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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Hi prayer bot. You are right prayer changes otherwise intelligent adults, into childish fools speaking to imaginary friends for which they have no evidence of existing.

      The null hypothesis is that there is no god. Since there is no evidence to support the existence of god, the null hypothesis holds as the logical position. To depart from this position without evidence is to delve into fantasy and insanity.
      Just as it is insanity to believe in the 6ft tall green monster in my closet without evidence of its existence, so is it insanity to believe in god without evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Progress

      Speak for yourself Scott, the flying spaghetti monster is real, and is touching you as we speak with his noodly appendage.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  2. alex

    I think that fence sitting is the middle of the road. Dogma and organized religions might be the first steps into the spiritual path, but who... if not us..... is responsible for finding God within us?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Reflecting Pool

      Simple – well-stated and it cuts to the chase. There's a passage where Christ is asked – "Why do you speak in obscure parables? Why don't you just come right out and say what you mean? And his answer is that it is given that the truth should be hidden from the academics and know-it-alls but revealed to the babes. The simple, humble heart of great Compassion will hear it and know it. THAT is Spirituality. And that is why the rationalists and the academes can NOT hear it. It is the epistemology of Compassion – NOT the epistemology of rationalism.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  3. Are_you_kidding?

    Half these bloggers need an education.Put down the Bible and read a real book.Do some self research and educate yourselves out of this slavery.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • alex

      A good place to start can be the book INTEGRAL CHRISTIANITY by Paul Smith, or search the video SPIRITAUL BUT NOT RELIGIOS with father Thomas Keating and phylosofer Ken Wilber

      September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  4. johnofgodchurch

    Oh this is just hogwash! Who is this that pretends to know me, my life and how I practice and live my spirituality? I have spent my life reading the Bible and hundreds of other books as well about God, life, spirit, AND religion. Rejecting the religion I grew up in was not something I took lightly, but I refer to as, I just outgrew it. The myriad of laws and doctrine and hierarchy of religion are all MAN made (not even woman made). They are all male centric. They are all about control. I HAVE pondered the large and small questions of life – constantly and to this day. And what it comes down to is this: God gave us free will. And that includes the freedom to search for truth without the shackles of what some other person decided thousands of years ago that no longer can be relevant to our ever-changing society. If the author feels more validated by going to an organized church and being told what to think, then that is where the author resides and that is OK. But just because I don't agree with that and chose a different path, doesn't mean I fit into the author's stereotyped and just flat out wrong description of the "spiritual but not religious" that resides in his head. I think he needs to search harder for the facts.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • the truth

      You read the bible without the HOLY SPIRIT and guess what you got knowledge but not worship of true and living GOD. Hey John find this scripture in the bible FAIL NOT TO ASSEMBLE YOUR SELF. google it

      September 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  5. facepalm

    If you're going to write a prissy holier-than-thou column, you shouldn't mix up Bach and Handel. Just a tip.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Edddd

      And by the way, it's KAMA sutra, not Karma sutra.

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

    Also roch_doc, FYI, if it kills it is not spirituality 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • E

      When spirituality decides crystals will cure a kid dying from uncontrolled type I diabetes, I beg to differ.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Rufus

      When did the bible or any other "religion" cure anybody?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • E

      in the modern world, they are equally as guilty.


      September 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  7. alex

    I think that fence sitting is the middle of the road, dogma and organized religion may be the first steps into the spiritual path, but who if not us is responsible for finding God within us?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • jo an

      My answer is Unitarian Church...an organized body which does the important work of community but does not adhere to the irrational dogma of any of them..Unitarians do explore all religions and spiritual paths...they make no one wrong except fundamentalism which makes everyone wrong except themselves!!

      September 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  8. ScottCA

    A personal philosophy that gives ones life meaning can be an important thing and is best rooted in logic and observable evidence. This form of philosophy can be termed rationalism. The spinoza's god concept, as being the forces that dictate the evolution of the universe, and not a personal god of any form, is in keeping with rationalism. There is even room in rationalist philosophy for the Gaia concept of all life being inter connected into one super organism, which is in keeping with cellular biology and the interaction and commiunication of cells. Any philosophy based in observable evidence is in keeping with rationalism. As such there is a humility to rationalism where we are willing to admit that we do not know a great many things. The claim made by faith based relgiions that they know what happens after death is the worest and most terrible form of lie. Rationally speaking all evidence points to death being the complete terminal point of our existence as our consciousness is clearly an emergent property of the interaction of the brains neurons. The time after our eaths will pass exactly as the billions of years before our births did.

