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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. Craig Bell

    Mr. Miller makes a lot assumptions about us spiritual-types, e.g- all about feeling good, self-obsessed, etc. and decries our lack of a "positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind." Why is that so important? If he would bother discussing this with any of us he would likely find that we have a religious background and, for many reasons, have found much lacking in the church. Interestingly, in the many discussions I have had with former fellow parishioners, most agree that the draw to attending church is the fine people they connect with, not the church service or the liturgy or the sermons.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  2. Judi Van Emmerik

    In reference to the very last paragraph of this article – "Which one is it?" I can't stand these people who offer others only two choices. Limit yourself to two choices, Mr. Miller, if that is what you want to do. But I will not bind myself to your rigidity.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  3. Don't want any part if it

    I think that the bumper sticker "God, protect me from your followers" sums it up for me. Religious fanatics have ruined religion. It's all about power and wealth and "My God is more important than yours". Organized religion will lead to the end of mankind. You can have it.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  4. DrDiomedes

    I am so glad to see that a majority of comments are from forward thinking humanists ... I thought I would see more remarks from religious zealots

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  5. Oldeafcoot

    Here is another guy who wantsto impose his ideas and values on others.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  6. Martin

    It is a cop-out, but it is less of a cop-out than organized religion, and is a step in the right direction.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  7. lance corporal

    "most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society"...... really alternative religion scares you????????

    WOW have a look at the republican party!!!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  8. Dave D

    Yeah man, this "article" is so "interesting". If you put everything in "quotes" it makes you "sound" really "intelligent". And by "intelligent" I mean "pretentious" and "moronic".

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      funny

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Don't want any part if it

      I didn't notice the overuse of "quotations" until you "pointed it out". "LOL"

      September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  9. crixus79

    Religion is a waste of spiritual energy and is pointless. It is possible to have a relationship with God and be a good and loving person without religion. I refuse to let my kids have any beliefs in such nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • newyorkjsw

      100% !!!

      problem is religion is not only a form of a cult but a Business model and has no intention of closing its doors!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  10. Skeptic

    "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"

    And the Parthenon wouldn't have been possible without Artemis, Zeus, et al.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  11. Bobobby

    If they still believe in "God" then they're no less ignorant and brainwashed than before.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  12. lightandmind

    "Spiritual But Not Religious And Very Proud Of It" right here. Isn't modern day Christianity a cullmonation of various veiwpoints itself? I don't have to believe in any "higher power" to feel beauty, hope, positivity, progess or support. I resent this artical. You don't have to be a hippy to feel loved by the universe.
    :)

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

    Jesus Christ was spiritual not religious. But he was probably just a cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  14. treblemaker

    The mind is the devil's playground. The heart is God's domain. There are religions that say that if you look hard enough within yourself, you can find the "God" within you. WRONG!! Within you resides the spirit that God placed in you when you were created. All spirits are subject to the will of God. You want to find God? He's out there, not inside of you-just "pick up the phone" (that means PRAY!) and check in with Him. That's why He's called the Father-He won't come chasing after you, you have to come to Him. You have to love Him by your own free will. He sent His Holy Messenger to show the spirit within you the right Way back home, which He would like for you to acknowledge in your prayers to Him, NOT the Messenger.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Stayxsie Johnson

      Lol......you are one messed up MoFo.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • harry

      "Neither shall they say, See here! or, see there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." Luke 17:21 – from the very mouth of Jesus

      September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Max

      Hi Harry,

      Do you know the difference between 'God' and the "kingdom of God?"

      September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  15. Mr. Duckworth

    Great article and an opposing point of view at last vs the typical attacks on "Religion" type articles. Many of the "Spiritual" people left their Church because of being disappointed with a Person or leader in that church. Should we all then abandon the United States Government and our American ideals when we experience a bad President ? That doesn't make sense right? Same thing here – I agree with the author, often "Spiritual" people are a cop out so they don't have to commit to anything. Dante said the hottest place in Hell should be reserved for those who remain neutral when there's a crisis. The crisis today? The attack on innocent human life and the disrespect for it from inception to the elderly. And we wonder why there's so many wars, when we don't respect human life to begin with..

