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. Elizabeth

    It's sad that many of the people who have previously posted comments (Karen, tbrit, bruins50, and ELast, for example) have demonstrated more intelligence and thoughtfulness than the author of this article. I can't believe this guy was paid for this crap! If I was a professor, this essay would get a "C," because it is lacking in examples and evidence, and is full of biased language. Talk about lacking discipline!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Always Opinionated

      Agreed...and the author's essay is full of incorrect grammar.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  2. Jason

    "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."

    Hey Mr. Miller, I think what you find troublesome is the adolescent mind – which is what your quote above describes. In which case you should be advocating against popularist and socialist ideals that feed that mind set. I am spiritual and not part of any religious organization because I don't like the idea of having to prostrate myself to a group intent on worshiping their organization rather than worship God. Religious organizations are akin to rival gangs in most of the world – each willing to fight and die to promote the organization (despite their religious tenets). I site the recent uprisings due to random crap posted on YouTube.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  3. Rob

    This article further drives me away from religion. And since I can't be spiritual without it seeming like a cop out to the media, and being an American have to believe everything the media says, just looks like I'm going to have to be a full fledged atheist then. Way to go jerk, you have yet again killed God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  4. jp

    The real question is why CNN wastes space on religion at all? It is a fraud of massive and world wide proportion and a haox to keep people down (without religion we would probably kill the rich for their crimes)

    Spirituality? BS Religion? BS
    all of it a waste of time, money, energy and resources that could be better spent fixing the problems we ALL have.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  5. Dustin

    Major religions such as Christianity and Islam have proven to be nothing but damaging and vile to our world. I reject this notion that we have to "take a side" on the matter of a higher power. The basic truth about it all is that no matter how much we read or try to decipher life's mysteries we were never meant to have concrete proof of what put us into existence. What is the point in living if you know all the answers? I am spiritual but not religious because religion is a disease of manipulation and control. I can believe in a higher power while also believing that it was never meant for me to understand this higher power until AFTER I die.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Stephen

      I agree... Well stated.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  6. Old George

    And the author of this driveling piece of op-ed tripe is an 'authority' in what way again? Must I remind him that "cop out" can go both if not multiple ways; it's only defined by whichever convenient perspective a person chooses to stare and soap box any issue from.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  7. charlie

    I will take spiritual-but-not-religious over the far more common religious-but-not-spiritual any day of the week. The former implies a desire to understand and a willingness to search and think. The latter requires nothing more than doing what you are told.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Synapse

      Bingo Charlie !

      September 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Tim

      I agree. I think you can have both though. Religion without spirit is dead. A person needs to practice their religion to see results. An example is being a Christian, but not following the commandments of Christ. "Spiritualism" without direction is confusing to me.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  8. Ryan

    Spiritualism is better than organised religon. Even better than Spiritualism, Atheism.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  9. Dan Ferrell

    @ truth be told. not true. never happened. it's a myth. as an atheist/humanist, i would certainly love to believe that he said that but it just didn't happen.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  10. Paula

    Quite the opposite. I've thought long and hard and want no part of organized religion. Do I believe I am accountable for my actions both to myself and others? Absolutely but I don't get that from organized religion but rather from a life full of consequences."go along with a rationalistic and materialistic explanation of the world"? there is nothing rational when it comes to pedophilia in the church, embezzlement, extra-marital affairs among both parishers and leaders of the churches. And we are living in a completely materialistic world in direct contrast to the teachings of Jesus BTW !!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  11. unschoolparents

    Alan Miller: Have you considered that when someone says they're "Spiritual but not religious", it's not because they don't have coherent beliefs, but that they just don't want to talk about them... particularly with YOU? If you're the kind of person who insists that everything must be reduced into easily labeled boxes that you can categorize, dissect, attack, ridicule, and argue with over and over... then why would anyone want to talk with you about about their beliefs? They can tell from a mile away that, no matter what, you'll think your belief system is superior to theirs. And you'll want to waste their precious time trying to convert them to your Church of Alan's Ego.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • tunmire

      Dear jim111506

      It's easy to see that you have been brainwashed into believing that an organized religion is the truth. The original belief of Jesus was a rebellion against the Hebrews teachings. The Christians came to power by way of the Roman Empire. The Spanish then took over the Christian faith to become Catholic. The Catholics then persecuted and murdered other Christians and non-believers that would not follow their doctrine. This gave rise to the Protestants and the Muslims. We are in the middle of another rebellion to organized religion. I wish you luck in your endeavors to be one with a doctrine, instead of one with God.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  12. Power to choose


    September 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  13. xeno

    There is nothing substantive in this article. The biggest argument posed against not choosing one religion to follow is that people are refusing to "take a stand." The trouble is, many of our biggest problems stem from people choosing one side or one religion and refusing to hear the other. Look at how many people die because they have taken a different "stand." Look at how useless our partisan Congress has become. I believe this author's belief that people must understand the world in unyielding absolute terms is the real danger.

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

      I agree, just look at the picture the author posted. Looks like some pot smoking hippy on a beach as opposed to those such as myself who have a Master's degree and a good career. This article is a joke...I see why they CNN says "It's not news, it's CNN".

      September 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  14. Glenn

    This article is absolute dribble. OBVIOUSLY very little research or insight has been given to even the format of words. Alan Miller should be fired purely due to ignorance and poor 'viewer' respect. WELL DONE CNN for having such a talented writer....not

    September 30, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  15. Paul

    So we have to believe in god to be a good person ?
    Crap,. we an still be good people and believe in being
    honest and kind without believing that some god watches me
    every minute of everyday to judge me.
    And did he take 6 days to make all this or 20 billion years?
    Just live life as a good person, no reason to blame it on
    some god or gods. Until proven, he is just an excuse.
    ( I use lowercase for god for a reason, not a mistake)

    September 30, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  16. Tina

    I do think the writer is missing the bigger point of belonging to a specific religion and that is the sense of community and belonging to something more important and enduring than an individual.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • j791

      That is actually the problem with organized religion. People join more to gain friendship and a common belief than because they actually believe in the religion. I recently asked all my Christian friends if they believe the majority of the world is going to hell. They looked at me in confusion. I told them that is what they believe and they all said no? Then they asked their pastor and he said if you are a true Christian that is exactly what you believe as the Bible is the word of God and it clearly states good deeds alone are not enough you must also believe. Guess what, even though none of my Christian friends actually agreed with this belief they still all go to the same church simply because they did not want to lose all their friends. It's just sad.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  17. Mrs Time

    This gentleman appears to not know what is in the hearts and minds of us that are spiritual but not religious. All he states are assumptions and wrong ones to say the least. The assumptions he makes are frankly quite disrespectful. If he expects some sort of respect, he needs to give the same.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  18. Rob

    Well, Alan. Since you believe in God and I don't, you can go to hell. Where is it your position to tell people it is a "cop out". CNN, I blame you for even letting this make it to a large stroy section!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  19. Paula

    Quite the opposite. I've thought long and hard and want to part of organized religion. Do I believe I am accountable for my actions both to myself and others? Absolutely but I don't get that from organized religion but rather from a life full of consequences."go along with a rationalistic and materialistic explanation of the world"? there is nothing rational when it comes to pedophilia in the church, embezzlement, extra-marital affairs among both parishers and leaders of the churches. And we are living in a completely materialistic world in direct contrast to the teachings of Jesus BTW !!

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

    "I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out" - Translate as "We churches can't make money off these common sense people... GAWDAMMIT!!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
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About this blog

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.