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. disgustedvet

    The most intolerant religion on this Planet is the Religion of Atheism. It's their way or the highway with no other opinions tolerated.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • bluesblast

      Atheists are not believers or a religion. Shows who is really intolerant when you try to say something stupid about a diverse group of people with a wide range views. Atheist are not intolerant. They just don't believe in such fairy tales as talking snakes, magic underwear or other such rubbish !

      September 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Daniel

      Atheists tolerate everything else, as long as it isn't shoved in their face.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • new voter

      Silly BOY! Atheism is not a religion. It is like the absence of religion. You sound retarded.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • One one

      What could be more intolerant than preaching that non-believers deserve to be tortured forever in hell ?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Henehene kou `aka

      look up "extra ecclesiam nulla salus," think about it, and then speak to me about religious tolerance and intolerance.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • new voter

      @One one. Besides being intolerant, it's just not true and just stupid.

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

      Yes, how intolerant to state that in the absence of evidence belief in gods is unwarranted. Perhaps to be truly tolerant like many religions out there atheist should torture people for believing differently or using public money to celebrate religious events, or perhaps try to pass laws based on anticipated morality of religious dogma? I didn't realize calling others our on flawed reasoning is intolerant. How dare you call atheists wrong and intolerant , you monster. .

      September 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • erintheoptimist

      Right, because atheists are so often found to be shooting doctors who practise a form of medicine they don't like, or flying planes into buildings.

      Oh, wait.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Henri

      @ Disgusted Vet...what's up man? There's nobody cooler than Atheists...an Atheist will NEVER tell you what to believe...
      Kind of sounds like you're projecting Christianity onto Atheism

      September 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  2. rarehman

    I can't believe CNN published this POS article. It purely defended religion while trashing any other way of life. Just read the history of organized religion and see whats going on in the muslim world and then tell me whether I am better off being spiritual or keen to blow the buildings.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  3. Dan

    Slow news-day. They ran this exact piece several months ago.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  4. mbmcd

    I think we can all agree that if the rituals and dogmas of any religion lead a person to discover and develop their own innate spirituality, then they are good and worth following. However, if they lead to a belief that only we (or I) know what is right and spiritual for another, then they are not beneficial for anyone, and especially detrimental to the believer of such nonsense. I think that what turns most people (the young especially) off specific religions is that so many of them teach that they are the only way to 'salvation'. More and more people are coming to believe in the oneness of all creation, and with that comes the belief that not one of us is greater or less than the other. What kind of deity would not approve of people wanting to explore and learn more about their spirituality instead of taking on the opinions and beliefs of someone else as the complete truth without testing it on their own?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  5. Lucifer

    The difference between 'religious' and 'spiritual' is the difference between belief and knowledge. Spirituality is superior because it doesn't come to conclusions on questions that take a lifetime to answer. Spirituality doesn't just ignore any objective reality unlike religious people assume. But religious individuals answer these questions not on life experience and open-mindedness but rather by fear, laziness or egoism- often stagnating psychic evolution and curbing the human instinct for a psychotic or malicious untruth.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Amy

    We live in a world where we can freely choose and practice what works best for each of us. Is it better to join a religion and be told what to do, what to believe in and what everyone should do and shouldn't do, even if such ideas can violate other people's rights or threaten a peaceful way of co-existing for us all? I don't think so – we all have a brain and should be able to search for what works well for us and choose. That is critical thinking, in my opinion.

    By the way CNN should not waste time on publishing such a biased article – there are way more important things in the world to be reported.

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

      Exactly! Does CNN really think they are being 'fair and balanced' by publishing such a regressive article?
      Alan Miller's views date back to the mid-1500's...wake up and give people the room to think for themselves...

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

      it is like they are trying to discredit independents at this point in time
      trying to 'shame' the spiritually inclined NOW CNN?
      damn, these people just do not stop
      what bs
      islam bs as usual
      place shame, doubt, and blame
      still trying to get us riled for another war – and trying to dilute the base of those intelligent enough to understand the spiritual aspect of the world as it is – as it could be (the story can always be changed) – and as THEY want (they – the one percent and their puppets – and were still supposed to be part of the story – till we aren't)
      what bs
      sucks big time

      September 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  7. sdg66

    Let's work with a more prosaic definition of "spiritual", namely that I can arrive at answers to the big questions (why are we here, how should we treat each other while we're here, what happens when we die) myself. Being spiritual but not religious I don't need another human (who for some reason has better insights than mine because he wears a strange costume and is celibate) to lead me by the hand like a child and tell me what the answers are.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • sdg66

      And one more thing – my answers to the big questions are mine; they improve and inform my life in constructive ways. I don't need to crucify or start a war with anyone else because they are "wrong" and I am "right".

      September 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  8. enlightened

    I'm shocked by this article. How can any educated person advocate for mainstream religion? It's great for the mindless herds that need a "spiritual leader" to tell them how to think, what to wear, how much money to donate, and what groups to hate. I was born and raised protestant but have since traveled the world and received a decent education. Enough to formulate my own opinions. I fear not enough Americans do that though. We are more apt to believe a preacher using a Bible to terrify us, or the women from "The View".

