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. Whizerd67

    If you need a book or a church to 'discover' that there is 'religion', you are an idiot, and a brainwashed one at that. Period.(no real churches exist anymore, btw)
    The truth can only hurt and make angry those that are liars, and those that lay with liars. So, if this truth hurts you or makes you angry, then you are a liar, and you better seek help for your damaged soul.
    Thats the only advice I will give to any religious 'nutjobs', such as this author, Mr Alan Miller.... "Co-Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery". What a hypocrite!

    ~Blessed Be to all~

    September 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Whizerd67

      For the record, and just so you nutjobs and liars get it right...
      The "~Blessed Be to all~" ending in my posts are not affiliated with any religion, although I know that it is recognizably close to a wiccan departure phrase. So please don't go there with me..you will not be recognized by me as anything other than a person seeking help that they will never get because they are brainwashed.
      Thank you, and have a good day.

      And, another note thats gonna make some of you angry is this..
      If you feel that there needs to be 'religion', then here's something to think about- Jesus was a Kabbalist !(sp) It's the only 'religion' that perceives that a person could turn water into wine, and walk on water, with just mere words.

      "Thou shall not kill" ?? Really?? Is that why 50,000 people were killed by this so-called "God" for not conforming to 'christian' 'religion'?(just ONE example of the hypocrisy)
      No..if it happened, it was humans, trying to shove something down someone's throat by force...and LOST the battle doing so!!
      All because they were brainwashed idiots.

      If it has to be in a book in order for you to "know the truth", you have already lost your soul. Period.

      ~Blessed Be to all~

      September 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  2. Mark Yelka

    The danger of being religious: becoming intolerant, thinking one is superior to others, taking actions to push your beliefs on others, not coping with reality, ...

    September 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Whizerd67

      ....easily brainwashed by corruption and lies....

      ~Blessed Be to all~

      September 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  3. Dave

    "An unwillingness to take a real position"? So we're with you or agin' you—buy what you say or nothing at all? Aside from your sophistry (without the bible there would be no reading or art?), your condescension (to be spiritual is to want to "feel nice things") and borderline bigotry, you display a profound ignorance of others' views (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). I don't need the strait jacket of your religion to have principles or beliefs, or your cardboard god to be spiritual. Take your judgements and place them up your apse.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Geff

    For many years, I accepted the teachings of the Bible as understood by the fundamentalist community. Then one day I happened to pick up a book that had a section on Chief Joseph of the Nezpearce (sp) Indians.

    After reading about what a heroic warrior, and compassionate leader this man was the words, "This man is now burning in Hell forever." came across my mind gratis my fundamentalist beliefs. Burning because he never accepted Christ?

    If Chief Joseph even heard about Christ, it was from the same people who were conducting a campaign of genocidal extermination upon his people, not what most Christians would call a good witness. So it was that I began to think for myself, a thing that is not encouraged by the religious community.

    Christianity (the organized religious kind) is a package deal. Having come to disbelieve this tenant of the faith, meant that I no longer believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. It meant that I needed to challenge all of my beliefs.

    As C.s.Lewis once wrote in one of his essays, "The idea of infinite punishment for finite sin is irreconcilable with the love of God". I finally had to admit to myself, that attending church was doing little except making me hate Sundays.

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

      How about disbelieve religion not on actions of men, or any 'organization' but by the complete and utter lack of historical and scientific evidence? By obvious logical reasoning? Truly, before we could even argue about religion or spirituality, one must prove god even exists, a test yet unproven.

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

    Why on earth did this worthless article even appear? Who really cares what this guys says? Newsworthy? – c'mon! And online anyway, is is like front page with a big photo at the top of the page.
    Is CNN stooping to trolling in order to get people's attention? I thought it was a "news" network?
    Maybe this guy should move to a middle east country where he can follow the government sponsored religion or risk being stoned or beheaded?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  6. Rufus T. Firefly

    Organized religion is beginning to perceive it's waning influence on thinking people.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  7. Brian Smith

    Copping out huh..Do you know who's copping out? Modern day religious leaders that attempt to demonize anyone who does not share their beliefs. The younger generation are thinking beyond an ark that carried 2 of every animal or whatever other fairy tale that we are taught. Grow up, and to be honest, the more we learn about science, the more we believe that something created us. Just stop with the religious arrogance. We are not copping out, we are evolving..

