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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. DAlexNYC

    One of the worst articles I have ever read.

    There are two types of people in the world. Intelligent people with no religion and religious people with no intelligence.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • aaron

      That's a pretty defensive response on your part. totally uninformed so I am assuming you are of the type that is religious

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • thetruth323

      I couldn't agree more!! The article isn't well thought out, it is poorly written and jumps all over the place. Typical my way or the highway BS from the unenlightened.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • DAlexNYC

      Proud Atheist...I am part of the enlightened. Every religious person I know is mentally weak. They don't want to take the time and energy to find the real answers that are rooted in the scientific method and facts. They want to reference a 2000+ year old book that's based on allegorical literature with no eye witnesses or source references. The facts that are produced through science are much more wondrous than your version of the flying spaghetti monster and creation myths or walking on water. But, whatever makes you feel better about your impending death right?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  2. Ron Weisberg

    Phooey! Hectoring, superior and self righteous. Most people become "religious" and swallow a belief system to have a sense of community and to escape uncertainty; a life of goodness and dedication to others can come of this but is not the main goal. Spirituality without commitment to a religion can be superficial, but so can religion. Spirituality can also be a courageous search for one's person truth and lead to a life of service, depth of experience and high morality. The author sounds like my mother-in-law.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  3. CoR2237

    People establishing their own beliefs on the world based on their personal observations? How selfish!

    I'm never one to attack an article, but this is bad on a lot of different levels. Is the author afraid of individuals with beliefs that aren't easily labelled or understood? Is he just another bitter boomer that will find any excuse under the sun to bash youth? I'm honestly curious, because I see no valid criticisms in this entire article that can't be said of believers of well-known denominations. Can some "spiritual-but-not-religious" people be selfish and exclusive? Yes, but so can Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Protestants, etc ad infinitum.

    Someone is way too bent out of shape over something that means so little in the grand scheme of things. The belief of an individual is between them and "God" by whatever name they choose to call him/her/it. No one owes you an explanation

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • sokesky

      Please don't bash all of us Boomers. We are not all bitter old geezers shouting "get off my lawn", like this guy.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  4. Willard Mittens

    Man has corrupted all organized religions. Churches main goal now is to take peoples money.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  5. Loathstheright

    God never existed and never will. It is foolish to actually think that this mystical magical invisible being exists. You can be good and no harm without any made up gods.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • aaron

      Wow you must be God yourself to be able to see clear into the future and see that there never will be a god!! Pretty bold statement

      September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  6. Julie

    This guy is clueless. The reason most people ran screaming from traditional churches is BECAUSE they read the bible and other religious texts. Then they realized how much most traditional religions completely ignore the message of the bible in exchange for blind, mob mentality, hatred, intolerance and power. Religion doesn't want you to think... it wants to do the thinking for you, but those who are spiritual without being crazy enough to follow a religion use their own brains (as god intended) to observe the world and the people in it. They chose instead tolerance, love, compassion, wisdom and education instead of trying to force round pegs into square holes like he churches do.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  7. Nick

    What a bunch of hubris.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  8. Philip Mark Edwards

    As an unsuccessfully acculturated North American 'Indian', I have spent many many years in reflection on cultural and social issues. First of all, IMO Native North Americans have not had much of an 'organized religion. I think the ancestors of the Meso-American Empires tried to impose a system here that we successfully overcame.

    IMO, 'how you feel' is really the root of so-called religion. Shamanisn formed the basis of belief systems which later devolved into heirarchies of religious, social and political mass control systems. I've spent my lifetime trying to understand that way and why I can't fit into it.

    The 'feeling' part of it is essential to your well=being and your BELIEF – or at least the suspension of you disbelief. Putting aside your preconceptions and pre-jjudgements of what shamanism is, it was actually a multi-facted system that combined believing, feeling, the supernatural and most importantly HEALTH into the well-being of the individual and the community. He was or was part of the leadership IMO.

    So the 'medicine man' may have also been the shaman but bear in mind that there were many kinds of shaman and many aspects of shamanisn. The idea of 'holy' is connected to the concepts of 'hail/heil/hale' and HEALTH ... and certainly much more than physical wellness.

    Organized religion although useful and necessary in some repsects is a social control system. People must believe. They must have answers. They must feel good or ... be made afraid by the controllers.

    Nevertheless, I think the controllers are waiting for the return of the 'deity (or deities)' – a powerful being with awesome technological power ... and power is what it is all about to them.

    So what do the 'good shephards' feast upon?(conformity? innocence? control? minds? sacrifices?...)

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  9. itsmammoth

    THE DANGER OF PEOPLE BEING HAPPY.

    Yes, the danger of people trying to think for themselves. This article looks like it came straight out of the 1600's.

    Oh, and nice picture of some dude probably high on LCD sitting on a trashed beach. That's what all non-believers must look like, right? This article is trash.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Willard Mittens

      Haha! He is high on a flat screen display?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • sokesky

      Gotta agree with you.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  10. old golfer

    Being a Deist, I am more than a tad offended at this hard push for religion. The one last thing in our life that the government or anyone else can't control is our belief's, whatever they may be. What this is really about is the loss of revenue to religion and the instilling of fear into people, hell and all you know. Most religions are about control, money and fear.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  11. binreal

    When religions dissolve down to the Greatest Commandment that Jesus Himself said "Love the Lord with all of your heart, all of your soul and all of your mind" and "love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all of the Law and the Prophets" and those who call themselves Christians actually FOLLOW that Greatest Commandment, we will see a return back.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Hamm

      If God isn't real then half of that commandment is either completely useless, or even harmful. The rest, the Golden Rule, existed long before Jesus and makes complete sense from an evolutionary point of view. We can do without Christianity.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • JJ

      I don't need a commandment to tell me how to treat others with love and respect. Somehow I was able to figure that out on my own...

