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. expakistani

    Excellent article. Does every human have dignity just because he thinks he does? Is their evil? By what standard do we judge people? Some in our modern world say we should judge no one. Nature is a harsh judge. The 'feel good spirituality' of many is an excuse for not doing hard thinking and making hard choices.

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

      On the contrary, it is actually a response of doing hard thinking and making hard choices.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ocupooper

      ARod (im promoting you to the "A" team),

      What is difficult about believing in Everything? What choices are made?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  2. Xavier

    The only thing more stupid than fanatical devotion to religion, is militant secular humanism. Both share a commonality of denying a person's choice of worship by virtue of ridiculing them.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  3. karthik shyam

    i think being spiritual but religious might be the best thing happening all over the world. its taking best philosophies of all religions and integrating people rather than sticking to one religion and believing that its superior compared to others. religions have been just more divisive than serving its main purpose. and all the priests/monks in all religions have abused their power.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  4. Ed

    Thomas Jefferson was a Diest, and probably a lot smarter than Alan Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Ocupooper

      I love how liberals only want to recognize Jefferson and his thoughts when they speak of his bland belief in a "Deity". Jefferson was a libertarian, a christian, not a DEIST. However being a Libertairian, he chose not to burden his fellow man with his spiritual beliefs, it simply wasnt relevant.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Mickey1313

    The author of this piece is an ignorant sh1t. But he is correct that being part of organized religion does, to many people, give you a negative brand. Theism its the most corrosive destructive force on earth.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  6. Lester

    Pretty bogus thinking. Protestantism as a whole is a movement whose roots are to be found in rejecting the organized "religious" for the spiritual. The problem with the churches is that they have either become political PACs or are irrelevant to people's lives outside of Sunday mornings. More and more people are, and will continue to, reject being bossed around and told what they should think. Any revival of religion will come from the spiritual movement and its focus on people's real spiritual needs, and not from today's ossified churches .

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  7. Geoff

    Even on a Sunday, this article was not worthy of a column on CNN ... much less center page top billing.

    PS. The idea that "megachurches" are the result of the same people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious" is outright facetious. They are at polar opposites of the spectrum in my experience.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Mickey1313

      Agreed, most mega churches are havens for ultra zealots.

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

      Mickey... there you go making more ASSumptions...... the mega churches are the watered down versions of Christianity. Tell me this.... why do you not hate Islam, like you hate Christianity??? Why arent Mosques filled with "zealots"?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  8. Doug

    There is a logical fallacy that a rejection of orthodox doctrines equates a desire to believe whatever one wants to believe. Whether I form my beliefs independently or choose to follow someone else's, I'm still choosing what I want to believe. If I choose to recognize the Bible or the Church as infallible, or instead recognize truth based exclusively on my own personal intuition, I'm still the one making the choice, and it all comes through that same fallible gateway of human perception.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  9. Chris Rucker

    Why do christians believe that the 1st Amendment belongs to them exclusively? These veiled attacks are free speech until the point they attempt to deprive other American citizen's right to freedom of religion. This is treasonous and should be heavily penalized.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  10. Rainer Braendlein

    We could create a beautiful, pleasent church where people would like it to be. We only need faithful leader which don't colaborate with our curren godless political rulers. Of course, such a church would face poverty but spiritual happyness.

    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 12:39 pm |
  11. igoryok

    It is interesting how many people here conflate stern criticism of a particular choice with deprivation of the freedom to choose. The author is well aware of the consequences of authoritarian approaches to speech and belief, and is likely in vehement opposition of to such limitations.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Fernando

      These people think nothing of taking a young child and indoctrinating these blank slates into following their organized religion. They actually think it's abuse NOT to force their kids to participate in their religious activities. There's no respect for choice when it comes to the most helpless among us – the children.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:46 am |
  12. Nikki

    Sounds a little bit like the author is confusing independent spirituality with hedonism.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  13. Carolyn

    Oh, yeah. The organized religions are working really hard on "unanswered questions"–more like working hard to sweep those tough questions, contradictions, and immoral behavior under the rug or ignoring them when they're inconvenient.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • CA Liberal

      So as a Christian I guess I should just stick my head in the sand and hope it all goes away. I was raised a Christian as a child, but as an adult it doesn't work for me. At 19 yrs I realized it was all a fairy tale and the church was in serious denial about reality. That was over 50 years ago. So now I have my own personal version of God and it works for me. I don't need any church telling me how it is and what to do with my life and my money.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  14. CarmenSo

    Maybe the problem here are religious organizations are trying to dictate how people should live, even people outside their religious. For example Catholics don't believe in birth control so therefore NO ONE should take birth control , even non Catholics. What we really need is separation of Church and Sate fully enforced.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • gar

      Separation of Church and state 'fully enforced". It sounds like you are implying that there should be no separation- rather Churches should, in your view, be forced to comply to the states view- that's not separation, that is State over Church.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  15. rtelschow

    The author confirms my conclusion that religion is ultimately about control; spirituality is about liberation.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  16. kateU

    Excellently said. Thanks CNN publishing this!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  17. AF

    Content of the article aside...this is just really poorly written.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  18. AvdBerg

    The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

    There is a natural body and a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44).

    The above article by Alan Miller is misleading as he himself is spiritually blind and is a good example how distorted things have become in society with the media as the main culprit. For a better understanding we invite you to read the article ‘The Natural Body vs the Spiritual Body listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    Seek, and ye shall find (Matthew 7:7).

    September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • NoTheism

      and appealing to scripture is bad reasoning

      September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Brainwashed religious dolt! Why does anyone have to SEEK "god"? Why is "he" hiding?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  19. Michael McAlister

    Those whose entire sense of power come from the dogma of their inherited religious beliefs (and the mental gymnastics required to actually believe in them) will resist to the bitter end the Higher Truths that are so easliy available to each of us within. The death of "government by religion" is a good thing for humanity. Some people will not realize this in their lifetimes. What a shame for them, but humanity shall progress toward True Spirituality nevertheless. It is our birthright, and we cannot be denied this. All True Seekers shall find Truth. I feel nothing but compassion for those who cannot listen to the powerful silence within, but rather can only listen to the cacophony of erroneous teachings.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  20. athoughtor2

    First the author presents his definition of spirituality, then he starts making his case against it. Classic "strawman" argument. His comments also reveal the REAL agenda for religions, maintaining political control of the masses through the assertion of spiritual authority.

    Rather than implosion of belief, I would say that there has been a growing polarization – those who continue to insist more and more ardently that their way is the right way and has to be swalllowed hook, line and sinker, and those who are refusing to abdicate responsibility for their spiritual growth, who no longer find "belief" to be enough, and who are intent on experiencing the same truth of human existence that every prominent spiritual leader from the beginning has taught.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:37 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.