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. Reasonably

    Let's see: be at peace, be a good human and be good to others with no book or proselytizer telling me I have to hate, exclude, jihad or other ridiculous thing in order to have that "peace". I win, religion=fail.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Lee

      yes, yes and yes

      September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  2. C. J. Mozzochi, Ph.D.

    This is the biggest pile of pure horsehit I have ever read! Reigious dogma has caused more grief and human misery than any other endeavor by mankind. It is for weak-minded people, who either are not able to think for themselves or too lazy to do so. CNN should not publish such crap!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Keith

      What is more important than CNN printing these articles is you and I sharing our opinions so that we know that we are not alone in the world. By providing this forum it is easy to see that Allen Miller's opinion is truly a minority opinion

      September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  3. Caron

    Religion has destroyed more art than it has created. It has censored more art than it encouraged. It has chosen the ugly art depicting "god" or "christ" over the beautiful art that depicts the human form - the naked body.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. ofthelight media

    There is no such thing as good and evil.

    There is only love and learning.

    No religion has it exactly right, therefore be your own "religion."

    September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Caron

      you are an SBNR. Congratulations!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  5. Surfer George

    The interesting point not mentioned is that there are SO MANY "Religions," each CERTAIN that theirs is the only path to Salvation.
    Either none of them are right, all of them are right or there is going to be a "No Vacancy" sign in Hell soon.

    I would posit that NONE of them have the ONLY answer and ALL of them may be a divergence from the True Path to Enlightenment. Anyone who tells me that they know what is better/best for me and that I can never find my way without their help is a wolf in sheep's clothing to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Lee


      September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • GYooper


      September 30, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  6. Dan

    This guy is right in that who wouldn't adopt an easy spiritual approach to self aggrandizement....heck even the aethiest likes it. I do not know many spiritual but not religous types who do not concern themselves mostly with their own feelings and experiences. It's spiritual goofiness.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  7. charles

    The author may have a few good points as long as TOLERANCE can be considered "a hodge-podge approach to spirituality". There certainly seems to be no place for tolerance in organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  8. ja-coffalotte

    What an dumb story, organized religion has retarded Mankind for thousands of years. Any sane person knows we come from aliens, they visited here for thousands of years, and are still here, manipulating our Dna, whether they are benevolent or evil is yet to be understood.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Diego Salles Diniz

      I finely found someone who can see through the curtains. You just found the ultimately truth my friend. The truth about our origins.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Diego Salles Diniz

      I think it's just not a matter of been benevolent or evil. It' seems to be something about a higher purpose. Something that goes beyond our understanding. It's just like a farmer who has this " need " of collecting seeds from one spot and plant it somewhere else. Like a life spreaders.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  9. Karen P

    This article is an absolutely ridiculous argument to join the evangelical movement and itself has nothing to do with religion other than to flaunt being pious and judgmental (and THAT is against Christian teachings). It's not just young people. The far right so-called judgmental evangelicals have ruined "religion" forever! And that 24-hour TV crap is just that...crap. But people believe that if you keep watching it long enough you become so "god-like". It's no wonder the younger crowd is disgusted. And look at those pictures of people with their eyes closed and arms uplifted? Who programmed them to do THAT? It wasn't done when I was a kid. The recent injection of religion into politics has destroyed both groups' dignities.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Raider

      You could have stopped at "This article is absolutely ridiculous."

      September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  10. jane fiske

    Miller's thinking is very simplistic. Some people do need the structure of a religion, but most of us inherited one, and too many follow it blindly or find it too difficult to find another group (that's what religions are: social groups sporting a supposed identical belief they'd like to impose on other people) that satisfies one's own beliefs about the meaning of life. True spirituality encourages independent thought; religions do not. Ideally our children would be taught about many world religions, but in historical context, not connected to beliefs in guilt, sin, or even love - and to think for themselves about the big questions. We may yet see an enlightened world, but Dr. Miller's kind of thinking won't help get us there.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bill Lunsford

      You nailed it, Jane. I couldn't have said it better. His thinking is, not surprisingly, linear and steeped in the kind of patriarchal deductive reasoning which imposes the notion that humans must always claim an answer instead of simply being okay to live within the question.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • vbrown

      Simplistic? Exactly! God laid it out that way yet because of all the muck we picked up in life no wonder we don't believe so we make our own way which is dangerous you become full of self thats why God encourages the christian to worship together in truth and to be reach the larger community,

      I agree with you that it is a social circle a club yet the church is one place you can find good people who try to practice good, we are all human the only way that we will get over ourselves is to give ourselves up that is challenging in and of itself because we live with ourselves and that is what we are comfortable with good bad or indifferent.

