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. Ray

    Actually, Bob, Jesus wasn't 'spiritual', he was Jewish... and what he preached was a lot more positive than what passes as Christianity these days. It wasn't Jesus that screwed up our culture. It was the leadership of the Catholic church and all of the other corrupted 'churches' that came with the Reformation.

    What have we learned from 2000 years of history? That organized religion preys on the weak and provides a sheltered 'club' for the rich to get even richer. Mormonism and Scientology are perfect examples of the power to manipulate the masses by selling them attractively-bottled snake oil... but it's still snake oil.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  2. Bob

    Oh, and when someone like this says "choose a religion" they mean choose christianity. Unspoken in there is also "it better be the same christianity I follow or you're a crackpot going to hell."

    September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  3. pachecosita

    THis author needs to really experience spirituality for real. Time are moving forward and religion is dying because people are opening their eyes to what our ancestors believed with the information they had.
    Spirituality is in our brians and it is an awesome thing to experience and expand. I DO NOT BELIEVE IN INVISIBLE MAN IN THE SKY. But I believe in the energy that we are.

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

      Very well put. Thank you.

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

    Church is for people who are broken and can't heal themselves. Unfortunatly, the organized religion zealots feed on those people.

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

      NOT TRUE...some of the strongest people I know are in the church–strong not in money or influence–but strong in confidence to do the right thing because they know that God is trustworthy.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  5. Rob

    because apparently a man in a funny hat is more powerful with god?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  6. Jim L

    Good lord what a load of crap. Just because there isn't an organizational approach and a scheduled worship time doesn't make it less legitimate. Also, as an Atheist, I can wholeheartedly endorse any form of religious thought that doesn't try to take over politically. Fix the problems in your own house before you start pointing fingers. You name but a few of the worst reasons people are rejecting your traditional power seeking religions and then casually dismiss them... Oh it was JUST the crusades... Oh it was JUST a DECADES LONG CHILD RAPING SCANDAL... Oh it was just a HORRIFIC TERRORIST ATTACK... your cavalier dismissal of these HUGE issues and obvious anger, desire for control and desperate need to stay relevant are the exact reasons why people are walking away from the BS the traditional religions peddle. No worries about me though, I think you're all full of it, but at least the spiritual folks don't try to kill me in the name of Mama Nature...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  7. Paul

    Religion and spirituality are merely words and when we start to make words our reality, such as the case with this author, we will never grasp the essence, that these words are trying to convey. The essence can't choose a side or take a stand only an author who's been duped by his ability to think can. If there is a God, He or She is alive and among us. So does God live in a old book or is he in front of our very eyes this very moment? Stop and look – stop and listen – without words and see for yourself what is here or not. This author should not take on a matter of this importance for he is not qualified and will only cause more division to a world that is already in conflict. The authors intelligence is his God and his tone of anger is the confirmation to this truth. This is truth not his heeping word upon word for his own sake.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  8. CBSO


    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  9. Alex

    Can't believe I read this in 2012...
    This Alan Miller is either a frustrated religious whack or a time traveller from a few centuries back.. Or both.
    He seems to be totally lost in the modern world reality provoking a debate where is not place for one: in 2012, we deal with our own spirituality including our relationship with 'god' on our terms and taking responsibility for it.
    Maybe we have finally achieved the maturity to think for ourselves – the end of our prolonged spiritual childhood.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  10. Fred

    Ok now that I've read what the author actually wrote, here's the real deal. ALL organized religion or organized "spirituality" is harmful. There is no "good" religion. There is not productive spirituality. What that is is trying to make sense of the unknown which is dumb. God or a higher power cannot be proven so it's a complete waste of time. If you are a religious or spiritual person it's time to move on with your life, and if it's a boring life please try to find a better hobby.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  11. rosehips

    oh, please. Get off your high horse and grow some tolerance. So what if we've rejected your scriptures, dogma and rituals. My position is every bit as real to me as yours. I see way too much of your mindset these days. It's disconcerting.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Susan Clark

