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. RC

    The author is totally ignorant about spirituality. Connecting to nature, to relationship is also spiritual. Connecting to a HP of my understanding is also spiritual. RC

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

      So the Big Book is your Bible, and Bill Wilson is your Jesus, eh?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  2. wakiash

    complete load of religious bullsh&&t!!!

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


      YOU ARE SO RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • NoTheism

      @No2Atheism, you are misinformed. Atheism is simply the absence of belief. Are you in the religion of non-zombie believers or non-unicorn believers?
      It's nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Atheism = LACK of religion and using your brain instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology and superst!tious nonsense as fact.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Luis Wu – Wait, atheists have brain????


      September 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Sounds like the empty cackling of the village idiot.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  3. Joe Mahma

    "Spiritual but not religious" is Atheism-lite.

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

      It's really just a gas station on the road to realizing that there are no invisible superbuddies.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Wrong, Joe. Atheists are fools who has no direction of any spirituality.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • NoTheism

      @No2Atheism, you are right except for the fools part.. The definition of atheist implies (typically) the rejection of supernatural things.
      Either way, your post is equal to: You are a fool because you don't believe in alchemy!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      NoTheism – You are a fool for believing in Evolution and that you are an animal (APE). LOL

      September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      No, it is religion lite.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. vivian

    this is the most Ignorant, insulting, narrow minded, assumptive, piece of crapola article I've read in a long time. Keep your %$#@^ moldy old dogma ridden shame driven fear based repressive male dominated religious doctrines. Some of us don't need others who are really looking for our cash or some imaginary power over us to tell us what God thinks, AS IF THEY KNOW ANYTHING!

    Go to your Hell.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • thomas Olszewski

      Amen to that, well written.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      Sorry Vivian, but just because you don't like what it says DOESN'T mean it's an assumptive piece of crap....

      It's quite accurate in its description of Spiritual but not Religious" – noncommittal on ANYTHING that society doesn't agree with. That's the problem – societies change over time. But truth does not.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Sue


      September 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Awesome truth vivien.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  5. Rick

    "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."

    Why do you stereotype all "spiritual but not religious" into this Yoga/Zen category. The very idea of "spiritual but not religious" is that people look into themselves and look at the world around them and believe in what they think is "moral" and "has meaning". These ideas can be found in fiction or nonfiction books, religious texts or pop songs. I was born Lutheran, spent some time as a practicing Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Wiccan and Taoist. I've read philosophical books like the Celestine Prophecy and Illusions (Bach). People say "spiritual not religious" not as a cop out, but to explain to people that what they believe in isn't found in mainstream religion. Just because it isn't mainstream doesn't mean people can't be passionate and devout about their belief. Heck, even the Jedi religion is a form of "spiritual not religious".

    September 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  6. Will

    I'm so glad that so many of the comments here nailed it – this guy is way out of bounds. To argue that people learned to read because of religion, therefore religion must be the right path? Insane. My kudos to all you out there who read this and decided (for themselves) that this was a bunch of poo.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Rick

      He says people who are "spiritual not religious" don't think too hard.. then says everyone should blindly follow the King James Bible.

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

    Faith is a lot like business; Its better without a middle man.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Ringo

      Faith is a lot like the slavery business: the world is a lot better without it.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Joe Mahma

      Better for who, white man?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  8. Pu$$y Galore's Flying Circus

    I hope that in Alan Miller's "Battle For Ideas", he finally finds one.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  9. Sandra

    What Mr. Miller may be missing is the fact that many of the "spiritual but not religious" segment of society have come from an organized religion background. I know of many Catholics, for example, who have fallen away from the church, but still carry much of the doctrine and discipline which was embedded in them for so long. The foundation of their beliefs is in tact, but their approach to life and the way it should be lived, etc. is based on the Karma truth...we all know what the right thing is to do, so simply do it! We don't need a priest or minister or "book" indoctrinate us. Mr. Miller needs to mind his own business and stop trying to inflict upon society his version of the "truth"..... that is the reason why so many have fallen away from organized religion in the first place....and by the way, some of the most "religious" people I know are the biggest hypocrites.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  10. cocteautwin

    The ‘self’ is the epitome of arrogance. Lets see if ‘you’ can do any of the following : Stop thinking. Stop experiencing sadness forever. Make your heart stop beating (by sending a command). Control your digestion. Pick which cells are going to be broken down by enzymes. Regulate the electrical signals sent to the brain. Control the pace at which your hair grows. Close the valves in your veins as blood flows through. Now control all the skepticism and doubting that might arise from reading this post. Go ahead and control every single thought and emotion in this moment. What else can ‘you’ do ? In fact, what can the ‘self’ actually do ? Nothing. Look at how the ‘you’ isn’t really in charge. There’s just a thought that claims it is running the show. Really, just look and see. ‘You’ don’t control or create any of these processes. ‘You’ are not the cause of these processes. ‘You’ don’t do anything at all. There is no ‘you’. The ‘self’ is just a concept attached to what is. It is the tag that claims to create and control what is already there. The ‘self’ is an illusion. It is an incredibly arrogant illusion. Look and see.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  11. mavsfan101398

