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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • jola

      Prayer maybe. Not religion at least not for the good.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Chuck

      Prayer changes nothing. Getting up off your knees and doing something changes things.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Amazing...

      Chuck, I think prayer can help, but prayers like "God, please fix my lawnmower" are likely to be ignored. Or if you pray that your teeth don't fall out, but you never brush them...well, you can't expect God to take care of it if you aren't doing your part.

      But pray for wisdom in dealing with difficulty, or pray for a clear head in an emergency, or pray to be understanding when you are just about out of patience–these are worthy prayers and might be answered. Or they might be the equivalent of counting to ten. Depends on what you believe in...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  2. Brad

    Aw, common case of religious ignorance. This is no 'New Age trend'. Spirituality has been around since Buddha and earlier. Even Jesus was a spiritual but not religious figure. It's all about finding the truth for yourself, which takes a lot of searching. There is no 'not-knowingness' about it. You know, therefore you are at peace. Sad to see people judging others spiritual lives through the perspective of their religious dogmas

    September 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Non Atheist

    To know the truth we have to give up our prejudices and conditioning. Moreover, the spiritual truth is not established by majority as is the case in a democracy .... an organization may be helpful to the degree it wishes to serve the spiritual truth - however, the truth is still the truth even if you are a minority of one - you do not need a validation from majority or an organization.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  4. Steven james

    Did you grow up in a madraass in Pakistan?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  5. jola

    So as someone who Miller defines as a person who believes "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be" whose religion should I start to follow? Whose interpretation of the bible should I believe or should I follow the Quran, or maybe I should be Buddhist or Jewish or..... Considering many religions feel that I am doomed if I don't follow theirs then I should probably follow them all. Come Miller when you choose a specific religion you also decide the "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be".

    September 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Siara Delyn

      Truth is not whatever you feel it to be. It is whatever HE feels it to be.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  6. charles_darwin

    This is a bogus article to see how many people read it.
    Surely no one can be so ignorant to post crap like this and be serious about it.
    Sounds about right for CNN which is going to the dogs to post garbage like this.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  7. Siara Delyn

    summary of article: You should believe what I believe. I know that what I believe is true because I believe in it. If you disagree with me, you're wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Michael

      But don't you see that your saying the exact same thing with your comment? The second you criticize the article...your saying that your RIGHT and he's WRONG. How's what your saying any different?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • jola

      That is not how I interpreted it Michael. I don't see her telling others what to believe. She is just saying don't tell me what to believe. Read it again.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Siara Delyn

      That's absurd Michael. One act offenses on individual freedom and the other defends it. You should be able to see the difference.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Dippy

      Michael, it's "you're", not "your".

      September 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • truth seeker

      Let's work on Michael's logic first, then we can worry about things like spelling and grammar.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Amazing...


      And that is precisely what is wrong with taking a dogmatic religious view. I have no doubt that the author cannot even understand your point because his view is so entrenched. Religion is just another way to define yourself as being part of a tribe.
      True, it is a rabidly self-centered and unthinking tribe, but still...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  8. McDuck Quackerton

    Poor butt hurt moron. I hope he dies.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  9. gekaap

    Alan Miller, you are detestable, ego-centric, small minded hollow shell of a bigot. Clearly, you don't understand at all what it means to be spiritual as opposed to religious. So let me fill you in. Being spiritual is about what you do on the inside. Your true thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. Being religious is about what you do on the outside, that other people see and can observe. Anyone can follow the rules of a given sect, wear certain jewelry, donate money to their church, make whatever statements, etc, and can convince the world that they are a "good" or pious person, even if their true motivations are pure evil. On the other hand, a spiritual person has a true communion with the Divine at the core and essence of their being.

    You claim that "spiritual but not religious" is unable to provide the chance to understand or explain beliefs or practices. But the truth is that being spiritual as opposed to religious is exactly what you claim it lacks. It's what happens when a person indeed does understand those beliefs and practices, and establishes a way of life where their day to day behaviors and practices truly embody beliefs. It's the difference between imitating God and being truly close with God. In short, the religious person does while the spiritual person lives.

    Mr. Miller, it seems to me that you're only slightly veiled hostility toward those who are "spiritual but not religious" is the fact that it's an evolved position that you're not capable of acquiring. Instead of being able to achieve a true communion with your god based on the true nature of your character and essence, you are left with noting more than to commit outwardly acts that others can observe and pat you on the back over. You can't find it in yourself, and you jealously begrudge those who can find it in their own selves. Which is only fitting, because your inability to actually understand and live the teachings of religion in your tirade here very much reflects a failure to heed the message Jesus gave us in Matthew chapter 6. Don't do righteousness in front of others. Don't let anyone know when you've given to the needy. Don't go into church, or stand on the street corner, or publish an article on CNN.com demonstrating your "faith." Because people who do (like yourself) shall have only rewards of the earth, but none of Heaven for doing so.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Lisa

      This was right on, thank you for writing it!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • jola


