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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. Jill Nicole

    Has the author interviewed or spoken the masses of young people who feel this way? I was raised Catholic and I haven't turned against the religion, but in my over-worked, over-stressed life where I'm trying to make a career, have a family, and produce financial stability, I find that the traditional Sunday morning mass no longer fits my life style. In addition, my husband and I are the outliers within the church since we are young and do not yet have children. I spend most Sunday mornings catching up on work and taking a much needed run. Instead, I have found that reading about other religions, practicing yoga and meditation, has brought spirituality back into my life. So the "spiritual but not religious" is more about people who are not denouncing religion, but they are opening up to learn about more religions while trying to tap into their spirituality in a positive way and becoming a better, more welcoming person.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  2. big bird

    I can see why religious people see us as a threat! They don't like the fact that we can live with good morals and shun violence and sins without having a book tell us to do so... Most people I know that go to church do so b/c they feel they need a higher being to keep them scared strait... I'm hear to tell you that you alone make your path and should know whats right and wrong in your heart!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  3. Scientificpoetry

    One man's religion is another man's belly laugh. "Spiritual but not religious" are for people that don't have the nerve to finally admit that God doesn't exist. So they develop some kind of strange construct to live their lives within. When assessed by critical thought – religion, spirituality, whatever you want to call it – crumbles under the weight of reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  4. HenryMiller

    Organised religion has among the most oppressive and destructive factors in Western civilisation, second only to political megalomania in the death, destruction, and misery it's inflicted on people. From the Spanish Inquisition, to the St. Bartholomew's massacre, to the 30 Years War, to the decimation of the population of South America, organised religion has served as endless excuses for murder and conquest.

    If people must have some sort of emotional crutch, "spiritual, but not religious" would be the far less baneful alternative. At least it would be less likely to result in the vicious, violent, mob mentality of organised religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  5. Stephanie

    Reblogged this on Cake for Your Thoughts and commented:
    A very interesting article. I would be interested to hear your thoughts!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  6. Ammar Rai

    The "Karma" Sutra, eh? Apparently, this is what happens when you are "Religious." You make horrendous faux pas about other peoples' faiths.

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

      I agree....Mr. Miller is really seriously out of touch....I guess the guy in the photo set him off....maybe he should have talked to some "spiritual" people, did some studying....rather than post such very stupid and misinformed article...ON CNN NO DOUBT!!! If he was trying to make a name for himself he did it with this article. One can only hope Mr. MIller will try to find spirituality, truly study it all the hodge podge religions, Hindu, Buddha and Kabbalah and read many books about the subject then he too may find that there are other ways we don't have to be one religion, Christianity, Jewish, Muslim we can be from many and still be spiritual. That is the beauty of spirituality....we accept all forms of relgion not one is perfect for each person. Good luck on your quest Mr. Miller.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  7. Joanie

    this article is absurd at best....I am spiritual and have studied Kabbalah, Hinduism and Buddhism (various forms) and I am so proud and enthusiastic that I have found a spiritual life to follow. The author of this article has NO IDEA what he is talking about. I also study Tai Chi and QiGong all of the religions and spiritualities have the same common thread, to improve yourself first, be good and kind to others (in it's most simplistic form) to take care of the world around you and those in it, how to handle stress, disappointment and all facets of life. If self-improvement, self and world responsiblity as well as a general behavior that improves all things around us is an idea or ideal that Mr. Miller can't wrap his pointed head around then he is really missing out on where our now aday religions came from. I am proud to be spiritual rather than a Sunday only religious person. If we all took a spiritual look at ourselves, improved ourselves, truly carried about others and the world maybe just maybe we could turn the sad tide of the way things are around. That is my spiritual goal...starting with myself. That, Mr. Miller is what spirituality is all about....it's not some goofy side item to get YOUR attention.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  8. fibergirl

    I have a "hodge-podge spiritual but not religious" faith and I find the author of this article to be rather ignorant about people like me. Basicly he said because I am not in a formal religion that I have nothing governing my ethics. Well different type of people have different ethical needs. I dont need a religion telling me what is right and wrong for I am guided by a very evolved inner ethic, but some people need an outer ethic to keep them in line, while others need the fear of hell and damnation to guide them ethicly. The problem with religions and religious people is that they have this mindset that one size fits all when each person and each culture has different spiritual needs. Its like the difference between the child that plays with their little science kit after school does not need strict parrenting while the child that is bouncing off the ceiling and runs off every babysitter needs much more structure in their life.
    Ohhh and I take offense to the photo of the bohemian dude on the beach as a representative for people like me. You would never guess by what I wear that I am "spiritual but not religious" and there is alot more to my beliefs than just feeling good.

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

      Whatever ethics and morals you have are grounded in religion derived from great teachers like Christ and Buddah. All you do is question the blessings that have been given to you through religion. Duh, we can all question religion; it takes faith and commitment to accept that which cannot be understood. YOu have no faith, only questions.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • sokesky

      MikeB, her morals are better than your holier-than-thou schtick.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  9. Mr. Tom

    Blessed Sunday Everyone,
    Religion like everything else in this world contains people with shortcomings. However, gathering in any good community brings about collaboration cultivating higher good. Good religion carrying good messages brings out the best of people. One example in my life happens when my good ethics are motivated by my Christian religion and people I gather with by simple example motivate me to embrace better morals and ethics. My ethics and morals would be lower without the encouragement I get from Christian religious gatherings.
    Thomas Joseph

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • BWANA DIK

      You are of the 1%

      September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • BWANA DIK

      Or as the famous Quaker expression goes, Mr Tom, F#*K Thee!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  10. Samuel

    Religion is nothing more than a big ball of turd wrapped around a pure core of spirituality. I've knocked off those disgusting layers of lies and I couldn't be happier. I don't need my fellow man telling me what to believe in. I'll go with my heart and keep it to myself. If everyone did the same I'm sure the world would be a much happier place.