    September 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Henri

      An excellent response, but I guess I wouldn't be 'shocked' by more of the same from the religiously indoctrinated.
      Alan Miller's tone and outlook is thick with ignorance. He is clearly on the losing side of the future.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  9. Bluesddoc

    Mr Miller's criticism of the "spiritual but not religious" echoes the arguments used through the ages by priests of "established order" to suppress the natural (God given?) disposition of mankind to examine life by the exercise of reason and logic. Such criticism has been directed towards all current "establishment" religions or political structures during their infancy, in particular all forms of Christianity and the young American republic. It is ironic that once in power, the tables are frequently turned, and the persecuted become the persecutors. Freedom of thought and religious practices are acceptable only as long as it is MY beliefs that are practiced.

    In human society, shared belief systems are a sort of invisible fence which stakes out a group's territory. As a particularly aggressive species of primate, humans go to all sorts of lengths to hold on to what is theirs; from the use of devaluative comments such as Mr. Miller's, to egregious actions such as we see in Iran, Syria, Russia, China, and in some parts of this country. Alas, human braying, chest-pounding and stomping can be so much, much more destructive.

    People who insist on thinking for themselves should feel heartened by the fact that there are "legitimate" churches, such as the Unitarian-Universality association, which welcome such open-minded exploration of spirituality as that which is feared by Mr. Miller. One can cite beneficial social consequences of communal action from these undisciplined masses, such as the abolitionism of slavery and the pursuit of civil rights in America in the XX century. It is important to remember that it was a a literal interpretation of the Bible that lent support to a privileged few for holding millions of human slaves, and which gave spiritual encouragement of the hundred of thousands of Americans who died protecting the rights of one person to hold another in life-long bondage. Or have we forgotten?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  10. Clark1v

    If an individual is not worshiping the one true God, the Creator, in the manner that God commands, that individual is committing the sin of idolatry no matter how positive his thoughts are.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • enlightened

      You're being sarcastic, right? If not...another self righteous, judgemental, hypocritical christian (like me at one time).

      September 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Henri

      @ enlightened...yes, Clark1v is making a point...either way, his message is loud and clear...

      September 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  11. Keith

    Well, its patently clear that the author has a strong opinion about organized religion, which is fine.
    On the other hand- with our modern tools for research, like the internet, we can all explore different religions and learn new things today, unlike even as recent as 20 years ago. So, our ability to understand other religions/beliefs has expanded. What we find when we do some basic research is a fundamental and common theme with many religions. Sure, some are and can be construed as unusual, but to each his own. My truth is going to be different than your truth, but it doesn't make me right and you wrong. We all tend to get very offended about hot button topics like this. I'd say, be ok with whatever you believe and respect what others believe. Agree to disagree. Spiritual or deeply rooted in your devotion to your way of thinking- be an individual and find your own truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      "I'd say, be ok with whatever you believe and respect what others believe. Agree to disagree."

      So, in the case of the middle-eastern man caught in the Denver area for having a slave that he claimed was his RIGHT as a member of a ruling caste, you'd be ok with that?

      Just like the author says – "non-committal". On what grounds are you stating that slavery is wrong? Because the USA says so? What if the USA decides to follow this guys country and allow slavery (again)? Are you ok with that?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Keith

      BldrRepublican- Perhaps you misunderstood- but for your response- I never mentioned slavery, so taking my words out of context here.
      Tell us- what should we believe then? Since you reference the "noncommittal", what should I commit to? What do you believe? Is it ok if I don't believe what you believe?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  12. Grammar Bob Of The Mounties!

    A fool is someone who could make a total grammatical mess out of ten words: "Atheists are fools who has no direction of any spirituality."

    September 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Athy

      What else would one expect from a bible babbler?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  13. Seagrams

    Pretty strident opinion......"Revenue" forecasts must be down. Everything else in this opinion piece is deceptive noise.

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

    Religion is a cop-out.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Atheism = Religion

      YOU ARE SO RIGHT!!!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Erik

      I'm not even an atheist. Atheism and religion are equally as stupid.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Erik, can you back that up somehow or do you just make unsubstantiated claims your prerogative.

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

      I have to agree Erik. If you are an agnostic, you are more of an atheist. There are no such thing as an agnostic, you either believe or don't believe, unless you want to be confused, like agnostics have proven to be.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Eri and no2atheism, theism is belief in that for which there is no evidence; atheism is refusal to believe in that for which there is no evidence. To turn atheism into a religion requires a Humpty-Dumptian twist of meaning.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  15. Skeptimist

    I am in agreement that being ambiguously spiritual is a noncommittal stance, but without a suitable alternative to a religion whose doctrine clearly flies in the face of common sense and all that we KNOW about the world, what are rational, reasoning human beings left to choose from besides the spiritual hodgepodge you speak of? Even if you believe that Jesus lived and walked this earth and that living by his teachings will make you a better person, do you really want to associate yourself with the nut jobs that still believe the earth is 6,000 years old? Can you really be critical of people who choose not to drink the Kool Aid? Just seems like an unfair judgment to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      You are not 6000 years gold. You weren't there when the earth was formed, so how do you KNOW that it's not 6000 years old? You are placing FAITH in the observations of science that seem to INDICATE that it is older.

