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. Joe

    The ancient greeks (pagans) were very scientifically advanced. Scientific advancement stopped for almost 1500 years after the start of Christianity, and it had to fight with the church every step of the way. Science is responsible for many of the comforts we take for granted today. I don't really think our particular brand of literature affects our quality of life more then medical and technological advancements.

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

      Christians willingly over look such logic, but they gladly use the science to advance their own agenda. Hypocrisy at its peak.

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

      Youv are quite wrong, the cathollic church helped in great advancement of science,the arts, writing, and education. Univerities and colleges were created by the catholic church.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Joe

      The catholic church locked up Galileo. In Islamic nations, scientific progress was severally hampered because of a huge focus on religion. This is part of the reason why the Ottoman empire collapsed. Religious freedom in Europe on the other hand helped the west develop and make scientific advancements. A University where you can't think freely isn't much of a university.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  2. Gr8White

    This article gets filed under "Who gives a crap". Why bother publishing it?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  3. Bishop Hairy Palms

    My invisible sky fairy is real and yours isn't!

    September 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  4. Nissim Levy

    Why aren't my comments being published on this forum?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Nissim Levy


      September 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Nissim Levy

      This is ridiculous. When I posy something of no consequence then it is published right away but when I make an insightful comment I never see it. I have been trying for almost an hour.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Nissim Levy:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, sopho-more, etc.
      ho-oters…as in sho-oters
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-oon… as in sp-oon, lamp-oon, harp-oon
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sm-ut…..as in transm-utation
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, t-itle, ent-ity, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, salt-water, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      September 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Nissim Levy

      I can't figure out which letetr sequences are preventing my comment from being published

      September 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • CBinLA

      I'm having the same problem. I spent considerable time thinking through and writing what I believe to be a responsible, thoughtful response and it won't post! And like you, I write some nonsense (like ????) and it posts immediately.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Look over you posts very carefully. I'll bet that there is one (or more) hiding in there. They can be VERY elusive.

      (if worse comes to worst, try posting a paragraph at a time until you spot which one doesn't appear)

      September 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Nissim levy

      I don't have anymore patience for this CNN nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  5. Nelson

    (1) The article is attacking a straw man. Many spiritual but non-religious people have strong views about morality. (2) There is little, if any, decent evidence to support Christianity's doctrines. The Bible, which is merely words written by people, does not count. The claim that the Bible is the word of God is ludicrous.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  6. Brian Fischer

    God is complex, life is complicated, the truth of all that exists likely transcends the logic of all mankind. Do not fear eachothers beliefs...embrace them...learn from them...submit to diversity...accept and love oneanother and recognize your own shortcomings and propensity to judge unnecessarily....and know that there is something way beyond us that connects us all.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  7. Kate

    It's enough to say I am spiritual.. I believe in good, not evil and bad, so right not, to me that encompasses the rigid, religious right. I believe in minding my own business about a person's religion and beliefs as long as their do not interfere with mine and mine do not step into their beliefs.. I believe in being civil and working towards common goals and kindness. So much for these idiots who write these types of religious articles.. either take a stand (JESUS RULZ, LONG Live the king of kings etc from scipture) or (alah akbur or however you spell it).. leave us normal people who believe in being kind and working together to find commonality, decent schools, laws etc. leave us the hell alone. 🙂

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

      In my experiences, Non religious people seem to want to bother religious more than the other way around. It seem that everytime religious people build something or want to build something, non religious people come in an want to tear it down. Just read all the comments on this board. Who's most represented: Reigious people or The "otherside"?

      September 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  8. John

    Karma Sutra? Really? Ignoramus is more like it.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Dick Mays

      He appears to be reaching for the Kama Sutra, whose subject matter might surprise him. And "Feng Shui" in the same paragraph. His mistakes might be typos, but they make him appear pretentious, narrow, and foolish.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  9. cocteautwin

    Every seeker wants liberation and is looking for a teacher to show him (her) “the way” to attain it. When the seeker wants freedom and only freedom the teacher appears in human form with “the good news” that the seeker “is already free”. The only obstacle to realizing this truth is what the seeker thinks about himself, (I am so and so, this and that) and he believes he is what he thinks. The so called spiritual practices are an attempt to remove the false ideas the seeker has about him (her) self. However, that idea will disappear by simply shifting the attention from physical forms (sense objects including the body) and mental forms (thoughts, concepts, ideas) to the one that is aware of them. In doing so, the mind of the seeker stops and all ideas and concepts collapse and the seeker realizes who he really is – pure consciousness or awareness – not limited to a particular name and form.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  10. Boetheus