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

      Total ignorance, not recognizing the importance of the teaching of Buddah, Moses, Christ, and others whose religions and commonality of thought have helped civilization advance. Seriously, where do you think the world would be today without Christ's teachings? Ignorant fool.

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

      The teaching of Christ!! Allot of good that has done us. If Christ returned he'd be incredibly disgusted with the society we live in. Christ was a socialist at heart. The truth is he would condemn capitalism and everything it stands for. This society has learned NOTHING from the teachings of Christ my friend.

      Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

      September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  11. pawnyourhalo

    Sorry, but the alternative is to be a churchgoing atheist, or some other kind of liar. If you haven't had a deeply religious experience, why pretend you have? If you simply have a mild sense that there is more to the world than the physical, how else should you describe it? Pretending to knowledge you don't have - or ascribing to a dogma in which you don't believe - is dishonest. On the other hand, saying you are "spiritual but not religious" has kept a lot of atheists and agnostics from getting fired and harassed. Settle down and let people be what they say they are - that's my advice.

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

      Pawn your Halo – lol

      September 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  12. Suzanne

    Leaving a church was the best thing I ever did. I am not " self obsessed", the churches are

    September 30, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  13. Thegreenleaf

    I disagree. I choose to keep a private and personal relationship with my creator. Organized religion pits one group against another. I understand the fellowship aspect benefits of organized religion, and if some people need that to feel whole, that's fine. My opinion: Organized religion gives a group of people a platform to think they are somehow better than everyone else. At it's best, religion is segregationist, at it's worst it is a mechanism to spread hate and violence against a faction of humanity. A personal relationship encourages you to think for yourself and find your spirituality and understanding with the enlightenment you are seeking. Organized religion tells you how to think and dangles the carrot of eternal salvation over your head if you disobey their rules. It's a formula that has lead to virtually all of the large scale suffering and wars in the world from the beginning of time. To argue that I am somehow not as enlightened or connected with my faith because I choose not to follow made up rules and accept all of the human based dogma that comes with organization is a fallacy. Not for me.

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

      I agree with you 100%. Religion is also fear based and all the motives to do good is toget to heaven and not go to hell. what happened to doing the right thing just because its write. So the point im making is that if the promise of heaven was not in the picture there would be more people doing bad things. also most people dont choose their religion it was past down from generation to generation without any real thouhgt of why they choose to be whatever. One more point ive found that atheist and other non believers as you call them know more about the history of religion than so-called believers

      October 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  14. Ted Koch

    I admire Mr. Miller's willingness to fully and specifically disclose his discomfort and personal insecurities with this "new" societal idea. I offer this observation: My grandfather Byerly, born in 1900, traveled to the holy land and consulted with his experts on the meaning of life and religion in the early 1990's (he lived to be nearly 107!). His conclusion was that he belonged to the, "Byerly Religion," which has two tenets: (1) there is a higher power, and (2) we should all be nice to each other. Raised Presbyterian, this is now my religion. I pray, say grace, and regularly attend outdoor "cathedrals" made by this higher power that are far more beautiful than any church I've seen.

    So Mr. Miller – here are two positively stated beliefs, and from a time well before this "movement" you identify, and from a nonagenarian. Does that help your thinking on this or give you succor in any way?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  15. Anon

    This guys upset that people that are "Spirtual" don't have all the silly rules about eating shellfish and virginity that Christianity does therefore its worse? As an atheist I find this article hilarious. Ill take "Spiritual" people over dogma filled Christianity anyday.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  16. Alan

    These replies sadden my heart on this Sunday morning. My prayer today is for the so many lost people that have replied here. There is a god. He created you and loves you. May god grant all of you peace that surpasses all understanding. God Bless you all.

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

      Jesus said, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and not even the gates of hell will stand against it."

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

      You're correct Alan! There is a god. He created us and loves us. But Churches don't. The Christian church has splintered into many factions, sects, all claiming to have the one true, narrow, conduit to salvation... the only path to eternal life. And that's just Christianity. There are many non Christian religions that also claim to be the one true conduit.

      We generic, agnostic, spiritual folk are simply hedging our bets. What if we choose the wrong conduit and wind up with eternal separation from our Creator? We can't risk that.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  17. CraigCA

    So if you don't agree with his beliefs, you're a fence-sitter who doesn't challenge themselves. Someone's definitely insecure here, but it's not the people he's talking about.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  18. bigaugie

    Science flies men to the moon. Religion flies them into buildings.

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

      nice one

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

      Classy

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

      While I certainly don't consider myself to be a religious individual, I do believe in a higher level of existence beyond mankind.

      One of the best movies I've seen that discusses the pitfalls and issues around organized religion was Dogma. I know it can seem funny (and it is) but the underlying message it conveys is pretty serious and thought provoking.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • falcon122

      True.... but you can thank God for the moon.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Mikey

      Pithy

      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • bigaugie

      @falcoln122, whose god? Once you start differentiating between gods, belief systems, etc. then you can "thank god" for the wars and destruction that result as well.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • falcon122

      No, I'm thankful for what God has created (life). The wars and destruction you speak of are a result of man's free will.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  19. bob

    "offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind."

    And organized religions do ! this guy is a crackpot

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • falcon122

      Ummm ... YEAH they DO smart guy

      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  20. linda

    I evolved from being religious to being spiritual and i will never go back. I am more in tune with others...God...and myself than i have ever been. No more do i mindlessly accept what a preacher says...i experience it for myself.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 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.