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. Karl

    "my god isn't short of cash"

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  2. Laura Kristen

    A cop out you say? Try, a courageous path, trusting God is available to all who seek. Of course people who claim to be either "spiritual," or "religious" could have little to back that up- as you know- and that should go without saying- applicable to either "side of the fence" of course. But a truly "spiritual" person I believe is someone seeking, learning, growing in love and light. Not someone God Fearing who believes their weekly attendance in the pews counts for diddly, or because they glide over the scripture... come on, this article simply lacks intelligence- its not about what you claim to be- its what you are.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  3. L

    This article is one of the reasons we need a DISLIKE BUTTON!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • cw

      Amen to that!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    The three great plagues of mankind: Islam, Catholicism, Cheap-Grace-Protestantism. The Anabaptists are also cancerous.

    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 12:27 pm |
  5. penny4u

    I completely disagree that "spiritual but not religious" is fence sitting. He might see it as fence sitting b/c he can't grasp the concept. I consider myself spiritual, and less and less religious – especially after reading Many Lives, Many Masters. I find this position a position of growth and inquiry, and looking beyond picking a side, as religion has people doing. However, I am not saying they are wrong for choosing their religion, as each soul has their own "walk" to go through. The book I mentioned explains so much, and has led me to be more spiritual and less religious. All that matters in the end is Love, Faith, Charity and Hope. I hope that learning and discovery for others opens minds. . .

    September 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  6. yogi

    God doesn't care what religion you follow, all HE wants is that every human being finds the kingdom of God within: Cosmic consciousness, love, light. God will be found in the the silence of the soul within, and meditation is the way. The only true religion is prana yoga.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  7. Bob

    Any good parent will keep religion away from children until they are old enough to decide on their own. God is a poison like alcohol. If they want to poison themselves, that is fine, but they must wait until they are old enough to understand what they are doing. A child's mind is not mature enough to understand what it is doing.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Sarah

      Mine didn't! 14 years of perfect attendance in Sunday School. And, I never set foot in a church today. When did I start figuring this out. When I was 8, I think. My parents prayed over the food each day and said that God had provided the bountiful meal. Well, that afternoon, I refused to go out and weed the garden because "God would take care of it." NOT! Yup, I sat in church to please the family, but I think I started to stop believing about right then. Don't get me wrong - I was raised well, and I have values to do all I can for others and to not abuse this earth. But, sitting in church allowed me to sing, to spend time in focus on people's clothes and hair, to remember the cracks in the pew and create a small city of streets and houses, stood when I needed, sat when told - and once I left home, I never went back.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  8. Wes

    That is incorrect. Spiritual people do not just simply "see the human as one who simply wants to experience 'nice things' and 'feel better'". That's not the whole story. The goal is to do what is morally right in every decision, to love, forgive, and care for yourself, for the Earth, and for all. To become connected with nature and yourself. In a nutshell: to be a better, wiser person. The goal is to raise your consciousness by doing these things mentioned, and thus to exist in a higher state of mind.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • princess28

      I second that! Religion is humanity's delusional way of fixing a world that only the power of the Infinite Spirit (or Who I prefer to call GOD) can control. Religion makes people think they have to do something to be worthy of 'nice things' or 'good feelings' or eventually a good afterlife etc... I think what this writer also forgot to mention is that people are becoming more aware of the freedom they have that religion tends to shackle, such as using their ability to listen and obey their conscience when it comes to moral decisions that may not agree with rules of their practiced religion. People change all the time, so it's only clear that their perceptions will too, which then changes what they believe.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  9. Ben

    Hahaha!! Another Christian disappointed that Christianity is failing!!

    I'm glad this made the front page. More people will sense the desperation of Christianity to ignore the elephant in the room: there is no God – and they are losing the argument against that fact.

    On a positive note, if it is the goal of all these Christians to "defeat Islam" – your best chance to do so is to abandon the idea of God – because frankly the argument between Islam and Christianity is a wash. However, in the mind of a rational person, Islam holds no water to an non-theistic worldview.

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

    Reblogged this on anglicanboyrichard and commented:
    RICHARD HERE–I agree that religion never happens in a vacuum–but neither does the idea of spirituality without attachment to formal religious training or faith. We also are not "religious" just so that society can have some good English gems from the King James Bible–that has to be the worst argument ever made to belong to a formal denomination or faith.

    I have been Catholic and Protestant, and then Catholic again before settling on the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, and the beauty there is that we accept traditions from both sides, as well as questioning some from each. That is what spirituality is all about in my opinion. People have to have the freedom to ask questions without someone coming along and judging their search by calling it a "cop out." To me that is the real cop-out...not being allowed to be "spiritual without being religious" without being slammed for it.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  11. Sheryl

    I dont agree with this article either, Freedom to choose to believe without the churches forcing their ideas upon one is how this world should be run, their might be a fewer fights, fewer wars..People deserve to believe the way they choose.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  12. waitasec

    religion is after all, just an opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  13. Ed

    This is one of the most naively-written, under-researched articles I have ever read. This idea that everything has to be labelled, boxed in to a corner and understood in black and white terms is exactly what this movement of spiritual but not religious as the author would call it is overcoming. Each generation is evolving, and we no longer are limited to having a one-dimensional understanding of God; if you are, I am sorry for you, but we will not be limited by your shortcomings. And make no mistake about it, being spiritual is having a relationship with whatever you want to call It- God, the Universe, Nature-whatever. Something, I should point out that is strongly emphasized and many religions, Christianity included.

