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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. Augustus

    organized religion is a home-team mentality for a contest in which only faith keeps the score. BTW, nice visual representation. Next time you visually represent religious icons, post a picture of jimmy swaggart.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  2. Joe Knows

    The out of shape guy in the picture is the poster child for spiritualism or should we call it relativism. Spiritual people are lazy people and only do what makes them feel good, not what is right. They are selfish individuals.

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

      actually, the poster child is the person with enough sense to shake their head in disbelief as entire regions kill thousands of each other in the name of religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • jenarts1

      Maybe there are more "spiritual" people today than ever before, because they have become disillusioned by organized religion.
      Over centuries organized religion has cast numerous wars in the name of religion. I could make a list...but I think you get the point. Organized religion has also protected those who victimize our young, have become political mouthpieces for governments, have amassed great wealth for it's leaders.
      At one time organized religion had a very important part of our lives, creating community, bringing hope and care to it's followers, and support to the disadvantaged. Though some of those activities still exist, they do so in a smaller way today. Organized religion's leaders have gone astray from the original roles in the community. Followers have gone their own way as well, finding spiritual fulfillment in meditation or searching for inner piece not offered by organized religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Jim Weix

      After viewing the posts of "Joe Knows", it is obvious what happens when religion blocks your thought process. It is easy to picture a goose stepping, jack booted "Joe Knows" enforcing the warped views of some religious fanatic. Want some Kool Aid Joe?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  3. Jim Weix

    I am a recovering Catholic, that is now “spiritual but not religious”. Although I still will often go to Sunday Mass, I am no longer burdened with the guilt of not believing everything some smelly camel herder wrote 3,000 years ago or following the views of some useless old man, with a goofy hat, called a Pope.
    It took years, but I now understand that God did not create religion. Man created religion.
    As is readily evident, man has used this man-made creation called Religion, to rule people, steal their money, kill them, abuse them, and a host of other evils. Have we not learned about the evils of man-made religion since 9/11?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Joe Knows

      Plain and simple.......You are a fallen Catholic. Go to confession.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  4. Joe citizen abroad

    Mr. Miller takes W's "You're either with us, or against us" mentality, and applies it to religion. People don't respond well to ultimatums, as W found out. And as many comments have already pointed out, the world is not black and white.
    His assumption, revealed toward the end of the piece, is that people who do not embrace an established, organize religion are "fence-sitters." Not true.
    I am a Christian. If you had to put me in a category, "protestant evangelical" would be the closest. But I do not attend church and I identify with no denomination.
    Mr. Miller is right...I quit going to church years ago, because I was tired of feeling bad about myself. Every sermon from the pulpit emphasized what's wrong with us...which we all know, individually, all too clearly...but did not balance that by reinforcing what's right with us.
    The Bible says God made us in His image. John 3:16 begins, "For God so loved the world..." Our compulsion to invent and create is a reflection of God in us. And our yearning for knowledge and understanding is like we're hard-wired to attempt to be like Him. Like a little child will always try to imitate their father.
    But Christian denominations by and large do not focus on building us up. They focus on the guilt. They focus on things like gay marriage. Or abortion. They focus on who's going to hell and who isn't. And maybe that's them, just trying to imitate God too. The difference, though, is that only God has ultimate knowledge and understanding, so only God, ultimately, can make the kinds of judgements and pronouncements these earthly ego-maniacs are making "for Him."
    The history of mankind speaks for itself: organized religion has been the source of more violence, death, oppression and unspeakable abuse...just plain evil...than any other thing on this planet.
    There is no rebuttal to that sad fact.
    Would Jesus approve of forced ultrasound wands? Would Mohammed applaud the taking of thousands of innocent lives? Would Simon Peter, the simple fisherman, approve of the opulence of the Vatican? No. No. And clearly, no.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Evans

      I agreed with your coments. I was born human complete wth free will given by my creator but I was catholic. I served as an altar server with love and devotion. Then, somting happen...I became self aware. I left the church in serch of me. I am still looking I made some progress. In the process I realized reason is more potent than belief. Religious believes cause the crusaders to carry out systematic killing and destructions back then, and youg muslims to strap with suicide vets or fly into buildings. So yes, I agree with you. Spirituality trumped arcaic religious belief. Evans

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  5. Jon franco

    Why do I need a church to gain knowledge, to grow, to transform?
    Plenty of so called "spiritual but not religious" people grow and transform without subscribing to some fairy tale religion made up by men.
    I'm not sure how you come up with the conclusion that not being part of organized religion means that you are a fence sitter who doesn't seek knowledge or transformation. It's not true.
    Many of us just want to find it out side the restrictive bounds of someone elses group fantasy.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  6. seriously321

