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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. Buddy

    We are all spiritual beings.....Just by being aware can bring great joy deep within ourselves. I for one use my Catholic religion as rich path among many to feel the energy within...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  2. EN

    No one needs religion anymore. We have philosophy, we have science, and we have medicine. Chistian mythology is no different than Greek, Roman, or any other mythology. Leave practicing mythology to people who enjoy living fantasy pretend lives... While the rest of the world passes you by and you become a joke.

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

      Like all the "reality" tv...Which is now the example of what real is.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  3. Eric

    At the end of the day, the most important problem with religion is that their 'holy books' and therefore core teachings are riddled with untruths, which when believed and applied have had and are having devastating consequences on the human race. I think the spiritual but not religious crowd is an improvement. It's one thing to believe in a higher power. It's another to say, 'therefore, everything in this book is correct, and whatever it says I will believe and act upon." Religion is dangerous because it requires one not to think, to let God do that for you. The problem is that what "God" wants will always come out of the mouth of your ego-maniacal preacher and it's his desires, not God's who you're obeying.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  4. Bama

    I am a practicing Catholic and I agree with the article. Because we are human and not divine, we all sin. Even those in the church are not above this, but to judge or condemn a religions group by the actions of a small amount of people is wrong. I disagree about some of the doctrine in my church, but I pray about it and I still belong. It is just too easy to decide that I will just be a nice person and that will be good enough. How many "spiritual" people volunteer at homeless shelters or donate money to organizations that help the poor and needy? I am sure some do, but it seems to me that just being "spiritual" makes it very easy to sleep in on Sunday and keep from associating with other "spiritual" people to talk about what is morally right. I don't feel like I am oppressed in my faith, but I do feel that when I "wander" in my choices about right/wrong that I have my church teachings to remind me and guide me back to a moral life. It would be pretty easy to do what feels right, but I know that this "feeling" can change from day to day. I don't understand how a person can live like that. Does that mean I would force someone into my faith? Of course not. Most religions worth their salt are based on free will. I may not agree with people who choose being "spiritual", but I do not condemn them. I just disagree that theirs is the right path.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  5. Samuel

    Spirituality is bad because someone isn't profiting from it. Is simply doesn't fit well into our capitalist ideals. Isn't that what you're really getting at Mr. Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  6. S

    "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."

    Imagine that, you have to be willing to transform yourself rather than have someone threaten you with eternal damnation if you don't. I guess the thinking is that people simply won't change without the threat of punishment in the afterlife. That's just silly. People should and usually do care about the impacts their behavior has on other people, regardless of what religion they are.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  7. Irrational Exuberance

    The piece is almost entirely a straw man, but let's play anyway, let's cut to his central points shall we?

    ...At the heart of the spiritual but not religious atti.tude is an unwillingness to take a real position...

    Utterly wrong. Rejection of religions is a position, and easily demonstrated with a simple analogy.

    If one has the ability to be a Major League Baseball player, is courted by a number of teams and chooses not to play with any of them because they disagree with the positions the league has taken over the decades, that is a position. It isn't fence-sitting, they are rejecting the offer. Even if they still play catch, or throw a ball against a wall all by themselves they have taken a position.

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

      The day I vowed to never step foot into a church was the day I found God! This article is a joke! You don't need to go to church to hear some preacher tell you what HE thinks the bible says! Its seems to me that the churches here in Texas are more of a social outlet than anything else!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  8. Spiritual But Not Religious

