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. Raj


    September 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Pu$$y Galore's Flying Circus

      If god is omnipresent, then he is in cancer cells too.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  2. tina

    p s why is CNN so stupid as to publish this ignorant excuse for an article of news?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |

    • Best bait to troll for you sort tina.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  3. Leonard E Barrett JR

    Just cam out of three hours of meditation and read this. One thing I am sure of. You would have a difficult time sitting with yourself as long..

    September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  4. N/A

    This is idiotic. Religion co-opted spiritualism so that some people could control other people – i.e. You're either with me or against me.

    Yes, people are leaving organized religion in droves because the human race has reached a level of self awareness so that individuals feel more empowered and therefore more confident in having a direct relationship with Source. Everyone can read, so we no longer need priests or rabbis to tell us what to do and not to do – y'know CONTROL.

    Don't tell me to make a real choice. I did! Sorry if you don't like it.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  5. SomeNameHere

    Within this story is the answer to the author's question:

    Quote: "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."

    Right. It's because We Don't Know. But instead of believing the explanations of religions who also DON"T KNOW, the spiritual-but-not-religious will believe what they FEEL and not cloud it with mythical explanations from primitive peoples of 2000 years ago.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  6. AvdBerg

    The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

    There is a natural body and a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44).

    The above article by Alan Miller is misleading as he himself is spiritually blind and it is a good example how distorted things have become in society with the media as the main culprit. For a better understanding we invite you to read the articles ‘The Natural Body vs the Spiritual Body’ and ‘Influence of the Media’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    His reference and use of the word ‘Christianity’ is also very misleading as so-called Christians are followers of an image of a false god and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8). Please read the article ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?’ listed on our website.

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    Seek, and ye shall find (Matthew 7:7).

    September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • mama kindless

      The bible is worthless, but Revelation?? Really. Everyone knows whoever wrote that was high as a kite. St. John the Dopehead, evidently. He must have crashed his camel into a lake of bath salts to come up with that mess. My goodness.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Athy

      Knock off the bible babble. Please!!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      mama kindless – You seem worthless.....prove me wrong.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. AT

    The author is right about one thing, the various scriptures – including the Bible, the Quran, the Baghavad Gita, etc. are extremely important in the history and foundation of society and everybody should read them. I don't agree that people should necessarily go and join the one denomination of their choice though. American society is unique precisely because it's so mixed up and radical!

    September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  8. Threeironroarke

    Relativism never ceases to amaze me.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  9. centralohio

    It all boils down to people that typically say spiritual but not religious are NOT nor have any desire to be affiliated with organized religion. What this buffoon does not see is that most of those people are of the earth religions instead of trying to make a farce of what christianity stood for 2000 years ago. you would not find a single person from that time that would recognize the joke that its become today. People are disenfranchised because of fools that feel that its "the only faith". I call MAJOR BS....its the newest religion out of everything out there in existence which to me is what was stated above – a "redefinition". if you look at all of the stuff mentioned in the book that is followed its a combination of all of the other religions combined especially if you look at the pagan holidays that have been around for thousands of years longer than christianity. People need to get a life and realize that organized religion is the problem, not everyone's individual faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  10. Lucky Fox

    He's totally right! We all need to follow an organized religion and have someone else tell us what to do! I myself follow Pastafarianism and bow down to the Flying Spaghetti Monster! His noodly appendage has touched me! http://www.venganza.org/

    September 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Your FSM bows down to me. It has no choice but to get in my belly....BAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  11. Irene

    Of course people are tired of "organized" religion! I know that I don't want to have to constantly be giving my money to the church, I don't want to live in a God fearing religious world anymore, and most of all....the rules of my previous religion, Catholic, are constantly changing....when it suits the needs of the religion to do so!! The hypocracy in religions is unbelievable!! No birth control....in this day and age...or any other!!! What...are they crazy! All the pedophile priests...and the church turning its head for centuries!! I'm disgusted with religion! I'm perfectly happy being "spiritual!"

    September 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  12. Raj


    September 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  13. Barry

    As I look at certain "spiritual" younger family members, I can easily see the attraction of spirituality. They have access to a completely non judging god (or goddess), all the while being able to continue smoking weed, sleeping around and not looking for work. Pretty sweet deal.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  14. Laerrus

    They are rejecting it for it is corrupt.

    They have to find their own way, for you have attempted to blind them.

    Many will be lost because of this, but a few will find their way.

    The Truth must be experienced for the self.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  15. Lou

    Believing in imaginary friends is a cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  16. Ross

    II attend church regulatrly, read the Bible, pray and have been an Elder but I consider myself more spiritual than religious as I am a little Quaker, Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Presbyterian. Episopalian,. All have something to say but they also all operate by "man made" rules, Communion, etc.etc.. I think that God has to be looking down on us and asking "why are these people making this so hard?" Even though this is a ongoing journey, I am OK where I am on the outside chance that one of the above is right.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  17. Diego Salles Diniz

    Jane, you couldn't have put it in better words.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  18. myway

    In light of the dubious worldly track record of religions it shouldn't surprise anyone that people are looking for alternative paths to satisfy their spiritual needs. After all, most religion founders were doing the same in some sense. One of the problems is church organizations need to constantly raise money to uphold appearances leading to all kind of mischief, abuse of power and preferential treatment. In a world where people are managing their own spirituality this wouldn't be a problem. After all, according to the Gospels, Jesus was executed for essentially publicly rebelling against his church leaders who turned their temples into a cottage industry for fund raising. Something to think about.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  19. Madtown

    Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide
    I completely disagree. I think being "spiritual but not religious" means someone indeed has thought hard about these questions, and has rightly determined that there is no clear cut answer to these questions, and that religion does not provide answers. To say "I don't know" is more preferable than to just make up an answer and stick with it, simply because you want to "take a stand".

    September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • igoryok

      "To say "I don't know" is more preferable than to just make up an answer and stick with it."

      And spiritual don't make up their own answers?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  20. Blake

    This articles does nothing more than propagate ignorance. Man is not God – God is within Man – everyone has a choice to believe what they choose to believe, unfortunately articles such has this do nothing more than highlight Man's tendency to feed their ego whether individually or collectively based upon religious structure.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Rajiv Shah

      Here, here. Well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • mike w

      That's a load of bull. If anything, it just highlights (for anyone with half a brain) all this religious mumbo jumbo for what it is – junk with no true credibility.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:59 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.