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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. Haseeb

    I agree that spiritualists do not have any sort of "rooted" ideas. being a Muslim I am spiritual after I consider the religious law. This author mentioned Sufism as one of the means people use to form their spirituality. I am an avid reader about sufism and I understand it quite well. It was understood by the earliest sufis that one first know the Quran, Ahadith and the Islamic law and then they are capable of reaching higher spirituality. This is important. If someone wants to practice spirituality, then first define for yourself what you believe in and have a firm commitment.
    I agree with this author in that spiritualists are too open-ended in their ideas. I mean, crystals having energy that gives positive feelings? Come on. Western spiritualism is a mix between materialistic outlooks on life with those of eastern ideas of spirituality. It isn't purely feelings. Spirituality IS what you make of it, it has no definition. But Westerners generally have a sort of materialistic view to even these things nevertheless. Just pointing it out. This is something I think personally, if anyone wants to refute me. Go right ahead.

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

      Your views don't even reach the tip of your own nose.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • wbaldwin@saddleback.edu

      as your view presents an option for people venturing into an already established religion, it still rules out many people who feel disenfranchised with what most organized faiths offer. there are so many other paths that offer exactly what people are looking for in their lives, and they are able to achieve their own form of spirituality and enlightenment.

      a good example of this would be Siddartha's quest. He observed that the only true way to enlightenment is through oneself. the Path you follow is what leads you to your destination, and there is nobody but yourself that can tell you what the right path is.

      younger people aren't upset at the order or rules related to most religions, they are upset at the hypocrisy of it all.

      belief in the power of crystals and the earth has been around much longer than any religion, and it came from ones own feelings. todays world often links feelings with irrationality. yet it's all just different forms of faith. We should all have the freedom to believe in whatever we want, and the courage to be honest with ourselves when our beliefs hurt other people.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  2. Man Guy 001

    What I don't understand are why there are so many "religious" people outspoken about those that aren't "religious" or cling to their ideas of what religion should be. While I have met a couple of true god-hating atheists, the majority I know just don't care how the other side lives. On the other hand, I see many online articles and hear many things by religious people putting down atheists, it makes me feel like the schoolyard gang picking on the kid who keep to himself. Mob mentality. Those that belong to the club, snub those that don't. Who cares really? At the end of the day, does it really matter to a religious person if someone else is not religious or doesn't practice religion exactly how you do it? Is it that much of a thorn in your side? If so, I have a solution: Get a life.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  3. Chris brown

    Religion has been responsible for more mass murder and oppression than any other single invention in the history of mankind. You don't need some two faced liar preacher behind the mask of a pulpit to tell you how to lead a moral life. Religion should be banned in all civilized societies since it causes people to behave in completely irrational ways.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. Karm99

    This author does a great job of showing why people move from religious to spiritual.

    A spiritual person leaves this type of Ego and pettiness behind.

    One of the most divine experiences of life is to know God, one of the scariest is to hear someone say "God isi on my side"

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  5. Rhonda

    Here's a joke to lighten the mood:

    Over five thousand years ago, Moses said to the children of Israel ,
    "Pick up your shovels, mount your asses and camels, and I will lead
    you to the Promised Land."

    Nearly 75 years ago, (when Welfare was introduced) Roosevelt said,
    "Lay down your shovels, sit on your asses, and light up a Camel, this
    is the Promised Land."

    Today, Congress has stolen your shovel, taxed your asses, raised the
    price of Camels and mortgaged the Promised Land!

    I was so depressed last night thinking about Health Care Plans, the
    economy, the wars, lost jobs, savings, Social Security, retirement
    funds, etc .... I called a Suicide Hotline.

    I had to press 1 for English.

    I was connected to a call center in Pakistan..I told them I was suicidal.

    They got excited and asked if I could drive a truck......

    Folks, we 're screwed

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  6. Caron

    "Taking a position" on religion is precisely the problem, Mr. Miller. Everyone digs in their heals and fights for the god they are standing on. Bogus, bogus, bogus. Those that you condemn, on the other hand, are more open to what is really true because they are in search God. Their minds are not "made up" (and neither is their god); they are in search. And many of them search by going within. (meditation). If all of the religions are correct, and God dwells within, then we should go within and see for ourselves. You, whose mind is made up, have given up the search; hence, you will never find; you will dwell only in your made up religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  7. falsehorizons

    CNN, have we fallen so far as to give articles to people irritated at what they believe to be a persistent flower generation? Our minds are our own, and this article sounds like some bile from the conservative side of the sixties.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  8. Dan

    If there was ever a pot calling the kettle black, this article is it.

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

      Amen, brother!

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

      Why?
      How?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Dan

      Accusing spiritualists of picking and choosing as they see fit. Does this not happen within Christianity, hence over 30 thousand denominations?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  9. Bill

    Sorry, but this article is absurd. Many people reject organized religion, and it's fanciful descriptions of "God" or gods, because it makes no rational sense. Organized religions arbitrarily proclaim totally innocuous human activities as "sins" – eating pork or beef; working on the sabbath; masturbation (not to mention all of the obsessive-compulsive rules, some punishable by death, in Leviticus!). They squabble with one another, each claiming to be be the one true faith, while all of them peddle illogical nonsense. The overwhelming majority of people who subscribe to a particular religious organization do so for no better reason than having been born into it. The world would be a far better place if each of us abandoned organized religion and strove to be kind, peaceful, and happy... without the prod of mythological "heaven" and "hell".

