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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: My Take • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. Belarus Marek

    Gimme good ole paganism. Leave the rest behind.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  2. servantofTHEWORD

    So many are just lost...seeking...searching...to those who are lost...knock on God's door...He will answer.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • The Wizard

      You are correct. Just don't knock of Her door through one of these man made religions. She does not want to hear about the hate, intolerance and prejudice that they teach.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  3. Flying Spirit

    The article was probably written by a Christian Nut who has no understanding of Spirituality vs. religious rituals. Once a person experiences spirituality, they will never become a prisoner to Religion. Spirituality, actually experiences the oneness of whole humanity as ONE, as opposed to Religion, all world religions included, which teaches Divisions among us, which only splits us and not bring oneness. Kudos to Spirituality and all spiritual souls.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  4. stevetall

    Another pinheaded religous thinker. Sheesh. When will we get a break from this kind of mental midgetry?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • DonDurant

      When are we going to get a break from you? People like you and the comments you leave are a dime a million. At least try to make your retarded comments interesting.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  5. Vinechaser

    What this man doesn't like are fools. People who say one thing, but do/are another. It appears to me his angle is misguided. It's not one group who behaves this way, it's many people in all groups.

    He thinks "belief" is what makes us spiritual? Beliefs are no more than stories or ideas to which we become emotionally attached. That's why people argue and fight over them. Or become offended and upset when beliefs are criticized. Belief can initially inspire us to act, but beliefs must be abandoned in favor of direct experience. "God" is within us, waiting.

    "At the heart of spiritual but not religious" is TRUTH. But few genuinely seek or find it. Most of us pay lip service. I've known Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Yogis/Yoginis, and Spiritualists. In all categories I have come across MANY who only want "nice things" and to "feel better". People are people. It doesn't matter what category we or others put us in, or what we say we believe, it boils down to how we seek ourselves and what we experience within our own minds.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  6. seb

    The author's point of vue is the dangerous cop-out, putting off responsibility for self-growth and management to some 3rd party, having some 3rd party mutter an incantation and wave their hand about to dispel one's wrongdoings without actually fixing what caused that behavior, and so on. This is not the teachings in the new testament.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  7. Dr. D

    What is a cop-out is that essay – all criticism without a substantive argument. What's the point, exactly? Being unhappy for the sake of it? I'll stay Unitarian, thank you – the "hodgepodge" he describes with over 400 years of history and formal study behind it...

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  8. John Smith

    This guy doesn't get it.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  9. mike

    Religion is in its death throws I can't wait until it passes, I'm so sick of all the violence and judgment.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  10. There IS an explanation

    you know, "spiritual but not religious IS a growing trend for a reason. If you would like to know why and have an explanation based on facts, (not a rant of opinion) read the book "Christianity after religion" , Written by Diana Butler-Bass. That book is a written to explain this phenomenon, with an explanation based in published and peer reviewed scientific studies.

    as I understand (being a church worker myself) much of the spiritual but not religious practice is not a failure on the part of the individual to ask or deal with hard questions, but a rejection by the individual of the of the churches response to the hard questions. watching other believers be rejected by the church for thinking differently of a variety of issues. largely this can be a response to wanting to have a relationship with God, while dealing with the disenfranchisement that comes with watching the church, its leaders and other christians behaving badly. this spiritual but not religious "issue" could have been thwarted a long time ago if the christian community (whatever it's beliefs on social issues) could just take some advice from actor and all around awesome human being, Will Wheaton: "Don't be a dick".

    September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • md22mdrx

      DBAD is a great rule to live by. Too bad so many church officials and churchGOERS don't prescribe to it.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  11. Noah

    You're not going to enlighten people by condescending their spiritual journey.

