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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. A Atheist

    Spiritual and/or Religious Sheeple.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  2. MadZagyg

    Probably one of the most ridiculous articles I have ever read.

    The evidence of irrational thinking is all over this piece.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Steve

      Indeed it is the msot absurd and porrly argued article I have ever seen on CNN, and for that matter any venue regarding the wave of spirituallity without formal religious. "Religiosity" or the human intrepretation of scripture, of all scripture, is the seed of evil that has preptrated the earth since the first notion of "belief" was practiced. From the CRUSADES to the SPANISH INQUISITION, to burnings of so called "witches" , etc etc etc, the power hungry organizations that control the big religions have been the catalyst for more deaths than any other reeason ever. More people have died in the name of various avatars than in any other name or cause or war, by far. People have not copped out, no instead they are now following thier hearts, not being "sheeple". Finally there is a real shift towards an inner reckoning of spirit where individuals seek to find answers within and have stopped listening to the verypeople that are responsible for more deaths and supression than Hiroshima! This article is what the newly inlightened people are up against, pure ignornace and JUDGEMENT, the very things that every bit of scripture preaches against. Stay the course people of the light, as our worlds peaceful survival depends on it! Unmask the perpetrators of suppression and follwo yuor hearst against all odds!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  3. Jorge

    It's sad how humans are considered more advanced than animals, but our mentality is not far from being primitive and, well–animalistic. I grew up in an evangelical home, and I'll tell you that that lifestyle–those twisted teachings of the Bible-did more harm than anything else I have experienced. As a child I was traumatized by the idea that it was either you follow god or you end up the most miserable person in the world–oh, and don't think god will be done with you just yet, he's got hell waiting for you after you die. With so many moral rules and theocratic rules, I fell into a horrible depression from the fear. At 14, I shut down. I didn't talk to anyone for a whole year–not a single word. I developed the most exhausting panic attacks. After every church service, my heart literally hurt from the attacks, and the pain lasted a whole day–thought I was going to die from a heart attack. The only advice that everyone gave me was, "You have a demonic possession that is now physically tormenting you." In my mind, the demons looked more like my family and everyone else at church. I gave up trying to make them understand the civil way. I started acting out at church–they wanted a demonic possession, well, I gave it to them; however, that didn't last long. I finally just ran away. At my mother's plea, I went back home but with the condition that I would never set foot in a church ever again. My parents agreed because they were too embarrassed by my "rebellious actions." Since the day I stopped going to church, I have been the happiest spirit, soul, or whatever you want to call it. Life is so much more beautiful to me now. All the panic attacks and psychological detriment that religion caused have all vanished. And, guess what? I never had to exorcise demons to accomplish this. I just had to exorcise religion out of my life.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  4. Decided.

    I would rather be a happy, well balanced , spriritual person, than someone bogged down by out dated religious beliefs and traditions, controlled by the fear instilled by organized religion. The way I live my life, is my Church.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  5. leonaguila

    The author does not get it. What he sees as "sitting on the fence" is people's refusal to join the fray of beliefs that have resulted in intolerance, terrorism and bigotry. Spirituality does not necessarily espouse the presence of God either. It may be a euphemism for other non-earthly virtues such as goodness, calmness, and unity and harmony with the world without invoking god. The author wants to sell organized religion as a treatment to the ills of society when in fact it has done nothing but divide the world. It has failed humanity on so many levels and the new, younger generation has recognized and acted on the failure. We don't need demagogues like this author who treats people like he knows better and that religion should decide what is best for all of us. It's not a cop-out; it is called wisdom.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  6. mike

    Author is overthinking it. It's a rejection of the God of the bible. To attempt to pigeonhole what comes next is to misunderstand the concept of simple rejection.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  7. joe

    in the absence of any physical evidence about the supernatural for us to pore over, does it make more sense to believe something rigid and specific about the supernatural, or to say "I have a feeling there is something supernatural"

    Neither is empirically justified, but the latter at least doesn't pretend to have specific answers.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  8. Corbin Bernsen

    I take great exception here, Mr Miller. While I don't "fence sit" – my relationship with God and Christ is very real and scripture has a very real place in my life – I find that those who are simply "spiritual" are at least on a road to faith and are in a CONSTANT search, journey, OPEN to a greater understanding. Who I find stagnant are the extreme "know it alls" of any organized religion who no longer question God, question their faith. They say they they have the answers. That is where the journey of faith comes to dead halt. The "reach" for God, to be in his good Grace, to be enlightened ENDS.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  9. jimmy

    the author decries people who choose an "invididual relationship" with a "higher power" over a formalistic church, but ask any true christian and he will tell you christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus, not a religion. this poor author is still licking his wounds from 1517 when luther told people they could actually think for themselves instead of blindly following corrupt priests.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  10. Daniel Clark

    This is basic crap-ola. I grew up tied to a church for my whole life and have seen how these organized religions drive hatred between people, cause wars and have turned into corporations focused on money and self protection. I think more people would join an organized religion if it (sic) would become what Christ, Mohammed, Buddah and all the other great religious teachers expected, a peaceful, loving and tolerant way of life so that all people are treated with respect and love, and it costs them time and energy but not money, money money.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  11. Okechukwu Egonu

