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. joe


    you couldn't hardly be any more offensive. You must be one of those mentally disturbed fundamentalist Christians. You people are only surpassed in your sick belief system by the Muslims.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  2. jen

    he accuses this group of people of not being able to decide what they believe.... to me, it seems like they believe a little of both - and see the grey area in the complex issue that is FAITH. I wish more people would see grey areas. We live in a word where we are taught to see only black and white, but that is almost never the reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  3. Raj

    religion is for the masses, spirituality is for the enlightened.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • jesus the christ

      yes sir

      September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Diego Salles Diniz

      You just said everything in just a few words. Brilliant !

      September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  4. Tarded stuff

    This article was enough to read the first time it was on CNN back in June 2010 when it was almost exactly the same story, with the same headline and the exact same picture, but was written by John Blake. Good one, guys.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  5. kopana

    I do not know why CNN wants to print this outrageous opinion articles, except for the fact that they know it will encourage controversy and thus more readship to their publication, but because I have respect that others may have their beliefs, I just wish that CNN would pick more enlightened opinion pieces. At least I know that this piece is extremely short sighted and very judgmental of others views without any basis of fact . I totally agree with Rafe, spiritual is that it is personal and individual with each person,,,you do not need rules, guidelines, dogma, and an organized religion to mold your mind into thinking what is right. I just wish CNN in the future would feature articles from the more brilliant thinkers of our day...such as Clinton, Steve Hawkins etc...

    September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  6. George Marshall

    One can most certainly have a sense of spirituality without being religious in the sense that the term is usually understood. What is this , one of those go to church or else predictions? Mr. Miller has the makings of a modern day Torquemada (the Grand Inquisitor).

    September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  7. david95

    If being spiratual and non religous, which I believe means you believe in a supreme being, but not in any individual religion, is a cop out. Then count me in as an athiest. If I am forced to choose a specific religion solely on the basis I believe in a supreme being, than I am wrong, no supreme being would allow his people to be forced to worship him. So he wouldn't exist.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  8. Robby

    As one who left organized religion for my own journey in "spiritual but not religious" I I disagree with most, if not all, of the assumptions that the author makes. I feel that I am living a more "moral" life than ever before as I see the choices I make as my decision made for the betterment of myself and the global community and not something that I do either for the reward (I'll go to heaven" or the punishment "I'll not go to heaven". I also agree with many of the comments that think that you need a canonized piece of literature to tell you what is right and what is wrong. When my organized Christian friends share with me their "holy writ" I listen as I think that truth is all around us but I remind them that the only "scripture" I need is embodied in one word, LOVE. All I need to do when confronted with any moral decision is to remember my "spiritual but not religious" guideword and I know the right thing to do. I don't need to sit in a costly building nor follow a group of old men who tell me what I should and should not do to live an honorable and whole life.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  9. Jade

    I'll take someone who's put actual thought and reason into what they believe in over a person who blindly believes what their parents told them, because their parents told them, and their parents told them... any day. The only danger I see here is to organized religion, and that is about men - not God.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  10. Hip Hippies

    Religion avoids the "important questions" of science.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  11. Michael

    How did I know that this article was going to be written by a fascistic Bible thumper who seeks to lord his religion over everyone? Indeed, he incorrectly assumes that one has to be one thing or the other... I follow a philosophy that is popularly categorized as a "world religion," and it definitely has structure, ethics, etc., but at the end of the day, I'm not going to blindly follow ANY holy man (or woman) and just accept everything that he/she has to say just because of their status. That is what Mr. Miller and his ilk find so threatening... the idea that they won't be able to manipulate the masses and tell them how to think and act, who they are allowed to love, who they're allowed to vote for, etc.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  12. Daniel Hoffman

    Patronizing and condescending. Mr. Miller has no clue about the spiritual. He demands tangible attributes by which he can understand what people mean by something they describe as essentially intangeable.

    Miller's spirituality is like those people who learn to dance by learning all the steps. People who love music and dance cringe when they see it. People who respect the spiritual cringe at the "just teach me the right steps" imitators, like Mr. Miller. You may have learned all the right steps, but you cannot dance because you are not in touch with yourself or the music.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  13. Ken

    I have met many 'spiritual, but not religious' people who are critical thinkers. Whereas, many 'religious' people I've met are loaded with scripture and often miss the point in arguments, because they are not thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      Sounds to me like you have a problem with faith. The people you meet have faith in a higher power and those associated laws. You, on the other hand, have nothing but faith that your knowledge (learned from other men) is all there is.

      Seems like you are rediculing religious based faith by standing on your own faith that what you know is the truth. No – it is YOUR truth, substantiated by your faith.