    God doesn't exist. It really is that simple. Believing in some fairytale doesn't make you better than anyone else. In fact, it makes you look really challenged.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • adh1729

      There are no absolute truths, and therefore your statements are not true.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  7. Eric

    Oh, and one more thing, Alan... It's the KAMA Sutra, not the "Karma" Sutra. Rather incongruous to mention that one in comparison to the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Qur'an. But I assume you must have thoroughly read and appreciated all of them, in order to attain enough sagacity to correct so many people who have so foolishly gone astray. Gosh, what were they thinking-?!?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Shuvani

      SO glad you pointed out that glaring error of it being the KAMA Sutra. Further illustrates the author's ignorance.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  8. swingstater

    "Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices."

    I've heard that very sentiment in all the Baptist, Assemblies of God, etc. churches that I was forced to attend as a kid. They all say it as a way to prevent you from leaving the church and accepting their beliefs as the "one true faith." Of course, I don't buy that.

    I think (as Monty Python so brilliantly portrayed in "Life of Brian") you are confusing the trappings of religion with "true faith." You can waste all your time being the "People's Front of Judea" waging war against the "Judean People's Front" and, in the end, completely ignore any of work that God would ask of you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  9. Blaine

    Worst article ever written. The last paragraph says it all – Miller has only his definition and perspective for us to choose from. Who died and made him God?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  10. The Real Truth

    Given the lack of facts and data collection behind the opinions that the author expresses as universal truths, it would seem Mr. Miller is really nothing more than a troll who for some unknown reason was given a platform by CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  11. Tao

    Such is the view of fascist.

    Why do those that represent particular religious denominations always assume theirs is the only way?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Lab47

      So they can get your money.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Friend of God

      you are free to believe whatever you like in this country Tao...I don't believe that the christian faith or any religious groups of the world are facists either...There are extremists yes...but they aren't followers of God.
      I guess when we come to the end of our earthly existence we will all know the truth...but one truth is" that if you don't seek...you don't find"...Jesus didn't force anyone to believe in him...he merely put the proof behind the words...it's your choice to believe...:) Jesus loves you too...

      September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  12. Alex

    The author makes some good points that most of the commentators here seem to be missing. It's not that you need to adhere to some arbitrary religios doctrine, and come under the influence of a clergy member, but focusing only on positive spiritual feelings doesn't advance you in any way. At least the concept of Hell motivated people to examine their darker nature and then try to figure how to change themselves for the better. Spiritual but not religious people just seem to be looking for a way to relieve stress and feel good about themselves–no matter what they've done.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Pete F

      If you need to feel insecure to advance in life I feel sorry for you. There is medication you can take. The concept of hell does not keep are society together. We are social beings and as such we continue to evolve over time. Religion continues to impede our progress of a better world and life. Not the other way around. You should consider some psych/sociology courses

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

      Yeah, we definitely need more fear-based motivation in our lives. Did you even read what you wrote?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Pete F

      meant our. :)

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

      You guys are just shooting knee jerk responses because you think I'm some kinda Bible thumper. That's a problem.

      In order to advance society people need to be able to examine themselves and acknowledge that they have aspects to them that are negative–and need to be changed. Some people do that through organized religion but others use different means and that's fine too. The vast majority though just wanna be told they've done nothing wrong and to feel better.

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

      Mr. Miller has his perspective and I have mine. I cannot imagine a more personal subject than religion and I cannot imagine a subject less appropriate for subjection to someone's opinion. I don't believe I am either spiritual or religious. I have faith in God but do not believe I require a middleman in the form of a formal church to speak with or understand him. Why would I be forced to choose one of two paths? It makes no sense to me nor can I imagine anyone will be persuaded to change their perspective based on his article.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Gman

      "He'll is being trapped in a small room with those who believe in he'll"
      Christopher Higgins

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Mitsu

      The idea that "spiritual but not religious" equals "just wanting to feel good" is itself idiotic. Though I'm sure there may be such people, it's not remotely everyone who follows this approach. It is, in more general terms, far more critical, investigative, contemplative, and careful than the vast majority of so-called "religious" people who seem to conflate spirituality with "believing in things."