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

    ― Mark Twain

    September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  9. WD

    I guess the author forgot how the same "cop out" insult was used against early Christians who didn't strictly adhere to the older Jewish traditions.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  10. @hdevinr

    This article is looking at the topic with a completely Male, left brained approach. Of course you will arrive at this conclusion if you are thinking so narrowly. The same person who wrote this article would be the person to tell a starving artist to get a "real-job", not taking into consideration the impact that starving artist may have on the world for centuries. In a universe where we will always be learning new things, challenging our beliefs, and breaking the laws we previously set in science, government, etc. How simple minded must you be to just say "well I guess I will just pick something now to believe in and that't good enough"? We will never know everything. There will always be things to discover. I think people who classify themselves as "Spiritual" realize this, and are at peace with the untamed universe we live in, which is much bigger than people, societies and conformity. I highly recommend watching The Spirit Science videos on YouTube to get an understanding of some different Spiritual beliefs, and realize that even though they are explaining things in detail, they are still saying "we don't know for sure, but lets talk about it".

    September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Connie

      You are spot on! The real cop out is picking some belief system then shutting down all rational thought in regards to it.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Clive Brower

      Hey, no need to insult all "males" but I couldn't agree more – other than the male bashing.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Carlin123

    "Self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking." From Christianity to VooDoo, that's the very definition of Religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  12. MashaSobaka

    I teach college composition. Had this article come to me for a grade, it would have received an F. Generalizations, reductive thinking, inarguable subjectivity from beginning to end. And don't try to offer "But it's an opinion piece" as an excuse. Opinions can and should be well-informed, well-researched, and in general more than a "You don't believe what I do, so therefore you are selfish and wrong" gut reaction. You want to talk about lack of personal responsibility, about an epidemic of "I believe this, so it's the right thing" value systems? Yeah. I present you this article as Exhibit A.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • MercuryCrest

      Very well said. Thank you for bringing a little sanity to the party.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Athy

      Most intelligent post so far. Except for mine, of course.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • the truth

      Your on your way to hell if you do not believe in JESUS ENGLISH major.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Len F.

      Thank you, MashaSobaka for your compelling perspective. I think, ultimately, it is fear that provoked Alan Miller to come to his laptop and bestow his vitriol upon us.
      Mr. Miller, like so many religious people, are becoming acutely aware of how increasingly prevalent are the honest, caring, and intelligent people who have dared to think for themselves.
      Hidden within every statement of Mr. Miller's (F grade) submission is a palpable fear that one day Christian fundamentalism will have gone the way of the Dodo bird.
      If he wasn't feeling so threatened, ask yourself, why did he bother turning on his laptop?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  13. russmonster

    And as far as the bible for being the reason we read, maybe for english speaking countries. Somehow, I dont think it was responsible for people learning to read in asia, or the middle east, but hey, maybe I'm wrong about that too. The writer thinks spiritual is a cop-out. He obviously never sat down with me. I'd be more than happy to go over my spiritual, but not religious views. Instead he writes about how the young people have started thinking for themselves, as apposed to being brainwashed by the church. More and more, the church will either be forced to recognize the truth about God, and embrace it. Or they will fade from the majority they have always enjoyed.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  14. saved and pray you get saved

    Unsaved you will have your chance to explain to GOD on your day of judgement why you made up your own religion and. refused to believe in his only begotten son JESUS CHRIST who was crucified on the cross for our sins. Go ahead make your smart comments and mock GOD and I promise you one day you will regret every idle word you have spoken, typed, texted against JESUS or his FATHER. The scriptures say it is appointed for all men to die and then pthe judgement. I pray this helps one person who does not want eternal damnation in the lake of fire. We are all going to die one day unless JESUS come back to take us back before we die. Are you going to die without JESUS CHRIST?? Unless you attend church on a regular bases don't make any comments "ie" bible study Tue night, Friday night worship service, Sun worship service', Sun night youth service.. If some of you would dedicate your life to CHRIST the way you dedicate your life to your job then you will be saved toooooooooo.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Athy

      Man, you'd have been right at home in Salem, Mass around 1600. What a load of bullshit!

      September 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • HerbalSis

      I am one who has gone to church EVERY DAY for years. I have recently realized that I don't have to attend Church everytime the doors are open I can Praise Jesus\God from ANYWHERE. However I do need to go to Church To Renew My Strength! ...The Joy Of The LORD...Is My Strength!

