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. Gavin

    The article says: "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." That may be a simplistic look at the reason behind the rise of literacy rates. Urbanization during the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of more technical, educated jobs in the 18th and 19th centuries may have played a role. Not necessarily some craving of the masses to read a book which is almost unreadably terrible. Deism, Agnosticism, or Atheism. Choose one and be civil about it. The sooner organized religion accompanied by mysticism and authoritarianism wallows into obscurity the better, in my opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  2. Sam West

    No to " A belief in God and Scripture"

    Yes to " A commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action".

    You "spiritual people" read the article carefully – it does not endorse religion at all. It would make more sense if it explicitly denounced any religion and any belief in the mystical and the supernatural. It should have made an explicit point that the "spiritual" ones are the same as religious but not consistent enough to reject the arbitrary domain of the mystical altogether.

    If the Western word did not adopt the ideals of the Enlightenment centuries ago you would not be reading these words on the screens of your computers, tablets and smart phones.

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

      I had to read through pages of comments before finding one that demonstrates actual understanding of the article and the writer's views. This highlights yet another aspect of "spiritually irreligious". They exhibit the tendency to chose from the gamut of metaphysical beliefs without grounded understanding of their origin, historical context and cultural implications. In doing so, they are often well mentioned yet espousing a number of beliefs maliciously espoused by groups that are the the ideological opposites of the non-religious. They become an unwitting vehicle for some of the more reviled ideologies of our time. All the while thinking that they have somehow distanced themselves the betters of those who identify with an established faith, yet promote tolerance and kind deeds.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  3. stinkytojo

    I am extremely offended at the implication that the creative arts could not exist without organized religion. ("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.") The only reason that the arts before modern time were religiously based was because the rich benefactors of the arts were either the church or the upper echelon of society who had to answer to the church to keep their power and wealth. The author of this article apparently thinks we should go back to the middle ages when the church dictated everything. I'm sure it was a lovely time to be allive!

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

      Christianity is a middle Eastern religion like Islam ... The author, like most whites, fails to point that out...

      September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. Kt looo

    The "Danger"?! What a joke. The only danger in this article is Alan Miller. I'm not clear on why people are deemed dangerous when they don't fit into one of his categories. HIS thinking is dangerous and intolerant to other people's beliefs. Not everything fits in a nice, neat category. And after reading this ridiculous artictle, I'm still not clear on why it matters to anyone other than Alan Miller. CNN: How about utlizing the front page for articles that really matter and not some wacko's opinion on how wrong other people are for not picking a recognized or accepted religious stance.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  5. Toonces

    "Spiritual but not religious" refers to a person who believes in God but rejects the dogma that all religions are jam-packed with. It's not that confusing Mr. Miller.

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

      Agreed, its not complicated

      September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  6. cocteautwin

    How can I command whatever happens to me ? By being one with whatever happens. What does that mean ? You really do not possess a separate self which is apart from anything; you are one with all of life. However, in your misunderstanding you think there is a you AND an event, which causes division and conflict. This is the secret of the ages. Come back to it every day.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  7. susankatzkeating

    What a silly set of premises. Big Religion is not for everyone, and we all are free to pursue our spiritual paths independent of what the CNN blogger advocates. I believe that is why God invented the United States...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |


    September 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  9. sam123

    Spiritualism is the core of a religion. Spiritualism is a step inside the religion. A religion can not be born unless there was a spiritual awakening in someone. Lets ask this simple question. Did Christianity or Muslim or any other faith for that matter exist before Jesus, Mohammed, Mosses were born? Shall we call them religious men?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm |


      September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  10. lolwut

    I came down to the comments expecting a lot of wounded sanctimony, and was not disappointed.

    The point, since most of you seem to have missed it, is that doing the work of reconciling yourself with an actual doctrine–regardless of what it is–forces you to analyze and challenge your moral beliefs and render them coherent in a historical tradition. I see that subtlety was lost on the audience. People have become so accustomed to this bovine postmodern pseudo-intellectualism where no abstract idea can be challenged and all philosophies are asserted as the same that they actually view this sort of work as offensive. Perhaps they're afraid of what they'll find outside their warm-and-fuzzy bubbles of self-satisfaction.

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

      Sorry, dude, I have a pretty firm set of moral beliefs and I don't "need to challenge them" by spending time in church.

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

      your so right!! Love your comment.

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

      I think what the people are trying to say is that it is hard to reconcile yourself with doctrine when everyone knows it's garbage. If you really don't believe that one schmuck in a funny hat is different than another it's kind of like showing up to this thing when you could be watching television static instead, because at least television static is tangible and will not touch my children inappropriately. I think what you are really trying to say is that this country's youth appear to be undisciplined, which I can assure you is only a sign of old age.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  11. 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 12:44 pm |
    • Yes Seriously!

      Cr@p from an uneducated failure! "Religion is responsible for 99% of wars?" LOL

      If you hadn't flunked History you'd KNOW that Atheism has been responsible for more religion-based deaths in the last 100 years than ALL the religious wars in the history of mankind!

