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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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?

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Allen

    I'm Christian at heart but liberal at mind. Often logic and feelings do not agree on matters of dogma. As an example, logically I do not agree with the Church, but as soon as I walk in and light a candle and hear a hymn, one of my eyes tear's a drop.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  2. OneOfManyWhoAren'tPartOf

    The whole idea that one is either "a true believer – including doctrine" or a non-believer is designed to include everyone in the financial aspects of the church, but very few in the policy-making aspects of the church. This drives many with fervent beliefs in God away from the church. This isn't the fault of those being driven away as would be suggested by this pathetic writer.

    My beliefs in God are as close to "Knowing" as I'll ever get, and I don't need some designed-by-committee group telling me what God is in reality, for in fact, they know no better than I do. All they can do is come to consensus on their own writings and beliefs, which is no more accurate than my sticking with what my own heart tells me. But I don't live in a spiritual vacuum. Many excelent books have been written by thoughtful men and women over the ages, and are used by people like me, sometimes in groups, to strengthen my spiritual connections. You can bet that this ariticle won't be used as a source of inspiriation of knowledge.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  3. BrokenHeartedMelody

    Look him up~he may be on the right track~he is an EX Jehovah's Witness~he has watched and listened and lamented~

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  4. Andy

    Dont confuse ONENESS with INDIVIDUALITY. In SPIRITUAL world ONENESS is being with ONE with the CREATOR. Being ONE with ETHERNITY. I would say not the RELIGION itself but the MOB that follows has done more DESTRUCTION to the humanity. A real SPIRITUAL person will never do that as SPIRITUALITY is inward journey.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  5. Greta

    This is what the "organized religion" church brings me: a whole new loving family, teaching and fellowship that keep me on the narrow path and encourage me daily, a chance to use my gifts and talents for God's glory, a place where I can help the down and out, hungry and needy (with the food and clothes closet,) a place where my children can be fed and grow in their knowledge and walk with God, a place where I know people will pray for me in time of need and loss and share in my joy and praises in the happy times. The church I belong to is all about God's word: the Bible. If you don't like church, find a church that preaches Jesus. And Jesus only. And you can only love it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • anwaw

      Those are all external rewards that can be gained through any number of organizational structures. Turn within and you will understand why religion is merely an attempt to explain the unexplainable. You may still find value in its external structures, but you will never again be able to convince yourself it speaks the ultimate truth. That, you will know at that point, is within you and all.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  6. TheTraveler

    What I've never understood is why people who don't have a faith system even care that I do. It seems to me that secular people are guilty of the very thing they accuse religious people of, interference and intolerance.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Mxh

      Secular people have no problem with you practicing your religion. It's you trying to force your religion into our daily life that bothers us (for example, making laws deciding the decisions we could make with our bodies, gutting real science from public education, telling gay people what they can and can't do with their lives, spending my taxpayer money to promote your religious causes, etc, etc).

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  7. seanizle

    This is probably the stupidest article I've ever read on here. To the author of this piece of $h!t, you do realize that the founder of one of the most controlling and bigoted religions around was a hippie who walked around in rags. He was apart of no organization and fought the establishment until they killed him. Unfortunately, lesser men misinterpreted his message and turned his words into the establishment that killed him. Jesus probably should have stopped being a spiritual man on a mission and just joined a religion so that other people could tell him how to think though right?; if you want to do that fine, but you will be forgotten.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  8. Catholics are all Pedo Supporters like all Penn State Fans

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    BAAA, you don't DECIDE anything being religious. The leader of whatever cult you belong too decides how you feel.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  9. Darren

    This article is nonsense on so many levels but I'll summarize my thoughts in one brief statement: I don't shun organized religion because I'm afraid to think - I shun organized religion BECAUSE I think.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  10. nbgb

