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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. serdich

    "spiritual but not religious" = closeted atheist

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • moe smith

      "im religious, not spiritual" – closeted alter boy molester.

      See wut i dun thar? fuktard...

      September 30, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • j791

      The bible is the word of God which says you must believe and that good deeds alone are not enough. This means the majority of people, good people included, are going to hell since the majority are not Christian. You cannot say God makes that decision since again the bible is the word of God and clearly states the requirement that you must believe. I happen to think God is peaceful, all-knowing and kind therefore judging people on how they live their lives and treat others. Because I don't believe the majority of the world is going to hell I cannot call myself a true Christian. I still believe in a higher power but don't believe all the good non-christian people the world are doomed. I also don't believe I'm "a good Christian" just because I do volunteer work and help others. I help others not because a church says it's the right thing to do but rather because I personally feel it's the right thing to do.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  2. Dianna

    The religious level of human beings(the ones with the "power") like ministers, popes, mormons, are aware that we have come to a point in our brains evolution that it makes no logical or scientific sense and intelligent people all over the world are rejecting the lies and monetary propaganda that religious leaders expect from their followers. They are frantically trying to recover their power, and it's becoming clear that their lies about gods and devils and heaven and hell are just lies to get money and more power. I am a happy person and I believe what I believe, and I don't have to pay for the popes dresses or the preachers next car or mistress. People are waking up to the corruption of religion, and let's all hope that our young people will not let this travesty of humanity continue for very many more generations. People one day will only kill those insane people who claim to have spoken to god. Our children will stop killing for their churches pleasure and keep their children from making the mistakes of the past. And being "child-free" will come into logical and happy generations of people who worship our planet. After all, the proof in Earth worship is the evidence is there, unlike their god who is an old man with white hair and beard, listening to all their stupid problems and answering their dumb prayers. What a load of crap!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  3. eastcoast Mike

    The dangers of being religious and not spiritual would have been a better headline.....

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  4. buckhippo

    CNN needs to stop giving these retards like this Alan Miller guy a place to spew their hatred. So what if people have rejected organized religious? I'm very glad that younger people are realizing how screwed up religion really is. Look face facts: most adult organizations based on delusional texts like the Bible have only created divisiveness throughout history. What religiously insecure people like this author cant grasp is that we just don't need a group of collective fools claiming some divine right to humanity. Humanity can evolve just fine without religion if we genuinely appreciate how precious life is here on earth and stop trying so hardto find this mythical thing called heaven.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • SteveS

      Don't be so open minded that your brain falls out, that's what my grandmother used to say.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  5. Wedge

    I see these people as tapping into the brain's spirituality center for the positive effects, e.g. lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and maybe a bit of endorphin release. What's so bad about that? Organized religion is, of course, a bunch of entirely made-up hogwash. Ardently adhering to some fiction-based dogma is not a noble existence, it is a waste of life.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  6. Sparky

    The author misses the point...

    There is indeed a growing body of common belief which says

    Organized Religion has it wrong. Organized religion has hijacked the name of goodness to preach their hate and controlling ways.

    The TRUE believers are NOT those who claim to be religious The TRUE believers don't need a Church to tell them what to believe. They can think for themselves They have done as such and realize the organized religions are hate groups and hypocrites.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  7. jimmy

    I am one of the "spiritual but not religious" ones... I do not believe we have the capacity to understand any kind of "God" or superior presence, if there is one. Bottom line is we don't know, but I do believe there is a force out there which keeps the universe ticking. It is way too vain to think we can understand what that force is. Organized religion is a business... bottom line, it is a business. You do not need Jesus or whoever else in your life to have a moral compass or to answer life's difficult questions. Contrary to what the article implies, you are not weak when you avoid religion, I believe you are weak if you subscribe to it. We have our own brains for a reason... don't let other manipulate it... use it yourself!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • ann71902

      Well put.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  8. Detroit Jim

    This country has freedom of religion......What we need is freedom FROM religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  9. MalcomR

    I agree that "spiritual but not religious" is even more fuzzy-minded than religion in general, but it's all a cop out on reality. The phrase in the article "serious religious study" makes me chuckle. Religious belief really IS on the same level with a belief in Santa or fairies. It's just been inst.i.tutionalized to a much higher degree. People are so stupid when it comes to certain things. It's funny, really.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  10. Bob

