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. retiree

    I'm a senior citizen and consider myself spiritual, but not religious.

    I will further claim that I may be more spiritual than the most religious people I know.

    I know some self-proclaimed religious people who are so full of hate and bigotry that I could hardly classify them as spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • End Religion

      why use the word 'spiritual' when all you're saying is that you're a nice guy, nicer than some religious types you know? It isn't hard to be nicer than religious folks. They're mostly happy to have an excuse for their bigotry and hatred. It is natural for the non-religious to be nicer than religious people who rely on bigoted and hateful books to point them toward that morality. There's nothing spiritual or non-spiritual about any of it. While you've shaken free from religion you still can't shake that need to feel special so you call it spirituality.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  2. Mark Whittaker

    Interesting article.... but note there is no such scripture called "Karma Sutra". I hope author was not referring to Kama Sutra in the same sentence of Bhagavad Gita, Quran and the Old Testament. Kama Sutra is not a religious scripture

    September 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • End Religion

      Agreed it was odd to list that one work of non-fiction mixed with all the other works which are fiction.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  3. john carlson

    What a CROCK o Crap!

    September 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  4. Roget T

    "Spirtual but not religious" is the smart thing to say if you don't believe in santa claus god and don't want the religious fanatics to hate you.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • End Religion

      In the religion closet.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  5. ABC

    To somehow justify how the "CHURCH" is GOD is IDOLATRY..IDOL WORSHIP OF A CHURCH IS A SIN ...and to many people treat CHURCH AS GOD...that IS A SIN

    The church is a place to go with like minded people and to learn about GOD..., it is NOT GOD in itself..and should NEVER BE TREATED THAT WAY...

    Only a religious zealot would JUDGE ANOTHER on HOW THEY CHOOSE TO BE CLOSE TO GOD...IT is NONE of this guys business how another person approaches god..nor is it his place to take away their freedom of personal approach to faith and belief..

    September 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • ABC

      To clarify, EVERYTHING AGAINST MY BELIEFS IS A SIN. I am the DECIDER of what is SIN!

      The CHURCH is a place to go with narrowly like-minded and deluded people to further reinforce our BELIEF in imaginary friends..., it is NOT GOD in itself..and should NEVER BE TREATED THAT WAY...

      Only a religious zealot would KEEP TALKING ABOUT IMAGINARY PEOPLE as if they exist, or existed.... IT is NONE of this guys business how another zealot approaches delusion..nor is it his place to take away their freedom of personal approach to delusion and belief in unicorns, talking snakes and sky fairies..

      September 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • interesting

      if a person is individualistically deciding what a sin for them is and whats not. not matter what they will do they will say their life is sinless because they will justify their actions. I wonder what people like Hitler would say is a sin for them and whats not.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  6. Doug Fishback

    Harold Bloom, "the Karma Sutra" and "hyphenated-American world." Got it.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  7. tez07

    wow, 143 pages of comments.....if someone is going to push through all those comments before mine, I had better make it worth the effort........what was the topic again?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  8. Luis Wu

    People are starting to finally think for themselves instead of blindly accepting ancient dogma as fact. That's a good thing.

    "Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines." – Bertrand Russell

    September 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Luis Wu


      September 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  9. Tim

    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. – Why is this so important? Because we "believe in believing?" God is experiential as well as mental. And so far, in my personal relationship with God, he/she/they/it have not asked for a single penny. Pretty hard to beat that.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • interesting

      sounds like you love money....maybe greed is the character flaw and big thing you are avoiding

      September 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  10. Chris

    I consider myself spiritual but not religious for several reasons. The first is faith versus personal direct experience. If one can have experience into other spiritual realms why need faith? I have these experiences all the time. The bible teaches that only death releases one of the bond of earth. I disagree. Another point is spirituality does not engender reflection and growth. I traveled into the depths of my own personal hell and was stripped of all my beliefs and discomforts and prejudice. Spirituality is one beginning ones own journey into the self, the final journey of freedom.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  11. Kris

    Well shame on me for believing what I want to believe, instead of what the masses want me to believe. And shame on me for working hard and earning my money to buy the things that my family enjoys. Maybe I should quit my job, start collecting welfare so I can sit around on Sundays just to follow someone else's beliefs. I don't have anything against "traditional" religions, or most of the people that practice them. I don't attend church, but I don't hold anything against those that do. Why? Because it's their right, as it is mine to decide not to. I've been criticized for years by people because I work on Sundays. Well, I have news for you......God won't pay my bills for me, so I have to go to work. Get over it, people. Work where you want to work. Eat what you want to eat. Believe in whatever you want to believe in. I didn't spend several years serving my country in the Military (preserving the rights of people) just to have some of those same people criticize me for the decisions I make. I'm not a hypocrite, so don't treat me like one.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  12. M in Atlanta

    I wonder if the author takes him self a little too seriously? Sounds like he is insecure about his own beliefs and this is the best defense he can come up with for following his sheep like existence.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  13. EZdiditagain

    This article is very much in line with a paper I wrote 20 years ago in a college Western Civ class.

    I got a C.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  14. Godisreal

    @Rillykewil I know this from my experience..Ask and you shall recieve, knock and and it will be opened to you. I asked, I knocked and then Jesus showed up...

    September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Delusional much?

      September 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  15. lil'Static

    I think anything the divide and pits people against each other is not the works of God and there is nothing that dose that better then Religion. So I really have to question is Religion really have anything to do with God?
    12 steps to a compassionate life by karen armstrong Is a book that goes over the origin of all the different religions and how fare they have all strayed from the original message. The message that is the core of spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  16. RillyKewl

    If people want to follow their old belief systems, let 'em. Give their money to TV preachers, fine.
    Who cares? Spiritual people want to seek further + ask questions? Fine too. Good for them.
    Feel free to give up the myth? Even better.
    It's your own business.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  17. jamesbrummel

    I just realized this is the second CNN piece in recent memory on this topic, both by the religious decrying the "danger" of non church goers, with the same photo of some shirtless scraggly slob on the beach representing, I guess, the spiritual.

    Pretty biased. What's the CNN agenda here?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  18. Paris Miller

    This peace has a ring of Nit Wit Mitt's 47% arrogance. There's an excuse for STUPID but not for IGNORANCE ! This guy is a FAKE just like NIT WIT MITT 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  19. kjunrj

    This idiot author has taken something very simple and tried to make it into a thesis he can hit us all over the head with.

    If you're spiritual but not religious it simply means you have determined that spiritual truth for you is not to be found in religion. A reasonable assumption if you've looked closely at all the major religions.

    But by saying religion is not a tool for you that does not mean you have no belief in the spiritual.

    One need not choice any religion to explore ones spirituality.

    Spirituality is deeply personal but religion is communal.

    Spirituality without religion is neither lazy or empty and we all don't need religion in our lives. But if it is what you are comfortable with then by all means be religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  20. julieannedellinger

    Oh right, "Spiritual but not religious" is just another stupid idea perpetuated by our youth. Don't worry, I'm sure we will grow out of it. Must just be another "phase" we are going through.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
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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.