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. Brian English

    The author is an ego-projecting mental midget.

    Have fun with your made up religion!

    September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  2. Maty

    The author's intimation that life's milestones and mysteries can only be understood in the context of an organized religion, and that doctrine or beliefs which are outside of a monotheistic designation aren't valid, in the context of our so-called Judeo-Christian society, is insulting. It attempts to invalidate and neutralize any other way if thinking about our place in the world, the universe.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      And how is this different than what organized religion attempts every day?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  3. Kate

    Mr. Miller obviously has never met anyone who chooses to live a "spiritual" life. Does he not realize that many people who are "spiritual" have actually read the Old and New Testament, the Koran, the Bhagadvad Ghita, etc, etc, and realize that they all have the same general message. Love and respect for others and for the earth that has been created for us; tolerance; balance; etc. Instead of mindlessly following the pointless procedures of a random church, these people choose to live their lives in a moral and wholesome manner. Instead of simply listening to some random celibate preacher and his musing on a piece of scripture, instead of mindlessly kneeling and bowing and gesturing (all things that have no real value) these people might read holy texts on their own and gain a deeper understanding of the spiritual world. Mr. Miller is sadly misinformed.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  4. Linda w.

    I fell asleep have way through reading this article. People who question the level of belief, no matter the religion is only looking for ways to control others, and is hoping for a society that is more "like" them.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  5. Bishop Hairy Palms


    September 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  6. Muffinman

    Hahaha! I will never abdicate my ability to reason and think for myself to anyone, ever again! I'm the captain of this ship, and can see so much more clearly through my own lenses. Organized religion thunders "Authority for Truth!", each and every time they are questioned. I calmly answer, "No, truth for authority." I get to walk away. Arguing with a person of faith is like hitting my thumb with a hammer over and over again. They can't be reasoned with, as they're completely illogical. I get to go home and take reason and logic with me! I win!

    September 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  7. Revenge of The Four Fluffy Kitens of the Apocalypse ! ! !

    The good new is that this guy converted some more people to secularism today with his dingbat intolerant screed.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  8. paulm5545

    Cop-out? How about the danger of thinking you're holier than thou?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  9. cocteautwin

    This is not about feeling emptiness, it is being emptiness. You cannot try to be it, you are it.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  10. asimj

    organized religion with strict dogmas have little to offer the world except a cause to fight and divide the world along religious lines. there is big power and money involved with controlling people in groups of religious affiliation, the only reason they still exist and is followed. teachings from dr. wayne dyer, vedic texts, some ancient philosophers etc have much more to offer the world, though they shouldn't be called the bad word called religion.

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

    The single accomplishment of the modern conservative movement in the U.S. has been to convince millions of weak minded religious people that selfishness, greed, and hate for those who are less fortunate or different are good, Christian values.

    Religion is just a tool used to control and rob the masses.

    It has nothing to do with "God" or any other higher power.

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

      WHOA! Don't go thinking like that...the GOP is counting on millions who are broke and uneducated to vote Republican, regardless of their economic situation, because it's "what God wants"

      September 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  12. JJ

    FAIL! What simple-minded right-winger did they dig up for this opinion piece? Alan Miller, what you fail to see (and how you failed to see it is beyond me), is that religion and dogma teach exclusivity of their religion. Younger generations are more inclined to believe things that are supported by facts, data, evidence, etc....things Mr. Miller's generation never really took into account. So to teach ONE way to salvation and closeness to God is to really teach intolerance for others.

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

      Amen! 😉

      September 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  13. whodathunk31

    Religion is where spirituality meets politics. That is the real danger. Everyone must come to their spirituality on their own, whether or not they belong to a church. A person must chose.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  14. ambrose

    religion fulfills a neurophysiological need for us humans. whether one uses religion to satisfy that need or some other behavior, the need is there to be filled ... the need preexists the means of its fulfillment.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  15. 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 article ‘The Natural Body vs the Spiritual Body’, 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.

    Why is there so much division amongst the religions of this world? Please read on.

    It is articles like the one above and that are so readily displayed by CNN that is the cause of so much hatred and division. Just take a minute and reflect on some of the entries on this Blog and the hatred and immorality that are being conveyed.

    The local media, including CNN, Fox and your local TV stations and newspapers are a very important element of social and political behavior, as society is shaped by what it sees, hears and reads and it is conditioned by the events that influence the mind of every person. You reap what you sow.

    To allow anyone to be directed by public opinion is dangerous because most public opinion is the view of the media. If the media does not like something, their bias taints information getting to the public, and this forms public opinion. Public opinion is never based on research and facts. The public uses the media for its sole source of information and for this reason social behavior will continue to deteriorate and wax worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13).

    For a better understanding of the role of the media we invite you to read the articles ‘Influence of the Media’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    The media does not provide accurate information on ‘Religion’ as it continues to ignore the truth and the history of deceptions (John 14:17). They only report how they want you to hear things. They have created the big chasm that now exists without offering any solutions.