    September 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  8. Ron Drake

    The universe presented to us by science is infinitely more awesome than anything offered by the cosmologies of centuries-old religions. Christianity routinely characterizes faith as "a belief in things not seen." That's fine for those who want to delude themselves. My faith is based on things I've seen. Lying on one's back under a starry New Mexico night and watching and feeling the universe MOVE as I did as a twelve year-old Boy Scout inspired more reverence than all the sermons I'd heard before that night. Spirituality is not a "cop-out"; it is acceptance.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Whizerd67

      I hear ya.
      My experience was very similar, as I opted to live in the woods to get away from all the temptations of drugs and such that was interfering in my life. I spent 9 months there with hardly any contact from the world I left behind. I was by myself with a two-man tent, a sleeping bag, three changes of clothes, and a few camping tools. All I can say to anyone that hasn't done something similar to this is..it was pure paradise. And the spirituality was more pronounced than anything you can imagine..and I wasn't looking for spirituality at the time..but I found it. A whole different perspective was attained. One that I absolutely KNOW exists, because I was right in the middle of it.
      Laying down at nights looking at the stars...yeah...I know what you mean Ron. Too bad others are too blind and brainwashed to see the real truth. It's not in ANY book or 'church', I can tell you that.

      ~Blessed Be to all~

      September 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  9. Mark

    I couldn't more strongly disagree with Alan Miller and his op ed piece. Hey Alan, I'd love the chance to tell you face-to-face what a misguided idiot you are. I revel in my "spiritual but not religious" status. Now get back to your "religion", whatever it is. Keep reading and swearing by your thousand year old books that are the key source of divisiveness on this planet.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  10. Alva

    Up until this article you posted I was a daily reader of CNN. Wow, there is an agenda behind this or else you would not have printed it. Even if it was printed to just spark some debate, you CNN are still the ones way out of touch to allow this, simply speaking you are fools. Time to find another news source.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Whizerd67

      Oh no! Then where would we get our comedy fix? *L*

      ~Blessed Be to all~

      September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  11. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Organized religion is and has always been a tool for controlling masses of weak minded individuals.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Agree, but check this out, not every Christian are Catholics.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  12. No2Atheism


    Provide me with divine evidence and proof that brings accuracy and facts, and a guarantee that Evolution is better than the Bible that will convince me that it's a myth, and I'll be happy to join atheism. 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 evolution 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 2:35 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      Read a book that wasn't written thousands of years ago.

      You're trying to revive a debate that has already been settled.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • rarehman

      Evolution and science shaped the world in last 200 years and you see how different it is. Bible and divinity and creationism has been there for more than 2000 years and what did they brought to world. Did you read history, did atheism bring the dark ages upon europe? Just tell me what would be your religion if you were born in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia? If your religion is determined by which family you are born in then why should it matter so much to an individual. I am sure I am more informed about the world than my dad or his dad, so I don't have to follow their dogmas rather I can choose my way of life.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Bishop Hairy Palms – And what book would you recommend me to read? Richard Dawkins? Is there where the debate has been settled??

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

      Only place there is any debate is in your religion-addled brain.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      rarehman – Evolution and science has shaped the world for the last 200 years??

      Have you been out of your cave lately and SEEN how the world is becoming by people who are killing each other, thanks to the weapons being created by science and technology and you think IT'S better then when the bible was written more than 2000 years ago??? Atheism has brought darkness to every nation by bringing curses upon curses to our world! Want to know my religion, since Christ never preached or lead anyone to it, I don't have one. My spiritul relationship is unto God and it's not done by any religigion whatsoever. Would also would have believe in Allah were you born in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia? Many Atheists were born into families who are either Catholics or Christians (non-Catholics) and they grew up to abonden their faith just to follow blind leaders like Richard Dawkins.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Only place there is any debate is in your religion-addled brain.


      Well, you got that right because as long as I've been here posting comments, atheists are so stuck on religion, they can't seem to stop debating about it.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • BobG

      Science and technology? I'm an engineer who uses Science and Technology daily yet I recognize it for what it is -- a very specialized approach to measuring and utilizing "the physical forms." Can science and Technology measure Love? --Science and Tech are a different subject, apples and oranges.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • One one

      What is "divine evidence" ?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • No2Atheism


      So you are saying that the weapons just fell fromt he sky so people can use it to kill each other? Science and technology doesn't have anything to do with it? I tell you, people need to come out from their caved minds and see the world for what it is instead of blaming God for what HUMANS have done and created to destroy each other and this world. Things have gone from bad to worse and it doesn't seem that it's going to bet any better.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • No2Atheism



      So you are saying that the weapons just fell from the sky so people can use it to kill each other? Science and technology doesn't have anything to do with it? I tell you, people need to come out from their caved minds and see the world for what it is instead of blaming God for what HUMANS have done and created to destroy each other and this world. Things have gone from bad to worse and it doesn't seem that it's going to bet any better.


