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. fritz

    This guy copped out. He's obviously a Christian but did he say so? Nope. He copped out on that one. Besides, 'spiritual' folks haven't copped out. They've chosen to be 'spiritual' instead of religious, whatever that means. As for me, I choose the third option this guy doesn't mention. I'm quite content to be irreligious and non-spiritual, to be a souless animal with all the other creatures of the Earth. You religious folks don't like that? Well, that's tough.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Sergei

      Love it

      September 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • mikencolo

      reminds of jeff bethke e.g. "why i hate religion but love jesus." saw him on 60 minutes as well as one of his speaking engagements on youtube. for a long time i thought i was the only one who shared such views but no longer and it does feel good not to feel like the odd man out so to speak. though i don't agree with everything he says the vast majority i do. i was raised in a very religious family, went to college, grad school, traveled abroad and saw different cultures first hand. well final result was i ended up someone who saw organized religion in a much larger historical, cultural context and "the emperor wore no clothes." organized religion has used and corrupted the teachings of christ for centuries and all for personal gain of one sort or another. far too often the example is lost within the "dead' words preached over and over again and that is tragic. so i just felt like saying that everyone has to find what works for them best but what i found and what is echoed by jeff bethke, for me and my life it fits perfectly.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  2. G. Ruppert

    A. Miller has problems that only a very gifted psychiatrist could begin to help. If CNN continues to post such rubbish, I for one, will no longer be interested. Hello FOX JR., good bye C N N.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  3. Kimberly

    Having been raised in a "Christian" family and church, I strongly disagree that "being spiritual not religious is a cop out."
    Rather, I believe any form of organized religion is itself a cop out since it builds wall between people, caused killings throughout history for anyone who had a new way of thinking. It's a cop out to human decency and respecting of one another's differences. Even the notion written that "spiritual not religious is a cop out" is itself an attempt to degrade those who do not share the spaces of organized religion and yet have a personal belief that we are all part of a greater good.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm |


    September 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm |


      September 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  5. zzlangerhans

    The whole existence of this article is hilarious. Religion and "God" is the ultimate cop out that mankind has been using to avoid fear of death, avoid creating his own rationale for his existence, and provide a justification for war and murder since before the beginning of recorded history. People who are "spiritual but not religious" are trying to tell you they don't believe in your man in the sky myth anymore, without frightening you.

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

      Agreed. This is a significant non-issue.

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

      This is amazingly well said!! Those of Christian faiths tend to "never" entertain the notion that they might have it all wrong. Who of us really ever know. But I'm in FULL agreement with your response.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Christine Cox

      You are right – it is hilarious. This guy is obviously an idiot. He has been brainwashed by religion and somehow thinks he is going to proselytize people by writing this psychobabble nonsense! LOL

      September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  6. Hip Hippies

    It's "Feng Shui." It least spell it right.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm |

    Let's think about organized religion for a second. You have several denominations of Christianity ( Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah Witness), then there is Islam, Judaism and other religions. All of these groups believe in God ( Yahweh), have similar principles and want to have a relationship with him but it is the silly traditions and rituals of religion that seperates us from God and other people. You can't fault anyone from leaving a large religion and going to seek God personally. I belive he wants us to. If one reads the Bible closely and look at what God says and even Jesus ( Yahushua) time here on earth you see that there is strong emphasis on relationships with the Father, self, and people. He did not come to start religions but just one true church! The people make up that church. Not fancy buildings or lenghty doctrines. He already told us what to do with the 10 commandments. Man does not have to add to it. So yes! one should personally seek and find truth for themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm |


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

    Here's what I read, "Bla, Bla, Bla". It will be a great day when churches are empty and can house the homeless. That's what God wants you know.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  9. Pete

    The quickest way to become an atheist is to actually read the holy books (e.g., Bible, Quran, etc.). Because when you read them, you quickly realize how absurd they are and how dated and barbaric and inaccurate and silly they are.

    Spirituality is separate from religion and can be a rewarding and positive thing. Religion is not needed because it is utterly false. Science will ask and eventually answer the big questions. Religion is utter nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  10. Bob

    I would consider myself neither spiritual nor religious, but I think "spiritual but not religious" is at least a step in the right direction because it is an abandonment of dogma. The idea that "everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work" is absolute nonsense. This is typical of the religious thought process: there is no basis for it in reality and is not even possible to prove.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  11. smashew

    "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky."

