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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. Fields

    The absolute stupidity and ignorance in these comments merely reinforces Mr. Miller's point that we are a generation of narcissists. Each of us believe that we are special and that we don't have to listen to anyone else for truth or wisdom.

    ...Also a case for universal military service.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • FatSean

      Christianity is narcissism! The belief that the entire universe was created just for humans?! LOL!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Surfeit

      What is your opinion on people who think they have a "close personal relationship with God"?

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

      @Surfeit good for them. if someone finds personal peace with whatever god suits them they are a step ahead. but, as a personal discovery, please keep it that way. the problems occur when crusades to save the non believers begin. i agree with many of the commandments and use the ideas as guideposts in my life. but, as i do not believe in an all powerful being, i am going to hell??? thats where organized religion loses me. and if because of my actions, i get in because god sees the goodness of my life, then that would disprove the whole reason for preaching, converting and fighting against different believers. i dont see it happening so i am calling shenanigans on the whole shooting match.
      find peace in your own way, live a good life, pass the good practices to your children and keep it to yourself

      September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  2. Nick

    This article auto-insinuates that the "questions" that the author thinks are important, should be important to everybody. Such is the approach that many theists (especially Christians) take. "I believe in XYZ, therefore everyone should, and I'll find out why everyone doesn't." The fact is, some of us (like me) just don't really care what "the right answer" is, because by the end of our already pretty short lifetime, we're all of us going to find out who was right, and who wasted a lot of time on a fiction. Not saying that any one particular theism is a fiction, as I have no way of knowing that. But...they can't all be right. Some group of millions of people has been wasting their time for lifetimes, now.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • snowboarder

      All of them.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  3. megschlag

    Another display of Christian arrogance. Completely myopic and offensive. Ever thought that perhaps people like you are the reason this generation is disenchanted when it comes to organized religion?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  4. Shaner

    This is obviously an attack on Buddhism. Lame. Alan Miller obviously does not understand a thing about Buddhist Doctrine. Ever since I found 'the path' I found completion. It changed my life. Christianity had me on the brink of suicide. Praying every day over and over for God to help me for years, and things kept getting worse. It was when I changed to Buddhism that I found all the answers and happiness I could ever need.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  5. heywaitaminit

    He's right. Traditional classic religion or nothing at all!

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go light up my sacrificial pyre to Thor to be sure harsh weather only afflicts my enemies.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  6. Rhonda

    Alan ! Alan ! My man!! You did it! You actually accomplished what you wanted?! Look at all these posts! You've managed to get people to ' make a choice' . They've dug in deeper to their convictions. The spiritual people are not on the fence anymore... they've voiced their convictions. The religious people are doing the saying the same things they've always said. So.. now what?! We're done here right? Alan? Alan. I know you're out there reading these posts! C'mon man... you managed to people all riled up. Wow... what a way to start a Sunday morning.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Rhonda

      OOPS... ya'll forgive me.... I was sooo excited and typed so fast that I forgot to check to make sure all my words were there. Anyway, I know you spiritual people like me will over look it. You religious people will pray for me right?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  7. Pawl

    Interesting to see that a troll doesn't have to be some anonymous 17 year old living in his parent's basement... sometimes they are mainstream writers who get prominent space on prominent websites.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  8. Buddhist in Birmingham

    CNN needs to stick to news and Alan Miller needs to realize that – an "individual relationship" to some concept of "higher power", energy, oneness or something-or-other" – is what allows millions upon millions of 12-Steppers to recover from addictions without first being forced to choose a side on an issue they likely are not ready to address. I was a very general 'there is something out there, I'm not it' person for years and it was the warmth and openness of that approach that allowed me to live long enough to grow and embrace something more concrete later on. If an Alan Miller (gods forbid) had made his way into my life at precisely the wrong moment I might have a) died a hopeless alcoholic and b) never found the Dhamma which makes my life so rich and whole today. Alan, stick to your salons and brewery and out of people's faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  9. Puzzled in Peoria

    It's telling that SBNR people often accuse Christians of being exclusive, yet it was Jesus Christ himself who said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except by me." (John 14:6)

    So Jesus gives you the choice: You either accept him or reject him. There's no middle ground with Jesus as philosopher or Jesus as good man. His mission on earth was simple. He came as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. A church teaches you that; SBNR, not so much.

