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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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?

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. John

    The Catholic Faith is true.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Catholics have brought so much shame to Christianity. Not all of us are part of your religion, but too many people wants to lump us into your religion that not only has helped millions, but has brought so much pain to millions.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  2. Reason

    If I die and find that there is a God in Heaven. I will do my best to murder him and release all of you from your chains...

    and if I end up in Hell, I will do my best to get out of my punishment and team up with Satan in burning this world to the ground.
    I mean – if you people and your God are really so vengeful to send me to eternal pain for not believing in your fairy tale with no clear evidence – why shouldnt I?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      We are not "sending" you anywhere. You are sending yourself to eternal dam n ation by thoughts and actions such as your post above...

      September 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • No2Atheism


      WOW, WHAT A DELUSIONAL ATHEISTS FOOL YOU REALLY ARE!!! THANKS FOR THE LAUGH. I would love to be there when you "kill" God. WOW!!

      September 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • rochdoc

      You have it all mixed up ; or your religious guides has not guided you the real nature of Christianity. When you learn about Christianity through third party sources or from misguided teachers themselves you see it as a creed intent on judging you. The truth is completely different.
      But, please see a psychiatrist if you are still planning to team up with Satan.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Reason

      correct notoatheism! Sounds pretty laughably ridiculous doesnt it?

      So does your religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Reason

      rochdoc, I truly think most who believe in these supernatural beings that show no evidence of themselves are the ones in need of therapy.
      To be, having imaginary friends is a little crazy.
      That you couldnt see my joke in my post, furthers my point.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  3. Aaron

    Member of declining establishment telling you how much you need establishment and how empty your life will be without said establishment.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  4. TF

    I can appreciate this article. I was hoping it would go into more specific questions that aren't answered by the 'spiritual but not religious' question, but need to be answered by each of us. It sure stirred up a lot of animosity in a lot of people. The thing that turns most people off from religion is 'religiousity' and judgementalism or someone else pointing out our faults or sins. No one enjoys that. That is better left to God. The whole God thing really is about how an unholy people can have a relationship with a holy God. It is not really possible without there being a 'bridge' across a vast chasm. Religion or religiousity does a poor job of recreating relationship. This upsets people. Also, people get upset when there is a 'rule' that tells them they can't do what they want to do. Its not an excuse but that's basic human nature. The fact is, God loves you more than you know, more than anyone has ever told you and wants to have a personal relationship with you, b/c he loves you. No matter what you've done or what you think God have done or not done, God is here for you. Sometimes we get hit by life, and it hurts. If you turn to God through his son Jesus Christ, Jesus will walk with you all the rest of the days of your life. Give Jesus a fair chance. He won't let you down. TF

    September 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • ED4

      And that is the other thing non–religious people find annoying about the religious; you assume just because you need gods love and approval that everybody else thinks the same way. Our parents love and approval is enough for most of us.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  5. Hip Hippies

    To the guy in the photo ( Bill Murray lookalike with Faux Dreadlocky hair): You go , man. Never mind the money grubbing,
    control freak preacher.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Michael

      Yikes ...I was thinking more like what a stinking, fat, out of shape, lost touch with reality loser that needs to wash his stanky hair badly....LOL...Well good for you...One mans bum is another's prophet.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • mindful

      Michael: "lost touch with reality loser"...how judgmental and very Christian of you. Anyway, I bet you ate breakfast this morning without even tasting it, drove somewhere without noticing anything outside along the way, stuffed a video in the van VCR to shut your kids up so you don't have to talk to them and you probably don't even know what you're wearing right now without looking down. I bet YOU have lost touch with your environment and therefore reality. Try "mindfulness" as being aware of what's going on rather than SOS and not being aware.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  6. Reason

    Religious people (many of them) are so terrified that religion is losing its grip. Their little club is losing members.
    This article simultaneously shows me they are very afraid of this – and also illustrates how pointless it all is in the first place.

    To sit and debate on who is doing it right. If you have to debate it....

    you cant all be right.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Atheism = Religion

      Praise be to God that many is leaving every weak and wicked religions to find their spiritual lives in God. Something that religion don't ever teach their members. So, how is your religion than the rest of the weak and wicked religions when your Atheism is the most rejected group in America?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Correction: Praise be to God that many are leaving............

