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. MAL

    Sounds like the author is angry at agnostics.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  2. RationalOne

    I think "Spiritual but not religious" is a natural progression of belief for the thinking person. It's a lifeline back to the cultural aspects of religion while being able to comfortably explore other options. In the end these people are atheists who don't realize it yet.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  3. akmac65

    The author makes the erroneous assumption that only followers of formal religions have ethical and moral beliefs and standards. There are numerous examples to the contrary, especially to the effect that religious beliefs do not magically confer ethical or moral behavior on the believer.
    He also ignores the fact that religions are manmade constructs in the first place, usually for political or power and control purposes.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • igoryok

      "The author makes the erroneous assumption that only followers of formal religions have ethical and moral beliefs and standards.."

      He says no such thing, and expressly endorses an theist alternative.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • akmac65

      Igor...That may not be a direct quote, but any reasonable reading shows that he strongly implies that the "spiritual" are selfish and lack the values of the religious.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  4. Luis Wu

    Yawn... another Sunday and another really stupid article for the belief blog. Where did CNN dig up this dimwit?
    For once I'd like to see an article on Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism or tribal religions instead of this constant spewing of bigoted, ignorant opinions by Christian low brows.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  5. miracleoflife

    Just because you feel like you have to decide and settle on an answer doesn't mean others have to. Some people are uncomfortable in the fact that they don't know, and they let the answers come to them through evidence, trial, error, experience vs. through the imaginations of ancient/likely high scribes. There is beauty in not knowing – neither science nor religion has all the answers and we as lowly human beings will never know everything. There is order in the universe and I can observe it through science. That's all the 'spirituality' that I need.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  6. conston

    affectation–betrays an arrogance by not considering a third (or fourth or fifth) possibility.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      @nope – Yep.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Jade

      Show me one instance of prayer doing anything other than making the person praying feel good, or giving the person being prayed for a sense of feeling loved. It is great for man, but has nothing to do with God.

      Likewise, prayer is a selfish act. You honestly expect that God is going to ignore free will and answer prayers of people who ask him for something (usually foolish), but not save a child because that child didn't pray?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • GYooper

      Yep, prayer cured polio when science could only stand by and watch children suffer. Quite a change.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  8. kitty

    god did not make us in his image. We made god in ours

    September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      @nope ~ Yep.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • akmac65

      Very true

      September 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • really?

      lovely way of phrasing that.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  9. conston


    September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  10. Judgeman


    September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Judgeman

      That was sarcasm.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  11. conston


    September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  12. adrianna baron

    You are assuming spiritual is sitting on the fence which is not true because spiritual menas reading the Bible, Koran, Mormon Bible, Hindi, Buthist, African, Zoroastrian, Bahai texts etc... It means Reading histories of man experience with religion and outcomes. Spiritual looks for historical origins, convergence and consensus of all faiths, beliefs because it is in the mosaic that the true picture emerges for the spiritual seekers. spiritual is not a destination it is a life long seeking to know the truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • H. E. Baber

      Why the hell cares about such stuff–Bible,Koran or whatever? What matters is the art–the buildings, the music, the ceremonies. And you SBNR aren't supporting that infrastructure. I worship the church, I adore the church, the church is my god–the buildings, the silverware, the ceremonies, the art. Aesthetic experience is the whole end and purpose of life and religious supplies it! The Church is my God, the object of my worship, my ultimate concern. Aesthetics is everything!

      September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  13. Reality

    Putting an end to both spirituality and religion:

    The Agnostic's Creed 2012 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

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


      September 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      You have it just about right. Mostly fiction and ancient mythology.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • akmac65

      Well and clearly said

      September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  14. For Non-Believers

    For all the people who are engaging in undue criticism of this article and of religion, foolishly thinking they can escape its consequences and that they can just write their own ticket, these Biblical verses explain the consequences of your actions.

    "This I say therefore, and testify in the LORD, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard Him, and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor: for we are members one of another." Do not be fooled into thinking you can save yourself without Jesus, as there is no escape from God and His judgment when you go before Him! If you don't believe that, Try At Your Own Risk!

    September 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Joe

      And don't also forget that calf sacrifice. Accordign to your babble, Christian god will smite you if you don't burn a poor innocent creature for him daily. And no, the NT says the OT laws still must be obeyed, so don't try sliding out with that one.

      Please keep your supersti-tions to yourself, silently.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'For Non-Believers' contains an instance of the flawed argument known as Pascal's Wager.


      September 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • viking

      I would REALLY love to sit down with someone like you and have a discussion (with references) on why this Book and the words in it are VERY far from the original intent... and that the "original" intent itself was even suspect when you consider the Counsel of Nicaea in 325AD... was Jesus a prophet or the Son of God? Lets take a vote!

      I am happy if you derive spiritual fulfillment from these things. But you MUST understand that, for a lot of devout Christians {as I used to be} leaving the church was one of the hardest (not lazy) things I have ever done. I guess the tree of the knowledge of good and evil really is bad... because once I took a bite; began to question the "teachings" and do the research... I could no longer keep my eyes closed... and blindly swallow the propaganda... It really hurt too... because I was forced to search inward (and am still searching) for spirituality... peace...

      September 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • akmac65

      Believers are typically guilty of circular reasoning, specifically, they state that they believe the bible is true, therefore anything the bible says is true. Belief is merely opinion and opinion is not fact, only thought.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  15. Helen of Boston

    The article author is an arrogant turd in suggesting that religion can or ever has provided any answers for those searching for meaning, spiritual or otherwise, and for suggesting that not accepting religion is weak or a cop-out. Religion such as Christianity has never delivered real answers, and nor has it delivered on any of its promises either, so there is no reason for the young to adopt it and there are many reasons for them not to adopt it.

    It is a great sign for our future that the young are not taking up religion. Question everything, you young people. We need the bravery and the fresh outlook that approach represents.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Joe

      "author is an arrogant turd "

      Helen, way to tell it like it is. I think I love you.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  16. conston


    September 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  17. unanimous

    Easy there big fella...

    September 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  18. MD

    Who is this guy to judge a person's relationship with God? A person's spiritual belief is something very important. I really just don't agree with this guy's point. We should be celebrating the thirst for a spiritual life by people. If it is based in love, goodness, wisdom and tolerance then it is all good.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  19. H. E. Baber

    #$%^&*( you. I'm religious but not spiritual. I worship and adore the Church! The Church is my God! The Church has the machinery for producing religious experience–in the ceremonies, art, buildings, fancy aesthetic stuff. That's what matters. Church is my God–the source of aesthetic experience. Spiritual but not religious aren't kicking in to maintain that infrastructure, to maintain the buildings and fancy stuff. Try it and you'll like it: if you want metaphysical thrills, come to church. Stoned if possible.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  20. Amber

    Worst piece ever written on CNN. Just, gross.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Big Ern

      Worst comment ever on CNN. Just, retarded.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:50 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.