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. Caesar

    Republican Proganda! I see the Jesus freaks have infiltrated CNN!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • kateU

      It's nice to see CNN give a voice to both sides...how else can a person grow if he/she only reads what he/she already agrees with?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Baby

      Wait, I'm spiritual but not religious and have been a good portion of my adult life after my organized religion demonstrated behaviors the went against what I was always taught growing up. Basically, my religion left me. I still believe in God and teach my children the same. The Ten commandments are what we follow and in doing so we see God in ordinary people everyday. Isn't that what we are supposed to be doing? That is what spiritual but not religious means.

      As far as the writers last comment "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." With all due respect, that is not true. We spiritual but not religious folks agonized over our decision and often look into other organized religions to possibly follow. Unfortunately, the only choices we have these days are organizations that commit crimes and cover them up, or raise their young to judge others, or to commit hate crimes, or to commit murder against others and against themselves. These are our "organized religion" choices.

      We spiritual but not religious folks have done our research and we have decided. We are being a better example for our young people and hope they will do the same in their future instead of belonging to organizations that publicly commit crimes and cause harm against innocent people with their words and actions.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. Amir M

    This was one of the dumbest articles I have ever read.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  3. lmf

    Churches used to be the backbone of the community. People would gather, worship, fellowship and help each other. Now, churches exist primarily for fund-raising...funneling those funds to those who want more, more, more. Every church/temple that I have been to in the last 20 years is the same. Their God may be different...come to think of it, their god is the same: $$$$.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  4. cocteautwin

    The practice is to turn inwards towards the source, the looker, and look for it. Ultimately you will understand (see, experience, apprehend, discover, know) that there is no looking inside or outside. There is just one consciousness. The intentional effort of looking within was to counterbalance a lifelong habit of looking outwards and to develop introspective discrimination to eliminate internal and external objects and phenomena as the true you. I want to emphasize that the phrase “look inward” is a lie. There is no inward or outward. This distinction only lasts while you think you are a body. The phrase “look inwards” almost sounds like a command to look into the inner emptiness of imagination, as inside the body. It is a bad instruction. It reinforces the idea of the reality of inner and outer, inside the skin and outside. The world, your inner state, your searching, your imagination about what self-realization is like, will all disappear and you will understand that everything you have experienced until that moment is imagination. You will be free of all concept and imagination. In this you must abide for a long while, but self-abidance itself does not become continuous for a long time. It is a matter of persistence alone, and that only arises after a sustaining passion for truth becomes the most important issue to you. Then, at some point, “everything” will disappear as unreal and you will be left in silent mind existence.

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

    here's something to consider: The Bible isn't real. It's a great story, and we'll all still read it, but we recognize now that it's mostly bull. Your impassioned plea is pathetically lacking in substance, and reeks of arrogance. We shouldn't be looking to organized religion and men in robes (with little formal education) to teach us about our world. We should be looking to science. All I can say about the issue this article highlights is, Thank God!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  6. AC

    The author is right in claiming that "spiritual but not religious" is a cop-out, but for all the wrong reasons. It's a cop out because those who have taken this approach have rightly questioned and rejected the false-integrity of religion on it's whole without abandoning what little good aspects still remain in those individual religions. The cop-out comes when these people fail to realize that they don't need to hold on to any aspect, at all, of these old teachings in any faith sense. They should be regarded as good literature or artwork–things we can learn from, but things that do not hold any sort of importance beyond what we create for them in our internal and external discourse. Religions are a relic of humanity's past. Like the spaceship that uses rocket boosters to propel it into outer space, it has served it's purpose, however inefficiently and erroneously, with success. But in 2012, as a species, many members of the human conscience have transcended the mundane and unbelievable world as religion interprets it. "Spiritual but not religious" is simply the next stage in our conscious evolution. I hope we are able to cast off the final carapace without much bloodshed.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Theist

      AC, Do you believe there is a God, creator of the universe? I surely hope that you do. Without God, our lives are utterly meaningless. He is calling you now to repent of your sin and change your eternal destination. Right now all of the sin in your life is calling out for you to be sent to hell upon death. God is holy and just so you can be sure that sinners who have not turned to Christ for salvation will not be entering heaven. If you havent yet investigated this matter throughly, I recommend you do so with all seriousness. Be sure to look at BOTH sides of the story. Our days here on earth are short but eternity is forever.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  7. ELPsteel

    "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."

