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. t3chsupport

    It's pretty cool how this guy took an article from 2010, from that guy who usually writes for the religion blog here, complete with the picture, the quotes, and everything else, but simply puts a personal opinion spin on the EXACT SAME ARTICLE. Isn't plagiarism a form of theft? Isn't theft somewhat looked down upon?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • jumanji777

      Yep, recycled nonsense, http://edition.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/personal/06/03/spiritual.but.not.religious/index.html

      September 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • jumanji777

      Pavlovian nonsense, this is a regurgitated piece of **** from 2010

      October 1, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  2. Dave

    If one believes there is a "higher being, " then one does not get to define Him. He either is, or He isn't. And if He is, He is, and we don't get to shape Him the way we think He should be. If He does exist, He created us, not the other way around.

    If one chooses not to believe in a "higher being," that is one thing. But "creating your own 'higher being'" is a bigger crock than anything you guys think that this author is saying.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  3. AGrey

    Who gave this guy the right to decide whether something so personal as spiritual beliefs are a cop out for someone other than himself? I'll be as spiritual as I damn well please without being religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  4. southernwonder

    america cherry picks the best from all that's available. why crib about that?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  5. andre j

    You need to chill You are kind of freaking me out. LOL
    Seriously, it's none of your business.
    If going to church makes you happy, then go more often cuz you seem kinda bummed.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  6. Jeff

    This article is a crock of sh it... I believe in God but I do not conform to any organized religion because they are all made up by man in an attempt to manipulate and control other men. It allows me to create my own beliefs based on the experiences I have had throughout my life not based on something that happened thousands of years ago. This guy has to get a clue and has no reason to lash out... Not very christian of him...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  7. Vik

    This is poorly analysed article where writer seems to think religious doctrine is end of all. He is implying that one should simply adopt religion rather exploring the genesis of life. This means you have reached the END and there's no need for you to explore more. One needs to be a seeker than a believer. We evolve everyday, science evolves everyday, a new discover everyday – being spiritual means you are always seeking and that's how the life should be.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  8. Matt E.

    I am surprised that the author is so naive about the subject of spiritualism. It seems to me the author, who is obviously Christian is more concerned about how spiritualism is pulling people away from his religion not about some half baked ideas that people who choose spiritualism are somehow non-committal.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  9. Kevin Timms

    Good BS linkbait article, CNN. Mr. Miller can go back to counting angles on pinheads now. Leave it to a person of so-called organized "Faith" to make sweeping proclamations about what is right and wrong for millions (billions?) of others. Exactly the kind of thinking that has driven millions of us away from organized religion and into the camp of accepting the reality of the numinous without alignment to an organized group.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  10. J

    When I hear a person say, "I'm spiritual but not religious," all I hear is: "I'm stupid but not mentally disabled."

    September 30, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • MLB

      2 thumbs up.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Freefall

      Couldn't disagree more. There is no connection between spirituality (not that most people even know what it is) and religious affiliation. That being said, I hope you understand that the pix at the start of this article is not representative of spirituality. Spirituality is not for the visual benefit of others.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  11. Mark

    The old religions have failed and do not fit the new reality. No more will people be satisfied with angry Gods peaking through holes in the sky demanding blood sacrifice or the demands of money and repentance to avoid an unproven fate after death.
    Books rewritten by lonely old men in drafty stone rooms to the delight of the bishops of the day and penned in the name of God are not infallible. Who wants to spend their hard earned money to keep pedophiles dressed in robes the color of blood or mutilate their children per the advise of bronze age traditions. When vampires and the walking dead share equal validity in the minds of people to the stories of the resurrection and miracles what can be done to avoid the churches from emptying and people from searching for their own truths. The time is ripe for a new religion to be created but it can not be based upon the lies and incendiary remarks of politicians, priests, or journalists. It will need to be based on Love.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  12. dave

    Is there such thing as religous but not spiritual?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Mark

      I think it's quite common. There are many names for it but it entails people feeling that they need to go to a big building once a week and mumble some words so that they can be absolved for hitting their wives, cheating in their businesses, or worse.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  13. Joe

    The writer of this article should quit their job and reconsider who he is before trying to make it seem like there are problems where none exist. This is the worst one sided point of view article I have ever read to which resembles nothing but a negative notion for those who are peaceful and open minded to respect their surroundings. It is true that it is the people like the one who wrote this article who make others decide to call themselves spiritual and not religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  14. Michael

    I'm glad that this article has received such a resoundingly negative response. It gives me faith in humanity.

    "The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion, and this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me. . ." – Thomas Jefferson

    The author of this article is the kind of person that Jefferson was writing about... the entire article is lashing out at those who refuse to be brainwashed by the clergy. Miller and his ilk know that their influence is just a shadow of what it once was, and that they lose more with each passing day. It terrifies them, which is why they're desperately trying new tactics, such as portraying people who lack a religion as thoughtless and irresponsible. Unfortunately for them, the very people they attack are the ones who have already seen through their game, so they're not going to fall for it.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  15. loveunlimd

    Reblogged this on "FEAR NOT" YOU ARE NOT ALONE and commented:

    September 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  16. Michael

    This premise is based on a very narrow definition of spiritual. To me, spiritual but not religious means that we realize that we are all in the same boat, and feel connected to each other, but don't necessarily accept bizarre belief systems, of which there are hundreds. Deities, angels, prophets, ghosts, demons- how about staying in reality.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  17. gager

    Why is this ridiculous article still posted?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • JT

      Because CNN is going for a record on how many comments they can solicit from a single story.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • End Religion

      Because you keep registering page views.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Peter

      Agreed. This article is really short-sighted. But hey, what do I know? I'm just one of those "fence-sitters."

      September 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  18. ekapurusha

    See some of the videos at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL93937B0E9DA696A4 and your confusions will be cleared.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • End Religion

      how could more religious fraud clear anything up? How does yet one more nut claiming his religion as the true one, clear anything up? You are not helping mankind, you are hurting it.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  19. jcmusix

    I can't fathom why CNN is allowing this nutjob author to spew his venom toward people who believe in the spiritual self. Miller must be totally de-sensitized and detached from logic and emotions due to all the religious brainwashing he has had. The irony is that Miller makes a pretty good case for why organized religion is bad for a persons spiritual health!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  20. Lee

    This article is a journalistic cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:54 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.