    You Mr. Miller have not spiritually evolved....the S.B.N.R group has clearly recognized that the Bible is a wonderful historical measurement of the Collective Consciousness of 2,000 yrs ago. We also recognize that Organized Religion fails to recognize the corner stone of their own teachings....I AM THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA....the beginning and ending of all things!! If all journeys lead to GOD why are you so against my "individual" Journey? Furthermore we also have a greater understanding of the doctrines of All Religions...we understand that Man recorded these beliefs and Man decided which books would be canonized and which would forever be "lost books" of the Bible...we know that in any language and in any country the Bible has the same message, and tells us all, that each and every single human being walking this earth is a supreme being! The Greeks who recorded many books of the Bible believed that the only one true Religion was to "Know Thyself" and "To Thine Own Self Be True" it is not about a ME Generation but more about for the good of ALL of Humanity....a collective idea!! Long ago Organized Religion tried to persuade us that human beings could not be in communion with GOD without the intermediary the Church....however; the Neoplatonic-Hermetic movement believed that Man was a Microcosm of he greater Universal Macrocosm portraying the idea that humans were made in GOD's image and that Self-knowledge was a path that would reconnect us with our Divine Origins....the most obivious difference between you and I is that you see yourself as a Human being with an unknown Soul and I see myself as a Soul having a human experience of Consciousness while walking this Earth for a short period....you see Heaven as someplace Out There, where you can work, bargain or buy your way in by following the Organized Religious Dogma of your choice....I see Heaven as a place right here and right now waiting in the collective subconscious of all humanity to be Created here on Earth....I don't view GOD as a mysterious being out there somewhere, but feel his presence and Divine Spark within me!! I respect your individual journey even when you do not repect mine...your own words show me you have a long way to go and that the Evolution of your eternal Soul is in its infancy stage, where you have yet to truly understand GOD's words or purpose for allowing you to walk this earth....I suggest you start with Revelations 2:17....and attempt to comprehend the idea that the Churches are there for everyone who might need them....there is no one right religion and none stand alone but are all but one piece of the bigger picture....and those of us who have outgrown the need of Organized Religion have Evolved beyond our Human concepts of GOD and know that most all religions have been corrupted by mankind, by the elite groups of a few controlling the many!! You consider yourself as "separate" or "individual" and this is your illusion....GOD is an expression of Consciousness and Christ was a physical manifestation of the GOD Consciousness...since you are in fact Conscious you are a part of the ALL....if you are human then you are a member of the Collective Consciousness of this human race....Cogito Ergo Sum is a self evident truth for all of us you have labeled as Spiritual but not Religious!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  9. elwood

    Well, that escalated quickly.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  10. Personalbeliefs

    I view organized religion as something that is literally tearing the world and people apart nowadays. If many people have a certain belief they more or less form a gang. When another group of people have a different belief they do as well. Eventually these two "gangs" are going to clash over their ideals and which one is right in their beliefs. Arguments ensue, hatred ensues, and both side wants the other to come to their team.

    Believing in what YOU believe in and having faith that there is something out there more powerful than anything we could possibly imagine is accepting that you are not the most right, most important person or species out there. It humbles you. It allows you to follow the golden rule that all of us have been taught since childhood, "do unto others...." is probably THE most important lesson that we learn in order to deal with other human beings. A feeling of individual spirituality is not a bad thing, I dont push my belief on people but I feel that it allows me to have a closer connection to god and to BE a better person to the Earth and my fellow man.

    If everyone in the world followed that simple golden rule and did nice things just because its in their nature to do so and not because they feel forced to by the church because they will be damned if they dont, the world would be a much better place. Even if you only help one person a day in any given way, open a door for them, tell someone you're proud of their accomplishment or even give someone a call you havent talked to for awhile it makes so much difference.

    Keep your beliefs to yourself, the church has its place when people are lost and need t be shown direction because not all of up feel that comfort and thats completely fine, you know why? Because it is THEIR choice to do so. Some people dont have a path that they follow and need guidance, but some of us find that guidance in personal belief.

    I hate this article because its saying that its a copout to have faith and be nice to your fellow man, yeah, makes so much sense to treat people they way that you would like to be treated. What a horrible place the world would be if that happened. I mean order and religious doctrine is how the majority of people live nowadays and the world is such a great... oh wait, oops. Its not.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  11. robsea

    This article is wrong fallacious from the first sentence to the last. Let's leave it at that.

