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. Alex

    I like how you're the prime example of "a pot calling the kettle black". Religion is the ultimate cop out on life's hardest questions and problems. I hope you sleep well at night because of it.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  2. David

    who gave this m o r o n permission to speak? CNN, YOU ACTUALLY PAY THIS GUY? Where do I sign up for a job?????

    September 30, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  3. Journey

    In my experience, and at the risk of sounding intolerant, people who bash Christianity are the same ones who read the Bible and pray when nobody is looking. They hide it under their bed at night. Sort of like that guy who HATES gay people...but secretly...

    Probably applies to 99.9% of the people on this message board.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • End Religion

      Proof Every Christian Goes to Hell by End Religion
      1) The only irredeemable sin against your Lord thy God is denying him, the Holy Spirit
      2) To deny is to refuse to admit truth of or to refuse to give that which is requested
      3) Any sin is to deny god of his commandments
      4) Therefore, even one sin results in a soul that cannot be forgiven. Sin once, and you're going to hell whether you repent or not. Since Christians are "born into sin" they're automagically damned to hell and cannot be forgiven.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • JJ

      Is that the same as when Christians bash Islam they are secretly Muslim and read the Quran when no one is looking?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  4. Anti Dogma


    Spirituality is the attempt to escape both. Compassion is its vehicle. Dogma is the skin it sheds.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  5. dylanesq@msn.com


    September 30, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  6. Brenda Alldredge

    One steeped in dogma has no business trying to interpret the believes on those who are not.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Brenda Alldredge

      ... beliefs of those who are not.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  7. Momofthree

    I believe that having a black and white view of the world, might not be the best option. I don't agree with many aspects of organized religion; while hopeful for something greater than ourselves, I choose to remain outside of religious circles. I don't believe that I need religious dogma to know how to be a good person, or that it keeps me from being a contributing member of humanity. While I do agree that it is beneficial to study the tenets and literature of world religions, if people choose, they do not have to adhere to any of them in particular to live a moral life.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  8. Physicist

    What a fool. Seeking a creative solution to meet one's spiritual needs instead of adopting an unthinking doctrine is not a cop-out. Those in old religions simply check their brains at the door and do what they're told - even if it means abusing others. Far better to follow your own god or gods and let the priests rot. While christianity may be largely responsible for today's culture, it's also largely responsible for today's cultural ills. The whole world would be so much better off if saul of Tarsus had simply let the world forget instead of conning them into accepting his modified judaism.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • CarlWstCoast

      I don't believe those of faith "check their brains at the door". In fact, science and faith are both (or should both be) in the same business, that of seeking truth. Based on the weirdness that has surfaced in our understanding of the quantum universe, my choice to have faith in a creator who goes to radical lengths to draw us close just doesn't seem so absurd. (At least not to me, but then again, that may be just me...).

      As to the statement "While Christianity may be largely responsible for today's culture, it's also largely responsible for today's cultural ills", I agree that what men have done via the church, the various corruptions that have taken place, the various "interpretations" that have transpired, have in many cases done more harm than good. That said, don't mistake the "Christian religion" with the teachings of Christ. As I commented elsewhere, I recommend reading "The Myth of a Christian Religion" by Dr. Gregory Boyd, which provides an excellent breakdown of how the church has misaligned itself with the teachings...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  9. jncaksd

    Why is this even on CNN?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  10. Snelson

    Ok this artical is a joke. But i guess thats what most opinions are. Just because someone does not choose to belong to a specific religion doesn't mean they're going to hell. We have no proof that religion will save us for and eternity of hell. There's no physical proof that it even exist. Man wrote the bible..and we have no proof that God was really talking to these said people that wrote these things but anyways im getting off topic. The point is however someone chooses to express their beliefs is their prerogative. To judge someone off of that is the true cop out. Get an open mind and get out of the corrupt world of religion there is not right or wrong religion there's only good and evil in this world. So live your life to the best of its ability and do your best to be good thats all anyone can do. and keep in mind the MOST CORRUPT INDIVIDUALS ARE USUALLY THE RELIGIOUS ONES. Get your head out of your butt..mkay..thanks =)

    September 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  11. WeWereOnTheMoon

    Religion is for those who refuse to take responsebility of being fully conscious human, also religion takes away the stress which can happen due to random events in nature. It's the 21st century and finally people are ready to be as spiritual as they want without someone dictating how to do it.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  12. Deborah Bohne

    I'm not religious anymore either. I'm 53 and I grew up in a Baptist Church and went to a "baptist" private school. I guess I realized that I could not sit in services where there was only one way to God. Now that I'm older I can't even be sure there is a God. Religion scares me. People will end up killing each other over their profound faith, Christian vs Muslim vs. Judaism vs whatever else, but those are the three that's frightening. According to prophecy most of us are utterly doomed. I don't know that I'm spiritual either, but I wish I were, I wished I had the faith I had ten years ago, but I don't. Chances are I may go to hell. I do believe in treating others as you would want to be treated. I believe in helping others when they need help. I believe in the goodness of the human spirit. I take a stand against religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Deborah Bohne

      P.S. I don't hold anything against anyone who wants to practice "religion."