    I am one of the spiritual but not religious crowd. I was raised in a congregational church and that is one of the least structured of the Christian churches but even then I saw the politics and ulterior motives of the members. Prime example is my sister getting my membership revoked as a form of revenge. I turned my back on organised religions because I have not seen a single one that hasn't been used to exploit some political agenda. Just look at Israel, Rome, Iran, Northern Ireland or the USA. Yes I don't have a strict structure to adhere to but I am an adult and am intelligent so I am pretty sure I can make the right choices in my life without someone telling me what to think, feel or believe. I help my neighbours and strangers when I can. I try and treat others with respect and dignity and wow I didn't need the Torah or a bible or the Quran to tell me that I thought of that all by myself. I also don't have anyone telling me that my neighbour that happens to be Jewish will go to hell because he doesn't go to church on Sundays and confess his sins so he can go off and commit those same sins again when he's not in church. I don't need someone telling me my Christian neighbour is an abomination because he doesn't follow the teachings of Islam. I don't need someone telling me my Islamic neighbour is unclean because he worships in a mosque. To say it is a cop out to follow your own path and to be spiritual without the structure of a religion is saying we are not smart enough to think for our selves. We have seen the man behind the curtain and we are no longer dazzled by the smoke and mirrors. We do not commit acts of terrorism in the name of a god or gods and we don’t need anyone to tell us how to live. There are plenty of people who are honest hardworking and find comfort in religion and that is fine but don’t force it on us!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • cw

      Well Said!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  13. faith or the absence thereof is valid but religion is BS mind control

    So CNN is peddling religious propaganda now? I guess someone doesn't want to us to get off the opiate of the people. How is this news?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  14. Rahul

    The author presumes bona fide religion requires a God, or gods/goddesses, i.e. a theistic belief-based premise. Wrong. Orthodox Buddhism, hardly a cult, is based on teachings and applications of those teachings in daily life, not on beliefs and/or prayer to a supermundane being. Thus it may be called spiritual not religious by theisists and is not some feel-good New Age fad as the author seems to subtley imply. In short, such a critique as stated herein is yet another ineffectual volley by the likes of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious imperialists.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  15. davidheldreth

    What the writer fails to consider is that perhaps young people are simply disillusioned with the organized religions of the world and don't believe any of them have it completely right. Why is it better to either decide to be an atheist or zealot than to simply know you believe in a higher power, don't know exactly what it is and don't believe organized religions have it right?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  16. Blackflag

    I totally reject the central thesis of this article. People who are "spiritual but not religious" are generally expressing a belief in a guiding force that maintains order in the universe (call it God if you want) but simply admitting that as human beings we are unable to understand the nature of it. This, in my opinion, is a much more intelligent expression of faith than blindly heeding scriptures written by other human beings – far less knowledgeable than us – thousands of years ago and abiding by ridiculous and antiquated religious practices. This article sounds more like a cry of desperation from a religious zealot who cannot bear to see other people finding fulfillment through their own forms of spirituality.

    And one last question: How many wars have been started by people who are "spiritual but not religious"? Since anyone with a shred of intelligence and objectivity knows that organized religion is the most damaging force in the history of mankind, I will stand with those who are "spiritual but not religious" until my dying day.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  17. Cory Hussain

    I think that Gautama Siddharta Buddha would have been content with 'fence-sitting' and watching rather than preaching. Being aware of not knowing what you don't know is always a more enriching take on life than the misery of pretending to know what you don't. If a path to a higher level of existence is from reading religious texts, this author should try 'fence-sitting' for a change. Love and light to Mr. Miller. Namaste.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Blackflag

      Nicely put. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  18. osric

    I do not get the point of this article. Is it to prove that Christianity changed the world? All we have to do is look at the date. I think that what this guy is simply trying to say is that Organized Religion teaches us to be civil. Hmmmm. Point taken. And every child knows this point throughout the world for the last about 2000+ years.

    But what this author does not understand is that the natural progression of society is to elevate itself to a higher level of thought. Yet this has always been at odds to those that are steeped in conventional thoughts and cannot think outside of fromality and what is supposed normal. However what he does not realize is that those whom express their opinions, like himself, are contributing to society just like Bach, Mozart, Bloom to the advancement of culture, society, etc. In other words, you are making others think about themselves, hence perpetuating the 'feel good' religion, just as you have felt good by writing this piece. So thank you for allowing us to expand our minds, thoughts and emotions. This is what literature, art and academics does. BRAVO.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  19. Beating Ignorance

    An article full of ignorance.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  20. Matt in Oregon

    Of course organized religion dislikes those who are not religious or have religious beliefs but do their own thing. They cant keep people like that under their thumb, or giving them money.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:28 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.