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. zeke

    organized religion is failing and there is a now a "faith vacuum" of sorts much like the power vacuum that results from the failure of a government. People have lost faith and are now trying to find their own. There's nothing wrong with this natural process though. No one is flying jets into buildings or blowing up abortion centers while they try to define their own place in the universe. People in general are good. Let's just have faith that people will figure it out on their own w/out the need to fall back into organized religion to define it for them. Mr. Miller is the only one trying to force people to decide something – as if there is some dire need to proclaim an unflinching position. why can't faith evolve over time?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  2. stephanie

    amen karthik shyam...why can't we be more open to individual beliefs and let people just be?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  3. Franklin Cord

    The claim that being "spiritual but not religious" does not require discipline is bogus. The spiritual but not religious movement was an outgrowth of twelve step programs like AA which stress "A God of our understanding". Are you really going to try to tell a guy like me who just hit his 7th anniversary without a drink that I don't have any discipline Mr. Brewery-man?

    Why don't you go back to the bar and whine to the other drunks who haven't got the balls to get off the sauce you self-righteous prig.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Jan H.

      Right on, Brother! Who says you have to be one or the other? I'm both!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  4. delloco

    This article is a cop-out on it's own. Terrible, close-minded dreck. They are stating that we should be sheep and choose an uncertain, predetermined religion and abandon any spirtual expansion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  5. AnotherView

    This article so clearly demonstrates what is wrong with Christianity. In simple terms, it is this: if you are not a Christian you are going to hell. I personally reject this religious exclusionism and the torrent of hateful self-aggrandizing that it is. When messages like these are delivered from the pulpit (as I have heard many times) the body of a church is degraded and good people leave. Introspectively we ask ourselves, is this righteous; is this what God wants? And the answer for me at least is no, our world would be a much better place without this garbage. Instead we should respect the goodness and freedom of others and thank God that we live in a country where no one can force us to accept your ‘religion’.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Carmen Gutierrez

    These so called poeple that "you call them" are very well educated and the see the downfalls of being brainwashed in religion to not think more broadly. You see things very old fashioned. Spritual people are very aware of forgiveness, compassion, charity to others, but prefer to have a direct relationship to our God. And you call that less educating than being part of a brain washing system of rules and practices. If anything we are beyond selfish and able to see what's happening in the world through clear eyes.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Rainer Braendlein

    We could create a beautiful, pleasant church where people would like it to be. We only need faithful leaders which don't colaborate with our current godless political rulers. Of course, such a church would face poverty but on the hand 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 12:43 pm |
  8. kmehltretter3415

    This article is offensive and CNN should take it down. You show an overweight hippie doing yoga on a beach to depict the agnostic and atheist position? This article is lazy and moronic. More young people are choosing not to be religious because we see how negatively it impacts the world and this country.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • BRod

      Are you confused? This article is not about atheism or agnosticism.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  9. S.N

    99% of wars on the worlds were religiuos wars.

    and yes Im "Produly"Spiritual . I'm SICK and Tired of
    religions who suprisingly have same following STUPID message:



    September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  10. pete b

    be thankful they believe in something. im an atheist so what do you have to say about that?! so selfish of me.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  11. Mahhn

    "Spiritual" existed long before Judaism and other religions. It does not exclude religions. One of the best teachers in recent times was Paramahansa Yogananda.
    The only supposed problem with people choosing to be more Spiritual is that they won't support wars based on greed and religious persecution.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  12. Leave the rest of us alone!

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide"...think about what? If I think hard enough, I see god...what a bunch of crap. Live your life and let the rest of society live theirs.

    Why do people follow specific religions? Because that's where grandpa went...not much thought there!

    I would only respect someone who says they really thought about their religious options if they read every holy book on the planet, did an analysis, and made a choice...I don't think anyone has done that!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  13. Jeremie

    I would to thank the author for confirming that my choice to reject religion is the correct one.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  14. CAP

    blinded by faith and jealousy ( jealous of tne fat and long haired guy, because of the clear peaceful and joyful moment the dude is having )

    September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  15. Ocupooper

    No surprise!!! This article has attracted those that do not know GOD. Professing themselves wise; they became fools. The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge.

