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. Dubhly

    The author sounds like a jealous man, people are turning away from his religion and choosing anouther path. Yes historically there are religious actions that have benefited the world in art. In what other way? It has held back knowledge, stopped progress, cuased wars, murdered people based on their religion, spread hate and bigotry. Humans have a built in "awe" factor that might have produced the art anyway, and when you compare it to the shameful things that it has also done without any remorse or acceptance of its responsibility I see no reason to to continue to hold them agaisnt any organized religion. I do want to note that i am main concentrating on the jewish three ( Judism, Christianity, and Islam) becuase it is those that seem to have cuase most of the problems.
    This guy seems to represent them pretty well in the fact that he cannot accept that people might not think and feel the way he feels. According to this guy you cannot come up with a moral or ethical path by studing the past, finding the good and right things that have been done and emulate them. You MUST have a sheperd that tells you what to do in an organized manner.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jay

      Indeed the butthurt is strong with this man......

      September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  2. PA

    hmm, I guess the Buddha was a cop-out too..bummer

    September 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Lisa

      LOL, exactly! "Be a lamp unto yourself", which is not something the "great" churches of the world want to hear. That would force them to give up all their power and money. Why is it that only the christians and muslims try to force people to practice their religions?? No one else seems to care, it's live and let live with almost all other religions.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  3. badtoe

    The more I read, the clearer it became that Alan Miller knew nothing of which he was writing about and probably never will. However, that's the beauty. Perhaps he needs a reminder that we live in a country where we enjoy the freedom of religion. That can be any religion of choice and at any level. I understand his opinion but that's all that it is. His views couldn't be further from the truth or beliefs of many that he's trying to label. Doubling down on Pascal's wager probably won't affect those who don't care to bet...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Stephen Boudreau

      It's actually freedom of religious choice or freedom from religion all together. I'm not saying your wrong, but just incorrectly worded.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  4. John Wesley

    Religion is opium of the masses.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  5. Gadflie

    Yep, as this trend rises, crime is going down. Obviously this is hurting society.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    Is there a Holy Rat? Yes, it is the pope. Who was the worst liar of all time? Muhammad! Are the Protestants better? No, they suffer from the cancer of cheap grace.

    Chase away the evil leaders of our current churches, and let us reform them, than people will go to church and love it.

    The great problem is that the mainline churches like the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are led by wolves in sheeps clothing which use religion as a smokescreen for their malice, and it is clear that a body with an ill head cannot work. People make bad experiences in the mainline churches, because there doesn't reign the Spirit of Christ but demons. Nobody will stay in a house of demons but forsake it.

    Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church have arised out of the Early Church which was according to the New Testament which is the most holy scripture of Christianity.

    Regretably the Church of Italy (today called Roman Catholic Church) separated from the true Christian Church of the Eastern Roman Empire (this was the Civilized World up to 800 after Christ) through evil papacy beginning in the 7th century. The last good pope (papa) was Gregory the Great or Gregory I, after him wolves in sheeps clothing took over rule over the Church of Italy and made her the Roman Catholic har-lot whose groom is not Christ but the devil. As the lousy, criminal popes displaced Christ as leader of the church, the Holy Spirit, the divine teacher, forsook the Roman Church, and heresies had to prevail threre up to today. The lousy pope, a ridiculous human dwarf cannot be the divine teacher of the church, and hence heresies had to spread in the Catholic Church.

    In the course of the Reformation the Anglican Church emerged, rejecting evil papacy, but meanwhile also corrupted through the evil gospel of the cheap grace (cheap grace means complete adaption of the "believer" to the sinful world implying God's forgiveness would cost nothing and be very cheap demanding completely no effort of the believer). Since I live on earth I have never met a faithful Protestant, and of course there heresy of the cheap grace allows them to behave like ordinary sinners everywhere, and you will hardly perceive them as Christians.

    Hence, what we experience today is the total destruction of the Christian Church, whose last remain was the the Confessing Church in Germany during the Third Reich which was destroyed together with good, old Pruzzia.

    We need a reformed church which goes back to the principles of the New Testament. There the Holy Spirit will reign, good doctrine will spread, and the Spirit and good doctrine together will make believers happy, and they will remain in the Church of Jesus Christ with pleasure enduring the persecution of the secular, profane world.

    By the way, the old Protestant confessional docu-ments are valid, and should be used as an introduction to the New Testament, also some scriptures of the Church Fathers, and also the decisions of the Ecu-menical Councils of the Church of the Eastern Roman Empire.

    The sacramental baptism, also the infant baptism is valid. No rebaptism!

    If someone has received infant baptism by a Catholic or Anglican priest, this baptism is valid, because the invisible baptist is always God himself. There is only a high or urgent need to connect the baptism with personal faith, and to follow Jesus in a anti-Christian world which is overcrowded with sects, cult and false churches. Of course, someone who takes serious his baptism will forsake the RCC or the Anglican Church, and associate with true believers.

    Today a believer has to face suffering and rejection by the godless world, only in the church he would find rest and a foretaste of eternal peace. Yet, the one who wants to have peace with the world here on earth right now, will never enjoy the eternal peace in heaven.

    Jesus Christ died and resurrected for us. We have died for the sin, and we are in him, if we believe that he died and resurrected for us, and if we are sacramentally baptized. Everyday we can invite Jesus to rule us, and to help us to overcome the lust of our sinful body, and to love God and our neighbour.