      September 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Athy

      From your post it is easy to see you have never been exposed to evolution. Stay away from church some Sunday and go to a library instead. The nice lady there will help you find some good books on evolution at your grade level.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Athy

      Sorry. Should have gone below.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Athy – Looks like you've never been to a good based church where the WORD of GOD is being preached at it's best, to know God, learn of God, and to give back unto others. EVOLUTION IS A LIE, prove me wrong. Try searching for a good based church that is ROOTED ON THE WORD OF GOD and let go of you evolution books that are only for little kids who loves to read fairy tales.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • OTOH


      What makes you think that your Bible is the words of a god?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Athy

      I have been to churches, many churches, many times. It was absurd drivel. Proof of evolution is plentiful, just read a few good books on it and try to understand. I've got a hunch that you are usable or unwilling to do this.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  7. tim

    What a crock of crack. Sorry if people with their own mind and objectives in life are taking away from YOUR church, at least those people are not judging others nor trying to do bad towards others like most sheeple orgs.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  8. ED4

    "The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world." What a crock. The idea of sin has always been, do what I say and believe as I do or face eternal damnation in hell.
    If god exists and there is one thing we owe to him, it is the human brain. This marvel allows us to make our own decisions as to what is real and what is BS. The author of this article obviously is not a big fan of thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  9. Reason

    Just think of what could be accomplished if humans decided to stop wasting all this time on some invisible being in the clouds and talking about who is believing in him the CORRECT way.....
    Most people wouldn't even know what to DO with all that extra time. Think of the worlds problems that could be solved. How many millions gather to talk about some idiot in the sky every sunday? They could instead be talking about how to get food and clean water to the millions of people that dont really have it.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Evolution is a myth. Why should we follow a myth that says that something came from nothing and that we evolved from APES and yet, it can't tell us how the rest of the beasts and insects of the air and land were created. Did they evolved by APES too?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Freethinker

      Dear "no2atheism": you clearly do not understand evolution. It's impossible to argue against something when you don't know what you're talking about.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Shocked By Ignorance

      How did the other beasts get here? How can you condem evolution when you just professed to knowing nothing about it. Everything quite likely all evolved from bacteria, which is the oldest known lifeform on this planet. Would you mind telling us where you went to school?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • MAL

      @ No2Atheism. You are an intolerant and ignorant. You spout against something that you don't understand, you should take some time to look into it, there is more and more evidence supporting evolution every day. For starters, we didn't come from nothing, humans did not evolve from apes but both have a common ancestor, over 99% of our genetic make up can attest to it. Other beasts have some structural similarities to our bodies (including organs), showing that all animals on this planet probably came from the same primordial ooze.

      Galileo was excommunicated by the church for his belief in science and what it proved, you continue religions' defiance in the face of surmounting evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Dear Freethinker,

      Please open up your mind and understand that evolution is a lie. You clearly do not understand God and His word. It's impossible to argue against something when you DON'T know what you are even talking about. Many atheists are so stuck on a GOD that doesn't even exist to them, why? Because they know there is a God, but they rather reject the fact that there is one.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • No2Atheism

      Shocked By Ignorance – I wonder how all atheists beasts make their way to religious articles when they have NO idea about it? You argue like blind fools of something that doesn't even exist to you.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Steve

      @No2Atheism: The problem with your arguments is that you are not educated. You don't understand cellular biology, and you don't understand genetics. Explaining to you how obvious evolution is and how it is able to be seen everyday would be like explaining the complexities of statistics to a five year old who only slightly understands addition.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  10. IN2IT

    i pray. a huge problem with society that organized religion hasn't even addressed that is so obvious, is that prayer falls under the general heading of self alignment. if one prays to God, or to the ideals of Buddha or Jesus or Allah or to be part of a group that is aligned with a greater concept than one of self, that is a more specific manner. prayer is not necessarily worshipping God or a religion and should be allowed everywhere!! Bullying psychological manipulations can get one to pray or force one to pray, but it won't be desired. prayer can be done in the framework of organized religion also, but their methods, doctrines and dogmas sometimes dilutes the passion, or even the goal. why just believe in God when you should KNOW God is existence in all forms. Reality is perfect, it is a perfect expression of all energies expended. it is our expections that are messed up. Humanity as a whole has the ability to create a new reality when we group together with a common purpose, but divisiveness halts the progress, for one or the other's purpose. Give your best, realize your soul is the source of your goodness and is tapped into without even thinking and is easily blocked out by petty thought processes. if you're jockeying for power, lust, greed, etc, you're part of the problem and making reality less desirable for others. Religious people and sheeple likewise can be some of the nicest, honest, greatest people on earth. recognize that no path is better. great people working together for the greater good is the goal, not thrusting religion. love yourself, others, be grateful, forgive and be helpful, ease other's suffering. that was Jesus' prayer and should underlie all religion, prayer, and activity. pursuit of nothing but profit might makes your wallet fat, bank account loaded with extra zeroes, and stomach bursting with prime rib, but you'll still be empty. i wish you all well, i have great faith in humanity, COP OUT? take care of each other. spirituality and religion should be geared to do this.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  11. USA117

    CNN, why are you featuring this dreck so prominently on your site today? The topic may be a valid one, but the writing quality–in both grammar and logic–is awful.

