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. EveryDay

    The problem with basing your spiritual/religious experience on feelings is that they are undependable–here today, gone tomorrow. Wouldn't it be better to base your spiritual/religious experience on principles of time-tested truths (such as, but not limited to, the Sermon on the Mount) and not on how the spiritual experience makes you feel?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  2. My beliefs

    I clicked on this link because I thought this may be a thought provoking opinion. Rather, it was a poorly written rant. The author defined his opposition 'the spiritual but not religious movement' in a contrived and over simplistic manner in order to serve his text. It's surprising the editors at CNN let this one make the front page, but I guess over 3000 comments means that that the headline worked although the substance was severely lacking.

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

      You write with such a definitive style, but at the end of the day, all you've written is a rant to the contrary.....it's all your opinion, but wow – do you sure SOUND smart!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  3. JustPassingby...


    Take a look if you want to 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  4. Ron

    This is religion at its best: believe what I believe, otherwise you're a freak and you're going to hell.
    And you honestly then stop to think and wonder why people are leaving these traditional teachings?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  5. Alan Miller

    Oh Alan... please STFU and go read a bible.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  6. Henry

    What Mr. Miller fails to realize is that when people say they are 'spiritual but not religious' what they mean is 'I know you are an argumentative opinionated judgmental religious zealot and I am an atheist, but I don't really feel like arguing with you right now'.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • The Way It Is


      September 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • rationale

      What you fail to realize, is that there people in this world who do not subscribe to the black or the white. One does not have to be forced into belief or non-belief, and one does not have to allow such childish and simplistic labels, such as 'religious zealot' or 'atheist'. You sir, are no better than those who you attempt to criticize and/or defend when you use these type of labels. You obviously fit into the category of people who are more offended by non-decision than the wrong decision, in your eyes. The author AND yourself need to try being more human, and less of a social machine that views issues in 1's and 0's.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  7. AGeek

    Yes, by all means, follow religion. That way you have an excuse to make yourself feel better about your abhorrent actions toward your fellow man. Religion is a blight. A pox on mankind. A millstone around our collective necks keeping us from becoming kinder, more peaceful towards all and furthering the human species towards solutions to the problems that plague us all. If you think morality comes from religion, you need to read your selected religious text. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  8. topgod

    wars and murders were justified by religions. spirituality never hurts anyone.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Athy

      It may not hurt anyone else, but it could harm the one who is spiritual.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  9. palintwit

    It must be absolute hell to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and realize your Sarah Palin. If it were me I'd run to the bathroom, stick my head in the toilet and give myself a swirly.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  10. Sideways

    I've never posted on an online news article comment section before, but I felt absolutely compelled, this time, just to point out that this idiotically rambling piece of tripe rightfully earns the Billy Madison Speech award:

    "What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

    September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  11. sylvester

    Jesus was rejected by his church in his day and most likely would be rejected by most of the church leaders today. Why? because he is spiritual and they are carnal. The Bible can be read with a carnal mind that only understands natural things or by an enlightened mind that has comprehension of spiritual reality. The bible is true and has deeper meaning than most realize but carnality and tradition will keep that door closed to many of them..

    September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Huh?


      "spiritual reality."

      What IS that?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  12. M. M.

    Extreme judgment of right and wrong religious/spiritual beliefs has led to: war, poverty, lack of birth control options for women, limiting the right to marry and adopt children. This insistence that someone commit themselves to some organized dogma is simply an effort to control others at the very heart of what is not controllable – the spiritual path of each person. I hope this author continues to question – why do I need everyone else to believe anything? Why aren't my own personal beliefs enough to satisfy me? Why do others beliefs or lack of make me feel threatened?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  13. Masse

    The assumption of this article seems to be "the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking."
    The psychology of the person comes first, then they find excuses to justify what they want to do. I don't need a bible to tell me what morality is, but apparently the author does.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  14. harry habrams

    the author imagines himself qualified to proclaim what goes on in the minds of a huge number of people who don't share his views. WOW; is that arrogance or WHAT? his thinking is a good example of what people are fleeing. how dare he say that others lack moral benchmarks or references just because they shun a political organization (religion) based on imposing fear of various quaint demons and next-life punishment, and rewards for mindless adherence!
    what an idiot!

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

    I totally disagree with this article. Spirituality is about the individual freedom of choice to believe what you think is right for you. Religion is about the power possessed by the few that feel that their ideas should be the ideas that are the only ones followed. With over 7 billion people in the world, no one individual is going to think exactly like another. Sure, there are some people that find it easier to follow a group and will believe what others tell them, but there are also those of us who want to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions regarding spirituality/religion issues.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Asimj

      Without the peddlers and protectors of organize religion, that would have been normal everywhere.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  16. bigD

    The bigger question is why has religion become so evil and so unlike the message?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Liberalartist

      And when in history has it not?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  17. Sam Elick

    I love you, brother. We have different views and beliefs, because we come from different perspectives and experiences. But I love you unconditionally. I see that you are on a sacred journey. We are like 2 people starting at different points at the base of a mountain. We are both heading for the top, but with different paths. And that's life for everyone.

    You have a direct connection within to the Holy Spirit, or Divine Consciousness, who will give you all the answers you seek.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  18. Paula D.

    Mr. Miller's viewpoint is provocative to the point of trolling. He cannot possibly believe his words, lest he is from the same mold as any religious fundamentalist who is given the freedom by his religion to surrender independent thought and reflection. How convenient it must be for him to stop thinking and start reading (the Qu'ran, Bible, New/Old Testament, etc.) and just accept the words of others without any self-reflection or independent thought. I believe our Creator gave us a brain for a purpose. Mr. Miller, please start using yours.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  19. hooray

    Long live the free mind! Down with the tyranny of religions.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  20. hooray

    Religious people are like parrots in a cage proud of not living free in the rain forest.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:10 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.