    September 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  16. Todd

    I think it's presumptuous to believe that, as a human, we could possibly have any idea that our higher power has a gender, a face, a body, et cetera. I consider myself spiritual, because I am humble enough to believe that no organized religion could possibly have the answer. I live a good life, believe in God, and I am hopeful that this is enough for "it". Mr. Miller, I think your article is pompous.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  17. M

    Alan as one of those you've named a "fence-sitter" I found your article very agitating. In fact I wanted nothing more to than to get angry you and express that anger in this post, how can you tell me what is I think, feel, or believe. But, taking some more time reflect I can see where you are coming from, especially when taken in the broader context of our society in general. While there may be a fair number of folks out there who are true "fence-sitters" I wouldn't be so fast to write the entire group off as a lot of us are just trying to find our way in this life and just becasue we haven't found it yet doesn't make us any less committal. I think it is amazing when folks can believe so much in a being, writing, set of values, etc... that their entire existence is accepting of it; they have something I almost envy. However, I will not just settle on a religion (or no religion) to satisfy the need to check a box and belong; I prefer to find my own way...and if it leads me to an established religion, well that is ok, and if it takes me down another path that I may never reach the destination of, well then that is ok too.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  18. BrianP

    This column is absolute drivel. I was tempted to write a longer response but several of the commentators have expressed my thoughts much more eloquently than I ever could. Thank you all.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  19. Kyle

    I see a lot of truth in the me generation not pushing for knowledge and growth; the spiritual-but-not-religious category does seem to reflect that. As a member of the "me generation," I find this to be off putting. While I may not be religious (perhaps spiritual), morals drive my day to day life and I constantly push for personal betterment. I know I may be an outlier in this category, but regardless, I find a lot of truth to your claim.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  20. harry

    No matter how passionately you argue, there is no combination of words that will deal with the angst that you may be wrong. This is true for the atheist and the fundamentalist.

    As Kant demonstrated so clearly, there is no way we can ever know how accurately the world AS WE PERCEIVE IT equates to the world AS IT IS. So that being so, it is absolute foolishness for BOTH the religious fundamentalists AND the vocal atheists to ridicule or condemn those who do not agree with them.

    Or, as a rather wise "spiritual but not religious" man was believed to have said a couple thousand years ago, get the log out of your own eye rather than worrying about the splinter in your neighbor's.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Max

      Kant was a churchman. His ethic cannot be separated from monotheism. His metaphysics did not lend, in any way, to relativism. His epistemology says that there are certain things we cannot know, but he still believed in objective truth. Kant would distance himself from buffet-style, relativistic, Spirituality.

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

      Kant's ethics is a different conversation. I am talking about The Critique of Pure Reason, where he demonstrates the exact point above – you cannot know a thing-in-itself, only a thing as we perceive it.

      The fact that Kant was a churchman is not relevant to the truth of his observations. That's like saying "Jesus was a Jew, so he REALLY believed in doing nothing on the sabbath, despite anything He clearly said to the contrary."

      September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Max

      Right, but again, Kant wouldn't support your conclusion. He believed that propositions can be false, therefore to use Kant as a model for your conclusion is wrongheaded. An atheist has every right to claim that Christianity, or any other religion, is false, provided he or she offers a sound and valid argument. Likewise, the Christian is within his or her rights to critique the atheist's position provided they do it in a civil and reasonable way. Kant would never support your conclusion my friend. Kant being a churchman presupposes that he disagreed with alternative worldviews, again not helping your conclusion. Ironic that your reply was to 'disagree' with my claims. Do you believe your criticisms hold objective weight?

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

      Brilliant harry, I love your comment.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 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.