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

    Spoken by a true non-believer of any other religion or belief. Nice bias.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  13. Chris

    This is one of the most fallacy-filled articles I've read in a very long time.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  14. Steve

    You invite me to take a stand? Okay, here's my stand:

    I'm against any group that supposively represents peace, but hates other groups for what they believe,
    I'm against any group that tells me someone or something is immoral, though I don't feel that way at all.
    I'm against people hating and killing each other over questions that won't be answered in this lifetime.
    I'm against people in power who use answers to these rhetorical questions to manipulate others.
    I'm against the herd mentality that something shoud be done only because it's always been done this way.
    Finally, and much less significantly, I'm against this article for saying that I'm "on the fence" and am copping-out. My relationship to God is different from yours and you have no right to tell me what that is supposed to be. Your way of thinking will be gone within 50 years, guaranteed.

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

      Against so many things. So easy to be a critic.

      Then, what are you for?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |

      WELL SAID!

      September 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm |


      September 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • E

      If you don't like something, you are welcome to voice your opinion.

      However, purely destructive criticism helps no one. The only sphincters I see are those who spew such. I didn't see a stand here. I saw someone on the pulpit, no better than other fire and brimstone preachers.

      Few offer anything constructive nowadays.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Ol' Sergeant Al

      I applaud your dedication to critical thinking, very refreshing. The term propaganda has its roots in Jesuit missionary practices. The idea was to present an argument with a series of self evident truths structured in a way that punishes those who question the conclusion. The Jesuit model encouraged community based punishment, and provided the church with plausible deniability. Social sanctions in the community proved much stronger than those provided by legitimate authority. Organized religion garners commitment through reciprocal concessions (i.e. charity), deference to authority, demanding commitment and consistency, and Pavlovian conditioning. Maybe modern generations are becoming desensitized to these tools of influence and wish to read and interpret the message on their own terms.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  15. RichardSRussell

    Just curious. If *I* were to pull an article like this out of my lower colon and submit it to CNN, would they publish it and pay me for it? It's hard to believe that this guy actually got money for this thing that would've gotten a C in freshman English. (And I don't mean COLLEGE freshman, either.)

    September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  16. David

    "Spiritual but not religious" has gained ground not because of laziness, but because "religious, but not spiritual" has taken hold and driven away the next generation of believers. If the product your pitching ain't selling, don't blame the buyer – blame the product.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • was lost, but now I see

      There you go!

      Amen and Amen to that!

      Those who killed our Dear Lord were "religious".

      September 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • E

      Osteen and others aside, religion is SUPPOSED to be a commercial product???

      September 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  17. E

    Those who seem to be offended also seem likely to half-bake their ideas and practice mediocrity.

    Even modern science finds common causes and draws clear lines on right and wrong.

    These people can't.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • honesty is paramount

      As a scientist, I am neither religious nor spiritual. I definitely know right from wrong and one of the things that positively defines me: when I don't know the answer to something, I indicate "I don't know". Don't EVER call that indecisive or "wishy-washy".

      September 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  18. AaronJ

    Just reading the comments in this section will tell you who has a bigger problem with who... Yet the non religious will always accuse the otherside of attacking them...

    September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • really?

      Aaron, is that how the Palestinians feel? Their attackers are blinded by zionism.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • kyphi

      that's the problem with most religions. People believe THEIR religion will be rewarded while people of other religions will be sent to hell or torment.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  19. Rondi

    I don't see where the issue is. It's possible to believe that we were created by a being that is not human but not follow any of the rituals that most "religions" dictate to their followers. I think that is what is different about just being spiritual and religious. No one is owed a full explanation as to how much you believe in anything. I consider myself a religious person but I believe this alone is my own personal business and I do not convey it in public in a way that people will immediately be aware of what religion I'm a member of. I think spirituality and religion are both personal choices that no one should feel bad about making a choice on and nor should we who believe enforce our choices on those who don't believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  20. Dakota

    1/ As Christopher Hitchens asked and answered: "Q: What to do all religions have in common? Ans: The subjugation of women." Not god, not any god, but the subjugation of women. Thus, women of all religious faiths need to disavow their religion, give it up, move on.

    2/ The writer, Alan Miller, firmly believes in organized religion and from I can determine, always has. So how does he know what we think and experience? He doesn't. His whole piece is fabricated with his "assumptions." I don't suppose that he has stopped and asked himself if his assumptions could be wrong (they are).

    3/ There are people (group 1) who like to associate with like people. For instance there are knitting clubs, card clubs, The Audubon Society, etc. As Americans we can choose to freely associate, and I support this vigorously. However, there are also people who do not need to associate (group 2) and as Americans we can choose not to....a notion that I also support vigorously. I only wish that group 1 would leave us in group 2 alone. We don't encourage them to take our path and I expect the same civility from them. But alas.....

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

      Sikhism has equality between women and men. Unitarian Universalism makes the most sense to me in that all religions that trust in God are correct, yet incorrect because they were written by humans. It is up to the individual to walk his/her own path which, at times, can be strenuous; none are guaranteed a life free from struggles. The author of this article is lodged in the demagoguery of his particular religion. May his angels open his eyes to the potential godliness of all earthly souls.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262
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.