    September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • John Wesley

      If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be–a Christian. Mark Twain

      September 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Sarah

      Thanks. I had forgotten about the wonder and wisdom of Mark Twain. I am sure he would have much to say about mega-churches and youth ministers that have "other agendas" with our youth.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  7. Teeesh

    This article makes me genuinely angry. It invalidates the years of soul-searching that I along with many, many, MANY other people did before rejecting the religious teaching and traditions of our families and seeking the truths that resonate within our souls, sometimes at the expense of relationships with our parents, best friends, and spouses. I do operate within a "body of belief" and hold myself to a "set of principles", thankyouverymuch – MY OWN, and while I don't always hit the mark, that doesn't keep me from striving to be the child of God that I am, and it doesn't keep me from trying to see others from trying to be the children of God that they are. Mr. Miller, I am happy for you that you clearly haven't had experienced the damage many have from organized religion. You just keep living on your little island of complacency and let us survivors keep navigating the deeper waters. Buh-bye now.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Teeesh

      Just reread this garbled mess. Did I mention I was angry? Hope my point came across.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Eddie

      Great reply man!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Montello

    Egotistical religious control freak. "You must believe as I do because I am perfect and know all while you are imperfect and ignorant". No wonder organized religion is falling apart.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  9. Ross

    The way this article is written is a passive aggressive approach of bullying a person to choose a religion. Mr. Miller writes about an age in which religion was extremely important for literacy and the arts but we are living in a completely different time. With the extreme dissemination of information people are having more profound relationships with g*d. Miller's viewpoints are in his own words "old-fashioned".

    September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Mrjavahead

      Well said, especially the part about bullying. I'm supposed to feel guilty for thinking for myself?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  10. johnny57

    I used to say I was "spiritual but not religious" on dating sites. I then realized that I was just saying that to agree with many of the women on the site. I then decided to be honest with myself and tell it like it is, agnostic. I suspect that many of the people out there that say the are "spiritual but not religious" are like me, agnostics as well.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  11. xxGriff

    So What? tend your own store. which cosmic bunny hole would have everyone jump into? 1950's illusion or maybe a nice pre Martin Luther decade where it would be acceptable to single out anyone that does not conform to your definitions. As if one size fits all. i guess it did for millions of indigenous peoples who needed to ba saved from themselves huh? shall we start again? fix yourself and then let your example be the lesson you wish to teach/project or impart, until you walk on water stop casting stones and making judgement. get a grip, you are not that many or any more or less important. and i dont think G-d will be asking you about anyone other than you when it's your time so focus there buddy.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  12. Get Real

    These four words changed my life: "There is no god". Wake up and realize how wonderful and awe inspiring the universe is without chalking it all up to "goddidit". That is the real cop out. Loose the chains of religion and think for yourself. Also try and make the world a better place while you are at it.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Sarah

      Applause to you! If there is a heaven, it really is "Iowa." The beauty of the earth is unsurpassed - it must be heaven.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  13. snorpthus

    What a laughably ignorant article.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  14. Joe

    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.

    Very credible qualifications. lol. How did this make the main story of CNN. I guess it's Sunday???

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Scholar

      Perhaps CNN read an article in THE ONION and was taken in by that, just as the leader of IRAN was taken in by a similar piece in THE ONION.

      Today, it seems that people believe in something the more times they hear it rather than intelligently decide for themselves based on fact and analyses of the truth of something.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  15. jamessavik

    I was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church where your holiness and wealth were synonomous.

    As I couldn't afford to be very holy, I had to find another way.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Lorax86

    I reject the idea that simply because the "spirituality" movement isn't organized means that it has no basis in truth. Before the Reformation Lutherans were an unorganized group who were radicals to the Christian church but now they are one of the predominant forms of Christianity in the world. The spirituality movement has really just begun. Given time I believe that it will find some type of organization. The problem right now, is that of all the major religions and organizations none of them provide Anything besides a set of rules that are Biased and unfair and written by someone 2000 years ago who today we would say doesn't even have an education. We're simply taking the time to redefine our world and our beliefs based on our observations and the way the world we live in works instead of relying on centuries old scripture which is half ignored even by its most ardent followers. This article does nothing but Vilify a belief system which the author clearly does not agree with.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  17. Bob

    Jesus was "spiritual" and didn't believe in any formal religion......and look at how much he fu cked up our world. The author is right. Being spiritual is dangerous. Fu ck Jesus, fu ck God, and fu ck spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  18. cynicalatheist

    Seems like an overlong way to say: "I'm an authoritarian control freak and disobedient people disturb me."

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  19. Scholar

    Matthew 6:6 is the foundation of the individual religious beliefs that Christ preached.
    One's relationship with the Deity need not be collective or organized as individual prayer was the foundation of the early followers of Christ. He preached that those who, perhaps organized too largely and too publicly, were hypocrites.

    And there the matter stands – is one's religion a personal and private matter or one that is as organized as the Teamsters Union with religious leaders having the role of Jimmy Hoffa?

    Religion, especially organized religion and organized beliefs, evolved from general morality and philosophy and not the reverse. People were moral before they cast their morality into gods and goddesses.

    With our rights laid down in the First Amendment, those who say spiritualism is somehow lower than organized mega-church preachers prancing before the populace are ok to say what they want to, and it is also ok for us to ignore them, and these columnists as well. Go back to your giant televangelist cathedrals and be the hypocrites that Christ named you.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Kevin

    Typical of liberals: they can dish out it, but they can't take it. Oh...and I'm agnostic by the way.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
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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.