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. Ellen

    This "article" is considered "thought"? By who? It doesn't even make sense, unless you are already a bible thumper.
    Dear god. There's no idea there.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • rohs

      Yea this author really isn't that intelligent. He sounds like another brainwashed religious zealot.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  2. Peter Knight

    "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."

    If you can insert Kama Sutra as being a religious book, you sure aint a credible person. Religion is the root of all evil.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  3. Willyboy

    Purest of nonsense. The only danger in rejecting organized religion is to organized religions. Good. Organized religions – specifically the twisted and perverted dogma woven around them – have caused far more harm through the years than they have done good. Let them go the way of the dinosaurs...

    September 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  4. lisa

    Yes, there is a movement taking place but lets be real it's not happening in the United States it's happening all over the world of all ages. Not just the young. it's typical, just because you not understand something you're going to judge It.

    in your own words "those who are spiritual but not religious are on a path of terrorism"are you kidding me. Jesus Christ to said
    "show is the place where you are since it's necessary for us to seek and he said to them whoever has ears let them here there is light within a man of light and he lights up the whole world if he does not shine he is darkness".

    We are doing something right if it is making news on cnn.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  5. cacique

    The only important problem this spiritual expression represents to organized religion is that offerings are not coming in the volume they used to, and that the bishops and pastors are having their hopes for a megachurch vanity not coming to be real

    September 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  6. Craig & Joe.

    Cop-out? Not at all. I think people are becoming more spiritual because people are waking up and seeing religion for what it really is. Evil. Why attend church when the priest or minister promotes hate, prejudice and discrimination? I don’t want my kids being taught that only their (Christians, Catholics, Muslims, etc.) belief is right and everyone else is wrong or evil or deserve to be killed because they are different. Religion is responsible for most hate crimes, and for wars. I think more people need to find God through their spirit, not through the bible and not through church. The church does not protect citizens, government laws do.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Baby

      agree! loudly!

      September 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  7. Baby

    interesting ... the writer has no idea what spiritual but not religious means ... we have done, and still do ... our research ... the only organized religion choices today are ones that commit crimes and cover them up, teacher their young to hate others who are not like them, and to kill in the name of some God that us spiritual but not religious people do not understand. Our God is very real, and very good to everyone, all the time.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  8. Ben Chambers

    Wow - this is a far more ignorant piece of "work" (how long did it take Mr. Miller to rattle off this empty analysis?) than I would have expected CNN to publish. I won't bother presenting actual information that Mr. Miller could try tackling, but if the writer is engaged with these comments and wishes to ask questions or learn about the beliefs of others who don't need preaching, feel free to reply or contact me.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  9. newtonslaw

    The real Cop Out is believing in Organized religion at all. Even Spirituality is a guess in the wind. What is at stake here is that man is so insecure he needs to have answers now, when he doesn't even have the right questions. Socrates was closer to the truth than we are today. Scientists are now warning that creationists are stunting the minds of their children, Duh? When you teach people to believe a fictional book you will end up with problems like we have today with Islam extremists and the ignorant right wing extremists in the US. Rule #1 read more than 1 book, maybe read 100.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  10. Todd

    Jesus was religious

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

      really? what religion was that?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  11. Dulaney Ward

    I am extremely disappointed that you would publish such claptrap, cast as a series of sensationalist aphorisms that are both internally incoherent and disconnected from each other and reality. There is in fact a phenomenon in our day of people drifting away from organized religion and traditional belief systems, but this phenomenon (far from a bad thing) deserves far better informed and better considered and written journalism than we have here. Shame on CNN!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • paul alexander

      I'm not in the least surprised, considering the free-fall that cnn has taken in the past 3 years.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • childofkarma

      I would so like this comment if I could

      September 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  12. News Flash!

    I always appreciate it when religious whacks like Fred Phelps and this guy speak out publicly about their beliefs. Let's face it, atheists, this people convert far, far more people to non-belief than we ever will.

    Hooray for unintended consequence!

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

    Just because people believe other then your particular religion does not mean they do not believe in God.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  14. Ohsnap

    I absolutely agree with the writer. It's a way of not answering to anyone, doing what they please. I mean, what would they say if God really did say "This is wrong?" or "That is wrong?" People would have to change their way of living. But now the question is...What religion? They are all basically the same.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  15. The Sacred Knot

    You think it's just "young people"? How about all the folks over the age of 60 who have spent lifetimes trying to follow organized religion and have finally realized it's empty? They walk away, disillusioned, realizing that it is only in their own "spirituality" that true satisfaction and peace can be found.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Barbie

      As a recovered Cathoholic I find that the writer feels a side must be taken. Spoken like a true politician. We that chose to worship God without a church become more fulfilled with who we are and what we believe. We do not need some priest or nun or pastor to pretend that he is God and acting in God's name. If the Catholic church had punished all the priests that molested young boys over many decades instead of moving them from church to church, I may have a different outlook. I was pushed into discovering the world because of people like them. In hell they will rot. As I believe we can find peace within ourselves without someone telling us what it is we should believe in. To all the young men who have fallen victim to the abuse, I offer my sympathy to you and assure you that someday your abusers will meet their maker and will be punished for all they have done.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  16. drdave

    Danger? You've got to be kidding! I have yet to see armies of "spiritual but not religious" people conducting inquisitions, attempting forced conversions, stoning non-believers to death, etc. The arrogance of the mob is well represented in religious that require your so-called discipline of formal religion. The main "danger" as I see it, is the danger to established religions whose view of the universe is threatened by the idea that humans can exist peacefully and happily without a cross, a star or a scythe.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Don`

    Painting everyone who has rejected antiquated religious dogma, as well as scientific reductionism, as "fence sitters unwilling to take a position" I find incredibly insulting and disingenuous. I would argue that the majority of people who identify with the "so called" Great Religions are the shallow ones, having never bothered to question the beliefs they mindlessly accepted as children or investigate alternative view-points beyond their familiar dogma. Yes, there are some in the "spiritual but not religious" group who have adopted a shallow "feel good" spirituality (ie: "spiritual by-passing"), but these are by no means the majority. Most people I know who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" practice some form of mindfulness meditation / self-inquiry practice, dedicating themselves to working through their personal self-deceptions and culturally-inflicted neurosis to perceive a deeper reality. Anyone who has honestly attempted this path will tell you that this is anything but an excuse to "feel good". Having the courage to face the truth about oneself is a long, painful process which (eventually) leads to greater awareness and personal freedom. Those identified with traditional religions are much more likely to use it to "feel good" about themselves, secure in the idea that they're beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong. Those of us "spiritual but not religious" people are not "fence-sitters" incapable of choosing a set of "beliefs" – we have just rejected blind belief for a path of personal discovery. Maybe you should give it a try.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  18. bluesblast

    This writer has failed to even begin to understand spirituality as a large number of us understand it. Is there such a thing as believing in things like "as you sow, so shall you reap" or "Do unto others" without believing in a talking snake or magic underwear? Can't I believe in the concept of "Thou Shall Not Kill" or not take your neighbors wife without believing in a super space alien?

    Just because I follow there humanistic rules of life which all religions believe, because it is good for society, does not mean my beliefs are a cop out.

    Religions are the cause of all the wars and so my beliefs are a cop out? Geeez! Give me a break. Alan Miller is an religious big ot!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  19. Debra

    This guy obviously does not understand "spiritual but not religious."

    September 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  20. Deez

    "Spiritual but not religious" means I'm scared to face the reality that there is no God and religions teach intolerance of others who aren't like them.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:27 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.