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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. Meia

    The writer's line of thinking is very flawed at so many levels. First, he presumes to "know" what is happening in another person's head, life and experience. That is an insult to the entire human race. How does he know that any particular individual hasn't studied or at the least read any of the major religious books? He is no different than the so called leaders of these major religions telling their followers what to do, how to think and behave. I read and studied the bible for 6 years and finally tossed it. I am reading other religious books and find them fascinating. Actually, it takes great courage to accept what you as an individual have found to be true and follow your own path. Way more courage than letting some priest, pastor or other leader tell you how to think and live. Most of it is common sense really. If you lack that, then there are enough people on the planet to guide you...and note I said "guide" you. I am not an atheist, but I have found atheists to be more Christ like than Christians. Look at our religious right in this country...hateful bunch, that act completely the opposite of Christ. Amazing really... And they are not the only ones. The religious extremists of Islam and other religious groups. There are even wack jobs in the new age community. I think this article is so very poorly thought out. And he is condemning millions of people who are seeing that something is wrong in religion. Things are not adding up. And he is not asking the real question....why are people leaving mainstream religion... Most likely because of people just like him.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  2. pastorswife

    okay, first of all I am one who refuses to be religous. Religion implies that I must live by a set of man made rules and laws. Instead I choose to develop my spiritual relationship with the one true living God. The author asks "what is practiced" and "what is believed". What is practiced and believed in my life is based on The Holy Bible, not what any denomination states I must believe. My relationship with God is not base on warm and fuzzy feelings, it is based on a deep faith in God...who has never failed me and will never fail me...who has a divine plan for my life which includes eternal life with him in Heaven.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  3. A

    Oh, ok, this changed me. I'll go to church and be judged because I'm gay and be told that I'm not important – or I'll get that feeling!.. Said no one, ever.

    Let me just say that there are good churches out there – but too many are so full of hate. I am spiritual but not religious because I want to stay far away from the crazies. The current religion system is such a mess that it isn't funny. It's becoming "how many people can we get in here?" That should not be what it is about!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  4. Sonicsnout

    So this moron thinks that simply because I am "spiritual, but not religious" that I have no desire to study the historical context behind the Bible or any of the other world religions? That's an awful big assumption. I ditched formal religion because I did study the Bible and other religions and compared them to each other and their historical contexts. Can I write an article crying about how kids don't buy albums anymore but instead cobble together playlists of mp3's, and then have the audacity to say that it's because "these darn kids don't know what's best for them", and have it published by CNN and draw a paycheck for it?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  5. ColoradoFamilyMan

    CNN,
    Why is this on your front page? Don't be like Fox. This really isn't news.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  6. Fitzgerald

    This article is total garbage and makes no sense; The author has no sense of reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  7. Lou

    I thought it was a pretty good article for CNN, however I think a bit arbitrary on the authors part. The author critized the rise of spiritual relativism as if they had some moral obligation to play their part in society. Who are spiritual relativists morally obligated to? The author's notion of morality? Well that is kind of relative, unless you have an absolute standard. If so, What is it? How do we know its true? Are there absolutes? These are the questions to ask....While other's may critize my comments, you are assuming an absolute notion of truth in order to question what I am saying....Long story short, we are always in a battle of Worldviews. We must first acknowledge that and then politely and openly discuss it. I am sure we would all agree that Ideas have Consequences.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  8. Joe

    God is a myth.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Evolution is a myth.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  9. Eric C. Lopez Rosario

    So people who prefer a personal spiritual experience rather than to be associated with churches aren't going deep enough? I think the fact that someone shuns organized religion is in itself a well though out decision. Someone obviously thought it through, saw the pro's and con's of being affiliated to a church, and decided not to. The fact of the matter is that as people get more educated and have more economic freedom, they start noticing that organized religion is tyrannical. Pretty much the source of a lot of hate and conflict, and always has been.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  10. Kiran

    This article is a bunch of BS. All he's saying is that you have to be religious to be spiritual or you aren't "making the hard choices". That's clearly false. So what if your beliefs are "a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices"? You're allowed to believe whatever you want. This is just a pro-Christian doctrine telling everyone that Christianity is the true religion because of its roots in our country. Slavery and patriarchy are in the roots of our country too. Do we let them continue to "make the hard choices"? This guy has no idea what he's talking about.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  11. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    The religion industry will bring all of it's considerable financial resources to bear in an effort to keep you from realizing that you don't need them.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  12. Emilio Dumphuque

    It seems to me that the modern "spiritual person" holds similar beliefs to the Deists of the founding fathers.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  13. H

    You know what's a cop out? Saying "Anyone who doesnt believe exactly what I do is a cop out."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  14. Rachelle Cox

    This entire article reads like a religious temper tantrum. It sounds like the author is just peeved that people are finding their own way instead of blindly accepting his opinion as truth. Too bad. I don't need to attend boring church services that hold no relevancy to me where they beg for money so they can buy some more bling for their ugly building.

    The Christian church preaches following Christ but in the next breathe they condemn all of the virtues he espouses. It's not our fault that we turned our backs on that hypocritical mess and started using the brains God gave us.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  15. Midwesterntexan

    I am spiritual and not religious. My philosophy is to leave the world a better place than you found it. Simple. It guides me in answering any difficult question and provides a moral blueprint for my life. This is my personal choice since I have a problem with all the contradictions I find in scripture.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  16. Eric C. Lopez Rosario

    So people who prefer a personal spiritual experience rather than to be associated with churches aren't going deep enough? I think the fact that someone shuns organized religion is in itself a well though out decision. Someone obviously thought it through, saw the pro's and con's of being affiliated to a church, and decided not to. The fact of the matter is that as people get more educated and have more economic freedom, they start noticing that organized religion is tyrannical. Pretty much the source of a lot of hate and conflict, and always has been.

    Get over it. Can't wait for religion to slowly go away, and join the Dodo as a useless relic of the past.

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

      C'mon – the Dodo was comparably wonderful!

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

    This article is rubbish.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  18. snowboarder

    religious absolutism is simply a means of control. nothing more.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  19. RR

    ...works for you. Quit trying to define it for others. Your definition of fence-sitting may be another person's definition of enlightenment.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  20. Ben

    This is hands down THE STUPIDEST article I have read on CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • rachel

      I concur.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Brenna

      AGREE

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

      I have to agree with Ben. This is a very stupid article !

      September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • zerobelief

      I could not agree more.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:25 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.