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. Desert Dweller

    Wow. Reading many of the comments posted leaves me with the impression that being "spiritual" releases a powerful lot of hate.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • The Sacred Knot

      It is the author who is showing intolerance and hate, not those who are commenting in response.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  2. BReeZy

    The reason some of us don't visit church anymore is because they quit being uncomfortable. They are more about the money and sensationalism rather than the doctrines!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  3. James

    This is obviously written from a religious viewpoint, which always seems to offer only TWO choices: believe or be wrong. Why do religious people always come down to some either/or dilemma, without accepting the fact that there are many ways to interpret the meanings of life?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  4. us_1776

    There is no god !

    Get over it.


    September 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Angie

      It's okay to believe man. You don't have to be so angry all the time. God loves you.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Davjd York

      Thank god I'm an atheist.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Ny Nick

      Psalm 14:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • bob green

      This author should read "The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed" to understand why religion is wrong.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • ab77

      Ny Nick...so by that logic, an atheist who lives an honest life and donates to charity is evil, but a serial rapist who believes in God is okay? Brilliant.

      Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Exhibit 'A' on why this editorial is crap.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Ny Nick

      how can you say you beleive in God and be a serial rapist? an athiest and a serial rapist will both end up in hell for not living a life that glorifies God. the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  5. Lan

    This is hilarious... I'm only surprised that he didn't end the article with "Now please donate $10 to my church"

    September 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  6. Sarah

    Any politician who uses the term "Family Values" translates to "Bible Banger" - and I am going to limit your human rights according to Christian beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm |

    I bet his beer is every bit as bad as his thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  8. chiz3914

    Spiritual or religious. They're both cop-outs. Get real.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  9. Andrea

    Well, the sheer volume of comments speaks for itself – this man is totally off-base, an example of why so many of us dis-believe in the assumptive and limited thinking of organized religion. He simply hasn't a clue of what "spiritual" people think and do. It's time to evolve, eh?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  10. SoulWideOpen

    @MarvinK: To deny "feelings" and their merit is to deny what brings the soul to the surface. The intellectual mind is a tool and should not be considered who/what we are. Living as if the intellect defines humanity at its best is to deny the core engine of what enables intellect in the first place. We are spirits first. The intellect allows for moderation and for civilization to prosper, yes, and is key to a successful experience here. But the youth (of any era) only move to excess because of the rigid and hypocritical control structures set in place by those in authority. Fix that and you have a better launchpad for the youth to enter society in.

    Any good thing can be abused in one of two ways – by omission or by excess.

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

    "Karma Sutra"? "Feing Shui"?

    Doesn't CNN require its editors and bloggers to spell check editorial pieces before publishing? Especially if ones meant for the front page of your Website?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Dan

    The final points you make are important problems and I think most worthy of discussion, but I think you missed the mark on the "who" and "why".

    First off, I don't think this spiritual but not religious thing is actually as widespread as you think it is, I think the vast majority of non-religious people are also generally non-spiritual.

    Furthermore, there are degrees of spirituality. Even someone who fits the description may not necessarily use that as an excuse for being completely unhinged from the world. For example, you would lump into this category someone who is agnostic but practices feng shui. I think this is far more common than people who ascribe random tidbits of spirituality to all real problems they see. You're basically talking about a full-on regression to paganism here. I don't buy it .

    This is problematic when you make your big conclusion, which is that this crowd is severely lacking in the perspective and motivation to improve the world due to their complete lack of religious or secular foundation. In fact you insinuate that these people are largely the source of the problem and thus the spirituality movement is to blame.

    While I agree that there are a lot of such people in this country, I would argue that the predominant reasons for this are cultural selfishness, exceptionalism, and general ignorance.

    In other words, it's an education and media problem. You can't blame this on spirituality, as above – feng shui does not provide an adequate fantasy-land for these people to live in. It's more about media and perspective than it is about spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  13. Daniel Grey

    It's a good thing your opinions don't invalidate anyone else's spiritual experiences. They just make you look like an idiot.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  14. smk

    O people, worship only your Lord – the One who created you and those before you – that you may be saved. [Quran 2:21]

    [Quran 6:116] If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of God. They follow only conjecture; they only guess.
    [Quran 3:6] He is the One who shapes you in the wombs as He wills. There is no other god besides Him; the Almighty, Most Wise.
    [Quran 67:2] The One who created death and life for the purpose of distinguishing those among you who would do better.* He is the Almighty, the Forgiving.
    [Quran 6:95] God is the One who causes the grains and the seeds to crack and germinate. He produces the living from the dead, and the dead from the living. Such is God; how could you deviate!
    [Quran 6:97] And He is the One who made the stars to guide you during the darkness, on land and on sea. We thus clarify the revelations for people who know.