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

      You don't know God – you know what other people have told you about God. You believe in hearsay, nothing more.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Montello

      More like the end of knowledge...

      September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • sokesky

      Yes, with a name like ocupooper, you sound SO smart. *rolls eyes*

      September 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Ocupooper

      Brilliant! you guys sure do have a way with words. I was just quoting the bible... so you're argument really isnt with me. Im sure that through copious amounts of weed, mushrooms, yoga, and staring blankly into space you've come to some pretty "deep" conclusions about God. I trust that way more, really, I do.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Montello

      Actually pooper, my personal library on the origins and principles of religions consists of some 1600 volumes, all read at least once. I can't even estimate how may others I have read over the last 50 years. I would guess that your reading is limited to selected passages from the bible and you have no intention of ever exploring anything else. So my comment about the end of knowledge still goes.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Ocupooper

      Montello... thank you for taking time out of your day to tell me how smart you are. Truth is truth, I could read a thousand books on math, but if 2+2 doesnt equal 4, its wrong. Obviously after 50+ years, you are still searching for truth.... pretty stupid if you ask me.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Montello

      Not smart, just curious.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Ocupooper

      Montello.... I imagine you reading your post to me... in your best Al Gore voice... it makes me laugh.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Ocupooper

      Curious huh? Well lucky for you, a definitive answer lies just around the next bend. When you travel to the great beyond, you can then tell God how curious you were all those years, and how many books you read on him, and other Gods. He will be very impressed.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  16. Ray

    Mr. Miller's op-ed piece exemplifies the pomposity and self-righteousness of the modern 'religious'. He's correct that Christianity has had a profound impact on Western Civilization. What he neglects to mention, however, that much of that impact was due to the terrorism practiced by the Catholic Church and its intolerant off-shoots. The Spanish Inquisition was used by the 'Church' to enforce dogmatic consistency... and anyone who dared disagree was tortured and murdered. While they say that this was done in the 'name of Jesus', it was actually done to retain the domination power of the Pope and his priesthood. Jesus would be horrified at what has been done in his name.

    Americans are recognizing that organized religion is the bane of our modern civilization. The sooner we are purged of it, the better off the world will be.

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

      Like quite a few others here, you don't seem to have followed the author's argument very closely. He is criticising "spiritualism"; he makes no defense of organized religion whatsoever. Take another read through the column: there is no indication anywhere of the author's own beliefs. In fact, I suspect he is not a believer.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  17. collinkelley

    What a crock. Organized religion is what's wrong with the world, especially America. People are turning away from right wing extremists who define "faith" as being full of hate, judgement and with no regard to personal and civil liberties. Alan Miller is just upset that the hateful, vengeful God he believes in is being rejected for one that promises love, happiness and understanding.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  18. stephanie

    The author should refrain from judging people simply because the beliefs written about don't meld with his own. Further, perhaps he should stop making generalizations about people, religion and faith is deeply personal. Lastly, the fact that younger people may "rebel" is nothing new, what is new is the wonderful freedom to be able to do so freely and also come back to it later if they wish. It's this time of close-minded thinking that really irritates me...wasn't this country founded on the principles of religious freedom and expression? In as much as the author is free to express these opinions, perhaps he should consider the bigger picture before making such dramatic conclusions.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  19. douglas grady

    There are many Scriptural references to spirituality in the Bible. You will find many churchgoers as well as the pastors not really understanding some spirituality aspects of the truth. Matthew 15:14 states "14 Let them alone, they be the blind leaders of the blind: and if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch."

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

      My man... how could you twist that verse to not understand its true meaning? Did you read the context in which it was written> The "spiritual" only are the blind, when they lead the other blind, they fall into a ditch... jeez

      September 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  20. 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 is.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:41 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.