    This whole 'pick a side' thing is what got the Muslims, Jews, Christians, Bosnians, Serbians, on and on and on... into trouble. Religion is a joke. The people that promote it are even more of a joke. If anyone was to say, "Hey I talked to God... he told me we need to do X, Y, and Z." They'd be laughed at at best and put under mental evaluation at worst. But somehow, if you are able to make the argument that God talked to someone 2,000 + years ago, that is suddenly more relevant and ok.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  12. Amanda

    Young people? Yeah, right... what about my grandmother? She was raised, and is still considers herself, a fundamental Christan. However, in her many years of life experience she has come to realize that her church-fed beliefs can't possibly be true. We are all too familiar with some of these popular beliefs (some of which aren't in the bible... for example the idea that suicides go to Hell). One by one over the years she has come to reject several of these "religious" ideas. For example, when a mentally ill relative took her own life recently, she knew in her heart no loving God would send her to Hell. This relative lived a life of selfless giving up until the very end! It says in the Bible how if we, who are human, know how to give good gifts – how much more our father in Heaven knows how to give good gifts out of LOVE. Not to mention forgiveness. So yeah, "picking and choosing" isn't so much a cop out as it is growing in LOVE and WISDOM. As for the Bible, our God cannot be reduced to a single book, or even two... how ignorant to think He can be. So we draw from within our own spirit 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • nadinesh

      Boy is that well-said. Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  13. timmy

    This seems like a typical editorial piece from fox news. Who is this guy and why has he been given a voice. I would suggest CNN should cut the ties with this jerk. Why does anyone's personal relationship with a higher order need to be discredited? Faith can be very personal and doesn't require the approval or disapproval of anyone. It's part of the quest to be a seeker of truth. There are many non denominational seekers who are very active in their communities and contributing members of society without having to identify with a dogmatic organized group. He implies that spiritual but not religious people haven't read the bible? That is such a broad assumption that he discredited himself before he could make his erroneous point. Please fade away and take your king james version of the truth with you.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  14. AaronJ

    This actually has a valid point. SBNR people do exactly what they claim what the church does, except they remove the parts they don't like and fill it in with things they do. That's why we have so many religious off-springs. Nobody says your going to be perfect or have to be, but to completely throw out everything for one or two "difference in opinions" in completely ridiculous.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  15. Real Tawk


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

      It's something we say to avoid offending you by saying "Sorry, I don't believe in invisible father figures that live in the sky, you delusional crazy." Let it go.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  16. Rufus T. Firefly

    What about us people who suspect that all magical thinking is a cop-out when trying to understand a complex universe?

    September 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  17. Name*J.L.M

    There will be a falling away in last days...love of many will wax cold Bible says..it you are not hot or cold i will spew you out of my mouth God tells us

    September 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Getting away from people like you explains half of this movement.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  18. Hip Hippies

    Everyone feels guilty of something they've done. In time, most of it is processed and you forgive or make amends and
    move on. Religion is crafty; it becomes a "put your dime in this slot, Dr. Lucy the shrink is in." You confess and by Tuesday,
    you're planning to screw the secrerary, plan another mob/cartel hit and wait till Sunday to be forgiven in the hogwash hotel.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  19. Marcus

    My early religous upbringing was under the Baptist faith in the dark dank bowels of the south. I was raised to believe that catholics, jews and all the other religions of the world were going to hell. I was told that black folks were beneath white folks and that the bible said so. Swimming in public pools was a sin because it made you lust, and going to movies on sunday or eating out on sunday was a sin. The list of sins is too long for me to post here but it might be helpful to understand that the sole theology of the Baptist faith is "Repent...you;re going to hell". I would have said this even if there werent an election in progress but I believe politics has done alot to send people fleeing from chapels across the country. It has created a large chasm and churches are telling their congregation who to vote for......or they will burn in hell. To me, its an awful lot of confusion and it makes sense that someone might chose to be spiritual based upon their own personal beliefs and avoid the fiery accusations and name calling perpetuated by organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  20. Pete

    Boy, this article is pure stupid. It has been proven that morality does NOT come from religion. And we don't need religion to ask the important questions, because religion is a man-made fairy tale that can never possibly be taken seriously when looking at the bigger picture of life. Science is what asks the big questions and that is what will answer some of these questions. Not some made up hocus pocus. The author of this article is clearly a moron. Spirituality is good. Science is vital. Religion is just plain stupid.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:48 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.