    For those who accuse Mr. Miller of being arrogant or exclusive, you're making the same charge against Jesus himself. Sorry, but that's the way it is. Christ says it's not me plus Buddha plus Krishna plus New Age. He says it's me alone.

    If you choose not to believe the Bible or Christ, that's your choice. But don't accuse Christians of being arrogant because we believe and follow what Jesus himself said. We believe there is absolute truth and that Jesus Christ is it, as he said.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • kso

      except sin is an imaginary disease invented to sell you an imaginary cure. sin... so 4th grade.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  10. mklsgl

    So... Non-Traditional Believers whose spiritual tenets are original, coherent, complex, and effectively intense diminish society and culture, Mr. Miller? Thanks for your absurd, narrow-minded, and insulting opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Mudding

      Traditional religion is a war to recruit the most people and prove "my group is more pure" (my group is better, join us). New religion is about the individual and what makes sense to their brain. Traditional religion says "if you are gay you don't know what you are talking about, but we do". It's laughable and I truly mean that. The old style is about the external and the new style is about the internal. Large groups and power vs. self empowerment.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  11. Michele

    Thank you, John, for wording my own thoughts so eloquently. We can also appreciate what roles religion has played in transforming and preserving culture without being "religious."

    September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  12. Jake

    What's wrong Alan? The hypocrisy of your religion catching up to you? Denial of history and science finally falling on deaf ears? Smaller streams of tax free revenue? Less control over people? Fewer boys to choose from for m0lest@tion? Read a book besides the bible Alan, many of us heathens have. After careful consideration and weighing of evidence, clear cut, undeniable peer reviewed evidence, the only conclusion that can be reached is you are a liar. You preach lies. You believe in a lie. And you recruit others to join your cult of lies. Where is the precious religious morality in that, Alan?

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

      I guess I need to clarify. I consider myself a "Freelance Fideist." In other words, someone who does not "pal around" with religious gangs, but who instead has chosen to figure things out for himself. My response was in reply to the author, who pushed one of my hot buttons and seemed to equate independent thought with an absence of principals or morals. I attempted to politely point out that even organized Religion Inc., at its core, doesn't support the author's viewpoint. I was raised as a Roman Catholic who left the church 40+ years ago because I did not want to surrender my own self and mind to a collective theological borg (among other reasons). You're falling into the trap of doing what "they" do in assigning independent viewpoints to nameless, faceless and silently threatening "otherness." Don't go there. Think for yourself, read the literature, decide what works for your own wiring, and ignore the pundits who try to tell you their own interpretation of what it means "to be."

      October 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  13. Surfeit

    To begin with, I'd be surprised if Mr. Miller has ever lived a spiritual-but-not-religious life. One of the reasons people turn away from churches is because the whole Christian, Islamic, or Scientologist narratives are built on the unverifiable testimonies of people who are either dead or were born thousands of years after the religion was founded–people who fail to provide evidence or reproducible experiments to prove their claims today. "How can a pastor or priest speak for God or come to know God any better than me?" say the spiritual folks. Taking such a position hardly makes the person selfish or relativistic; it's a question that should be asked of the churches every day. Such doubt is the first step to an honest search for truth, not an I'll-take-your-word-for-it worldview. Jefferson might have referred to this as searching for diamonds in a dunghill.

    Fact is, cherry-picking religious ideas to suit your own taste is nothing new. Christians have to cherry-pick the Bible in order to avoid self-contradiction. Do we still take the Bible's support of slavery as the will of God? No! Do we still force women to marry their rapists, provided said rapists pay the fathers fifty shekels of silver? No! So modern "biblical values" are inherently selective–oftentimes as much as the spiritual-but-not-religious folks with their fruit baskets full of Zen and Yang.

    That said, I roll my eyes at some of the things my spiritual-but-not-religious relatives believe. Astrology, homeopathy, past lives, etc. I hold all of these ideas to the same standard of evidence as God, and they've come nowhere near meeting the burden of proof that would allow me to accept them as truth. It's just that it's easier for me to ignore these kinds of scatterbrained, nonpartisan views a little more, if only because they aren't constantly making power plays to take over my country, government, and life.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  14. El Flaco

    The only goal of Conservatism is to make millionaires into billionaires and to reduce the income of the rest of us.

