, and they pass that indecision and non-commitment to their kids. They all end up in the shrink's office because they have no guidance for the big things in life.

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

      You do know that most atheists are MILITANT atheists who once were religious clowns and have become worse as Christ said it would happen. What makes you think that their kids will remain committed to what a blind fool teaches them?

      What are you going to do keep them from believing in Christ when he/she is grown and you LOSE all the AUTHORITY you once had over them? How are you going to stop them? You can't.

      My friend's father was raised a Catholic and renounced it and became an atheist. He raised his children in atheism, until his wife became a born again Christian (NON CATHOLIC) and her children followed her teachings. The father was very angry and would mock them all the time, like you fools do on the internet. After many years of having bible studies in their home, he gave his life to the LORD and is now leading bible study in HIS HOUSE!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Jake

      I'm an atheist. I've never met any atheist that even approached "militant". How many atheists have you heard of lynching blacks? How many atheists have you heard of with suicide bombs? If someone is an atheist and militant, that's a coincidence because atheism isn't a set of beliefs that guides a person's life, it's simply a disbelief in "god".

      September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Jake

      To be clear Mike B, no, atheism isn't a commitment to believing anything. It's simply a response of "uh, no, I don't think so" to the god theory proposed by religions. Atheists can believe absolutely anything (notice I don't say "anything they want", because what you believe is not a choice if you're a thinking person) other than believing in the existence of god.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  19. Willyboy

    Pure nonsense. The only danger in rejecting organized religion is to organized religions. Good. Religions have caused far more harm through the years than they have done good. Let them go the way of the dinosaurs...

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

      Remarkable ignorance. Imagine the world without the teachings of Buddah or Christ or Moses. Easy to reject religion when living in a world where these great teachers have laid the groundwork for peace and goodwill.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Roscoe Chait

      I agree. This article is nonsense. People are finding a better connection to God within themselves than any church can provide... because Religion has become God. The formal churches want CONTROL, and always have. I salute the free-thinkers and those who seek a spiritual relationship with God, if she exists, Nature, the Universe, or whatever you wish to call it.

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

      Totally agree, how many people go to church every Sunday to be forgiven, then head out into the world to continue to be the jerks they were the week prior! The only harm to people turning to other answers outside of organized religion is the loss of revenue to them! Their pews are empty for a reason - they have made themselves irrelavent.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Willyboy

      Oh friggin spare me, MikeB... No one is suggesting the teachings of the great philosophers should go away. The problem is in organized religion, specifically perverted, twisted dogma which has been woven around those teachings. Get a grip...

      September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  20. Number4

    Young people are abandoning religion because they realize it is basically drivel. The people who benefit the most from religion are religious leaders. They need to justify their jobs by telling us what "God" wants. This is done by interpreting some old books that were written by primitive men but supposedly contain the ideas of God.

    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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.