    The author's position and perspective is the reason for the movement in the first place. The problem is that religion takes a more collective, one size fits all view of God. My relationship and everyone else's is on view for all to see, so I can watch, judge and condemn when someone "goes astray". Spirituality removes everyone from the equation except that person and God. You take the remote control of your life out of other people's hand, and it allows you to deal one on one with God. In there, no one can see, hear or perceive the connection between you and God and religious people can't stand that. Look at all of the social legislation in this year alone. All of it has one theme. CONTROL OF SOMEONE'S LIFE OTHER THAN YOUR OWN. We have come so engrossed in free market that some belief they have controlling interest in God and can at a whim command Him to move at their will. Religion is losing control over people's lives and are feeling threatened. They are lilke the prodigal son's brother. He wanted to leave also, but was scared to and thought he was a "better" person for not leaving. He too got bent out of shape when the father accepted the younger son as if he never left. It showed that the older brother had no control of how the father saw his younger brother because of a much different and personal relationship.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  11. hugh g membre

    this article is a joke and i find it very funny.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  12. jeremyhornephd

    " everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work." is suspect, when you consider that there have been major cultures outside the Western world, not the least of which have been those in Asia and India. Too, "our cannon of literature" surely includes Greek classics, largely kept alive by the Arabs and surely pre-dating the Bible. Further, there are reasons for persons being agnostics, preferring not to become ideologues and adopting a secular view. While it may be defended that many people speak from a "feel good" perspective, it is also true that mandating philosophy, critical thinking, science, and logic in the curriculum would go a long way towards correcting this problem. As to the quality of the article and its arguments, it seems that his qualification to write on such a dense topic is equally matched by his being "Director of The New York Salon and Co-Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery", leading him to absurd notions that spirituality has to be equated with religiosity, totally ignoring the distinction between secular religion and "generic" religion, as in the Latin ligare – "bind, connect". Black and white thinking like "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?" may be suitable for a bar, but they will not pass scrutiny in even a Philosophy of Religion 101 course. Lastly, I find it interesting that the "Like"/"Dislike" evaluations have been disabled for this article. Miller needs to go back to film directing and serving brew, where ideas like his will find a more fitting setting.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Anonymous

    This article is biased and midleading and has no scientific or logical basis!.
    You don't have to be religious to believe in God. In fact, God has no religion. God is all love, all compassion and that includes EVERYONE, not only certain groups and certain religions. As a scientist and someone who has been on his spiritual path for almost 20 years, I can clearly say that I know in my heart that although I don't follow organized religion, I serve all people and have love and compassion for all people. It is not a disguised moral compass as some people have called it on this blog. So just because one does not believe in any religion, it does not mean, not believing in God and in what is good and what is important in life. Look at all the bloodshed and all the bad that happens in the name of religion. I think all of the prophets would believe that this is what they did not intend to happen, for people to hide behind religion and hurt other groups and cultures and religions. I believe in love and respect for all and all religions as well. So, let's not judge others, but to preach love and belief in God and goodness. That is all that matters after all. I had to really laugh at this article with all the biased comments, but I am working on myself not to judge and to have compassion!

    September 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • David in Auburn WA

      Good Job! Articulate, reasonable and credible.
      No reason to remain "Anonymous"
      Had I written it, the only change would have been writing 40 years where you said 20. That said, I don't think I had as much insight 20 years ago as you have now. You are clearly a fast study.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  14. Brian English

    This article is REALLY offensive and filled with stereotyped if thrusted on any other group would be removed from CNN.

    Shame on you.

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

      couldn't agree more.

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

    The religious actually reflects the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking. Abominations and what not to do are followed as per what on feel it to be the truth. Religuous will follow exactly what teh Bible says (if you do not, you are not religious):
    Idols (2 Chr. 15:8; 1 Pet. 4:3): Some feel Idols of Christ and Mother Mary do not fall under this but idols of all other religions do.
    Hands that shed innocent blood (Pro. 6:17): I would consider the collateral damage of modern warfare as this.
    Re-marriage of former companions (Dt. 24:1-4): Need i say more here?
    Eating Pork (Isaiah 66:15-17): Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig's flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.
    eating shrimps (Deuteronomy 14:9):
    Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. 10 And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you

    September 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  16. cmc

    Once again, people giving a crap about other people's spirituality or religion or lack thereof is one of the big problems we have today. If other people are happy and aren't hurting others with their way of thinking or living, who are we to care what their religion, spirituality or anything is?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • One one

      It only becomes a problem when the try to push their hokey beliefs into our public schools and laws.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  17. John

    Being Spiritual rather than Religious to me means that I am not letting ANY other person tell me what my relationship to God is. Just because you feel the need to convert people does not make you any more religious or spiritual than me.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  18. Roman

    Cop out? What ever dude. Your organized religion is all that's wrong with the world today.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  19. 24 Hour Crisis Center

    God created the universe.

    Many billions of years ago, a life form evolved on a planet not so far distant and their scientists deduced the building blocks for life existed in the universe and from it, new life forms could be created.

    These ancient ones populated Mars with life and eventually, due to asteroid events over millions of years, life arrived here on Earth. We are a product of that primeval turbulence.

    Therefore, we must worship the Aliens, not God. The Aliens have to worship God.

    This is all true because I have faith that it happened just this way.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  20. social good

    This is an example.of what is wrong with religion. The 'devout' see themselves as better than the rest of us.

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

      When just the opposite is true.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:41 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.