    Conservatives all believe that the rich have too little money and the poor have too much.

    They want to motivate the poor to work harder by giving them less money.

    They want to motivate the rich to work harder by giving them more money.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  15. J.R.

    No, it is not a "cop-out"; it is a legitimate form of living. As a gay American who is constantly persecuted and kept apart from mainstream society, I and every single GLBT have a right to be against you. Religions hate gays, hate women and want the U.S. to be a theocracy – well, it's never going to happen, so please, stop trying. Religion has done so much damage in this world and it's current-day followers are nothing but mentally psychopathic morons who need a bit of a reality check.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Jr jr

      dude get over yourself and the fact you are gay., it's such a worn out argument theses days. No one cares who you go with, I doubt Jesus would care either. Separate the religion from the lies that have developed over 2000 years.....from old men who refuse to grow in their own religion... last time I checked the 10 commandments were the way to live your life-- I'd suggest you take a look at them next time you decide to start hating catholicism.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Shuvani

      JR Jr: Actually, the last time I checked, there are OTHER ways to start living your life, other than the 10 Commandments. Suggest you read up on other religions and philosophies if you're confused.
      And J.R. never mentioned a word about Catholicism...sensitive much?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  16. Rafe

    This is one of the most enraging articles I've ever read. And I can't believe I just read it on CNN.
    I'm not a Christian of any sort, and I still found not only the point of the article insulting, but the way it was discussed. Here's a hint, Mr. Miller; when you use quotation marks around what other people believe, you come off as a real jerk. It was impossibly to read that without seeing you draw air quotes and making mocking faces. You really didn't veil any of your disgust at all.

    That being said, I disagree with every word. You say Americans can't be trusted to seek out spiritual truth on their own, that abandoning the church means we want the good but not the bad. It's ridiculous. First, who's to say that the church holds truth.. besides themselves? The church isn't needed to encourage moral behavior – morality doesn't need religion, and it's fairly obvious that the church doesn't do much to stop people doing bad things.

    The truth is that people have begun to realize they are free to believe what they want, and there is no reason to assume a preacher or priest received some secret knowledge about the existence of God when they can deduce from their own surroundings and experiences what is true about God.

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

      Thinking for one's self and questioning is a direct threat to organized religions/cults. This guy sounds like he's from the Vatican.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Jessica

      Rafe,
      Thank you for saying this already so I don't have to. Couldn't agree more! This was such a frustrating article to read. I am proud to be an Atheist and, guess what? I HAVE NEVER COMMITTED A CRIME. I am not some heinous, immoral person. I am an individual living my life for myself and those I love. Thank you very much, Mr. Miller. How about next time you keep your "opinions" to yourself.

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

      Very well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Jon franco

      Well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  17. Hip Hippies

    Religions are based on the Amway principle. The guys at the top don't want to tar a roof or dig a dutch. They
    like the right hand of god executive position, so keep sending in your money.

    Nice negative- Use a Bill Murray look a like in the photo to give it a sleazy image. LOL.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  18. Bob Lewis

    Completely, totally disagree. Religion is about ritual, dogma, hierarchy, facade and an inherent sense that if you're faith is "right" others must be "wrong." The great spiritual revolutionaries like Jesus and Buddha knew this and started with a fresh perspective. Just look at the news everyday to see the pointless violence of, "my religion's better than yours." Spirituality is about the immediate connection with God now. In fact, true spirituality can only be personal, as a result of rigorous self examination and realization.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  19. Taylor

    instead of making hateful remarks it would be so much easier to just accept each others beliefs and keep an open mind

    September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  20. newView

    I am spiritual and not religious. I have a doctorate, take care of people as a profession and do not discriminate what religion they belong to.Spirituality is commitment to God and religion is a separation created by some old ideologies that needs a change in modern time.Look what is happening in the name of religion.
    As a matter of fact I follow Jesus ideology in life and not the religious views..
    I hope this movement goes to many countries where it really need to go and not just to western region.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:49 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.