      So kindly take your ignorance and peddle it someplace else. Streuth, mate, how old are you?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  12. MountainRecluse

    In a society dominated by 'religious but not spiritual', this seems a positive trend. The renewed dedication to spirituality brings to mind the early Quaker movement where each of us is guided by the light within, not by an ordained spokesperson playing to our fears and desires. All that is missing is an organized commitment to community. Perhaps that's on the way.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  13. charles_darwin

    It's article writers like this that are dangerous !
    How dare you be so smug?
    No wonder Atheism is growing.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Yes Seriously!

      charles_darwin – Good post, I agree with you. This wannabee philosopher is another Dawkins clown who wants to deny God – make everything "human"- and essentially reduce Man to animals status!

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

    Formal religions are all "closed" social systems- meaning that in order to participate, one must reject all other religions and believe that the participant's religion is the only "true" religion. Consequently, the participant may only exchange ideas with other religions on a superficial level. This sharing is usually done to avoid war, but deep down the participants believe those of other religions are going to a very bad place for eternity. Closed systems are dysfunctional because they are non-transparent and cannot evolve as new information comes available that is in direct conflict with their understanding. Contrary to Mr. Miller's belief, it is the closed system that eventually implodes. Individual spirituality allows for not only communal sharing of beliefs (think of a meeting of any 12-step program), but the adoption or rejection of other's beliefs based on one's evolving understanding of God.
    Individual spirituality allows for a person to "choose to believe". It is an act of one's free will. Religion chooses this for you, but I suppose one could simply choose a different religion that is more compatible with one's individual beliefs although this could be viewed as a form of religious treason by the participant's religious brethren. Faith is belief in action. Pulling the trigger of effort to put one's beliefs into action comes more naturally when it is based on the individual's own beliefs (internal motivation) rather than pressure from the larger religious group (external motivation).
    Mr. Miller goes on to say that individual spirituality is all about "feeling good" and neglects to answer larger questions. Hogwash! In the end, everyone will have to confront existential questions that deal with: the uncertainty of life after death, struggles with responsibility and freedom, ultimate aloneness, and what the meaning of life is. This will happen regardless of an individual's participation in an organized religion or individual spirituality. Perhaps we can look at these commonalities in the human condition, rather than stoking the holier-than-thou flames.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  15. larrylef

    Does the author understand that every great religion was founded by a person with a profound inner experience who often bucked the prevailing religious authority of their time?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  16. mac101

    This author has no idea what spirituality means, and therefore rejects what he doesn't understand. What a shame.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Yes Seriously!

      The writer is a brewer of alcohol!!!!! Enough said about his qualification to discuss ANYTHING rationally – let alone "Spirituality!"
      He was obviously under the influence of "Spirits" of the alcoholic type when he made this speech! Pffft!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  17. Troy Cornett

    Sounds like Alan Miller is a bit of a holier than thou with his repeated "spiritual but not religious" rant. This article is ripe with insults to people that chose not to follow traditional religion. Comments such as: me generation, self obsessed, retro-gressive movement, etc.
    I'm not going to bother defending or attacking this article. I'm just going to simply say we have come to a place where you can not even discuss religion w/o one side being "better than the other".

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  18. AC

    I will easily term this article as nothing but utter rubbish and religious propaganda. I am a Hindu but rarely go to temple or follow religious beliefs that my religion espouses but you know what, I was born with a brain that helps me determine what's good and what's bad. I don't need any religion to tell me that as my brain cells are still intact. I have no problems about all religions and their followers and respect all of that but I do know that the single biggest reason for majority of the issues in the world is because of religions and religious beliefs. I do not have to follow any specific religious doctrine to show what side I am or what my position is because my brain tells me that doing good is always the right position and hurting/harming others isn't. Probably the author does not understand or appreciate that and finds it an easy way to just blindly follow what his religion dictates. God bless you dude!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Dave


    1. Miller suggests that "taking a stand" even if that means believing in something that may be false is a superior position to withholding specific beliefs because there are good reasons to doubt that they are true. For somebody who complains about "relativistic" beliefs, Miller shows amazing and painful disregard for the veracity of beliefs, and seems to advocate for just picking something and believing in it, whether it's true or not. Personally, it very much matters to me whether my beliefs are true or not. Belief without good reason is NOT a virtue. It's a sign of laziness and intellectual dishonesty to suspend genuine skepticism for the sake of having a belief.

    2. Just because some beliefs exist as part of long-standing traditions does not make them better, or more true.

    3. Miller grossly devalues the benefit of healthy skepticism and active questioning of doctrine since the beginning of recorded history. Even over the relatively short history of the United States, religious freedom and skeptical philosophy has been rich contributor to our Culture, integral to the religious landscape we have today. Thoreau to Emerson to Smith, all demonstrate the skeptical approaches to religion can be as much a discipline, if not more of a discipline, than accepting this or that traditional doctrine.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. malavikam

    These are lyrics of an Indian song
    'aaththigam paesum adiyaarkeLLaam sivamae anbaagum
    aaththigam vaesum naLLavarukkoe anbae sivamaagum'
    which translates to
    For the theists, God is love…
    For the good hearted agnostics, Love (kindness) is god..

    love and let love.. this is what spiritual but not religious means to me..

    September 30, 2012 at 12:43 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.