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

      Organized religions are all controlling then and everyone born into it only follows it for that one reason? Not true. I was born into Islam, yet I gave myself the choice many times as to whether something else could possibly be the truth many times. I was born into Islam, yet I chose it for myself seeing it as the only true way. Everyone has something they choose as their own way. It may be hard for you to understand, but you have to consider that of the billions of people in the world following organized religions, there are many amongst them who choose to follow their religion despite being born into it.
      Besides, without organized religion, governments would not have been able to organize themselves well either in the distant human past. Some religions are bad, and some good. But, religion has always been a force to drive people to do the right thing. Atheists can contend this all they want as being unjust, but it is the simple truth. Even if I became Atheist, I would still say people need some moral doctrinal code to abide by.
      Look at the UN, they have a list of rights which are to be followed by the people of the world. It's not religious, but it is a moral code. without an all-encompassing moral code, humanity is screwed. All humans need laws, and without recognizing the law and following it, man is doomed. Go read Lord of the Flies and that should give you a pretty good scenario of what a society without laws is like.

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

      Haseeb, the simple truth is that you are an idiot!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Bill

      Haseeb writes: "It may be hard for you to understand, but you have to consider that of the billions of people in the world following organized religions, there are many amongst them who choose to follow their religion despite being born into it."

      Did you actually INTEND to make such a ridiculous statement?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  10. wbaldwin@saddleback.edu

    absolutely wrong. you are relating my beliefs with a "movement." my wife just pooped twice, thats a movement.

    religious beliefs are someone else's opinion. my connection to god is personal, as is taking personal responsibility with your morals and actions. Religion relieves a broader range of responsibility by focusing your beliefs into one tunnel vision set of ideological "values" that not all people in the world believe or follow.

    I am one with the world. I try extremely hard to make the right decisions in life without the influence of a "group" of people who believe a "truth."

    We need to realize that someone figuring out life for themselves by meditating on the beach is the same as someone going to church looking for meaning.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  11. jdooley

    There is nothing traditional about reading the bible. The idea of common people being literate, let alone reading the bible, is a relatively new one. Historically, your average Christian worshiped via symbols, such as the crucifix, or through the sermons at their local church. For Alan Miller to claim that bible study is the only way to worship is preposterous and laughable!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  12. Chris33

    "The first clergyman was the first rascal who met the first fool."

    – Voltaire

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  13. james reid

    Dear Mr. Miller,
    What you also might want to explore is your seemingly burning need to have someone or something else tell you what to think and how to behave. Maybe those "fence-sitters" as you call them are actually doing more work than you are by taking the responsibility to determine how to structure their own beliefs and live their lives on their own.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  14. Tr1Xen

    I'm neither spiritual nor religious.

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

      Same. It's as if he's saying if you're not religious, you're worse off. Although he thinks being spiritual is better than having no belief whatsoever. A shame people think that.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • MLP

      Same, neither religious or spiritual but care deeply about the people in my life and the world in which i live. This is a thought process that i believe the religious do not realize about the non. If you are a non-believer, it doesnt mean you hate everyone and have no concept of community, it means you can think for yourself and make decisions for yourself without the need to follow 'something'.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  15. michael

    what a load of biased crap.. who the hell gives this guy the know on whats good for me. as if some church knows better then me how to find the sacred in life. He must be against alternative medicine as well no doubt..

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  16. BWANA DIK

    Belief in the childish fantasies of religion ,(god(s), heaven and hell, for instance), makes no more sense than belief in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy. Spiritual feelings which foster kindness, compassion and humanity are far more real and legitimate than the magical thinking of religion ,which demands that mentally competent people utterly abandon science, logic and tolerance..

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  17. traducer

    After seeing this article on your front page this morning I've decided never to come back to this website for news info. The most dangerous thing IS believing in religion. The bloodiest wars have been fought over it.

    "Belief is the death of intelligence" – Robert Anton Wilson

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

      the Nazi's were mostly christian. Stalin was like a god to the people.. I agree, religions and like are the destruction to society.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  18. Out with the Old

    Talk about and Opinion piece! What's the difference between the "me" generation and the "rugged individual" generation that is center to this countries founding principles. The problem is that the idea of a collective has shown time and time again to benefit a few while standing on the necks of the masses. The decision to be agnostic is not fence sitting. The American dream has changed and the cynics have taken over; not without reason. We questions everything because nothing you told us was TRUE!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  19. truth

    So the author is arguing that letting people find "god" on their own is bad? Even more reason to destroy organized religion, all it does is control and oppress true feelings. Face it, each and everyone of us is a god, we just need to flesh out our abilities.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  20. Realist

    In about another two hours, p-o-r-n sales will go up. Buyers are at church services at this moment

    September 30, 2012 at 11:04 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.