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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 (9,993 Responses)
  1. Jason

    The problem with the 'spiritual' crowd is that they usually only have a cursory understanding of the ideas that they are using. So many "spiritual" people will say that they believe in detachment (stemming from Buddhism), but have no idea the philosophical ideas behind detachment.

    Too many spiritualists are just trying to be trendy, taking the superficial understandings of parts of different religions to form a meaningless, sometimes contradictory spirituality.

    Of course that does not include ALL of the spiritual people, but a vast majority.

    For fairness, I am an Atheist who practices Buddhism.

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

      It's true that many of the spiritual crowd still have much sand in their eyes, but when we begin practicing Buddhism, do we not start with a less focused understanding of philosophies such as detachment than the one we gain as we proceed? For some reason a bit of sand falls from our eyes and we begin to see that there is a path. As we follow that path our vision clears. In my personal opinion, turning away from what one calls 'religion' toward what one calls 'spirituality' is part of that same process. Remember that for many people the concept of 'religion' includes concepts such as violence, hatred, and ostracism, and often include a seemingly (again, to me) very proud belief that Maya is the true reality.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  2. Manofcolor

    Who made the law that "if you don't believe in a religion, then you don't count"?

    What is wrong with being multifaceted? What is wrong with taking a little from different religions and forming your own?

    Or, taking nothing from any religion and forming your own spirituality?

    I have to buy into a religion or I don't have principles? Please look up the definition of principle.......................

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  3. Spijder

    Isn't this the same reasoning which argued that non-clergy shouldn't be allowed to read the bible for themselves a few hundred years ago?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  4. Glenn

    Will my opinion change the truth?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  5. Truthyness

    To a rational thinker, it's pretty clear that the big religions of the world are simply incorrect. Some of the social ideals they try to pass on are noble, but the mechanics of the religions are just plain wrong. This leaves rational people who feel there could be more to life than our mortal coil left with some hypothesis that can only be poorly tested. I think I would rather flounder around and hope to find what is real than to dedicate my self to something I can see and feel to be wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  6. Gerald

    So narrowminded. Only gives a black-white choice between "God and Scripture" vs. materialism. Whose God? Whose scripture? Scriptures are used to justify division, intolerance, hate, persecution of infidels and heretics and nonbelievers.

    Agree it would be good to have a "project that can insire and transform us." Better yet a project that can unite us in common purpose of bettering ourselves and others. Have you heard of Ethical Culture?

    And check out onbeing.org discussion on tolerance 2 weeks ago with Chief Rabbi of London who said look for God in the stranger, even in the nonbeliever..

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  7. Ramona

    From the looks of the guy sitting on the beach in the photo, it's not only religion that young people are abandoning. Also exercise, proper diet and basic standards of grooming.

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

      So Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz is spiritual but not religious. I think we already knew that.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  8. james reid

    The trouble with your notion of organized religion is that it doesn't stand up to any actual thought. Reason finds too many holes in religious beliefs to justify faith. Faith then becomes the absence of reason. Religions have many good ideas for individuals and societies to live by, but often can't stand up to detailed scrutiny which often exposes the fairytale nature and outright contradictions inherent in religious teachings, dogma, and history. Even thinkers who are religious find themselves having to suppress their logical thoughts in order to fully accept religious teachings and faith. Reason is not the enemy of God, for God may well exist beyond our current perceptions, but reason is the enemy of religion because of religion's own faulty nature.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  9. forgetaboutatleast

    Dear Alan Miller,
    I've gleaned from your article that mega church goers are spiritually disabled and non-church goers are lazy sideline watchers. Only monks in Opus Dei are right minded spiritual 'warriors' that deserve the respect of all God believing people. How very provocative of you! I'm sure CNN appreciates the spike in comments that lead to ad clicks.
    What's missing from your argument is the 'what if?' aspect of religion itself. What if Christianity is wrong? What if Islam is wrong? What if Hinduism is just nutty? What if Buddhism is just pacifism on steroids? Delving into 'old fashioned' religions does not necessarily lead to evolutionary progress, my good friend. Questioning the very existence of God while maintaining an open mind is the most intelligent and thoughtful way to approach spirituality. Try it! You just might become less hypocritical.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  10. Ryan

    If cisitors to cnn.com would just not click on any more of these ludicrous belief blog articles, they would eventually go away in favor of something that would be more relevant and generate more advertising dollars. Page 3, maybe?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  11. katu

    i was raised Christian, however now chose to be spirtual because I see how intolerant, violent, and hatefull be religious makes the fathfull of any religion. Also the idea of believing in a god that throws tantrums when you don't obey and damns you for ever is not the God that I know

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Amen, katu. I am a Christian who believes in a spiritual relationship with God through Christ and not in religion.

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

      What a load of garbage.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • sqeptiq

      no2atheism: you better recheck your definition of religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  12. steama

    Spirituality does not exist outside of a physical brain. Feelings of spirituality are from your living brain. When the brain goes so does all consciousness including spirituality. Religion is the belief in myth, mind control, and a yearning to belong to a totalitarian regime.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  13. Alan

    Who really cares what other people believe?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  14. No2Atheism

    <b?Atheism = Religion

    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 10:55 am |
    • steama

      Religion, god, all of it is make-believe. This a story of a mean father and a loving mother. Atheism has nothing to do with your story.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • NorthVanCan

      Well, if only I had met you sooner I could have avoided a life of delusion .!

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

    More religious nonsense for the world to read.

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

      Its Sunday some religious news has to be on here :)

      September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  16. doody

    what garbage....CNN, why would you put this on your site?

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

      To present differences of opinion, yours is not the only one.

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

      I think you're garbage.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  17. tucsand

    God in him/her self is not religious what makes a God religious is when you decide to worship that God in a particular manor. God wasn't Jewish, Jesus parents here on earth were Jewish and Jesus preached the word of his father not any particular religion. Being Christian is believing in the resurrection of Jesus.

    Generally we may go about getting there a little differently but aren't we all after the same thingl in life?

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

      No, no and more NO.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Belief in, and worship of a deity, any deity, is the definition of religion...whether you admit it or not.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  18. Your Mom

    Eschew the world's oldest confidence scheme. Supernaturalism is for children.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  19. Paul

    Well said!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  20. JoeSF

    So unless I believe in your typical right wing nut job christian ideals and proclaim myself a christian my spirituality isn't quite good enough? Spiritual but not religious is not a "me" generation phenomenon. It means embracing what works for me and leaving the rest behind. I don't need doctrine to be a good person. Furthermore it's not fence sitting as you put it. By saying I'm spiritual not religious is DEFINITELY taking a side. It means I'll never put myself in the same category with angry, self loathing, bigoted, "religious" fundamentalist. We are all free to embrace whatever higher power we choose, and yours is certainly not better than mine nor does it make you a better person.

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

      Well said my good man. The Im-not-religious- movement is based on these people using there education to realize that the Bible is nothing but fairy tales. The Im-Spiritual movement is what comes from that in that some people still want to believe, just not this old BS he chruch has been pushing for 1k years. Update your material people, preferably to something that is not only believable but scientifically provable.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • DonDurant

      You sound like a selfish ass.hole.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • GSD

      Well said !

      September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Mudding

      Thank you!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
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About this blog

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.