      As far as doing what everyone else does in the church without thinking about it God instructs us to " Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" no one should ever give control of themselves to a person or a purpose without considering the cost these are some principles that God has laid be before us.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Diego Salles Diniz

      You have a brilliant mind my friend. I'm glad to know that we still have people with a higher intellect, like you, walking on earth.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  11. atheist Ken

    If there is one God in Heaven – that created all men, then why do we have all these various religious beliefs and concepts – most that do not revolve around a anthropomorphic center?

    The Sun is our true God – it provides for all life as we know it. The Earth is our Mother – together with the Sun, it sustains us with air, water, food, and shelter – plus a lot of entertainment! Treat everyone with fairness, equity, and help when you are needed or asked. Be humble – never think that you are better or higher than the other that you share Mother Earth with (that includes all living creatures.) When you eat a beet, a chicken, or a fish – give thanks to Father Sun and Mother Earth – for providing wonderful food to eat. Recognize that there is a circle of life – and that the beet, chicken, and fish will be recycled by our wondrous life circle – as will you someday. Protect the weak among us – and support the majority – only when the majority rule makes sense to you and is not being manipulated by an evil thinking human or group of humans.

    So that it is – 5000 years of religious dogma wrapped up in a paragraph – created by who other than....Native Americans!

    We have allowed the crazies in the middle East (Israel, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, et al) to mess with our lives and minds. It is time that the bible and all historical treatise be put into the dust bin of history – where they belong – and get on with an enlightened view of who we are, where we stand today, and where we are headed tomorrow...simple as that.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  12. Emily

    To me, the idea that religion needs to be confined into a box of God and Scripture or Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action is the actual cop-out. I think what a lot of young people in this country realize and embrace is that the God they want to believe in (and do believe in) isn't a being that believes there is one path to Him. Life isn't neat and easy, and it certainly doesn't fit into a cookie cutter box, so why should our beliefs? I often use the term spiritual but not religious. For instance, right now, it is Sunday morning, and rather than getting dressed for church, I am in hiking gear about to go hike up a mountain. While I do appreciate the community that a church surely provides, the God I want to believe in doesn't think that singing hymns, reading scripture, and providing an offering is the only path to him. He made this beautiful world for us, and he wants us to enjoy it in whatever manner we see fit. One of the biggest decisions I ever made in life is that the traditional church model of religion was not for me. It didn't lessen my belief in an omnipotent deity to leave it; it simply made me open up to the possibility that everyone can be right and we can all get along. And I think the God that my mother worships on Sunday mornings from the pew would be just as ok with that as the one I'll pay tribute to atop that mountain.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  13. rocketgrrl

    I agree with the author that too much of what passes for spirituality today is nothing more than courses in the care and feeding of our sensitive needy FEELINGS. Most human being’s favorite subject is the state of their feelings and how to improve them. It’s almost as if feelings were facts or something. They’re usually not much more than the result of neuron flatulence (aka brain fart).
    True spiritual prinicples like honest, hope, faith, courage, integrity, persistence, humility, brotherly love, justice, etc really don’t care about FEELINGS. They are about attempting to do the right thing for the right reason regardless of how it feels.
    You want to practice some real spirituality? Take a look at your morals as exhibited through your actions (not your motives). Admit your shortcomings to those you’ve damaged, and make sincere, good faith efforts to repair that damage. Depend on whatever universal power you may or may not believe in rather than scheme and plot and lie and cheat and steal to get what you think you need or keep what you’ve already got.
    My objection to this author’s work is that he requires an organized hierarchal religion to teach me this, and then to enforce my adherence to it. This organizations don’t really succeed in changing people, they succeed in getting people to be ashamed of their mistakes and humanity, and hide their shortcomings rather than own them.
    Personally I had to run the wheels off of my bad behavior until I got to a point where I realized it didn’t work, and that I had to find a different way to live and to think. I found that way, and I’ve done the best I could to adhere to that way. I’m not perfect, and I’ve spent a good deal of my life looking for pooches to screw. The difference is now I have to go back and try to unscrew the pooches. I don’t need a priest or a minister or a rabbi or a imam to tell me what to do and make sure I do it. That is my responsibility.
    And lest I forget, that much-vaunted literacy that has been mentioned? The catholic church worked hard to limit literacy to their priesthood until martin luther came along. After luther, the Christian churches tried to limit literacy to the bible. And muslims do the same thing today. If it aint Koran, it aint…..you get the idea. So let’s not hear how religion has spread literacy. They only spread it when it serves their organizational purposes.
    For those who practice “feel good spirituality”…..go for it kids! Run it till the wheels come off.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  14. leslie piper