    How ridiculous and arrogant. This just comes across as this guy being very threatened by anyone questioning Christian dogma. No one has to explain or justify their religious beliefs to this man or anyone else. After being raised in the Catholic church, with Rudy Kos as my priest, trust me, my relationship with God after leaving the Church is much better than many of the people who chose to protect molesters instead of children. How dare you imply I am selfish for choosing the path that feels right for me.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  12. childofkarma

    The author of this article completely ignores the fact that many of the "spritual but now religious" don't dabble with other religious texts from other beliefs, or if they do it's not for long. MOST of them are simply people who grew up Christian and became disillusioned upon reaching adulthood and realizing the hypocrisy of their church. All Christian churches preach to children that God is our loving father who will always forgive those who ask his forgiveness. But very few churches, no matter which Christian denomination actually practice this. People who grow up being told to love their neighbors and treat all people as they would wish to be are simultaneously taught to shun and denounce Gay people for no reason other then they are Gay. That believers of non-christian religions are "going to hell" and "must be saved", etc and so forth. It's that kind of hate and hypocrisy that has no place in today's modern world that causes people to leave their churches and not want to be labeled under any specific denomination. A church is just a place you pray. Just because you don't go to the same one the bible thumpers go to doesn't mean that you have given up your personal morals that were instilled upon you. You don't need anyone else to speak to God for you. Your own prayers do that well enough

    September 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  13. Reiko

    This article does a poor job of informing or persuading the audience. In fact, it seems to support the idea of being independant in spiritual thought more than anything else. I, for one, believe strongly in questioning traditional belief to gain a better spiritual stand as an individual. And I find that this trend is growing to be a good sign for the future.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Joanie

      I agree....funny thing is the picture of the man on the beach...he could be meditating, or practicing Qigong (I sit and meditate all the time) Tai Chi can be practiced out doors alone or with others as well as Qigong is practiced out doors...one can make alot of assumations by looking at a picture, maybe he is praying who cares......even if he were doing all of the above what business is this of Allen Miller and anyone else? I've seen stranger things at the beach.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  14. Robert Austin

    Organized religion sucks, evil and manipulative to the core. Alan Miller should focus on healing that group rather than rant about those of us who refuse to be a part of it.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  15. mike


    September 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  16. One one

    There are an infinite number of ways to be wrong. There is only one way to know true facts.

    Science is the only way to discover what is real and true.

    Everything else is conjecture, fantasy, or make believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  17. jfkman

    So, it has to be your religion? Hubris is a tremendous character flaw. Your particular imaginary sky fairy holds no more sway in the real world than the flying spaghetti monster. As for those with spirituality, equally self deluded and without factual basis. Your incidental experiences are of no interest to me. Show me some proof or shaddap.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  18. Ed Foster

    The problem with this article is the credibility and reliability of the author. I cannot consider this consider this either since the author runs a salon and brewery. How am I supposed to accept this person as an authority on religion or spirituality when there isn't any expertise from the author in those areas?

    September 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • One one

      Are you more inclined to believe someone who's livelihood depends on keeping believers in the fold ?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • igoryok

      " I cannot consider this consider this either since the author runs a salon and brewery."

      I hope you're being sarcastic. He is the founder of Salon Magazine, and the Truman Brewery project revitalized an economically depressed area by redeveloping a large area into an a location for creative arts events and exchange of new ideas in art, music, literature, etc.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  19. Pu$$y Galore's Flying Circus

    Well, if this guy isn't the dumbest guy who's ever written for CNN, then he will do until the dumb guy gets here.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  20. Jade

    I will go a step further, and I'll condemn this author for blatant stupidity. What is wrong with "fence sitting" in this respect? According to you, we are talking about peoples' souls, and you are condemning them for being genuine vs. following the word of man. How can following scripture, and by doing so avoiding any questions you have to dismiss them for "faith" and condemn yourself for pondering something scripture doesn't cover, make sense to someone?

    Here's the deal: God and science CAN coexist. If you put the man-made bible down, and step away from man-made religion, and choose to believe in God. Got created science; they aren't at war with each other.

    So if there is a God, who'd he respect? The person who's religion was a matter of what continent they were born on and what their parents taught them, or the person who's put actual thought into what they want to believe, and has chosen God? I would think the latter, considering the first didn't choose anything - they did what mommy and daddy told them.

    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.