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

      You sound like an overly critical piece of internet garbage. You love to act like you are somehow superior to the author, yet you have no ideas of your own and you just spit your ignorant opinion at the monitor infront of you.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • sqeptiq

      For sure...not ridiculous but religilous.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  12. A.C

    I cannot speak for all, but those who take stock in the "spiritual but not religious movement" do not necessarily pick and choose the spiritual beliefs they find most 'convenient' and fit them according to their needs. In fact, it is more a compilation of truth and understanding in humanity and how they themselves fit into all of it and how, by bettering themselves, they better those around them. All societies have inherent, unspoken social mores; ideas, almost instinctual, which dictate how we live our lives and treat each other. These ideas are not just found and nurtured by organized religion or religious doctrine.

    The inner search for a true understanding of one's self and their relation to all is never a selfish endeavor. Though it may seem a radical form of behavior, to turn your back on the dogmatic principles forced upon you by the church, it more a form of free thinking. Mr. Martin says himself: " 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"... and it is through desire to know one's self that many turn inward, find themselves and the good within them and try to better the world around them with their own understanding.

    We are all capable of collective truth and an inherent understanding of right and wrong. Some feel that they must receive these lessons from a book or weekly congregation of like-minded people. Some find it in other ways. Once we all realize that societal cohesion and true peace depend entirely upon the acceptance and understanding of others, what you do on Sunday morning becomes irrelevant. Love, acceptance and understanding should not be conditional or scheduled on a weekly basis. As long as we better ourselves and treat everyone with the kindness and compassion expected of us, who cares about the methods used to procure those ideals?

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

      Spiritual= a cult of one.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • A.C

      Which would you prefer, a cult of one or of millions? Is it better to be guided by the faith of others off the cliff's edge or trust in yourself and decide whether or not to jump? If you're going to jump or drink the punch, I wouldn't do it because someone told me to; I'd have to have my own reasons.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  13. Sam

    it seems that any 13 year old can write an article for CNN nowadays.

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

      You sound like an overly critical piece of internet garbage. You think you are better than the author, but you suck.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  14. No2Atheism

    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 10:57 am |
    • mandarax

      So the moral of the story is: if you are a fool, you will eventually be drawn into fundamentalist religion?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • charles_darwin

      That is a sad story with an even sadder ending.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • No2Atheism

      It's sad to see how many spiritual blind people ignores truth. This is a divine story of what none of you fools will ever understand unless you do what this father did and opened up his mind and heart.

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

      Ah, I see that you too are yet another incredibly tolerant, enlightened individual – on second thought, not so much. But, bravo on your stunning lack of understanding and compassion for the people around you that don't believe as you do.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Again, I ASK you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO TO STOP YOUR CHILDREN FROM BELIEVING IN CHRIST WHEN YOU LOSE "ALL AUTHORITY" OVER THEM AND DECIDE TO FOLLOW CHRIST?????

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Brad – COMPASSION??? I have NEVER seen compassion from atheists on religious articles and you want compassion? This isn't about compassion, this is about STANDING on what one believes in. If you want compassion, then learn to give it as well.

      DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU. – CHRIST

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

      Compassion and tolerance go hand-in-hand in my world – one isn't "effective" without the other. But I suspect tolerance isn't something you understand or practice, so I find it difficult to believe that true compassion is understood or practiced by you either.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • moonbogg

      You ARE infact a piece of overly critical internet garbage.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • sqeptiq

      The moral of that story is: Stupid is as stupid does.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  15. Charles