    James 1:26-27
    Numbers 11:25-29
    Mark 9:38-48

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Namaste

      You fear the change. It is evident. But really it will get you one step closer to your goal. Rigidity and blindness is what has kept most from that. Old schools of power fear losing control. It is what will happen. The new way is inside and no books are needed. The change is the True Christ.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  12. Marko

    I disagree. Steve Harvey, the comedian/host of Family Feud, says that people with out religion lack a moral barometer. I guess he doesn't know that a barometer read atmospheric pressure, but it's probably something he heard in church. I was raised in church. It wasn't until my mom was kicked out of the church, for divorcing my abusive father, that I was able to understand the bible with out it being interpreted for me. I never knew about Mary Magdalen or God's wrath till I studied on my own. Through further reading and studying I learned that the the bible isn't a reliable source, but I still live a good and kind life, and consider myself a spiritual being. With out a church's influence I'm actually more christian (even though I don't trust the source) and I don't have to hate gays while I use birth control and let women make there own choices. After all, Jesus spoke of a fellowship and didn't like churches.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  13. Steve

    I'm unconvinced that any church has been able to find truth. I think revalation is a myth. It's better to accept that some things are simply unknown, then to make stuff up and market it as fact.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  14. Krenee

    This is a very weak article. The fact that some people rely so heavily on predetermined rules, doctrines, etc, means that they DON"T have to think. Not having life all laid out before you – your present and your infinite, means you HAVE to think about things. This author clearly did not think deeply about what he wrote.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Weston

      Well said Krenee. This author is ignorant. I classify myself as spiritual with a Christian tendency. I believe in God and Jesus but I refuse to be part of any organized religion because they are all wrong. Every single one has some rule or opinion I don't agree with. Most serious organized religions are against gays even existing, let alone having equal rights, and while I am straight, I believe there is nothing wrong with a person being gay and that they should have all the same rights and freedoms as anybody else. And thats just one example of what religion preaches. I've found that religious groups are some of the most close minded, intolerant groups around, why would any educated person want a bunch of ignorant sheep telling you how to live your life. Its working out so well in the Middle East isn't it? All those people attacking innocents all because their religious leader tells them its what God (or as they call him, Allah) wants? Granted most Muslims are peaceful, but the fact that there are a significant number of them that are not because of their religion, is a problem. And I'm sure the author would just argue its because they are practicing the wrong religion, which is yet another way that religious groups are intolerant, if you arent with them, you're against them.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  15. sham

    beleif system is a blindness. when we dont know, we beleve. Spirituraty is not believing but seeking. seeking for truth. we dont simply beleave something becasue somebody told us. Spiritual process is very scientific because in both science and spiritual process begins with observation. in science we observe object, in spuritual way, subject is observed. or in another word, its self observation. in science, that process of observation is called experiment, in spiritual process, it is called experence.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  16. Oregonian

    Spiritual beliefs are personal, what kind a of an egotistical know it all this blogger is, thinking he can tell people what or how to think! Jerk! Same on CNN for posting this.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  17. Brandon

    Hey, I just say I'm an athiest.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  18. hopefulrog

    and if you read this Article you would see it's leading people atheism more than religion. Religion is the Problem not the Bible. the Bible was around the the Old testament Predates Christianity 2000 years. Christians and other religion just use the bible as a tool to spread there perverse revision of the story of the Israelites and the laws he gave them. "Jesus Came to save them. Not the world. sorry but God don't love everyone. the bible never said he did.. there is no place called haven you go to when you die, hell is another way of saying you are going to stay dead, and there is no end of the world senerio in the Bible. That stuff is added thought in interpretation of Christians who btw, ae part of Satans network, as well as the Muslims ans Especially the Jews. don't blame the Bible blame religion. 10 laws is all you have to follow. I do understand why people don't want to read the Bible. It's scary to Uncover Stuff like N.A.T.O and the United nations are the anti Christ, the those Israeli's( not the true Israelites) are the "synagogue of Satan". Just read the Bible and the answer to some of your questions in regards to why the world is the way it is will be revealed. you see Religion is the trick and behide the deception.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  19. alez1963

    This article reminds me of those with a Red Riding Hood complex!! furthermore It amazes nor is a surprise to me on how far religious people do go to defy and debunk anyone who basically is a threat to their existence!! for starters I am bless in that I don't identify with neither religious or non-religious peoples or their views; neither do I see myself as an atheist or a freaky spiritualist, mainly because all these people from the religious fundamentalist, the so called spiritualists, and and even the atheists, in my humble opinion, they are all FREAKS POWER SEEKING INDIVIDUALS WHOSE AGENDA IS TO CONTROL THE MASSES!!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  20. Sarah Piestrup

    Are you kidding me? How is looking at everything less complicated than taking one book and believing every word without thinking about any other option? Not deciding? What possess you to think you can lump people who do not choose one simple explanation together into a group and say they have not made a decision when each one may have ideas that are formed from all sorts of complicated exploration? What a non-sense article, maybe think before you write?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 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.