      September 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Cipher3113

      Bravo. Well put.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • liljohn

      Best. Response. Ever.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • abbottirene

      Who is the one with "slightly veiled hostility"?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  10. shrinktofit

    "i swear there ain't no heaven and i pray there ain't no hell" - "And When I Die" by Blood, Sweat & Tears

    September 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • jopar

      Laura Nyro's words, but true, just the same.
      This article assumes one cannot form a meaningful life ethic without some religion, how ridiculous.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  11. Nick

    Isnt choosing a religion a cop out? That your so afraid of the unanswered that you look towards a book that has no factual reasons why it even exist just here say to control the masses.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      book is hinduism, absurdity of hindu santans, filthy goons sunk in their hindu Judaism, self center ism, CON ISM to make humanity their gentile, slaves by hinduism, corruption of truth absolute. please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  12. David

    perhaps religion is the cop out with its dogmatic and myopic view....... whatever church that this jerk attends I will be sure avoid it should I be foolish enough TO attend....... religion is for the weak minded......... it is easier to memorize scripture than have creative imagination and thought....

    September 30, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  13. Non Atheist

    Alan seems to be writing on behalf of tradition religion control freaks ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  14. Sam

    What a ridiculous article .... This guy needs to get out of his cave and do some more exploring before writing this ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  15. AvdBerg

    The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

    There is a natural body and a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44).

    The above article by Alan Miller is misleading as he himself is spiritually blind and his article is a good example how distorted things have become in society with the media as the main culprit. For a better understanding we invite you to read the article ‘The Natural Body vs the Spiritual Body’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    His reference and use of the word ‘Christianity’ is also very misleading as so-called Christians are followers of an image of a false god and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8). Please read the article ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?’ listed on our website.

    Why is there so much division amongst the religions of this world? Please read on.

    It is articles like the one above and that are so readily displayed by CNN that is the cause of so much hatred and division. Just take a minute and reflect on some of the entries on this Blog and the hatred and immorality that are being conveyed.
    The local media, including CNN, Fox and your local TV stations and newspapers are a very important element of social and political behavior, as society is shaped by what it sees, hears and reads and it is conditioned by the events that influence the mind of every person. You reap what you sow.

    To allow anyone to be directed by public opinion is dangerous because most public opinion is the view of the media. If the media does not like something, their bias taints information getting to the public, and this forms public opinion. Public opinion is never based on research and facts. The public uses the media for its sole source of information and for this reason social behavior will continue to deteriorate and wax worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13).

    For a better understanding of the role of the media we invite you to read the articles ‘Influence of the Media’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    The media does not provide accurate information on ‘Religion’ as it continues to ignore the truth and the history of deceptions (John 14:17). They only report how they want you to hear things. They have created the big chasm that now exists without offering any solutions.

    Consider the truth about Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, Evangelicals and Christianity and all other religions and ask yourself the following question.

    Are so-called Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Israelites and Evangelicals and all those that call themselves ‘Christians’ followers of the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God, or do they follow after an image of a false god and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8)?

    For a better understanding of the history of Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, Christianity, and Judaism and its spread throughout the world, we invite you to read the articles ‘The Mystery Babylon’, ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?’, ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’ and ‘Clash of Civilizations’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    The media also makes references to religion as it relates to political issues without any understanding. For example: Mitt Romney’s and Barack Obama’s faith does not stand in the teachings of Christ but rather in an image of the spirit and the god of this world and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8).

    For a better understanding of the history of the Mormon Church and Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency of the USA, we invite you to read the articles ‘Mormon Church – Cult and Spiritual Harlot’ and ‘Barack Obama – President of the United States of America’, listed on our website.

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man (1 Cor 2:15).

    Seek, and ye shall find (Matthew 7:7).

    September 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity from book of hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism labeled Christianity to hind, fool humanity. hinduism, corruption of truth absolute.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Clayton William Davis

      Golly, it would help me a great deal if you could state your point in one or two succinct sentences.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Bill

      For a better understanding of the truth, seek to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,the savior; read the Bible and pray to God for discernment.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Athy

      That leads to a better understanding of the truth? Wow, are you ever biblewashed.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  16. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    Spirit means truth and religions are hinduism, corruption of truth absolute, no wonder young generation is not inclined to join religions. To learn truth about hinduism, religions and spirit truth please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  17. Non Atheist

    Who paid this guy to write this article? I wonder ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  18. David

    Just never thought that God, Buddha, the Tao, or whatever name one chooses, needed a middleman or bureaucracy.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  19. Clayton William Davis

    All "religions" are supersticious cults, the stubborn vestiges of cavemen.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • End Religion

      Similar to the appendix, religion is useless to humans. Hopefully one day, like the appendix, we'll forget what it was even there for.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Kat

      I hope for your sake Deity is different than your appendix analogy... as always, science knows what it's for now.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Ben Jamon

      Amen! Well Said.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  20. Fredsta

    The author offers a whole lot of pompous disparagement for a category of beliefs he does not understand—independent thought. We ALL believe differently, however slightly.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:25 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.