      September 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • I_get_it

      Yay, Deborah! Good post.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • JJ

      "Chances are I may go to hell.". No...you won't go to hell. That's just your intense indoctrination into the Christian cult, and Baptist brand, that that fear comes back up from. You're fine. It is all bullshit and you intellectually know it.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • End Religion

      Congrats! 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  13. Jeremy

    Who are you to judge what makes others happy, especially when a happy person rarely harms his fellow man? In contrast, how many lives have been taken in the name of religion?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  14. Enthusios

    This is the kind of drivel I would expect from a xenophobic self righteous unimaginative person. I am surpised CNN would waste space on it. To think that in order to have a relationship with God you need religious doctrine or worst, meaningless rituals to have that spiritual connection is insulting. Tell me something Mr. Miller, what religion is God? To think that the God that any of us CHOOSE to believe in would condemn anyone for not believing in a particular religion is putting the Amighty in a manmade box. How dare you be so pompous and arrogant! The God of my understanding condenms no one who seeks Him and in fact embraces EVERYONE, even the small minded like yourself!

    September 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  15. Mitch

    I could, very easily leave a detailed and quite eloquent response, but I figured I would lower my response down to that of the authors.

    Hurp Durp, god and stuff, hurp

    That's about the same amount of valid content, right?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • jkflipflop

      Glass houses and throwing stones and all that.

      If the church wants my respect, they have to stop harboring pedophiles. Until then, every church on Earth can burn to the ground for all I care.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  16. priscilla taylor

    You are all right -this is definitely a looney article when viewed from the perspective of those who are anti-religion, but oh so spiritual. Belonging to any organization, whether secular or religious, implies adherence to a set of rules, goals, beliefs. As most of us who teach young people have discovered, every year our students are less and less knowledgeable as they move from knowing anything to the "feeling" of something. Check out what our founding fathers said about democracy; check out the events of world history. You might be surprised to find that there is social and political chaos and implosion of entire civilizations when its members begin to loose self-discipline and vear out into a desert of thought rather than study the enormous amount of knowledge that man's existence has discovered. It takes a lot more guts to sift through the "organization" than to walk away to one's own drummer.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • travisbicklehenrykrinkle

      You say, "check out what the Founding Fathers said?"

      Do you mean the people who thought slavery was a good idea? (It is sanctioned in the Bible.)
      Do you mean the people who thought the genocide of the Native Americans was acceptable?
      Do you mean the people who tried to eradicate the majestic buffalo from the planet?

      Personally, I am not impressed with their religious piety.
      Personally, I am more ashamed than proud of how this country came to be.
      Personally, I DO think that individual happiness has more merit than all the mountains of Dogma combined.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Alice Bowie

      "As most of us who teach young people "

      loose ? vear ?

      I hope you don't teach English, writing skills, or spelling .

      September 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  17. steven

    i am 'spiritual – but not particularly religious'. and, i imagine that i have done more spiritual practice – that is – ways for coming into alignment with spirit than most 'religion' followers. decades more. and – what is not mentioned in the article is the very old traditional practices of direct relationship with god – or whatever you wish to call it. this has been around long before organized religions and offers a direct experience and relationship rather than something mediated and interpreted through the lens and whims of a particular religious dogma.

    while there may be – and certainly are – similar experienced 'truths' in religious and spiritual practice, and these are certainly in alignment – real, authentic, dedicated spiritual practice is direct and experiential and can provide a profound path toward awakening.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  18. Marilynn Bachorik

    The author already asked the only pertinent question–so what? People can believe whatever they want, and so what if it's not affiliated with an identified religion? Much ado, and many words, about nothing.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  19. loveunlimd

    Reblogged this on LOVEISUNLIMD.COM.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  20. nigel6

    Ah, the false dichotomy, one of the favorite rhetorical devices of great thinkers like George W. Bush ("you're either with us or against us").

    The author clearly feels that if you are not some sort of mainstream Christian, you have nothing to offer western civilization.

    Along with nearly ever other assertion in the piece, this is clearly ridiculous. Here is a counter example that will debunk this article in one fell swoop: Einstein was spiritual but not religious. End of story.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:13 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.