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. Garrett

    You know what society needs these days? To stop thinking for themselves, too much of that is going on in society today. If people just slowed down and let other people think for them, people would be much more disciplined. I'm not saying which one to pick, but spin the bottle and just do the thing, stop thinking and commit! Science, what are the kids so into this stuff for? It used to be so much easier to manipulate people and I fear that I am looking at the sheep sunset, this breaks my heart.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  2. Daniel

    Absolute unwavering faith in one set of beliefs is the real danger, and also shows a complete lack of ability to think for ones self. "I can only believe in things that other people believe in."

    September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  3. OneGodOneBrotherhood

    A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? The answer is... Both!
    I really can't add anything to the discussion. I just want to say that I am heartened by the fact that so many readers seem to actually get it. The fact that being spiritual isn't a cop-out. It's a decision to open ones mind to study everything for the truth in it. For me, being "spiritual not religious" is a commitment to learn about everything outside of the box I grew up in. It is the belief that one can believe in God (the creator), the Bible, the teachings of the holy, the psychology of the mind, and the knowledge of good science. Where the error in that?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  4. Mariam

    I think the author should really consider the many obvious reasons why more and more folks have a hard time identifying with organized religions. Having said that there are also many reasons at the individual level why people prefer the no religion path. Spirituality is the very definition of giving up of the self so that the community and religion can benefit from you. The West's strong practice of individualism create a path for more people to take the no religion stride, it is in alignment with the principles of western society. I am trying to make a case for both why people leave organized religions and why people choose spirituality path only, it is all valid but at the end of the day it is also a misunderstanding about spirituality

    September 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  5. cocteautwin

    Personality is a useful tool but it cannot define who you are. Who you are lies far beyond who you think you are.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  6. Bishop Hairy Palms

    The biggest danger of "spiritual not religious" is that you may be forced to think for yourself.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  7. Snowyowl

    It seems to me that the author makes a number of excellent arguments for being spiritual but not religious, although I am certain that is not what he intended.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  8. GAW

    So what religion(s) would Alan Miller prefer that we join?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  9. Mike7914

    While there may be some small hazard to being spiritual but not religious, the greater danger – by orders of magnitude – is to be religious but not spiritual.

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


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

      Can there be such a thing?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  10. A in Pa

    It's not a cop-out, because I have no obligation to participate in a religious program, to declare my affiliation to or submit myself to some religious self improvement program run by religious organizations.

    An accusatory comment such as “I’m copping out” is bait – to put me on the defensive and put me in the position of having the explain myself and my decision to YOU, as soon as I do that, I have given you some authority over me. Typical religious tactic, designed to suck someone in.

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

      You have it figured out. The moment you debate with these people they've already beaten you because they don't ever acknowledge defeat. When you refuse to debate them you win because you shut them down cold. Winning or losing any religious debate isn't the point with them. The point is to stay in the argument. To stay in the game to maintain relevancy among the real thinkers among us. For the religious among us, to be ignored is what they fear most. Their numbers then begin to wither and they know it.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  11. Joe

    Being spiritual but not religious means you receive your guidance from within yourself, and not from some book, or some church of rules.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  12. Alex Rothschild

    Spiritualism is a facade for lazy people who actually worship the gods of technology and greed but can't find a way to comfortably admit it. Atheism is just another dogmatic religion with a prescribed set of tenets, acts of faith and practices, but offering an eternal reward of suffering, death and nothingness, resembling classical depictions of hell. I'm happily anachronistic and at peace with my faith in God and the beauty of His creations.

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

      Alex, you seem to not have an understanding of what atheism is. Claiming that people that don't believe in your god go to hell is also something based on ridiculous assumptions.
      You're welcome to substantiate any of your claims.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • One one

      Well if atheism is a religion, it transcends all others because it has stood the test of time while others fell by the wayside.
      Atheism was around long before Christianity and will still be around long after it has become extinct, like so many other religions.

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

      Atheism is not a religion, Alex. It is closer to being the complete opposite. You don't seem to have even a minimal grasp of the subject.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  13. Daremonai

    Ah.. ha.. and going with an indsituttion that changes every couple years anyway but pretends to be constant is better how?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  14. Warden


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

      Please. Turn off caps lock.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  15. TxphRm

    Disagree on rejection of organized religion as a cop out. The author fails to mention the stark misogyny of all three of the worlds major religions as a perfectly valid reason for rejection, certainly by females. I rejected Catholicism lock stock and barrel after an epiphany that it's opposition to birth control and abortion had nothing to do with God and everything to do with making more Catholics for for money and power. Suz year olds are introduced to Christianity with the presentation of Eve the wiley and cunning deceiver of Adam as responsible for the downfall of mankind. Woman is Gods afterthought made from Adam's rib, doomed to pain in childbirth and rule by males as ordered by God.
    Right. My "Ignore that man behind the curtain" moment thanks to Toto moment revealed that this is so obviously a tale hatched by a bunch of old guys sitting around a long wood table in the 11th century. It's all designed to oppress women, prevent their education and empowerment, force them to reproduce for population increase and accompanying domination.
    And that's just Christianity. Judaism and Islam are also quite misogynist. No thanks. I've eaten the fruit of the Tree of wisdom, see straight through it all. Spirituality without the toxic dogma works for me.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  16. Jason

    So Mr. Miller believes this is black & white, as if there is only his way or nothing & we must choose now. This sounds less like a plea for people to find their own personal meaningful relationship with their Creator and more like a car salesman pitch. If he truly believes his own arguments, he now understands why so many have abandoned organized religion.

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

      As well as the acceptance of logic and factual evidence. To say the least.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Jason

      Editor: what logic and evidence are you referring to?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  17. Pete n San Carlos

    Saying one is spiritual is a way of saying you are open to something greater then ourselves but the way religion has been distorted by man himself leaves you skeptical.It's a great way of not falling in lock step with the crap preached in church's.It's a great evolution of thought and I think it's a way to combat the intrusive true believers .If your in the military,live in the south or many rural part's of the this country,play sports or other groups you are often subjected to forced christianity.You become a social outcast if you don't fallow the pack.For me all religion should be an inner monologue not a public display.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  18. Rob B

    Where does Alcoholics Anonymous fit into this? It is a program of "spiritual but not religious". There are programs that are not religious and yet do have widespread group affiliations, and offer steps to finding a higher power, whatever that may be. To think that all spirtuality is lacking in principle is a misnomer. AA is a program of no religious orientation, yet thousands of us have improved our lives and found something greater than ourselv es in the process, but no one could tell you what that greater thing is.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  19. Downinfront

    I believe the greatest lesson we can learn from modern times is that we need to take a step back from religious dogma.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  20. Revenge of The Four Fluffy Kitens of the Apocalypse ! ! !

    So the general consensus is that Alan Miller is a narrow-minded idiot. Agreed?

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


      September 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • old ben

      Yes. Very narrow-minded.

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

      Narrow-minded enough to look through a keyhole with both eyes.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • buddyruski

      I was waiting for someone to just come out and say it! It's funny that he says "being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide" when in fact the basis of religion is conformity and following orders a.k.a not thinking too hard.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • aaarrrggghhhh

      cnn is just looking to make another list of people
      this time a list of people who have something to say about spirituality
      that's why this article was written to rile
      the same as with the latest war the USA one percent is trying to create this fine september 2012
      bunch of f wits is what they are
      beginning to really disrespect CNN for always lying to manipulate the masses and using diversion tactics to fill in for serious news that really matters to anyone. almost as bad as fox

      September 30, 2012 at 5:33 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.