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. unanimous

    Doesn't anyone at CNN screen the articles that are published? Guess not. CNN should apologize for having published this one. Just read the comments and you can see that Alan Miller obviously offended many people "enormously" (to use the author's word). We Americans are all part of a great civilization founded on freedom of religion. And yes, spiritual but not religious is part of our freedom. It is one of the things that sets us apart from other countries and makes us unique. The author seems to be a Londonite, and speaking of England, wasn't one of the reasons we broke free from Great Britian a call for religious freedom? At least John Lennon got it, and shared with us his wisdom in the song Imagine. Whatever you believe, it should be respected in this country as long as it is lawful, peaceful, respectful in its own right, and causing no harm to others. The last thing we need is to wake up on nice Sunday morning, read CNN to find out what's in the news, and then stumble upon Alan Miller garbage to ruin our day.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  2. God

    I once again admonish you all to embrace atheism, the only true religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  3. Erin Currin

    And what philosophy would you advocate as the "RIGHT" one? After having seen a flyer found in bibles telling people that, if they choose to vote for Obama, they will be rejecting Christ and go to hell, I see ever more clearly that people should follow the Law – not a person peddling their VERSION of the Law.

    I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that many who choose a "Spiritual" path are attempting to avoid the work involved in true exploration of the more mystical side of the human experience. But I also see that many who are "Good church going people" figure that because they listen to the Preacher, they have no need to explore themselves. Declaring a denomination by no means assures that parishioners are actually doing the "work".

    I see that the reason for the refusal of many to commit to a camp has more to do with the rhetoric coming from the camps about which camp has the TRUTH. Couldn't it be possible that MANY of these camps have the TRUTH? Why must I choose a camp only to be slaughtered by another camp who's God is MORE RIGHT than mine?

    A faithful Buddhist and self-proclaimed spiritualist...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • God

      Thanks for asking, since I am all-knowing, I suggest you try secular humanism. It is my greatest creation.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Aaron

      Agreed. The teaching is "the kingdom of heaven is within". Jesus didn't say read the bible. Seems simple enough to me.

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

      Well put.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  4. Walter Ali

    This guy seems to have swallowed his dogma whole. Religion has nothing to do with god and everything to do with power. There are wonderful people who are religious. But their religion is far from wonderful.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  5. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Why does mankind continue to follow old traditions just because "that's the way we've always done it"? Man is constantly acquiring new knowledge and learning that "the old ways" were wrong. Earth, wind, fire and water are not the only elements in the universe. The world is not flat, nor is it the center of the Universe. Native "Americans" are not Indians. 1 AD is not the actual birth year of Jeezus. Why do we still use "Anno Domini" anyway? It's an arbitrary date and no religious figure deserves such recognition. Why can't we use a "star date" based on an estimated age of our sun? Why is New Year's Day on Jan 1 instead of Winter Solstice? Why can't we shake these old traditions? Religion is obsolete. "Gods" do not exist! We know such ancient ideas are wrong now! Let's do something about it!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    What is more important? Material wealth or happyness of the soul? Of course, happyness of the soul which comes through righteousness. Who helps us to be righteous in daily life accepting some material disadvanteges for the sake of rightousness? It is Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.

    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 12:53 pm |
  7. ..

    badly researched.. Karma Sutra?

    Ad hominem attacks galore.


    September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Terry

      LOL. I was pondering that one. I like it. The quality of the orgasms you give another will be reflected back in the orgasms you have. I'm Agnostic, but I say Amen to that!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  8. cacique

    I have to face it, organized religion has left me cold. The many denominations and interpretations I will not allow them to confuse me. And actually, not having my thoughts follow the pattern of any religion has freed me of dogmas and biases.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Agreed

      In the beginning, man created God.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  9. Joe

    Who is this guy to attack my religious beliefs? If I have a problem in any way with Catholicism or Judaism or any other organized religion what business is it of his? My personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ should not be attacked, just like I do not attack those who are followers of religious groups. These holier than thou guys are dangerous.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  10. David

