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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. Bible just a theory

    There are more than 500 references to the word SPIRIT in the BIBLE, but in not a single passage is this WORD DEFINED. The Bible FAILS to tell us 1) what a spirit is 2) what a spirit looks like 3) how to detect a spirit 4) how to measure a spirit, etc. etc. So neither you religious traditionalists nor you "spiritual but not religious" people have the slightest idea of WHAT A SPIRIT IS. FUNNY – it's like arguing about what a JABBERWOCKY from Alice in Wonderland looks like!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  2. Jawsh

    What a terrible piece with no substance, how did this make it onto CNN? Seriously any first year writing prof would give this maybe a B- at best.

    Why the need to attack other people's way of making sense of the world? And more to the point, the author seems to presume a binary choice of "religious, OR confused and independently spiritual" and seems to insinuate that we should be choosing between strict scientific atheism or one of the established, organized religions, and not approach the world. What he fails to realize is that as science increases our understanding of the universe, it only becomes more and more clear that we do not have the capacity to fully understand the universe.

    Personally I simply accept the fact that anything is possible and that I cannot understand everything. I am neither religious nor do I eschew spirituality entirely – to me it is as silly to think that mysterious things beyond our ability to understand or prove do not exist as it is to believe in an invisible man in the sky who controls everything. It is clear which side of his imaginary binary the author puts me on, and the ignorance required for that shows that the author really needs to expand his own understanding of the world on a very basic level.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  3. SK Herron

    I've been hearing nonsense like this for more than 40 years now. Religion is a con and a cop-out, and has sponsored the slaughter of millions. Religion is for stupid, thoughtless automatons who want to be told what to think and how to live. Complete nonsense, and not worthy of CNN at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  4. Nate

    One glaring issue with this article is the simple fact that he has not spoken to any of the people he identifies as "spiritual" but non-religious. Which leads to the other problem of him generalizing this group to a considerable extent, not taking any consideration to any variation in their beliefs and to the extent to which they are separated from religious dogma.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  5. David Mueller

    So I guess then that it is supposedly better to be religious but not spiritual? Isn't that what drives the fanaticism of the middle East? Major mainstream religions of the world that have given spirituality a bad wrap. Better to actually try to be spiritually improved than to hide behind the purple cloak of dogma, at least as long as you have some idea what spirituality involves.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  6. Gary

    'Spiritual but not 'religious' became popular because it was the standard for easy conservative christian girls (most of them) to decide that you were a good enough person to sleep with that their conscious was not troubled by violating their religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  7. pauleky

    This is just another example of the religious trying to discourage real thinking of any kind. They know this will be their downfall. Please, let's all move into the 21st century and leave all these myths behind.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  8. joejeffrey

    Miller's out of his intellectual depth, and it shows. The spiritual-vs.-religion split is because every mainstream religion pays heavy attention to rules and ritual practices, and essentially none to what spirituality is all about: people want a first-hand experience of God. Spirituality is all about ultimates - ultimate meaning, ultimate truth, place in the ultimate scheme of things. There's no room inmainstream religion for any of that. Catholicism, for example, was founded on the rejection of it - "You can only talk to God through your priest." So people are doing their best to meet those needs. Sadly, they get no help from anywhere, so they do do their best. Often it's not very good. But it's NOT about "good feelings" or narcissistic self-involvement. Shame on him for trivializing something so important.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  9. jrw1jrw2

    Re your statement experience "nice things" and "feel better." Your entire premise is wrong, as exemplified by the statement shown here. "nice things" can only be known by "not nice things", and "feel better" can only be known by it's opposite, "not feeling better". In other words, their IS a moral compass, a negative result from non-spiritual practice. it is just different from the typical heaven and hell duality. I step in the right direction in mly opinion, since formal religion has caused so much personal pain as well as world-strife.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  10. Matt

    Religion is a bronze-age relic and should be left behind. Great that people are thinking for themselves. This article is trash.

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

      Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Randy

    Well, that's nice ... but really you don't get a say in my belief system. Call me a cop-out, but I say your judgmental and out of line even bringing the subject up.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  12. E from CA

    One of the least informed and most pompous articles I've ever seen on the Belief Blog. Where is he getting his information on this population of people he is describing? Sounds like he's just making it up based on his own preconceived notions. If he isn't making it up he certainly isn't citing whatever research he's done very well.

    "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."

    That's not the trouble with it, buddy...that's the benefit. To me and many others "spiritual but not religious" means "it's none of your f'n business what I believe."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  13. Michele

    Silly. One can appreciate the contribution of religion to culture, have compassion for your fellow man and believe in something greater than yourself without being a sheeple.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  14. cdhylton

    It appears a lot of people are misinterpreting, or oversimplifying Alan Miller's argument. He is essentially making the same argument that Sam Harris, an atheist, makes in _A Letter to a Christian Nation_ where he's stating that to believe a little bit of one doctrine and a little bit of another is an attempt at a compromise that is not possible. Miller never really comes out and says "my way is better than everyone else's," although he may believe that, but he actually is challenging all of us to do something much more difficult–choose a specific religious doctrine and try to follow it or do not believe at all. This dichotomy is also the one that Sam Harris argues for as well. You either believe or you do not and you cannot have it both ways. The logic in what each of them is saying, at least for myself, is very hard to swallow because it does require more serious introspection than simply being "spiritual but not religious."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  15. Diz

    I thought journalism wasn't supposed to be biased?? This article SCREAMS Republican– disappointed in CNN for allowing this prejudiced nasty article to be published.. I was amazed and horrified when I read this article.. shoddy article that belongs on FOX. Smh

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  16. Lynn

    The author fails to mention that so many of the "spiritual" among us got there AFTER being closely associated or aligned with a traditional religous community. Our departure is not because of a LACK of information, but rather due to an intentional rejection of the dogma and creedalism that isolates believers from one another. Too often religous moderates give "cover" to radical elements within their own communities and come see a total departure as the only loving path to take.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  17. Jeff

    Maybe people are saying they're spiritual but not religious because they're tired of the people that try to argue with them when they say otherwise

    September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  18. Me, again

    It betrays a profound level of ignorance to think that going it alone is an easier path to real spirituality than going to church.

    I don't think either path is a cop-out, but if one path was a cop-out, it would certainly be the path that involves letting others tell you what to do and what to think.

    But really, go wherever you get the deepest and richest spiritual life, whether it be with Mother Church, some other religion or by blazing your own trail.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  19. mike

    I read CNN everyday....have for years. I have never, ever posted a comment...but this is the single worst, anti-book -learnin article I have ever read.

    His whole theory is based on the statement, "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."

    Idiot with a capital I.

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

      EXACTLY.

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

      I agree completely, I've never felt the need to respond to an article before, but this is poor journalism.

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

      Dead on dude.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  20. Jim Weix

    Science flies you to the moon.
    Religion flies you into buildings.

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

      Oversimplifiers quote tired, worn-out aphorisms and treat them as absolute truth.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:00 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.