      September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • mike jurasius

      Religion is only another form of government that like our political one, has done nothing to improve the morale of the people. Much like our political government, the church instills fear in it's followers with the concept of hell. The author has failed to address what spiritually really means. The only difference between religion and spirituality, is that religion is founded on a doctrine for the masses and spirituality is a "doctrine" for the individual. Just look to the middle east when you want a clearer picture of the damage religion causes! The author wanted to say that religion is rapidly losing its power (money) because newer generations are leaving the church (as I wisely did). I'm not bitter about the church. People should believe what they want and stay out of other's beliefs. We are ALL on different PATHS in life converging to the same place. The author as well as church officials, don't have a clue about what happens after death. Hence, what is the point of even making a comparison of these two paths to the same place?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • rock-a-fella

      Sure that may be but why is this a bad thing? It is a step in the right direction compared to some of the other choices people could be making...and why do we always have to class people as this or that which this supposed movement tries to overcome? Why not explore other religions and ideas?...it's called tolerance and respect and hey, you may find that most religions are trying to teach the same thing in a different way...love and care for one another.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • sokesky

      Actually, it was listening to the intolerance of others that caused me to grow and drop the church. Sorry.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  13. Kr55

    The real cop out is letting some old guy that just wants you to fill a collection plate (or even worse, take a set percentage of your salary) tell you all the answers.

    All the information people need to explore religion and spirituality is out there on the internet, in books, etc... You don't need to surround yourself with people that try to force their ideas on you just to make them feel better about themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Friend of God

      "wherever two or more are gathered in my name"...I believe that what Jesus was saying is true of all of us...that we are mean't to be together....to worship together...to study together...to learn togther...if doing everything on one's own truly worked then the university business would shut down tomorrow...doctors wouldn't need to do residency and work with live patients, etc, etc, etc.
      Kr55 Jesus loves you...you don't have to be alone! And He doesn't want your money...He's got it all...He want's you to have a relationship with Him...that's all.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  14. Ladyhawk

    Thank you for your opinion Alan, now, for what it's worth, here's mine. After having been raised a Catholic and spending 23+yrs in the US Army, serving in wonderful places like the Persian Gulf and Former Yugoslavia (Croatia/Bosnia) I am not inclined to agree. IMHO, far too often "organized religion" has been used to control the masses and ends up pitting human against human, all one needs to do is review recent history to find factual evidence of this. No man or woman is responsible for my soul, it is my soul responsibility, so to speak!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • mike jurasius

      You couldn't have said it better! I too grew up Catholic and had religion jammed down my throat. The author doesn't understand the meaning of "spiritual" and what it encompasses. The truth is that religion is just another form of government, that is losing it's power rapidly and followers from the newer generations drop out. That's what the author really meant to say. It is amazing that they would dare to even broach this very personal subject.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  15. JeffinIL

    One expected result of a society where everybody gets a trophy for just showing up.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  16. DeeCee1000

    If religions were so obviously greedy, corrupt and suppressing, more people might think they are actually good.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • DeeCee1000

      Correction: If religions were NOT . . .

      September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  17. John

    You say it is a failure to take a position. In my experience, it is more often that the individual has looked, and looked closely, at the existing positions and found them wanting. They aren't hiding from the 'truth', they've seen the standard truths and have made the very considered decision to step away from them.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  18. geckopelli

    So this guys article– act of desperation, really– insist that so-called "spirituality" is only valid if accompanied by devotion to someone else's delusion? Guess it's true that a fool must have his folly...
    -–
    In the Civilized world, religon is dying. DNR!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  19. Will

    I'm not sure the author got it right. He's avoiding the main reason people distance themselves from the traditional religions: an outdatedness. Priests not being allowed to marry, a bizarre explanation of how the world started, and harsh stances on contemporary topics that aren't mentioned in the bible. In fact, it seems everything they take is a harsh stance- with little reasoning.

    I as a young person do not seek a lack of structure in my spirituality, but it's how I need to learn until an established religion learns how to enter the modern era and interact with present day humanity.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Lester Singleton

      Self idolatry sounds like the religion you are looking for.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  20. justin adams

    considering almost all humans who have a religious view gained those views by their parents teachings and not from education, knowledge, or study, basically your religious view is just an opinion and there are 7 billion opinions on this planet. and HERE'S THE PROOF – Imagine if when you were born and your parents were so poor they thought for a better life for you they put you up for adoption. instead of beign raised by christian parents, what is Muslims adopted you, would you believe in christ or allah? what if jews adopted you? or atheists? christians are baptized when they are born without choice by teh child. a jew is a jew simply becuase their mother was a jew. and so on. basically, the majority of this world has been brainwashed into thinking a specific faith and religion. and in most cases if a child went against their parents religious views in the house they faced punishment.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 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.