      But you do not KNOW. You only believe one form of Kool-Aid over another.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      BldrRepublican, that is pretty close to the most ignorant comment ever uttered by an adult.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  16. Houston

    Christ, Moses & many others had that 30 day in the Wilderness type experience of the more Spiritual Self seeking and feeling a connection of some most personal sort to the great eternity and that master of the burning bush that burns with
    a glow but is never consumed, and is always in a state or resurrection and renewal. It is sometimes reffered to as the
    'mountain-top' experience. However, once that feeling is personally identified or renewed, individuals come off the mountain to serve with a community that others might have a chance to expierence some Mountain-Top like hope for their lives. If there is no giving back or contribution of wood to that fire that burns, but is not consumed, there is no completed circle for
    the Mountain Top experienced person or soul. There must be service to repay for the spiritual insights gained on the mountain.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  17. Aaron

    I would like to know if the author of this article actually interviewed people who have chosen to follow their inner spirit to gain knowledge of the world & beyond rather than going along with the talking heads that manipulate people into joining "THEIR" team while also funding "THEIR" visions. We as humans from the beginning of time have pondered what created us? What happens when we pass from this existence? and ultimately What is reality and/or truth? These questions cause thought, so to say that a spiritual person who is searching for truth is using spirituality as a COP OUT to not conform to someone else's own religion/beliefs is ludicrous!! It actually means that we are thinking harder than those who just go with religious ideals taught to them from birth. The answers we seek are not black or white. The questions we ask are not necessarily answerable, but as humans we feel there has to be an explanation for everything so we continue to search. We put a human spin on it by attaching a pronoun of HE or SHE, GOD or GODDESS. Those who choose to look for the spiritual aspect ponder all ideals and come to their own conclusion of what fulfills the spirit inside them. If we were all truly honest with ourselves we would come to a consensus that "GOD" as we call it just IS and will always BE...no beginning....no end.....no man in the sky waiting to reward or cast us away for our actions here. The decisions we make here on this Earth bring us that reward(heaven) as well as that torment(hell). I could continue but to keep from this becoming a book I ll conclude in defense of myself as a spiritual being I THINK very hard about the TRUTH but I know its so complicated and inconceivable to actually KNOW what the real TRUTH is.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  18. One one

    "I am spiritual" = "I can't kick the habit"

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

      You can only be lost if you are trying to get somewhere.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      I am an Atheist = I can't kick the habit of being a fool.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • NoTheism

      @No2Atheism, based on what do you call atheists fools? Because they don't believe in what you believe? Because they don't have a reason to think that gods exist?
      What BASIS do you have for saying such things?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      The fool is the person who claims to "know" there is an invisible, supernatural being in the sky and claims to have a "personal" relationship with it. That's delusional and unintelligent. More and more people are rejecting that ancient mythology in favor of logic and reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • One one

      How ironic, a person who believes in a magic man in the sky calling a person who doesn't a fool.

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

      NoTheism – Speaking of non-zombie religion, that's EXACTLY what atheists are! A RELIGION FOR FOOLS.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • No2Atheism


      Speaking of ZOMBIE religion, that's what your religion is.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      no2 atheism, belief in that for which there is no evidence=religion.
      Refusal to believe in that for which threre is no evidence=intelligent.
      I bet you are almost as much of an atheist as I...you refuse to believe in many gods that others believe in...I refuse to believe in those same gods plus I refuse to believe in yours as well.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Atheist

      No2Atheism Actually Christianity is zombie worship. Literally. Your savior asks his follows to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Dies and comes back from the grave...sounds like a zombie to me. Oh yeah and he promises to raise the dead from their graves to walk the earth for 1000 years. In those days men will pray for death and it will not come...zombie stuff.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  19. Andy

    At the end of your article you reference tangible goodness that you can see as outcomes of organized religions. You don't say it directly but you are implying that the spiritual but not religious group of people aren't do-gooders. I know more volunteers for local groups, national disaster-aid, worldly issues like hunger and widespread disease who fall into the spiritual-but-not-religious category than I do practicing Christians, Muslims, Jews or any other organized religion.

    I do not believe you are correct in describing this group of people as lacking a code of ethics or doctrine to live by. I have my value set in which is at the core of who I am. And best of all, my value set allows me to pay attention to the important lessons of multiple organized religions without believing all of the historical inaccuracies..

    September 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  20. Atheist

    Either what a religion claims is true or it is not. So there is a lot at stake socially and economically for established religions. Its like when you are trying to run for president as an independent, you will be written off as a whacko or fence walker because you refuse to side with collectivist ideals. Freedom is the enemy of the collective. Freedom is the enemy of religion and politics.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
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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.