    [Quran 40:62] Such is God your Lord, the Creator of all things. There is no god except He. How could you deviate?
    [Quran 36:36] Glory be to the One who created all kinds of plants from the earth, as well as themselves, and other creations that they do not even know.

    [Quran 59:24] He is the One God; the Creator, the Initiator, the Designer. To Him belong the most beautiful names. Glorifying Him is everything in the heavens and the earth. He is the Almighty, Most Wise.

    [Quran 22:74] They do not value God as He should be valued. God is the Most Powerful, the Almighty.

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]
    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]
    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

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

    "Believe Those Who Are Seeking The Truth, Doubt Those Who Claim To Have Found It"

    We are born with built in spirituality. All we have to do is to look at nature around us and we know instinctively what spirituality SHOULD be. Religion is nothing but a group of merchants who cover the sky, put a small window on it, and makes others pay for taking a look at what WE WOULD SEE if the sky was free of cover.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  16. cybrqn

    This article is such horse manure. Talk about transparently of the 'right wing' such typical mind control tactics. How dare 'you' think that so many of us do not actually choose?? Or that none of us were forced to go to Sunday school, and now say, wow, that wasn't for me, and I prefer a spiritual path, of enlightenment. Or no path to anything but 'light'. As this article makes me aware, yet again....Christianity is about control and holding back freedom of self expression. Get over it.... everyone is on their own religious or spiritual path baby. And, isn't it wonderful! Live Aloha

    September 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  17. Amindofmyown

    Alan, you may be more comfortable being told what to think and what to believe. I too am so pleased that most of these comments are intelligent reflections of those who have tried the land of dogma and power and guilt and rules and have found something better. What do most of us 'believe'? We believe in the teachings of many of the prophets...the ones who remind us that we DO have a personal relationship with our Creator....whatever name you choose. At our core, we are loving and eternal (as opposed to evil and born-in-sin) and we recognize that we are connected to all of life and each other. We are born with this truth and others may try to influence us to accept their dogma because it provides them power and money. Read the history of the Catholic church and you need look no farther. A cop out? I truly believe that suspending your own 'thinking' to accept the beliefs of others....and questioning nothing....is absolutely lazy and the ultimate cop out. You are welcome to your personal beliefs, but judge not.......and get that plank out of your own eye before passing judgment on something you don't understand. One day you may evolve......we can wait. We spiritual types are pretty patient.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  18. Wr

    This article nails it. I especially see this among the Jewish "community" in the US. People pick and choose which aspects of their faith to believe in and practice, and ignore the inconvenient ones. They avoid committing themselves to any aspect of religion that is inconvenient to them (work on yom kippur? Sure, why not?)
    It's all right to question, and there's nothing wrong with an agnostic saying he doesn't have the answers. But way too many people have adopted this new age, uneducated, uncritical mindset ("belief" is too strong a word, which is the problem in the first place) that requires no effort. The man is right. It's hooey.
    And, btw, as a Jew, I'm pretty friggin annoyed that kabalah has become the scientology of the 21st century.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  19. McFancy Pants

    I'm so pleased with all of the responses here. I thought I'd write a comment to defend the "spiritual but not religious" folks, but I see there's no need.
    That being said, Miller, your agenda is loud and clear; you aren't fooling anyone. The past few generations have outgrown the lies that previous generations have willingly submitted to. Common sense tells you that you aren't going to win favor over anyone by offending them which means this opinion piece is nothing more than an attempt to instill fear in people who are tired of listening to the bs.
    You're trying to create controversy between people who believe in the same thing but choose to express it differently. It's the same bible, you don't need a religion to tell you what it should mean to you.
    This is just another attempt to pump money in to the churches and narrow another form of free thinking.
    This is nothing more than propaganda and I'm sorry I took the time to read it.

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

      The article is a perfect reflection of the narrow minds that control organized religion. I'm sorry that I took the time to read it too.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  20. Michael

    The idea proposed in this that "spiritual but not religious" people are just trying to get the best of both worlds, aren't taking a stance, and haven't reasoned out what they believe in is insulting and ignorant. It rejects the possibility that a person could decide to, after fully considering their options, weighing their beliefs on sin, a relationship with a higher being, and empirical evidence the world presents to us, reject organizations that have become largely crowded with sycophants and personal politics.

    I won't argue the place that the bible has had in the past, encouraging western art and literacy, but just because something was important in the past does not mean it is important in the present or future. Horses and Carriage were important for transportation for ages, but we don't have any reason to use them in a world of mass transit, airplanes, and automobiles. Leeches and trepanning were used in early medicine, but if some quack tried to use those to treat my headaches, I'd run out of there screaming.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:17 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.