    Well, this is an empty conversation which really only expresses many peoples dissatisfaction with the corruption of organized religion. There is and has always been some basic spiritualism toward a collective consciousness or "force" which permeates the cosmos. People have devised monotheistic beliefs along the way to serve themselves, make them feel better and increase their holdings. Wasn't it a man called Saul who was on his way to Damascus about 70 AD who had a revelation, bought a collection plate and started christianity. It grew, splintered and attracted corruption all along the way till the present killing millions of people and destroying lives of even children in the name of god. The different sects hate each other and have warred through the ages.
    This, some people have accepted and believe in. It takes a lot of faith to believe all that because it certainly defies logic. No Mr. Miller, accepting the organized religious garbage only perpetuates the rediculousness. Believing in a higher consciousness certainly shows a lot of thought by an individual. After all, even Darth Vader believed in the "FORCE"

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  11. PTDS

    I've spent many years debating atheists, – I am 'spiritual' with an extensive background in the study of religion – today's religion is more of a cliche' where many people do unspiritual things during the week and think they are absolved on weekends when they attend Church. Many people I've met 'use' religion as a tool to have power over other people, I've had the rotten end of that stick shoved in my face as well since very young, it's part of why I have an extensive background in religious study. I'd call myself a Christian – but according to Jesus and Paul – I am a jew at heart – not as a religion but as 'who I am" – Many atheists I've met and debated want no part of the corruption that has been indoctrinated in religion today – truth is you can translate the bible any way that is most convenient to you – a good heart is a good heart ...and a bad heart is a bad heart – insisting that someone convert 'love for people' and 'respect for life and others' to affiliate themselves with some sort of Cult – which IS what religion today has become – ALL OF THEM – and this coming from someone who deeply believes in God, and accepts Jesus – I do not call myself a christian because I do not wish to affiliate myself with the cliche' that religion has become – nor do I wish to partake in the "True Religion" debate that is akin to the "Mac vs PC' Debate – if you really want to honor God – "Love each other" – otherwise there isn't anyone alive tall enough to hold a book over God's head.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  12. Jason C

    I'd be interested in hearing how the author reconciles the fact that "spirituality and not religion" is the basis for 12-Step recovery, and has helped millions of people overcome alcoholism and other addiction problems. Is the author stating that the entire basis of AA and other 12-Step programs is flawed, and would function better if it were more rigidly tied to organized religion?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • John S.

      I agree 100 percent!! To me, religion is man trying to explain God, and based upon its track record, it has caused a lot of needless death and destruction. Present me with the facts and let me decide. Don't choose what to include and what to exclude for me. I challenge Miller to show his belief in God is any stronger than mine, just because he follows the dictates of men as to what God is or is not.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  13. One one


    Rule number 1 : Believe or else.

    First 3 of the 10 commandments are all about keeping the faith.

    Several passages in the NT warn that you must believe or you will burn.

    Why do you suppose that is? No belief = no power, no influence, or no livelihood for church leaders.

    Who wrote the bible and rule number 1 ? Church leaders.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  14. just an observation

    First of all, please forgive me for my mistakes with the English language as I'm still learning.

    The author of this article does not appear to understand much about the subject he is writing about. How can one put a generalization on the the spitual realm which so vast and underfined. That is very close minded. I equate the spiritual movement to the gradual progress of science which takes time discover and to verify. And I say this on an individual basis only, as no thought system fits all.
    For me: I believe there is something more than just the physical aspect of being a human being. I accept that I don't know what else is out there. I accept that I haven't quite figure it out yet. However, I find it a fascinating process to think and to discover through my observation and deep thoughts.
    Eventhough I do not have a rigidly set of rules to follow like a true follower of an organized religion, this does not make my belief system (my own system) any less meaningful than any other organized religion.
    First of all, I obey and respect all the laws set by the society. I always try to the best human service I can to other human being. So to me, I have more than fulfilled my human and civic duty.
    After that, my spritual journey is something that I find fascinating and very personal. It is something that I feel gives me a lot happiness.
    If I still haven't figured anything out by the time I leave this world, it is totally OK because I will continue to own discovery in the next state of concsiousness – if it exist. This hasn't quite describe my entire thought, but I hope it explains a little bit.
    BTW: this article is full of ignorances.
    "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."
    Says who? You, the author? How do you know that I don't have a "system" or a "set of principles" HA!!!