    Alan Miller's commentary is profoundly ignorant. Spirituality is fundamental. The first time you come to understand death, you wonder, "What happens after?" "If there's nothing more, why does the way I conduct my life matter any more than the way Hitler conducted his?" "Is my life different from my cat's?" Etc. Religion, on the other hand, is a group of people who tell you they have the (one and only) truth - the ultimate answer. Any thinking person would know there is no more reason to believe their "truth" than there is to believe in Santa Claus. The stories are clearly made up - fantasies. This doesn't mean one can't learn something from them (although I would challenge any Christian to make sense of the Jesus mythology - unless you come from a culture of animal sacrifice, the idea of someone dying for your sins is ridiculous). At its core, Christianity is a simplistic "golden-rule" mythos: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The first time the Crusades were launched against the Muslims, the lie was put to the entire religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • A.C

      There are as many truths as there are people to believe them. What works for one, might not work for another. I think most, if left to believe what they want, will find something that speaks to them and betters them. I don't think anyone has the right to force their beliefs on anyone else, however, they should always have the opportunity to discuss their views calmly and rationally. Religion and spirituality are individual choices. If you choose to invest yourself in them and yield something positive from the experience, then it is a good thing. They should never be used as a way to control or manipulate others.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  16. petewillett

    I'm spiritual but atheist. That better?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Spiritual in what or how? Atheists don't believe in after life as many spiritual people do.

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

      Spiritual is a weasel word; it's using a euphemism to seem unique.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  17. ELG

    If Jesus Christ is so wrong... then WHY are you all so angry? What are you afraid of? Then all christians are wrong and it won't matter in the end. But what if it is true? Really read the Bible Genesis to Revelations and then make your decison. Man is not perfect. Man is sinful. I am sorry about those that say child abuse is okay (wherever that comes from?). I am a christian, I am marrying a pastor and we both work with the youth in the church. We feel that that children are our future.

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

      I did read it, many times, on occasion with a dictionary and Strong's exhaustive concordance at my elbow.
      I will have nothing to do with this blood soaked book of lies.

      Leave me alone, and you will live in peace. Attack me, and learn the meaning of pain.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • No2Atheism

      God bless you. How I wish CNN gave us a "LIKE" button.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • mandarax

      "WHY are you all so angry? What are you afraid of?"

      We are afraid of you, and your influence on government, education and science, and yes, our children. We get angry because so many of you demand that "this is a Christian nation" and expect the rest of us to submit.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • charles_darwin

      We are not afraid, it is the religious that are afraid so they make up stories about the wonderful afterlife and how god rolls out a golden carpet for them.
      No different than the 40 virgins story if you die while blowing someone up.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • No2Atheism

      deliberatus – Blood soak book????

      Stalin, among other atheists, rings a bell? They killed more people then Christians did during the Crusade and Inquisition.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • sqeptiq

      I'm doubting you have really "read" it if you think there is a book called Revelations.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  18. deliberatus

    Again and again, mit is the agression maspect of organized religion which is loudly condemned in these comments, agression to gain power and/or money and/or ebostrokes and/or political power. When people hoose to not give thse things, the vested interests start condemning foolk. THERE ARE FREELANCE CHRISTIANS who adopt an aproach of 'walkinng with Jesus' who do NOT subscribe to a organized church- and they are as condemned as the neopagan or new ageer. Why? THEY REFUSE TO SURRENDER SPIRITUAL SOVERINITY TO AN ORGANIZATION OF MEN, and declare 'No King but JEsisus" (OR in my case Odin). Anyone who insists ion their own freedom is a metaphysicalk knife to the throat of they who demand power, and they will condemn an destroy any such freeman with every resource available to them. Damn them ever one of them, I am free, and will live and if need be die free.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  19. TheDman113

    Here's a guy who thought out all of his religious questions to their logical conclusions:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=560&h=315]

    September 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  20. Scott

    Sir.......Mr. Alan Miller......Your bit of a tool. I can't believe they printed this. In a time like this too. You are proof that we still have a lot of growing up to do.

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

      I can't stand overly critical people like you who like to mindlessly criticize without providing any solution or content of your own. You are a useless piece of internet garbage.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:41 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.