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. chupacabra

    What I thought....got cha!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  2. Common Sense

    Here is another member of the Professional Clergy telling us it is WRONG to not believe in his hypocritical religion business.
    What does "spiritual" mean? It means that these people no longer believe in religion, but are afraid of being called "atheist" because you, the organized religious business machine, has told them that "athiests" are evil and bad people.
    They don't have the courage to simply say that their rational sense tells them religious is useless. So, they are easing into the idea of a non-religious rational mindset with an intermediate step called "spiritual".

    September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Gatorfisch

      Sorry, but that is not the case for me. I do believe in God, and I follow the teachings of Jesus. One of the most sacred lessons for me is not to judge others. It is a personal journey for me. I am not trying to convert people. I also don't feel the need to push my own agenda to make myself feel better.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jeannius

      I don't believe in the church and rituals around it...too many centuries of politics and stuff that has warped the basic messages of any religion. I am not an athiest, however, as I do believe there is something beyond the physical reality....I just don't feel the need to anthropomorphize a diety into a human like father figure to make it more concrete and understandable. I accept that there are things I don't understand about the universe that may go on beyond the surface..I also believe that spiritual reality, is part of reality on the whole and is not in conflict with science...just with science as WE understand it now(ie...just because our science can't explain something doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it just means we haven't found the science or technology to understand it yet.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  3. waitasec

    religion is just an opinion...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  4. CE

    Could the author be any more self serving?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • jeff c.

      And offensive, yet another religious fool telling everyone I'm right and everyone else is wrong.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Adrianne Nicole Rose


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

      Sure he could, but he is trying to hide his self serving niotive by not naming the religion that he believes we shou8ld all be following without reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  5. Carmen

    Religion is the cop out. To think that you can mess up and be an ass all your life, but as long as you believe that you will be forgive is stupid.

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

      True belief requires one stops the behavior and is truly sorry and does it no more–any who fail to do that are paying lip service and they are not going to heaven, because their ACTIONS said they did not believe even as they said in their minds and/or hearts there was a God–they failed to act like there really was or that he was omniscient and therefore could see that they never truly repented from their sins (true repentance is a despair and grief so sorrowful and contrite that it is its own inhibition to recidivism)

      September 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  6. Searchfortruth

    Obviously this author has forgotten the history of how most of the dominant religions of the today were actually started. Most all of these were started by 'individuals' who did exactly what this author is saying is wrong – they did their own thing and actually thought for themselves and did their own research and study and contemplation and had there own personal experience and formed their own relationship with God or the universe based on what they believed to be the truth. Abraham, Mohammed, Buddha – up to some of the present day Christian groups founded on doctrines by Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Smith and numerous others. They believed that there had to be more truth than what was being offered by the 'big box' formalized religions they were involved with at the time.

    Another factor the author seems to ignore is that our beliefs and the truth we as humans come to accept is evolutionary. What I understand today as truth will be different than what I believed in the past as I continue to study and learn and understand. This is relatively easy to do as an individual as I have no one to answer to accept me. The problem with large organized religions is that the larger they become, the more they focus on the organized aspects of their doctrine than on the religious aspects. They can't help it because it is driven by the fact that they are large and a whole different set of rules and guidelines come into play just as with any other type of a large organization of people whether religious, business or government.

    And a third item the author has ignored is that while there really are elements of universal truth in all the formalized religions that exist today, NONE contain all – even though some would strongly protest this notion. Thus many have doctrines and practices to keep members from doing their own research for truth and 'trust them' – don't get me started on this topic. So in this day and age, choosing to become a part of one of these religions is like choosing a political party affiliation – choose the one that most aligns with your own beliefs. It is our choice and we would not all agree on which groups we think are the most 'true' and which are quacks. And, as we as humans learn and reason more, many will change their religion affiliations as they come to understand more.

    Consider http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html

    September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  7. Jim Graziano

    Totally disagree with Mr. Miller's "fence sitting" analysis. I choose to connect to something that does not require a written doctrine and asks of me to think more than just following guidelines transcribed, translated, and trans-morphed into the opinions of people in power. I engage regularly in religious debate based on my understandings of being raised in the church, religious studies in college, and the the sordid examples of various religions depicted in the media. It is not required of me to explain my agenda, my practices, my connections in order to show others how grounded one can be in spirituality. Miller's opinion reads as if he feels slighted or left out of something he just isn't capable of relating to or understanding. Get out of your own way, Mr. Miller...God Speed!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  8. Rufus T. Firefly

    What this article fails to do is define what is meant by "spiritual." Does that mean believing in spirits? Does it mean believing in a god? an afterlife? the human spirit? Arguments based on poorly defined terms are hard to evaluate.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      I believe in alcoholic spirits since at least they are tangible.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Oh, then I'm spiritual as all get out!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  9. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    What's funny is that CNN used this exact same picture of the chubby guy on the beach with his hands in a prayer pose the last time they posted a Belief Blog article on SBNR. LAME!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Southbound Jones

    Can I not believe in democratic principles, yet not belong to any established political party?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Nicole

    Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. – Steven Weinberg

    September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  12. Rainer Braendlein

    What is more important? Material riches 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 12:57 pm |
    • BRod

      Read Age Of Reason by Thomas Paine and regain your sanity.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Ruby

      May God soon heal your troubled mind and broken spirit.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  13. patty

    this article was literally a waste of time. why would you demand a position on something you cannot possibly know for sure? you would prefer someone believing in childish myths and affecting others negatively to just saying they don't know? what an enemy of intellect

    September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • patty

      dear CNN: please fire this editor, he's terrible

      September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  14. Chris

    Ok, sir, tell me WHICH imaginary piece of B.S. text is the RIGHT one to follow JUST because it already exists, and I will. But if it ends up being the wrong one, and I don't get my 40 virgins, or end up burning in a stupid lake of fire, I'm gonna pull you down there too.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  15. NM

    Wow, kind of a condescending view of spirituality. I align myself with the values and beliefs of my religious scripture but would rather not associate myself with that larger group of individuals who have a tendency to do crazy things in the name of their religion. When I identify myself as a spiritual, but not religious, I am referring to my unwillingness to condone the behavior of large religious organizations and blindly accept all of the ancient scripture.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  16. Jeff

    Religious fanatics are dangerous people. I much prefer spiritual people to religious people, because generally every religious person I know is a religious fanatic.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  17. Hcall

    What a poorly written hard to follow article. Pick a dogma, any dogma. Strapping bombs to your children, handling snakes in a tent, priests and alter boys. And the author seriously questions the decline in traditional religions? People are not abandoning God they are rightly and justifiably looking elsewhere. The questioning of what you are told to believe marks a change for the better in humankind. The challenge now is to not just stick our heads in different sand. Lovey dovey guru mumbo jumbo is but another hiding place.We have to approach everything with our eyes open and question it all.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • biobrain

      Well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  18. Scott

    Allan, I respect your right to your opinion. However this article is ignorant. A persons spirituality is there own perspective.I dont understand how you begin to understand or judge that without knowing them or speaking with them. How can you call their religious perspective a cop out? This article is crap. I dont need organized religion to confirm my spirituality or answer questions about my existence. To write this article it seems you lack the freedom of developing your own spirituality. My suggestion to you, search for your soul. To believe that one religious denomination is the answer in the information age ,with the wealth of information we have today, is short sided and shallow.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  19. Aaron

    Mr. Miller – you have completely missed what spirituality is all about. Experiencing nice things and feeling better has absolutely nothing to do with it. Go back and try again.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  20. BRod

    Sad that people are still pushing this irrational nonsense in 2012.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:54 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.