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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 (9,993 Responses)
  1. Kevin Barbieux

    "Spiritual" only exists in our imagination.

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

      same place your god exsists

      September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Kevin Barbieux

      gunther – your imagination is also where you believe you know what my god is.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Dick Izinya

      I think Willy Wonka had the best take on religion:
      Come with me
      And you'll be
      In a world of
      Pure imagination
      Take a look
      And you'll see
      Into your imagination

      We'll begin
      With a spin
      Traveling in
      The world of my creation
      What we'll see
      Will defy
      Explanation

      September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Petar

      As does "religion"

      September 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  2. Craig

    Maybe if organized religion wasn't so judgemental of individuals and just focused on religion, it wouldn't alienate so many people. Religion promotes negative ideas that we are all bad (sin ridden) at the get go and have to atone for some anomalous things from our ancestors–that's more harmful to one's psyche than someone having an individual relationship with God.

    The messages within the Bible have merit, but current Christian religion has gotten so far away from those original ideas that it no longer speaks to the people and their needs–and that's really what religion comes down to–a way to help people cope with their lives and make sense of the world and their place in it. Christianity will either evolve or wither away.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  3. Ed

    Spirituality without religion allows wonderment and awe about our place in the Universe without the restrictive chains of dogma. Such an outlook constructs no walls. It embraces what is common in religions and rejects the devicive parts. We need more of that.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  4. BoulderEagle

    Wow. Judgmental much?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  5. bugbreath

    The author obviously is ignorant and close-minded (typical of most people who have "made up their minds"). He says you have to be one or the other, or you are a cop-out. What an idiot. I have found that the more you learn, the less you know. There are many more sides to this question than are you religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  6. sokesky

    Had the church not failed me, over and over, I'd likely still be going to church. You can go, Mr. Miller, but don't expect to see me there. I'll remain spiritual, but not religious. Religion is a trap for most which benefits a few.

    Do you even KNOW anyone who states they are "spiritual but not religious"? They are generally thoughtful, kind and loving people, and who think way more about their beliefs than the average someone who sits in church on Sunday.

    And you talk about the lack of "transformation" in these folks - don't you realize that "transformation" is what brought them to leave the church?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  7. Eric

    'Spiritual but not religious' is an umbrella term than means many different things for different people. It's the same thing as criticizing people for being 'religious' but even harder to define because the whole concept is that you create your own outlook as an individual. Such a vast group will run the spectrum from burn out to mystic, just like the religious do. How people feel about 'religion' is private and their own fundamental right, and it's only relevant in terms of how it effects society. If people keep to themselves and (basically) stay off my lawn, that's fine by me. I don't care what you believe in as long as I don't know what it is.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  8. Dorothy

    The reason "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 is that there IS no exposition or understanding for anything anyone believes regarding religion. It's all based on "faith," which means a hope, a guess, a desire and some trust.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  9. Matt

    So tell me....which one of the 1000+ religions is the right one?

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

      Man corrupts the truth every time God restores it. That is why there are so many religions trying their best. This is a pattern through out history and you can see it in the scriptures–Truth restored to a prophet, the people kill the prophet and twist the truth, the fragment remains and people are confused. This is Satan's work and he is cunning. But God will win in the end and he has promised that in the last days he will restore it again for the last time and it will not be currupted. This is the true Church of Jesus Christ.

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

      Well said...

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  10. sam123

    I am not sure why we need to separate them out. In my opinion spiritualism is the core of a religion. Spiritualism is a step inside the religion. While religion is for masses as to guide them to reach that divinity inside them, and often comes with various religious practices that also vary religion to religion, spiritualism sets you free in that context to accept the whole truth.

    A religion can not be born unless there was a spiritual awakening in someone. Lets ask this simple question and put this debate to rest. Did Christianity or Muslim or any other faith for that matter exist before Jesus, Mohammed, Mosses were born. Shall we call them religious men?

    I am sure what we practice today is far different than what they preached at their time. Interpretation of their spiritual messages differ and hence so many branches in the same religion. let's be religious and have faith in our belief, but also be spiritual at our heart. Amen.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  11. Kim

    With a screen name like Cheeseburger, I'm pretty certain you are not qualified to determine what meets the standard of intelligent much less "too intelligent."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Willard Mittens

      Right, because Kim is such a brilliant name. Kim Kardashian is a genius!

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

      Perhaps this person is of Korean decent.
      How very religious of you to make assertations based on zero facts.

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

      Perhaps this person is of Korean decent.
      How very religious of you to make assertions based on zero facts.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  12. KeWill

    This man is suggesting that not being a part of a religious group allows one to not have to answer the "hard questions."-If you ever take the time to listen to people who ARE in religious groups you will find that they don't know the answers to the hard questions either. Because when it gets down to it...their answers are " Well, we don't really know...we just know that..."

    This article is a waste of print.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  13. pastafaria

    Plus, if it did rain most Texans would probably be so busy building arks that they wouldn't bother tending to their crops.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  14. Vinnie Vegas

    I'll just skip the "Spiritual but Not Religious" stage and go straight to atheism. Thanks for the article.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  15. Andrew

    The premise of this article actually speaks volumes about the problems with religion. The belief in an idea with out tangible facts. The rejection of science and research in favor of what feels right or what somebody else tells me is right.

    In 1997 the Federal Bureau of Prison released the professed religious adherence rate of those in the U.S. Federal Prison System. Christians made up 80% of the prison population and 80% of the United States population. Atheists made up 0.2% of the prison population but about 8% of the American population. That says that Atheists are statistically much more principled people, much more likely to obey the law.

    The authors proposal that religion holds an exclusivity on morals is not backed up with any statistic or evidence what so ever, rather opinion and belief only.

    While the prison study talks about Atheism rather than "Spiritual but not religious" it certainly does show that the entire premise of the article is flawed, which is that we need religion in order to have "principles"

    I believe Christianity teaches two very dangerous things. The devil tempts us, it is normal to have thoughts of unprincipled things we just aren't supposed to act on them. This divorces us from personal responsibility for our own desires. Second, if I give in and do this unprincipled thing, I can seek repentance and still achieve my eternal reward. This last one is dangerous as it allows people to embrace the "I'll can do what I want now and repent later" thought.

    I would challenge CNN to reconsider if journalism based on "feelings" rather than facts, journalism loaded with prejudiced view points based on ill conceived notions is the type of journalism they would like to be involved in. This only serves to spread intolerance.

    I hope this article is an isolated incidence. I would hate to see CNN become another Faux News.

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

      Thank you Andrew! That was well written and entirely accurate!

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

      No, it's because many people become religious while in prison, so the amount of atheists there diminish.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  16. There IS an explanation

    "Spiritual but not religious" is "dangerous"? maybe dangerous to the retirement plans of today's clergy, but other than that HAHAHA YEAH RIGHT.

    Do you know what I think is dangerous? Churches that hand over simplified answers to complicated questions like it's candy, then demand conformity. NOW who's dangerous?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  17. Kelley James

    More and more people are realizing that organized religion is a device for control. Spirituality should be a personal thing not something that people fight over and hold claim to. Reject organized religion and praise humanity.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  18. Ben Stempel

    This guy is a joke. I have no words to describe his stupidity

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

      But he's intellectual!
      He's NY Salon!
      LOL!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  19. Frank Lee Appalled

    Alan Miller: another self-righteous know-it-all.
    As St. Murphy teaches us, "never argue with a fool, people might not know the difference."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  20. Ben

    The fact that this oversimplified, armchair Sunday school lecture appears as the leading story on CNN is very disappointing.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:37 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.