    "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."
    This one true shows your ignorance. **MAYBE** this was the case in the Western civilization but in the Eastern culture, it was the idea of self betterment through civil service exams and social status that pushed people to be literate, not any bible. The civil service exam began thousand of years ago in Asia in general and China in specific.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  15. DKJ

    Deism is defined well enough in Paine's "Age Of Reason". Google it; the book is free online.

    The atheists insist that the deist is on his way to atheism while the Christians insist that we are on our way to Christianity. I laugh at both groups.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  16. Gene

    Respectfully I disagree with a good portion of your article but none more so than the last sentence namely that
    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
    Organized religion (with a dogma) is what really allows people to avoid looking for answers which may make sense. Instead the lazy approach is to look to some book that "may" have been written (and re-written) in a different time and place and possibly with all kind of nefarious motivations attached to the contents. The fact that many "religious" people and organizations do good deeds (which is very much the case) does not push this dogma any closer to the "truth" – wherever that may lie.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • just an observation

      Agreed!!! I wish that I can express my thoughts in words as well as you do... 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  17. EndTheFed

    Religion is a business and lately business is good. Millions dead in the name of their deities, collapsing economies ignored, unhinged blind hatred, corruption, disease, etc. Religion is doing a great job of answering the big questions, really...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  18. Ian

    I don't thin the author can see beyond their nose. Spirituality without religion is not a cop-out. It's a state of evolution many arrive at because they believe embracing the essence and core of what Jesus taught is most important. And acknowledging that whoever God is, who gets to heaven, what's a sin or not, shrimps ok but gay is not, etc...are less important details than simply loving one another. Our human brains cannot possibly begin to comprehend what lies beyond this world...it may be Jesus, it may be Allah, maybe Buddha. We follow the core principle they ALL taught, and ignore the silly human allegiances to a specific deity. They are all paths to the same truth and same God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  19. Julie

    Rather than avoiding thinking to hard to have to decide on a religion, my avoidance of formal religion results from years of thinking, trying different churches, going back to my original Catholic faith, thinking some more, talking to many people, talking to spiritual leaders, reading extensively about different religions, and thinking some more. I am not even at the end yet – but right now I am not part of a church. I have found it very difficult to stick with a religion different than the one I grew up in, and the one I grew up in has become so political and regressive that it simply offends me. The author of this short little essay is just ignorant. My faith comes from within. I feel it is more powerful to pray in groups, and I will continue to look for a religious home, but in the meantime, I want and need to nurture and strengthen my faith in an individual way. Lots of reading and prayer can work wonders (even miracles).

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • jmo

      Julie, Take the last big step and shed the need to believe in any of that spiritual nonsense. You will feel a sense of relief like you've never felt in any prayer group. Atheism means you can finally seek truth without having to keep making it up, and you will continue to be a good person and help other people. Religious people like to claim that atheists are evil and selfish, but it's all a lie; we are probably nicer than most religious people you know.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Kim

      Thanks so much for your post. You bring up such a great point that just because you have not found a religion that you feel good about, yet, you continue to stay close the God. That way He can lead you in your search. You are not the person the author was talking about because you are thinking and seeking. I believe He will guide you throughout your life as seek to know His will. I myself was baptized Catholic and am now a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My advice to you would be that in learning about other religions talk to people who belong and truly love their church, not internet misinformation or propaganda. The pursuit of truth is definitely worthwhile.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  20. ab

    Christian churches in the US have become social clubs with weekly self improvement lessons that are heavily attended and widely ignored. The average outreach budget is around 10%. I am not sure why they qualify as charities anymore.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262
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.