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

      Obviously you have never been cornered by a crunchy, or an overweight administrative assistant, or a 22 y/o college drop out, and had to listen to their "spiritual beliefs" trust me, it is difficult to roll your eyes dramatically enough.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • The Hosted

      People love to be talked down to. It is what the whole of religion is based on.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • sokesky

      SarahB, it's been my experience that most people won't share that stuff unless you ask. If you're not going to listen, quit asking!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  12. jayleeje

    what a stupid article.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  13. BT

    This is the single dumbest article ever featured at the front of CNN.com. Bravo.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  14. Helaine

    I don't hear anything in Mr. Miller's comments that I haven't heard a thousand times before. "The breakdown of society," the 'take the easy road, the lazy road, the uncommitted road'" stance. The beliefs in which he's invested his life are coming unraveled, not because of lack of commitment or laziness, but because when critically examined, and with a society that now relishes rather than demonizes individuality, religiously-preached doctrine just simply doesn't hold water for many. Church was put in between god and the masses for the sake of garnishing power and riches for a very few heads of church. I don't need an interpreter when it comes to my relationship (or lack thereof) with god. I understand that must put a great deal of fear in Mr. Miller; change is often frightening. His criticism of others for finding a god-based, albeit non-bible based, belief system in their own way speaks volumes about his insecurities in his own beliefs and the very unchristian voice of accusation rather than dicussion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  15. religion is a fable

    Lol, funny. One fable arguing against the existence of another fable.

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

      Agreed.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • The Hosted

      But my fable is real and everyone else's is wrong, even when they say it is real!

      Indeed, religion is about the silliest thing in the world and to argue over which version is "right" is sillier.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  16. MrId

    Don't worry. Everyone "finds" religion when Death comes a knocking........

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

      Hah....not even close. Nice desperate attempt to make up a reality that suits you though. Kind of like making up a god in the first place.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • hank danger

      whatever. the entire concept of god is dumb. it's for the weak and mentally immature. society is merely evolving. What do atheists believe? we believe in morals. I don't need the fictional promise of rainbows and streets of gold to be a good person. Heaven is a lie and joke. It's like bribing kids with cookies if they do good. the better parents just teach their children to want to do good.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  17. Mr.Rational

    This is the most backward written article I have ever read from CNN. They know more spiritual people would not commit acts of violence,are more nurturing towards nature, have a better understanding of their fellow being and belive in a collevtive state of consciousness..So,there will be no sensationalist acts and no news to report.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  18. Say it ain't so

    I'm one of those so called "spiritual but not religious". You described me pretty much accurate but not entirely. I don't claim to know the truth, in fact, i'm still searching for it. I know a good place to start is in God & his son Jesus Christ. If people want to follow a religion then by all means do it if that works for you. I've always thought that your search for God is a personal thing. I'm not gonna tell you do this, don't do that. If you want to live a life that's to God's pleasing there are certain things you must do & they're not easy. My being spiritual doesn't give me an easy-pass. I still must follow the same guidelines you all must follow, i'm not exempt. My take is this: man had a relationship with the Father since the beginning of time, religions were established for people who needed a sense of union for a common goal, empowerment & reassurance of the faith.

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

      Very well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. Alex

    This article would be better off at fox news. Cnn readers are too intellegent for this crap.

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

      Nah, this article got it right.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Richard Cox

      Alex, you "hit the nail on the head". It seems like very religious people are people who believe what they are told and don't have to give it much thought. In my opinion, that must be the reason that many religious people identify with conservative politics. FOX caters to the simple-minded or closed-minded. Organized religion also preys on people who are too lazy to look for the real answer or realize there is no answer. A spiritual person lives from the inside and a religious person lives from the outside. Spiritual people don't try to force their ideas on anybody.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Tamila

      You don't have to be religious to find "spiritual not religious" people obnoxious, plenty of us atheist and agnostics find them even more terrible.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  20. Semper Cogitatus

    The only real value that religion has in the world is that of people getting together regularly as a community. Calling yourself "spiritual" while avoiding the one positive thing religion can have is profoundly silly.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:10 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.