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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. Brad Ster

    I understand why the church dislikes "spiritual" people. There is no way to enrich their coffers from them.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  2. Joe

    This is the worst piece of writing I have ever read. My concern isn't with the content it's with the fact that CNN holds such a low bar for editorial writing. I guess anyone with a laptop can have be featured on the CNN homepage.

    Perfect example of using a headline to draw people in and then run on paragraphs of pure drivel

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

    I don't believe 100% that the 'scripture' is accurate because man wrote it, every last bit of it was written by men. I believe some of it is true, some of it is half true, and the rest of it is a bunch of b.s. However, this doesn't mean I can't believe in God.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  4. Matt

    This article was written by a religious person upset that less and less people are showing up for the Easter Sunday barbeque.

    The problem is that non-religious people don't have a set of principals? Sorry, but most intelligent people actually DON'T need a list of things not to do since they carry a moral compass. How do we determine bad from good? We use our brains, feel empathy, and cannot condemn for reciting a different book. This article is very bigoted, self-righteous and deserving of Fox News.

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

      Thank you, I honestly don't understand people who equate lack of religion with having no morals. It's mind boggling.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  5. Effed

    WOW... Alan! You lay out the argument well. I kept reading waiting for the punch line to why NOT being religious is bad. I never found one.

    The last paragraph is encouraging me to decide on a religion (and to avoid continuing in an agnostic, generic spirituality), but there was zero convincing arguments. You offer no punishment for not choosing. When I was a kid, the punishment for moving away from Christ, and our Heavenly Father, were dire... worse than death itself. And the reward for continued genuflection was better than Earthly life!

    You're not scaring me with fire and brimstone, AND/OR offering me anything like eternal life. This is a very different approach to gathering disciples than when I grew up with.

    I guess this a good approach because you can only scare the bejesus outta people for so long... and the non-tactile, metaphysical, ethereal, carrot on a string, reward for a life of dedication, prayer, repentance and charity wears thin. Add to this how science continues to debunk long held beliefs, and Churches continuing to make the "Copernicus-Galileo" blunder of stubborn adherence to dogma, this makes it difficult for the church to glean new, young, educated disciples.

    God Bless

    September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  6. Kevin

    every word in collection of texts now known as the bible was written by human beings. it's a HUGE leap of faith to assume that someone these people had a direct line to god. There is a level of inherent spirituality that resides in us all, but to assume that in order for this to be valid, it must somehow fit into one of the nice little tidy boxes that a few cults created a few thousand years ago is ludicrous.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  7. cwhittlesey

    An insulting article full of meaningless generalizations.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • infidelio666

      I agree. He should replace "implosion of belief" with "explosion of rationality".

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  8. Bdizz

    Wow this is exactly what MSM wants you to believe. Look without looking, try to understand a movement no an era without diving into truth of it.

    If all is connected and one who is spiritual-not-religious realizes this and takes it to heart, then there will be less desire to perform the destructive actions of our predecessors who have fought over the Oneness and over Our Creator for as long as there were Humans with the desire for Power.

    next time before you jump to conclusions Author of this Article, don't be afraid to look in the mirror and really ask yourself when and why you started believing what you believe, and ask, What is it that separates one persons belief in God compared to the next.

    Now remember, all have the same Creator, seems like us Humans just like to try and put concepts in boxes and there is no box for God. Period.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  9. HypocrisyNow

    Strange, I thought Christians were supposed to leave that whole "judging other people" thing to God...

    "Judge not, lest ye will be judged." Matthew 7:1

    September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  10. Jim

    I have found those who identify their beliefs as "Spiritual but not Religious" are on the edge of rejecting the supernatural entirely. And good for them. It's about time that folks take a critical look at their belief systems and ask themselves if it passes the same logical tests they apply to every other part of life.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  11. clv199

    BULL.

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

      Got that right! Organized religions are loosing money and that is what this whole article is trying to resolve!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  12. pbernasc

    No surprise that a church member doesn't like religiousness spirituality, it's bad for church's business.
    The reality is that religion and spirituality are yet to defined in a decent non political and non business related way .

    There is no honesty when it comes to religion, globally, that is in a Islamic country as much as in the USA, it's a ll about exploiting people's gullibility.

    I say, suckers, grow up, sure if you want to be a believers, do so, but at least do not believe stupid stories a 3 years will not. That is not faith, it's being stupid

    September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  13. Bob

    This article is one giant strawman, and both the author and CNN should be ashamed of themselves.

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

      Yeah, it's terrible to present a different opinion.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  14. Sciencemom

    I have a stand, the one with proof and evidence. It's science. Not trying to think too hard lies in blindly following a doctrine. I believe that people can be "good" for the sake of kindness, not for fear of Hell. Feeling superior to others,as is the tone of this editorial, shows the devisive nature of religion. Follow our rules or get out. I prefer to accept people for who they are based on their deeds vs. Their beliefs.

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

      Right. Deification of self is the name of the game.

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

      lilyq, that's called spiritualism.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Oakydoke

    In the end, the author suggests you 'take a stand' on religious beliefs, which by their nature, have no evidence or facts backing them up.

    I submit they HAVE taken a stand. They see a conflicting miasma of warring religions and have decided that God, should he exist, is unknowable.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  16. harvey11111

    Religious or spiritual .I prefer to worship boulders.They are so heavy etc. Whatever delusion gets you through the night..

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  17. Tick Turd

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

    Are you another old white guy?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  18. newz4i

    "I'm spiritual, but not religious" = seeking a church/movement which has not become a political platform.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  19. spiritual adblock

    My take: It's a cop-out to demand people choose a religion to follow just because you prefer the ease of stereotyping and labeling instead of making more of an effort to learn about the person's journey in life.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  20. Jon Whitehead

    I think the problem, Alan, is that choosing either a rationalist or religious point of view would be ultimately limiting us as human beings. It is possible to be uncertain, skeptical, and searching (underlying tenets of science) without rejecting the notion of a "holy other", and still be productive, progressive, caring, giving, unselfish, whatever human beings. Why would one forget all that we have learned, through rational thought, and accept a religious mythology that is outdated, oppressive, exclusionary, when the world of rational knowledge has moved on from such ideas? At the same time, who can deny that our search for the sacred has propelled us into this direction of "knowing": how does the world work? who are we? I think your position is way too general when talking about a "spiritual" position (what is this? eharmony) and presumptuous. And your conclusion is somewhat of a co out.

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

      Another dualistic choice. Some people are so simple minded.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 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.