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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. SixDegrees

    BURN HIM! BURN THE APOSTATE ALIVE!

    ...oh, sorry. I was channeling the christian commentators for a moment.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  2. CDM

    I've heard this argument a number of times from ordained and invested religious leaders.

    Hmm...

    "When your only tool is a hammer, then all problems appear as nails."

    Meh. Whatever. More page view fodder. I think that the red header bar on CNN sites is an extremely appropriate color.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  3. YesYes

    Remove the sneering & general Incoherent rambling & misuse of "facts" & this Almost starts to sound like a commercial for a more anti-dogmatic approach to faith. So.. Thanks? on behalf of Human beings everywhere (which, yes Alan, You Are One) Thanks for your approval ?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  4. Ernesto Longa

    He's right, being spiritual-but-not-religious is a bad idea, let's try being not-spiritual-and-not-religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  5. religion_is_BS

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    Drinking the cool-aid doesn't require much thinking, if any!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  6. usastillgreat

    Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide. The last setence is why so many people are not Chtistians. I do not judge people but Jesus Himself said that if you are not for Him, then you are against Him. The Bible is about choice but not choosing automatically defaults to a choice.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Paul

      Actually that was George Bush that said if your not with us your against us. There is no such quote in the bible. Not being religious makes you make choices that don't rely on faith...they rely on the here and now. It's easier to make a choice and say God supports me than it is to day....am I making the right decision. Judgement like yours is why people don't like being around other so called Christians.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  7. Otasawian

    The main purpose of "organized' religion has always been, and continues to be, the desire and ability to control it's followers. Do this, don't do that, believe and have faith, or you will be punished, This article reflects the the fear that "traditional" religion doctrine has over it's apparent loss of control over "younger" people, and a lot of older people as well. What has happened is the "younger population" are not as easily indoctrinated as previous generations and can "see through" the nonsense and hypocrisy that is prevalent in the management and hierarchy of established religions. People have not drifted away from the church. it's the church that has drifted away from from it's people and those who seek spirituality. The best thing that can happen is for people to find their own way to worship and find peace, the notion that an organized religion is the only way to do so is out dated, dangerous, and hypocritical.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  8. Gary

    Spoken like a true Christian. I'm sorry I don't believe in a religion where women are considered inferior to men, where I'm supposed to believe that there is a vengeful god who I have to fear or go to hell, based on a book that was written by a man a few thousand years ago. As the Comedian Patten Oswald say, "I'm glad you like a book. I like books too." I just don't live my entire life based on one.

    How about this – don't judge me on my lack of religion, and I won't judge you on having a religion. Neither of us is right. It's what we believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  9. jasrhatz

    formal religion was created to subdue indiviual rights as well as female rights. A belief in what ever you want is more important to one's spirtual travel that some corny view of what ever church wants you to believe. belief in the unseen and the unknown is inside each and everyone. peace...

    September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  10. twisted_churro

    The author is trolling for page views and comments. Ignore.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  11. Ryan

    "Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but does this quote from the last part of the article suggest God and scripture are the opposite of Enlightened human knowledge and reason? If so, then I am thoroughly entertained.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  12. Yavin

    That is what I LOVE ABOUT AMERICA. I can CHOOSE what I want to believe. I ACCEPT GOD and REJECT YOUR CHURCH and I KEEP MY MONEY.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  13. Jim W., Statesville, NC

    Maybe if Christian churches quit peddling their right-wing brand of religion and go back to the true teaching of Christ and actually followed what he taught, then maybe the younger generation would turn back. But now when all they do is preach hate, separation, and tired old dogma that has nothing to do with what the majority of people want. Religion should be about uplifting the human spirit and being closer to God. But for years now it's been about hell, damnation, the Apocalypse, controlling others and trying to make everyone to be in the same mold. And actually its less about religion and more about money and power. Why have people moved away from churches? Why indeed?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  14. starry12

    In the dictionary, the term "religion" has been defined as "something which one does everyday." Coming together with others in a public setting (church) can and does at times have its place, but generally speaking attending any church and gathering with those of a similar belief is really sort of a public display. Spirituality, on the other hand, comes from within. Therefore it would seem there is no reason to meet in a public setting to share and explore one's inner beliefs unless one has found this inner spiritual being first.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Barbara Young

      You have the words of an Immortal Son or Daughter of God. templechryses.org

      October 1, 2012 at 4:20 am |
  15. Skeeve

    Wow... so many misconceptions in such a short piece that I don't even know where to start.
    How about from the end... "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    I wonder... whether the author realizes that the need to decide is a false premise. Well, realizing that all his logic construct crumbles before our very eyes. Yep.... yet another ~750 words of pointless drivel. Move along, there is nothing to see here

    September 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Jim W., Statesville, NC

      I wonder how much he was paid to write this article? I true believer would have done it for no pay. Again, it's about money and power to control.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  16. JRock

    In a world with a dozen major religions, split into hundreds (if not thousands) of factions, this author keeps things good and general by going right to Christianity. Give me a break!
    Let's go back to enslaving people, keeping our subservient, baby-making, barefoot women in the kitchen, and a general state religion-fueled intolerant war. The very thing that you're attacking may well be the final hope to prevent all out armageddon between East and West, between Christians, Muslims, and everybody in between – including the new age open-minded crowd who just wants to have each day be a bit better than the last.
    It's Sunday, dear author; Unplug your keyboard of intolerance and join your fellow prudes at mass.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  17. Nicko

    Another " God Fearing" article meant to take away your ability to think for your self and develop your own personal relationship with your "God". And who wouldn't want to attend church where they believe earth is only 5000 years old! Give me a break! Your fear of of losing your controlling society speaks much louder than your faith!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  18. Jt_flyer

    Religion is a way humans control other humans. It's also used as a narcotic to help people deal with the pain and misery of the moment. It has nothing to do with GOD. Religion is a form of cancer.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  19. Karen

    This is a black-and-white view of a complex issue. Mr. Miller ignores those who have come to spiritual belief through a long hard struggle through orthodox religion and reading and seeking – and there are many, many of us. It is not true that being spiritual but not religious avoids the "hard questions." It's because organized religion so often doesn't offer a good answer to those questions that people seek their own paths.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  20. Adrian

    "Spiritual but not religious" tends to lack discipline. Devote time to studying them all and seek God in your own way. There are infinite paths up the mountain, and all are ways to seek love and joy and truth and to ease our suffering and to guide us in our everyday decisions. God bless us, everyone!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:39 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.