      September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Jon franco

      Wait, what? There are 12 comandments now???

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Uztov

      ^^ Win

      September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  12. Jason

    Surely a superficial spiritual buffet is better than religious fundamentalism any day.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  13. Harry Balsagna

    Incoherent dribble.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  14. John Romano

    Most religious people follow the religion they were "born" with, and probably never question it or try think too hard about other points of view.
    Most spiritual people have been exposed and analyzed several religions (and non-religious materials) to come to the conclusion of wanting to live only the positive and applicable writings of books written during the "stone age."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Hamm

      Yes, in the same way that many people never venture past the kinds of foods, sports, and other activities that they did with their families growing up. That's OK as long as you don't get the notion that your culture is somehow better than everyone else's, especially if you've never bothered to sample other people's cultures. In the US culture wars many are taught that their religion is better than others and they accept that without the slightest attempt to see what other religions have to offer.

      It's the worse kind of bigotry.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  15. ryan evans

    I love how your conclusion is that everyone should be christian. Go move to a muslim country, you'd fit in great.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  16. Jonathan

    I completely disagree with Allan Miller's article above. One's true religion or spirituality (It doesn't matter what you call it) is inherently personal. No matter what the romance, organized religions are mostly about control and power. Nothing to do with God. And we do not need these man-made doctrines to challenge ourselves, create great art or become the best person we can
    possibly be.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  17. David N

    I can not believe this crap s on you front page of your web site The writer is obviously only pro his religion as he attacks so many others. He states anyone that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices, and lists the Karma Sutra as a religious book is he just stupid? His knowledge is less than stellar as he references the King James Bible which in it self is an edited version of the Bible. The Bible itself has been edited and adjusted through history as the Christians have incorporated other cultures. That particular book has been used as the justification for sever atrocities throughout history from Hitlers genocide to racial segregation here is America. This is your web site CNN and perhaps you should have an editor for this crap

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Bob Bales

      The manuscripts used for the translation of the King James (and other translations) are virtually identical to earliest manuscripts we have found. For the New Testament, we have more copies, made closer in time to the originals, than we do for other works of the period.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  18. steve

    Religion is like a cut diamond and no matter what side you look in from you are still looking in at the same center. Too often though religious people get obsessed with what side of the diamond they occupy. I think the 'spiritual-but-not-relgious' lifestyle is something of an academic one – that concerns a widening, deepening spiritual experience by way of research and the development of a demonstrative practice rather than simply a rejection of religious scriptures and constructs. I believe that a person can't not be a spiritual being irregardless of what they believe, practice, or given what choices they make in life. It is the spiritual force that impels people to the churches and synagogues and mosques. In tyrannical times such as these, people would do well by their spirituality and religious beliefs in tolerance, compassion, and servitude – to seek out the commonalities and goodness between people and their faiths – and connect with those who are different than you are. But the spiritual-but-not-religious lifestyle, in my opinion, is what begins to happen to a person when they see inside the beautiful, multi-dimensional diamond and realize there are more sides to the picture than just his or hers. I really like that the golden rule – 'In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Jesus, Matthew 7:12)" – is also found in various other religious scripture:

    "Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself. (The Bahai Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings)

    "Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Buddhism, The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18)

    "One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct....loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." (Confucianism, Confucius, Analects 15.23)

    "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." (Hinduism, Mahabharata 5:1517)

    "Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself." (Islam, The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith)

    "One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated." (Jainism, Mahavira, Sutrakritanga 1.11.33)

    "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it." (Judaism, Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a)

    "We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive." (Native Spirituality, Chief Dan George)

    "I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all." (Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib, p.1299)

    "Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain and your neighbour's loss as your own loss." Taosim, Lao Tzu, T'ai Shang) Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218)

    "We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." (Unitarianism, Unitarian principle)

    "Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself." (Zoroastrianism, Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29)

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  19. diamondmelody

    This is an interesting read, and I'll only give my take here, as I fit into the spiritual but not religious. I feel no need to decide on a religion. I find, after growing up Catholic, being indoctrinated in Catholic schooling my whole life, that the process makes no sense. It's been offered to me that choosing a religion out of FAITH, is what the religious choice truly is- to go against that voice in your head that tells you not to believe, and act solely on faith. And perhaps it is. I, for one, do not need an answer to our existential existence. I am not afraid of the afterlife, or lack thereof, nor do I feel that any body or person can dictate one CORRECT way to life one's life. This what wars are about. The egoistic idea of I am right, you are wrong, and religion does not teach tolerance, it teaches conversion- that one group knows something the others do not.

    What I am worried about: I am worried now, about being a good person, instilling good values in my children, doing things with the examples of Christ in mind- that Love is more powerful than any other power out there. Whether I answer for this in the end, is of no consequence to me. I do not believe in a damning God. I believe Religion, like mythology is organized to quell our human need to explain our being. For me, I believe "to be" and to make the best of my "being" is the only organized religion I need.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  20. jomama

    You either believe in God or u don't. Too bad u don't find out until it's too late. There may be a reason for that, or there may not. There is only one truth, and the fact that you, I or anybody else does or doesn't "believe" in it doesn't change that.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      "There is only one truth"

      and each religion claims to know it and condemns the others for their lies.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Jon franco

      how do you know there is only one truth?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Uztov

      Please do not feed the trolls.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
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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.