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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. DCBuck

    While Miller does have a point that "spiritual but not religious" could lead people into justifying almost anything, most religions boil down to a personal walk with our creator. In my religion (Christianity), there is a wide spectrum of belief, from the liberal MCC to the ultra-zealous independent evangelical churches. So, who's right, Mr. Miller? Or, does it not matter, for the sole fact that these people are in an organized (by man) church; thus, they are truly on the "right path?"

    It seems Miller's time would be far more productive in determining why organized religion (NOT faith) has let so many people down and what can be done to rectify this. Thus, in the end, he appears more interested in "blaming the victim."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • HoneyBooBoo

      The religious already justify anything they want by selectively picking and choosing which verses they will adhere to.

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

      Furthermore, they have no reason to act morally in accordance with the scripture as they know they can repent and be forgiven.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  2. allenwoll

    For those of us who have a functioning conscience, nothing else is necessary ! ! !

    I consider one's conscience to be one's soul !

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  3. David88

    What tripe! By all means let us all subscribe to some higher authority wielded by an organized religious edifice so that we can get our share of religion based killings, bombings, persecutions, and molestation's. This will clearly prove, once and for all, that our organized religion is superior to all others. And joining up is made easy. Religions, any of them, only require that one abandon all reason. Seems like a simple enough rule. Christian, Islam, Judaism,it makes no difference, they all take their turns over the centuries at the wheel of brutality and intolerance. Look around the world. The killing you see every day is almost entirely as a result of one religious belief or another. The sooner this is replaced by a flight to reason the better.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  4. CAW

    I figure I'll start believing in god when he turns my glass of water into wine. Well not just wine. I mean he is omnipotent so let's make it a 1998 Petrus Pomerol.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  5. Genieo

    What a load this article is. If Church works for the author, then fine let him sit in the first pew! As for me, there is nothing in a church of value. SELL THE VATICAN FEED THE WORLD!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  6. scarface

    Why do religious folks fear what others do? Why the disconnect? Why the feeling of superiority? There are many paths to the top of the mountain. Religion has the truths too but it's been mucked up with fools.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  7. Michael

    The CNN Belief Blog us usually full of weak spiritual nonsense that does nothing but diminish faith in God. For once there is an article with some power and truth to it. Well done sir.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • John Gault

      You sir are alone in positive comments about this article.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  8. Kayleigh

    As a woman in her mid 20's, who has in the past few years claimed the "spiritual but not religious", I'd like to point out this is mainly because of a realization most religions are focused on the same purpose of connecting with God. No what practice you follow you will find that connection. So then why label yourself to one? I was raised a Baptist Christian and left the church at 18, because of the negative feelings that were boiling up in my heart. The negativity has nothing to do with ANY past religious practice or war, but simply from a room full of people where most believed that what I saw as my desire for my personal life experience was wrong. I was afraid to experience my own a personal life journey separate from church, but now 7 years later I am happy, fulfilled and much more wise and informed about the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Kayleigh

      No one practice you follow*

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  9. rp

    "Imposion of Belief" is right. But the author is wrong on his biggest point – that using this "spiritual but not religious" label is the same is not having a position. These people have a position, and their position is that the major relgions do not represent "the truth". if you take that position in some countries, you might be killed. Finally here in the U.S. people are free to distance themselves from the dangerous programming of Christianity and the other major religions. BUT... we have not yet reached a point where such a position is socially acceptable. Thus, most people choose this "spiritual but not religious" label to reduce the level of derision and discrimination they will face from people around them who don't dare to allow themselves to consider non-believers as having a rational position.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  10. Andrew

    "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."
    The trouble with religious people is they are so desperate for "positive exposition" and "explanations" that they'll take whatever "explanation" – read: religion – is popular.