    The author is saying this pejoratively, but there's a reason why some people "pick and choose" from various religious practices: people are beginning to realize that it would be silly to think that only ONE of them is the "correct" one. Does one group of people really have ALL the answers? No way! Even scientists – who actually back up their statements with rigorous proof through testing and method – acknowledge that they don't come close to knowing everything. You hear Christians say all the time that they've found the "truth" in Jesus, but when you ask them the big questions they say "we accept it as part of God's mystery." In other words...you DON'T have the truth. There are giant holes that you just accept because you were told to. People are getting smarter each generation, and this sort of "blindly accept this thing I told you" just doesn't cut it anymore. I AM admittedly annoyed by a lot of these paper-thin new-age type folks, but not everyone is like that. Some of us GENUINELY seek the truth, whatever that may be. What's so wrong about seeking the truth?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • lexlea

      Amen! I don't think science nor the organized religions have all of the answers, and I don't feel compelled to chose between the two because it will make me a more solid individual. The classic religions have good principals for balanced social living; don't steal, don't lie, don't screw your friends wife, so on and so forth. The problem with those who blindly accept these principals is they don't get the impact of what happens if you diviate from them. They don't see the ripple in the pond effect. For example, how many people are impacted by illicit affairs? Children, spouses, parents, and friends, and, and ,and..
      This reminds me of one of my neighbors who goes to Church every Sunday and a couple of during the week. She has some plack out in her front yard with some God does something or the other proclamation on it, yet she is haughty and altogether a nasty person. She is laughable, really.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. James PDX

    The only reason for making this choice is if you think there is a heaven and a hell, which is the way that Christianity is designed; to force you to choose them. Goodness comes from the reason you act, not the act itself. Doing the right thing out of fear of punishment is not a good act; it's a cowardly one. Doing the right thing simply because you know it to be right is what we should all strive for.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Rose Lord


      September 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  9. BRod

    Alan Miller needs to read "Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine. It's amazing how much more intelligent and rational a guy from the 1700's was than a guy writing articles on CNN in 2012.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  10. davewoodrum

    When you stop being "religious" and start being "spiritual", you are likely to stop directing your worship towards another human being or human set of rules and doctrines... imagine the horror of the that!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  11. kingpin

    No thank you...I would rather choose not to be molested as a child...and so do my kids...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  12. Diego Salles Diniz

    The point is that all those organized and conventional " religions " are scrambling to stay in the " game " but they will be gone soon. Finally we humans are awakening to the fact that " religion " means POLITICS and spirituality means ANSWERS...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  13. josh rogen

    a person's spiritual beliefs are personal and nobodies business and the fact that cultist organize spiritual people into different sects and then use them to further their own agenda is a crime against humanity. every cult leader, Pope, Ayatollah, and Evangelist should be arrested, and their follower deprogrammed.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  14. Leo

    Ugh... am I the only one that noticed that this article is NOT pro-religion? Ile admit that was my first impression as I was reading it, but near the end it became clear. Here is the dead givaway:

    "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" Here he is complaining that people wont give up on spirituality completely and adopt a "materialistic" explanation.

    And another: "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?" There it is, his clear distinction between "God and Scripture" vs the good stuff i.e. "human-based knowledge, reason and action."

    This guys isn't saying religion is good. He is criticizing the "undecided" and indecisive spiritual people for loafing... An argument ive heard plenty of times leveled at agnostics by atheists. Not saying its a good argument, but it does prove a very valuable point about you readers 🙂

    Basically, just about all 100+ pages of comments full of indignation are totally off topic... lol... Hooray for reading comprehension =P

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • AC

      Yes, I think few noticed that, but the author subverted his message without trying to meet the audience in the middle. Feels familiar, no? Where have we seen that sort of rhetoric before?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Leo

      I just think this is a crazy phenomenon... not surprising... but still crazy... All these people getting apparently so worked up about something they totally misunderstood... Crazy... sad... but also really funny 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  15. organically

    Religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  16. CBinLA


    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  17. Flooby

    I'm sooo sick of the battles over religion I'd just rather stay as far away as possible. Why are people so deep into fairy tales?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  18. Abril32

    What difference does it make what people want to believe in? I for one do not believe in a god. Reason being, I personally see no need for me to believe in a great creator, judgement giver, commander of the oceans the sky and the stars, the giver of my daily bread. The idolatry that people subscribe to has morphed and evolved over the millennia that people have existed from one god to many gods to no god or gods, to ways of thinking and living and back again. If people believe in being spiritual but not religious, then I say who cares! Are they happy? Are they contributing to society? Do they help others? Are they lazy and indecisive? Certainly, but so is everyone else on this planet, religious or not.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  19. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Judging by the volume and tone of the comments, most of which I agree with since I despise organized religion and the very concept of imaginary gods and bogeymen, it is clear that the author LOSES on this one! This country is moving away from fairy tale religions! Get used to it!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  20. Rainer Braendlein

    Our current political leaders suffer from materialistic madness. They adore the demon or idol Mammon which is the idol of the people who are not ready to share their fortune with people in need.

    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 12:34 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.