      September 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      One one – Do you even UNDERSTAND what DIVINE is?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • BobG

      Of course I'm not saying that weapons just fell out of the sky. In fact that is precisely my point. "People" with various and sundry _beliefs_ built and used those weapons. Science and Technology didn't make them do it anymore than a "club" in pre history caused the cave man to kill his neighbor. -yes more die today at the push of a button but the button didn't appear out of no where and make man push it.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Know What


      Divine = fantasy

      September 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  13. NoTheism

    I guess that arguing against atheism is worse than arguing against spiritualism without religion..

    September 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  14. Liz

    Usually im not offended by anything posted here. Maybe I laugh a bit at some of the hypocrosy and made up opinionated drival and sometimes even impressed. Today I'm offended. I took everything I grew up with that was positive from my church like judge less you be judged, thou shall not steal, or kill, or covet and live pretty faithfully to those beliefs except for the ones that make no sense with the modern world. Granted there's not many of those but there are a few. I decided the church or really any church was not for me because I'm not a bit bible weilding hypocrite of preach one thing and do another which is what my experience has been of large groups of christians. Including the author of this article. Don't Judge less you be judged sir. Also you shouldnt' throw rocks in glass houses apparently you'll break a few windows and I think this article has. You lump everyone that doesn't go to church but still believes into one neat little package without any real effort to understand why any of us might chose to turn our backs. I turned my back for reasons like this. People's inability to be tolerant and loving despite that someone else's beliefs or ways may go against my own. I don't understand Judism or even Islam but I choose to follow Jesus's in this path. I Accept them and Love them as if they were my own. They may not share the same views of my faith but they are still my brothers and sisters. Most christians just act like a bunch of jackels and spat a bunch of intolerance against other religions or gay people. None of which is what is part of being a christian or following in Jesus's footsteps.

    You sir fail to understand reality. People turn their back on the church because churches adn its members have a high rate of being hypocrites.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Gar

      Word. 100%. Speak the truth, and let's bring these idiots to their knees for preaching "serious religious study" of these crap relics, outdated at best, and brainwashing at worst.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  15. BobG

    This is absolute nonsense. While I agree that "a practice" is essential, the issue being dealt with by ancient "spiritual" traditions (as opposed to Religious traditions) is climbing "above" the partial and trouble-causing "belief structure." Not ridding" ourselves of those pesky beliefs because that 's what Human Beings do is believe this and that but recognizing them for what they are –intellectual artifacts. There can only be one truth yet there are roughly 38,000 Christian denominations (and countless non-denoms) all with different versions of the truth not to mention all the different Religions with still different versions. When it comes to the truth, most of these "believers", of course, think their version is the "right one." There in lies the seed for war and worse. -----Important questions? you mean like the Islamist fundamentalists asking themselves about the Religious right to murder innocents? ------This guy is not qualified to have a serious opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  16. Steve

    How can you possibly justify saying it is a cop-out when they've basically just removed all the negative parts of whichever god you believe and replaced it with a spirituality that is personally right for them? Wow. I'd call that an improvement and a step away from brainwashing.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  17. MatterOfFact

    The reason that so many people search for their own spiritual path is because that is what free thinkers do and because organized religion doesn't answer the truly important questions. In fact, the real problem for humankind throughout history is caused by those that are "Religious but not Spiritual".

    September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  18. Tom

    While I disagree with the author, I don't think he was defending religion. I think he was trying to make the argument that a person should either believe in a religion and god or not.

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

      What good is only participating in strictly black and white binaries?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  19. Josh

    This is probably one of the silliest articles I have read on CNN... Hard to believe it made front-page news....

    September 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  20. David V

    This article is quite frankly insulting. I consider myself spiritual but not religious because I don't like any of the religions out there. Blind adherence to an ideology is always detrimental to the individual and society as a whole. My apologies if I'm not a sheep.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:33 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.