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. What a sad, completely erroneous charge

    I find this commentary hostile and just plain wrong. Alan, you're missing the bigger bigger picture. Before man defined good and evil, before man defined a higher intelligence, before man wrote anything in a book, before thought occurred, there was the one, or god or being. the youth of today are just taking it back to a time before we divided ourselves with definitions of our God, proclaiming one to be 'the one' and all others to be false. If there are organized religions out there that bring you happiness, make you realize your connection to every other living creature, then enjoy! Most all of those you label as Spiritual but not Religious have no beef with organized religions. Jesus himself refused to subscribe to the current religion of his time.

    Stop thinking, Alan. There is something greater than your belief. There is something greater than ideas. Greater than 'future'. It can never be understood by the mind. Just be and enjoy being.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • four

      well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Joanie

      WELL SAID....

      September 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  2. Jaggers

    Without religion, most people are too lazy or dumb to form their own world view and/or too dumb or too weak to do the right thing. The problem is that religion isn't grounded in science, and the cognitive dissonance people feel when, for example, they are asked to drink another person's blood and eat his body, drives them away from this strange thing the author identifies as organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      being religious is the dumbest and laziest position of them all.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  3. jms

    feng shway gay, budda gay, its gay hey lets get gay today on this day in the month of may

    September 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  4. jms

    gay means that poo is a normal part of your life, the smell, the taste, all of it, ITS ALL GAY

    September 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  5. jms

    I just vomited at the thought of getting gay

    September 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  6. mickthequick

    Unmitigated rubbish. Unworthy of a response.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  7. jms

    the real cop out is going the easy gay way instead of seeking woman

    September 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  8. jms

    why to be gay when you can be normal, gay poo is in your life, not just in the toilet like us normals, it means poo is part of your life at elast every 72 hours, STOP GAY now

    September 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  9. blessedgeek

    The actual cop-outs are those who refuse to listen to the "spiritual-but-not-religious".

    The actual cop-out is a church that defies its own teaching of compassion to the poor and responsible stewardship of the planet, pandering to a political establishment of greed in an unholy marriage of convenience.

    The actual cop-out is a church refusing to acknowledge abusive priests, refusing to admit gay marriage, refusing to admit women into the clergy. Choosing to observe only some of the biblical laws – choosing to ignore the more potent biblical laws but choosing to observe the minor ones that insult their manhood – manhood which they surrendered when they became priests.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  10. jms

    gay is like golf, its a cop out and you shouldnt swing at the balls with the shaft

    September 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  11. pete7630

    Being spiritual without being religious is being a good person without all the religious baggage that causes soooo many problems. Alan should get his head out his ass. See ? I'm a good person.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • ScottCA

      CNN should be utterly ashamed of itself for publishing this asinine blog of nonsense and illogic.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  12. ScottCA


    September 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • government cheese

      Post more cartoon videos. Those are the best.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  13. Dave Lord

    This the worst BS I have read in a very long time. The bible is a Joke and written by men seeking control a very long time ago. The followers today are sheep and afraid of a reality that may include nothing to ascend to, hence the worship and praise for their "lord" which lets unspeakable events and human tragedy occur, time and time again . You can still have a decent and moral outlook on life and feel spiritual without subscribing to a religion or church. It's not a black and white subject. Does spirituality have to include a "god" ? – I don't think so... what an angry man the writer must be with his life.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  14. jms

    gay means poo gets on your shaft – why do you wnat that? gay is gross – gay is bad

    September 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  15. lola the spiritual

    There is nothing spiritual in organized religion, it's kinda of golf club. Popes wining to loose last pennies from church box !

    September 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  16. Jataka

    This man's life is a cop-out, and so are all of yours.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  17. jms

    gay is sick – sick in head

    September 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • lola the spiritual

      mistake, not in head

      September 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  18. ScottCA


    September 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  19. jms

    gay makes me vomit in my mouth

    September 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  20. jms

    you MUST get angry at all gays!

    September 30, 2012 at 4:41 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.