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
    This makes no sense – trying to find the Truth by yourself is "avoiding thinkink too hard," while blindly accepting doctrine makes you a philosopher?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  11. WiseWomanChicago

    Wow. I am so offended by this article I can hardly articulate all the ways! "Which one is it?" Are you kidding? I cannot believe CNN even printed this - this piece is an insult to my intelligence and my freedom of thought. I am done with CNN, I'll find another news source.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • TJ 1965

      Are you not insulting others intelligence by reprimanding CNN? I can easily identify this article as opinion, not news. You may not want to read opinion articles on CNN's website, but I think their news is good.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Kevin Barbieux

      Just remember, CNN's goal is not to share news, but to make money. They do that buy charging advertisers according to how many viewers they get on this website. That you came to this webpage, and commented, means you just made CNN more money. The content of the article isn't nearly as important.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  12. eqgold

    People like this always seem to think that if you don't belong to their organized cult (religion) that you have no morals or principles. What nonsense. People with real morals and principles, the ones they apply every day, know that these have nothing to do with what cult they do or don't belong to. If you really have moral principles for yourself, you don't need the be "led".

    September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  13. playingalongtheway

    Judge much? Is Mr. Miller so blind he can not see that he is spreading hate simply because others do not believe in formal doctrine? Formal doctrine is not required to be a good person. All religions have flaws as well as benefits and ultimately that choice is up to an individual. Being "spiritual but not religious" is a valid choice. Mr. Miller has simply formally come out as a hate spreader. Very sad. The world has too much of that already.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  14. Julie

    It also annoys me to no end that these "religions" seem to think you must always have the threat and fear of sin to behave yourself. WE ARE NOT CHILDREN. WE ARE ADULTS. We know the consequences of not conducting ourselves in an appropriate manner. We don't need mommy following us around threatening to beat us to death in order to act like with compassion to our fellow humans!

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

      Its not about behaving, its about voting.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  15. binreal

    As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe in Him and what He has done! That said, I'm more and more against "organized religion" even in the name of the same dear Lord that I believe in...because the ONE thing I believe in almost as highly as in Jesus is the power of free choice whether or not to believe in Him! I am a VERYSTRONG believer in the separation of church and state!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Jon franco

      Right on!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  16. Racer X

    The logic in article is so ludicrous that I cannot believe this person has any standing in a business. I was going to reply with a detailed dissertation on each point but I think much debate as been posted. May Alan Miller's God have mercy on his dimwit soul.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  17. Ram

    This article is not fitting for CNN. It's a Christian extremest view, cloaked in a pretense of objectivity.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Kevin Barbieux

      It's funny how so many Christians believe it is ok to be deceitful, if the goal is to lead people to Jesus.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  18. bodybuilder

    Alan, get real. Your diatribe is not a cop-out, its mere delusion. Mostly younger kids are running? Maybe they have some sense finally. I'm almost 60 and I'm "spiritual but not religious". You are in denial about religion being nothing more than the business of controlling weak minded sheep. It is all about money and power and zero about God or spirituality concerning beyond daily life. Gee, it only took the Pope how many centuries to apologize for torturing countless innocent people to death because they would not convert? Every day the papers are full of child abuse. Hello bud, Denial is more than a river in Egypt.

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

      Spirituality allows us to go beyond limited man made "belief systems" which is what this article is all about. When we go beyond the devisiveness of all religions, we see that we are truly all the same. Lets all start living the love and the working together to bring about world peace and harmony to our planet before we self-destruct. There is nothing blissful about waking up to the suffering of all beings and becoming more aware of our place in the universe and work that we have to do!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • BoraBora360

      Isn't the story of your so-called "contemporary society" (modernity, I assume), the narrative of an "implosion of beliefs"? "I'm spiritual but not religious" may not necessarily "highlight" that implosion but portray how difficult it is for some "westerners" to totally depart/cut off from a religious perception/vision of the universe

      September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  19. justmyview50

    I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I will not force my beliefs onto anyone else, however I will be happy to share my thoughts with those who ask. I don't feel it's necessary to dismiss other people's beliefs as we all have the freedom of choice within our own minds. I do my best to live my life with integrity, based on what I have come to know in my own heart. There are no original human thoughts; belief or non-belief in God – both based on our personal experiences. The freedom to choose means we are responsible for determining who/what we decide to follow. I choose Jesus because that belief has never failed me. I do not care for organized religion because it has failed me. Upon death, we will all find out our personal truths.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  20. Mary

    I love my GOD and I worship him in my way. The "organized religion" of today seams more about money and politics than the teachings of Christ.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 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.