    This is what CNN gives space to?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Just Wokeup

      lol..yes.... cnn needs attention!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  11. RAS

    I was very surprised to read these words coming from an intelligent but tragically myopic individual. His thesis discounts all of the contributions to society and mankind that did not come from "the King James Bible". Just a tiny bit of research beyond the writer's narrow viewpoint would reveal that rich, flourishing cultures existed throughout the world before the time of Christ, and certainly well before "the King James Bible", which is nothing more than an English translation of ancient, non-English texts. Open your mind and accept the fact that people have the right to believe what they wish to believe. If that belief is based on an English translation of Greek, Aramaic and other texts, fine. If not, that's also fine. Do you believe in love? In forgiveness? In basic goodness? In fairness and common decency? If so, you are probably on the right track regardless of what any of the "good books" say.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  12. Keith

    Spiritual but not religious is my rejection of Church without rejecting my beliefs. There is no church that holds my beliefs

    September 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  13. Steven Smith

    People desire meaningful spiritual experiences, not dogma.Traditional religion has been tested and found wanting. Don't blame the seekers if you can't give them something real.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  14. Easygoing7

    The author appears really out of touch with any idea beyond their own dogma. A wastes of a 3 minute read.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  15. rampantmisdirection

    Wow, Mr. Miller sure does seem to have this spiritual but not religious thing figured out! It will most certainly lead those practicing it to certain doom and create chaos. Fire and brim stone, plagues, locusts, dogs and cats living together.

    Or perhaps not.

    Mr. Miller would have us believe that a mythology with a written dogma is somehow superior to those without. Yet, people, every day guide themselves through the day without the need of a priest, rabbi, pastor, cleric.

    Mr. Miller writes this article with the voice of a man who has been robbed of the power to control others.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Keith

      I am amazed, you figured out his whole intent, thanks

      September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  16. cocteautwin

    We’re not bringing struggle to an end. We’re not trying to not struggle anymore. We’re just noticing that there is a whole other dimension to consciousness that, in this very moment, isn’t struggling, isn’t resentful, isn’t trying to get somewhere. You can literally feel it in your body. You can’t think your way to not struggling. There isn’t a three-point plan of how not to struggle. It’s really a one-point plan : notice that the peace, this end of struggling, is actually already present. The process is therefore one of recognition. We recognize that there is peace now, even if your mind is confused. You may see that even when you touch upon peace now, the mind is so conditioned to move away from it that it will try to argue with the basic fact of peace’s existence within you : “I can’t be at peace yet because I have to do this, or that, or this question hasn’t been answered, or that question hasn’t been answered, or so-and-so hasn’t apologized to me.” There are all sorts of ways that the egoic mind can insist that something needs to happen, something needs to change, in order for you to be at peace. But this is part of the dream of the mind. We’re all taught that something needs to change for us to experience true peace and freedom. Just imagine for a moment that this isn’t true. Even though you may believe that it’s true, just imagine for a moment : what would it be like if you didn’t need to struggle, if you didn’t need to make an effort to find peace and happiness ? What would that feel like now ? And just take a moment to be quiet and see if peace or stillness is with you in this moment.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  17. Diego Salles Diniz

    Noooooooo !!! Jesus Christ didn't died and resurrected for us. HE WAS CLEARLY MURDERED BY US and resurrected by "
    somebody else "

    September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  18. Rhidian

    The author of this opinion is generalizing a personalized approach to spirituality/religion. Just because it isn't "traditional" religion does not mean that people can't get good things out of it.

    And I find it odd that the author feels that the 16% or so of people in the USA that don't follow traditional religion somehow makes the USA a "godless world".

    September 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  19. Jim

    Isn't it strange that Christianity has many core beliefs that are in line with Buddhism and ancient paganism? Makes you think about what the world would be like if everyone just disregarded outside ideas and never allowed their faith and ethics to grow.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Hob

    Being spiritual means you have been to hell and back and don't want to go back. Being religious is not wanting to go to hell!

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

      That defines most of the spiritual folks I have met.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:55 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.