    Consider the truth about Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, Evangelicals and Christianity and all other religions and ask yourself the following question.

    Are so-called Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Israelites and Evangelicals and all those that call themselves ‘Christians’ followers of the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God, or do they follow after an image of a false god and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8)?

    For a better understanding of the history of Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, Christianity, and Judaism and its spread throughout the world, we invite you to read the articles ‘The Mystery Babylon’, ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?’, ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’ and ‘Clash of Civilizations’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    The media also makes references to religion as it relates to political issues without any understanding. For example: Mitt Romney’s and Barack Obama’s faith does not stand in the teachings of Christ but rather in an image of the spirit and the god of this world and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8).

    For a better understanding of the history of the Mormon Church and Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency of the USA, we invite you to read the articles ‘Mormon Church – Cult and Spiritual Harlot’ and ‘Barack Obama – President of the United States of America’, 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.

    But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man (1 Cor 2:15).

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

    September 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • NoTheism

      and why should anyone believe what your scripture says?

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

      Please. Stop the bible babbling!

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

      Hellfire and brimstone.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • aaarrrggghhhh

      just that

      September 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  16. Henehene kou `aka

    Everyone should look up "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" and then speak of religious tolerance and intolerance.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  17. Sandie

    I am "spiritual but not religious" because I believe God is everywhere, in everything, in every living being. I do NOT believe in organized religion because each one claims to be the ONLY one that will get you closer to God; each one will "save" you from yourself and your humanness; each one requires that you PAY them to believe in their God and support their cause; each one is based on one man's perception of God-many expect women to remain in the background while men go out to earn money, as if women are totally inept and unable to become more than housewives. And God forbid if you choose an alternate lifestyle. I choose my belief system, I don't go somewhere "special" every Sunday to be TOLD how to believe; I don't "sin" every day of the week so I can ask forgiveness and do it all again. Just like politicians, religious leaders and most of their followers speak out of both sides of their mouths. "Do as I say, not as I do".

    September 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  18. Celso Da Silva

    This site is disgusting.. Posting a single persons ignorant view as a fact. I come on here for news... Facts. Not ignorant point of views. Not opinions. I'm never coming back to this Christian bashing website again. Way to go CNN that's how you keep up website traffic. Hahahah....

    September 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • NoTheism

      you have issues

      September 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • One one

      "This site is disgusting.. Posting a single persons ignorant view as a fact. "

      Does that include your view ?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • St.G

      Most news publications I've seen have opinion sections. In this one, it's indicated with "My take", which means "My opinion".

      September 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  19. chaostheoryman

    Give me a religion and a book that is filled with accuracy and facts, and a guarantee that it's better than the other religions that offer the same thing, and I'll be happy to join it. Wait, I do have something that is accurate and fact-filled: my own experience! Alas, it is different from yours. Please don't call me lazy, self-obsessed, etc. – those words don't help me feel encouraged to look into your particular belief system. It seems to me that any honorable system would respect (and honor) each person's journey for discovering something greater than themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Well said!!

      September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  20. agnosto-atheist

    It's called agnosticism, and it's one of the most popular worldviews in the world. The concept is not logically flawed either as there are about 30,000 different religions the world over if you include sub sects. For one person to say I believe i 1/30,000 religions is essentially statistically the same as saying they believe in 0/30,000. The idea is that with so many religions, all claiming to be right, humanity clearly has no clue as to what's up. Saying you are spiritual but not religious is essentially saying, I don't know if there is a higher power, and if there is, there is no way humanity has any idea what it is. It is actually the most nuanced view of god you can have, as it claims to know nothing. Organized religion is the cop-out as it says emphatically that you know what's up when there is no proof or way to be sure. It is a cop-out because choosing religion is intellectually lazy as it allows a text to think for you- and provide comfort that your life isn't worthless. Living for today becomes increasingly difficult when you are sure of what will happen to you after death. Not to mention the fact that spirituality, aka faith, technically is separate from religion. Some choose to put it into a religion, others into something else. Personally I put my faith in the idea that eventually humanity will work out its problems and live peacefully- but I also am 99.9% sure (agnostic) that any god will have nothing to do with it, seeing as if there is one he has failed to do anything yet. Saying that one day god will help us out is lazy, and absolves us of the responsibility to work towards more universal goals. It is not only a waste of time to think this way, it is a dangerous skewed view. In conclusion, I'm spiritual because I'm a humanist, and I believe that humanity will operate as a collective one day, I'm not religious because I believe the concept of god to be silly and dangerous, and I'm way more spiritual than Alan Miller, because I have faith even though I believe religion offers no answers. Hail Zeus.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • mama kindless

      I pretty much agree, but, with religious fanatics laying claim so much to the term "spirituality" (and it sounding like it is actively tied to some deity), it might be better, even for an agnostic, to just stick with humanist thought and reason. And maybe just more people need to learn that the morals and things that people associate with spirituality needs to be give just as much credibility if associated with humanism. Religious folk too often think that morals are something they invented and that only they can harbor and employ.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:37 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.