    The authors opinion reflects the worst of western close-mindedness; people have been spiritual but not religious in the sense he wants to force upon people for thousands of years, particularly all over Africa and Asia. His ugly, uncultured opinions reflect someone who hasn't actually reached out and tried to understand, rather someone who is bitter, unhappy, and unsatisfied and who needs to take his dis-satisfactions out on the youth he sees on tv trying to make positive change occur.

    While I think all beliefs, if truly strong, should be defended, they should have to defend themselves against intelligent, coherent arguments, not that of a simpleton. CNN, please hold yourself to a higher standard than this amateur blog level.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • 2012Change

      RIGHT ON

      September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  14. What in the world is this crap?

    "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."

    Here's my body of belief and set of principles: don't harm others, do only things you won't regret, keep your body and mind healthy, contribute something useful to society. done.

    My positive exposition or explanation: I do this because I don't want to be a dbag like Mr. Miller and need someone else tell me how to be a good person. More seriously, the desire to do good things is very, very real. It's a mixture of societal pressure, hormonal need for happiness, and distinct sadness when I've done something regretful. It's entirely concrete.

    In fact the only thing organized religion has that "spiritual-not-religious" doesn't have is a belief of what happens after you die. Well, I believe my body will decompose and I have no idea what will happen to my mind/spirit and that's kind of scary. But does that make me a bad person? The fact that I don't use Heaven as a reason to be a good person?

    The other thing that really bothers me about Mr. Miller's notion that this is some new-age fad is that newsflash, Christianity is kind of a new age flash! Every organized religion that predates Christianity had no notion of spreading their word to nonbelievers, and didn't automatically label nonbelievers as evil–just as nonbelievers. To me, he's the logical fallacy in the picture.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  15. Larry M.

    Matthew 6: 5-8.... Jesus taught to pray in private. Why must I join a formal & publicly recognized religious organization in order to be legitimately in-touch with God? This article is part of the problem in America: everyone wants to tell everyone else what to do with the concept of "God". Do you really believe that God will judge you better if you go into a building every Sunday, vice talking to Him whenever or whereever you happen to be? Being religious IS being spiritual. No one on this planet can guarantee me any protocol is the only protocol that our maker will accept. I believe if you decide to take spiritual concepts in peacemeal or al a carte is just as good for our civility as dedicating 100% to just one. Isn't all about finding the good truth in how we live amongst each other in peace? I don't care if you get it from the Bible, Quran, or Comic books. This article is an insult to very nice & loving people that don't hold a book to someone's heart.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  16. Bob

    "choose a religion" How many religions are there in the world? Whichever one you choose believes that all of the others are going to hell. Hope you are lucky.

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

      "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."

      ^^^^ AND WHO SAYS THAT ORGANIZED RELIGION DOES OFFER THESE ANSWERS / PRINCIPLES? It's everyones own business to decide for themselves what questions / answers they seek in life. Not the government, not your mother and father... it's up to every individual. This guy is a total moron. Organized religion is no better than individual spiritual practice.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  17. anglicanboyrichard

    I agree that religion never happens in a vacuum–but neither does the idea of spirituality without attachment to formal religious training or faith. We also are not "religious" just so that society can have some good English gems from the King James Bible–that has to be the worst argument ever made to belong to a formal denomination or faith.

    I have been Catholic and Protestant, and then Catholic again before settling on the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, and the beauty there is that we accept traditions from both sides, as well as questioning some from each. That is what spirituality is all about in my opinion. People have to have the freedom to ask questions without someone coming along and judging their search by calling it a "cop out." To me that is the real cop-out...not being allowed to be "spiritual without being religious" without being slammed for it.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  18. Loogin

    So not only are we supposed to believe in the all powerful invisible man in the sky, but we're supposed to believe in him on someone elses terms.

    Wow! Perfect!!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  19. Jay

    This guy is what's fundamentally wrong with religious people, they believe their way is the ONLY way and that everyone else around them is wrong and should conform/fall in line. His problem with this idea of self spirituality is that it promotes individuality and that is something the churches of the world hate because they cannot control you. Perhaps this guy should keep his nose out of everyone else's business. If I choose to worship the group of frogs in the pond because it so pleases me then that is my crazy business and this moron should take a flying leap off a tall bridge!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  20. Steve

    To my comment on this, please visit –>http://ofmindandspirit.com/blog/are-sbnrs-really-lost/2125

    September 30, 2012 at 12:25 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.