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. jms

    get rid of all gays

    September 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  2. happy i love JESUS

    ScottCA It blows your mind GOD already KNOWS that you were going to write that comment. NOW write some more and dig your hole deeper with GOD that on JESUS is going to be able to pull you out

    September 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • sybaris

      That doesn't bode well for your god.

      After all, it allegedly created man knowing full well it was flawed, then drowned every living thing except one family and two of everything (right) cause it didn't like it's creation.

      That's one stupid god.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  3. Martin

    Like any religious fascist the author is so certain his own belief is correct that he discounts all other approaches

    September 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • chris


      September 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • william

      That's right. And it's also why we say we're spiritual, but not religious... to help these people keep their frikkin mouths concerned about our religion, or lack thereof, which is none of their damned business. Say anything else and they'll continue blathering on... accusing us of being atheist or simply of the "wrong" denomination. As if one religion, out of thousands throughout the world, is the right and only one.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Susie

      And yet you are so ready to judge that your way of accepting anything is the correct way to go. Kinda fascist, huh.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • azfalt

      Better than a fascist atheist author who did nothing but put down everyone who belongs to a religion as "stupid, unenlightened, and ignorant." At least the "fascist religious author" follows a mindset of hope after death, instead of absolutely nothing. Why even bother with morals if one's an atheist? In the end you won't exist anyway.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  4. jms

    why would you want poo on your member, that is what gay is – poo on your member

    September 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  5. jms

    there are NO gays in Kama sutra

    September 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  6. Trueview

    If you believe in religion of any type. you think voodoo explains the universe better than science. Look at all those nut cases defending the honor of their god. Their god must not be too powerful if he has to depend on them to protect his honor. When will the human population grow smart enough to cast off the gods and devils and actually use their brains to explain the world around them.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  7. jms

    God is good, Gay is gross

    September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  8. ScottCA

    How the universe came to be.
    "Maybe we should patent the universe and charge everyone royalties for their existence.
    – Steven Hawking.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • government cheese

      More taxes? You sound like Obama.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Trueview

      If Romney wins he will.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Hi government troll. You have to try harder next time.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  9. wha

    Dont know where to start...

    Ad hominem attacks anyone?

    No research at all?? KARMA SUTRA??? HAHAHAHAHA Even if he spelled it right, it's out of place. Unless the thinking is:

    any book outside of my book = bad, so the bhagawat gita = kama sutra.

    Gross. Buddy, you are insulting your own jesus with this kind of thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  10. narsos_x@yahoo.com

    The same argument that the author made can be made the other way. Religion could just as easily be called a cop-out. You believe what your told, and have it all handed to you in a nice neat little book so you dont have to ask any of the really hard questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. jms


    1 get God
    2 place p e n is into va jay jay
    3 stop liking poop smell

    September 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  12. Curt

    Everyone has an opinion, but no one has a perfect opinion... So don't act like you know how to dictate other peoples lives, because I am positive you don't.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Curt

      That goes for all religions too

      September 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  13. Wren

    I grew up Catholic and stopped believing what I was lectured at by the age of 14. Contradictions, inconsistancies, and falsehoods. For years I searched a religion I could identify with. Then I realized I didn't need to be dictated to and no one should stand between you and God. If you have a problem, tell Him. If you did something wrong, ask Him for forgiveness.

    I am not a fence sitter. I often think long and hard about my decisions. Then I remember, this is his (judgemental) opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  14. jms

    all we all really want is to rid gayness from the gays

    September 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  15. ScottCA

    how something comes from nothing.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • government cheese

      Bill O Reilly took this guy apart in an interview. It was brutal.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  16. jms

    cleanse the gay out of people, that is why religion is so good, it helps rid the gays

    September 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  17. JB

    Organized religion is about controlling people. It always has been, and always will be.

    Spiritual, but not religious says 'I believe in God, and have faith, but I don't bow to some made-up religion and man-made control.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Taner Duman

    Nothing complements the true American spirit than this! We question our existance and meaning of life individually by using all the information available to us through the technology yet, just like our native ancestors we communicate with our creator nothing but through nature, submitting our souls to experience its wisdom! National Parks system is the largest temple in the world which could even hold all the population of world!

    September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  19. Dw666

    A lot of offended people/anger here? Thought SBNR people would be, well, more spiritual?

    September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  20. Curt

    Religion is a cop-out for people that can't think for themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • jms

      if youre gay, that means you cant think

      September 30, 2012 at 4:29 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.