    Good Lord!
    This sounds like it was written in the 1950s! Not surprising that he was speaking at something called "The Battle of Ideas" in England. Even that sounds like a yearning for a time we have moved beyond, when rationalism was thought to be the highest form of understanding. I would strongly suggest that Alan Miller read Diana Butler Bass' new book "Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening." In it he will see that the notion of being "spiritual" is not so easily ridiculed.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  11. ann71902

    This article is totally ludicrous. How on earth do you take the leap from someone saying they are "spiritual but not religious" to they are picking a smattering of what suits them from different religions without diving deep? Part of why many people say they are spiritual but not religious is because they don't like to go to an organized religion because while some parts may fit so many other parts of it are so outdated that they are outmoded and unreasonable. For example, certain religions that tout no birth control. Come on, in the world of Aids and unwanted pregnancy, that is outmoded and unreasonable. Another part of why many people are spiritual but not religious is that although they believe in a power greater than themselves, they are actually comfortable not knowing exactly what that power is. Not everyone needs a million-times-revised-to-suit-the-particular-cultural-mores book to make them feel like the "characters of spirituality" are well defined, and frankly to many spiritual but not religious types they read like a fairy tale or mythology. Some people are actually comfortable with the mystery.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  12. Alan

    I think the author proved one thing – that organized religion breeds intolerance.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Gunther

      Alan,

      I could not have said it better!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  13. dear losers

    THERE IS NO GOD. Wake up and my take responsibility for your own actions and stop worrying about some nonexistent higher power.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  14. liveletlive

    Faith cannot stand up to any form of reason, I disagree with that. Reason outshines everything, and faith is just wishing something is so because it makes us feel those warm and fuzzies we all need to get us through these tough times. Spirituality is something we choose as a comfort zone and religion is something we are indoctrinated into. Religion has become nothing more than big business and much like big business, it changes with the times to please its leaders' coffers and appease its members so they continue to support it financially. I am all for supporting everyone's rights to worship as they please until the day they attempt to tell me I must conform to their religion's beliefs by law. Religion has no place in government here and that's what makes this country great. So please, Christians especially, keep your religion out of our government, schools, libraries, hospitals, courthouses, bedrooms, weddings, bedrooms, and most especially, bodies.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  15. fearlessstoryteller

    Shame on you CNN......Where'd you find this Fruit Loop?? The entire article is a crock.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Philojazz

      Thanks, fearlessstoryteller, for telling it like it is.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • shameonthisarticle

      Thanks! This is a load of crap. CNN must be pretty desperate.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  16. Observer

    As a graduate in religious studies and ordained minister, the bias toward the universal Christian church is not without cause. Very disappointing, but understandable that so many are turned off by church as a result of leadership failures during the last two decades. As for me, I hope to help make a difference in the lives of some, perhaps they can experience the same hope that I have come to know and draw strength and confidence through.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Stephen

      See, that's your problem. Why can't you just leave other people to their own business? They don't need you interpreting the meaning of life for them so you can feel all important and godly.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  17. Pure BS

    I’ve been reading CNN articles now for almost 2 years and this is the first article that has compelled me to comment. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been offended by numerous articles before, but I think it’s the penultimate disdain for logic and reasoning that really angers me about this article. Case and point: The author holds people in contempt that “believe truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be-thinking” or an “unwillingness to take a real position”, and advocates “Taking a stand”. If I can boil down all the world’s problems into one argument, it would be that. Seem a bit flippant? Actually no, the author is arguing believing in something that can’t be logically defended; faith, by its very definition, is a belief not based on proof. At least when I believe ‘truth is whatever I feel it to be’, I can be open to criticism and correction. Being open to discussion isn’t fence-sitting – it’s reasoning. Something humans need to do more of.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  18. Mark Yelka

    There are no gods, hence no need for religion. But there still remains a need to be spiritual, to connect at deep levels with nature. Gods and formal religions are nit required.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  19. Unitarian Universalist

    There are religions that are welcoming to all, that allow all beliefs, and that benefit from a larger organization compared to going it alone. UU is one.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  20. Paul

    No Alan...hiding behind religion is a cop-out. Writing an article damning other people in their faith when your is not to supposed to judge is being hypocritical.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:49 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.