      September 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  15. D

    "Spiritual but not religious" is not a cop-out, it is a recognition that religion is wrong – over, and over, and over, and over again. It has been wrong about factual things, such as the heliocentric theory or the flat Earth theory. It is wrong about things like the age of the planet. It is wrong when its purpose is to enrich itself, such as when it sold indulgences. It is wrong when it is used as an excuse to support slavery, even if the Bible explicitly supported it. It is wrong when it contradicts itself, such as its presentation of an all-loving, all-forgiving God juxtaposed against fire and brimstone and eternal torture in Hell. It has been wrong throughout history, and it will continue to be wrong throughout history.

    The common defense is that religion is not wrong; that our interpretation has been wrong. That is all the more reason that "spiritual but not religious" is the only sane interpretation. For all our dogma, for all the assurances of our religious leaders that this time they promise they have it all right, we know they don't. We need only look to history to see that they never have.

    Even among major religions there is major, major conflict of ideas - and I'm not talking about little details, I'm talking monumental, foundation-level disagreements. Is Jesus the son of God? Jews don't think so. Muslims don't think so. Only Christians think so. What gets you into heaven? What gets you into hell? What is the purpose of either? Is Satan the root of all evil or simply manifest temptation? These are all points that major world religions can't agree on.

    The author asks, essentially, what the value of spirituality is if you don't accept a set of dogma. I ask what the purpose of dogma is if it changes to suit new realities. These religions stand in significant conflict to one another in ways that are thoroughly incompatible; in other words, the absolute BEST CASE is that only one of these religions is right and the rest are wrong. The likelihood is that all of them are wrong in some highly significant regard. They all claim to be the One True Faith. They all claim to be God's Word. They can't be. They aren't. And depending on which one we believe, and which (if any) turn out to be true, believing in the wrong one might well send us down for eternal torment. So how, exactly, is choosing a set of beliefs any different or more valuable than choosing each belief? To quote Galileo, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

    "Spiritual but not religious" is a belief that there is something higher than man, but that none of our earthly religions have it right; that if God ever did contact us that it has been perverted through the lens of history over and over again until finding that truth is an impossibility. Far from a cop out, it is a higher level of thinking. Blindly adhering to somebody else's beliefs may give you a "strength in numbers" feel, but it makes those beliefs no more true.

    Then again I am an atheist, so what the hell do I care?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Name*Frank

    People who are increasingly called by God to deeper levels of prayer begin by reading and then meditating. They soon look around for a Christian environment where they can meditate with others and receive greater teaching on the contemplative life. And you guessed it, they find no where to go, as most groups are still in the shallow end of the pool. There's a message here.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  17. Len F.

    I find it a compelling thought that if we had the internet 50 years ago and if this article were written, throngs of people would be chiming in with support for Alan. After reading several dozens of today's posts, I'm thinking that hardly 1% of the comments are anywhere near being supportive. How times have changed!

    September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • asdf

      we also don't die of polio anymore. Life is good.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  18. Verna James

    Mr. Miller does not appeared qualified to have written this article. I suggest he learns how to meditation. He should meditate daily (religiously) for about 5 years and then revisit the subject.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm |

    Why do people HAVE to decide in a religion? We have to choose the right one when everyone sells theirs as the best? The bible has some great teachings, isnt that enough to take away from it? It is a book. Whats wrong with being spiritual and going about it in the way that suits you best. Myself, i like to be in nature, that is my church. The creator will understand, it is the choices we make daily that define who we are.

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

      Because, you're human, you don't know everything, no matter how much you think you do. That's the problem these days; people pick any religion that suits there needs and justify their beliefs. But there's more to it than that. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride, and learn from time honored traditions. Ones that go back millennia. Like catholicism.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |

      I hear what your saying, i grew up catholic. I cant agree with what it stands for, protecting pedophile priests, editing the bible over and over, thats not tradition its control. It used to advocate the killing of gays, and women who cheat on their husbands. Not that im a fan of either of those

      September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      I've been praying for you to get a clue.

      Still hasn't happened yet.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • truth be told

      @bishopwith etc
      the only prayer God would hear from you is the sinners prayer of repentance. After you are born again you will talk with God on many subjects, opposing prayer will not be one of them.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Jimbob

      Jesus said the only prayer that God will listen to is the Lord's Prayer... so no, it really doesn't.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:55 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.