      That is all.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  14. God

    Read Emmet Fox's "The Sermon on the Mount." It's not about who. It's all about what.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  15. wes

    the point the author seems to be missing is that spirituallity offers direct experience with the spirit ,some people are willing to put in the extra effort to achive this remarkable and worthwile goal rather than be told how to behave by a bunch of hippocrits who tell you to take it on faith.direct communication with the spirit/god is not just for mohammed and jesus and budda it is available and directly experiencably by those who are willing to make their whole life a spiritual pursuit instead of thinking spirituallity is only on church day or during prayer time.love and tollerance may be the answer not religion.

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

    So what / where is the danger ?
    The author decides apriori that modern spiritual quest is a cop-out, while religion is not.
    The fact that western culture and civilization is built on religious imagery seems to be proof that we cannot find spirituality without it. I find religion a cop-out, not the personal 'unguided' choices.
    Who is to better evaluate these choices on our own lives if not ourselves ?
    Alan Miller ?

    CNN is really messing it up here with their choice of Sunday prayer...

    September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  17. Santanu Acharya

    People are "spiritual but not religious" because today's inflexible religions have been unable to fulfil peoples' spiritual needs. Deep in their heart they know that their religion does not sufficiently address life's deeper meaning. Ultimately we'd see the withering away of the regimented ritualistic religions. A new religion will come which is simple and yet address peoples' spiritual yearning.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      Correct. And that "new religion" will be as wrong as every other pseudo "feel-good" religion since the beginning of time.

      Personal "needs" are irrelevant. It's God's way, or the highway. Everything else is just illusion and deception created by people who want to live guilt-free while acting any way they want.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  18. Mack

    If asked that question, I would respond that I am 'spiritual' without question. Yes, I am a practicing Roman Catholic. But, I don't 'buy the party line' hook, line and sinker. There is (TO ME) more good than bad in my denomination. But, just because Rome says it 'don't make it so'. My God (capital 'G') gave me a brain to seek out and attempt to find and know Him/Her as best I can.
    I am thankful that I joined a church that welcomed me knowing in advance that there were many things about Roman Catholic dogma that I did question and some I openly renounce. Yet, I was welcomed anyway. Are there other areas within Roman Catholicism where I would be openly dondemned? Of course.
    I am thankful that I have an 'anchor' within my denomination within which I can question what I do and do not believe. Yet, simply because I don't believe the party dogma, I am not excommunicated. I only wish that more areas within my own denomination and within other denominations would not make it an 'all or nothing' litmus test for acceptance within that denomination. Then, more people could classify themselves as religious rather than spiritual.
    My own now thankfully retired archbishop, Oscar Lipscomb, openly went against the National Council of Catholic Bishops in the last presidential elections. Had Oscar had his way, I would have been automatically been excommunicated for voting for Obama. And, sadly, there are those who feel that way in this election just as we are seeing he Mormons basically say that if you as a Mormon don't vote for Romney this time that they will excommunicate you.
    And, the author wonders why more and more of us are 'labeling' ourselves as spiritualist rather than religious. He just doesn't seem to have a grasp of the bigger picture. And, at least for me, my God is bigger than any denomination man has created. And, please show me one denomination that God and not man created.
    Ever thought about it? All Western Civilization Christian denominations owe their very existince to Roman Caholicism. For the first 1,500 years AD, they were the one and only church. Anything else is a first, second or third generation splinter denomination.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  19. sclrtn

    To be religious is to be disciplined, and to be responsibly disciplined in these times requires intellectual honesty and a wholesome curiosity, not blind allegiance to antiquated dogma that is incapable of withstanding the unintended assault of scientific and scholarly revelation. It's not incorrect to cling to a reverence for mystery and wonder, but it's childish to adhere to the beliefs of anitiquity that sought to explain the nature of the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Atheist

    The problem is not that I have not read the Bible It is more so the fact that I have read it. And to attribute any shred of truth to its claims is to commit intellectual suicide. With just a little thinking, not much at all actually, you would realize that the Bible was written by people who did not have the slightest clue about the most basic fundamentals of science. Think of the stupidest person you know today and compare his intellectual knowledge base to those who lived 2000 years ago and he would seem like a superhuman genius.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • No religion thank you

      Absolutely, it is as clear as the nose on my face.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Baby

      I agree with you on the bible part. they are stories written by ordinary people. But really? Are you are actually calling other people "stupid?" Maybe you could reread parts of the bible, the stories where people are respectful of and nice to others ... no matter how stupid you think they are ... no need to put others below you intellectually ... it would be easier to believe you are smart if you don't insult others.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:01 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.