    Very stupidly written and falsely presented piece of propaganda...God...or the "Original"...will not be mocked...or WILL be mocked...how will YOU, fool, know when is when? by what other self-serving men tell you?

    Personally, my practices are my own, I neither teach nor look for followers there. The Original knows whether or not I count for much, and also knows that I know nothing much about anything. Except as I get older i seem to be able to spot self-servers...like the author of this simple-minded screed.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  15. David

    I think the photo chosen for the write up is irresponsible. Spiritualists are not all hippies with beer guts. There are a lot of successful professional people who live a spiritual, but not religious, life. I'm assuming the author chose the photo to support his point. Its a cheap shot.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  16. mikey

    Going to Church to learn about God is like going to the IRS to learn about art. After having some very close connection to clergy I found them to be truly appalling people. I grew up in church and have a close connection to clergy. No individual is mentally capable or equipped to represent God or even God's word. If power corrupts then spiritual power creates the ultimate types of corruption. I don't find someone else's beliefs to be a threat to my own and I respect their quest for the truth. I don't know anything about the details of God. I don't know if he wants me to pray five times a day or eat little wafers that represent his body or eat certain foods or wear certain cloths. I don't know if God prefers a type of hair or chooses to speak in any particular language. However, I am completely convinced that God wants me to be as good as I can to other people. He wants me to give all that I can and forgive those who hurt me. That is the ultimate spiritual challenge and I hope that I am up to the task.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  17. Just Wokeup

    15 mins after the announcment of finding a new bosen cnn reported HIGGS Bosen found! I would take this with a grain of salt and would rather read the entire statements from this guy. I would like to think that he is saying way more than what this alludes too. CNN..always seem to be able to misrepresent everything it gets its hands on.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  18. evolreed

    I find this article offensively patronizing and full of ill-informed conjecture served with a healthy heaping of disdain. Really disappointing that CNN thinks it's Sunday morning front-page material. As someone who does in fact firmly identify myself as "spiritual but not religious" I will say that my reasoning for that is far deeper and more complex than the "self obsession" that Mr. Miller points to. In fact, the whole tone of his article illustrates just one of my many, many issues with this whole "organized" thing. I do not sit in judgment of other's beliefs, and I can't imagine why mine are of anyone else's concern. For the record, Mr. Miller, I can guarantee you that after studying theology intensively in school, as well as continuing my research for most of my adult life, that I may in fact know more about church doctrine than YOU. I'm not ill-informed, or lazy, or just shrugging my shoulders so as not to harsh my mellow.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Anthony

      Very well said – couldn't agree with you more. Mr Miller is defensive and threatened and projects this through finger pointing and as you say, judgement.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • John Q Publiq

      I have also studied the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Seminary and was appalled at what I read– and what I expected to read but didn't find. Try studying evolution and cosmology–the big history of time, not just the 1,500 years or so that are laid out in the Bible, and then reevaluate religion. It becomes readily apparent that any concept of god is man-made and our concept has evolved as civilization progressed. Jesus was merely a man of his day, nothing exceptional if you actually study the other healers and magicians of his day.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  19. Caron

    What if the spirit is not "in the sky" - what if the spirit is not waiting to judge you - what if the spirit is not outside you? I love the mystery!!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  20. 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 other 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 12:47 pm |
    • Jody P

      Stop already! The multiple reposts are discusting and show just how desperate you are to manipulate people. You are exactly the reason people shun organized religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:54 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.