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. Non Atheist

    There is a nexus between politics and organized religion - it is a way to control people and keep them organized and manageable by those who control our world. This article is written with political motivations with the anxiety that how do they control those of free spirit who do not pay any tribute to an organization ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Jordan Graham

      It's a great control to the masses.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  2. Alfredo

    Dangers of spiritualism? Seriously? More people have died in the name if religion than anything. I'm certainly more concerned more about religious extremism of all religions especially Islam..... If this world would dump the religious nonsense and just respect one another and the earth, we'd all live a better life....

    September 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • gadgetjay

      Very well put. Here in America as I grew up as a Catholic, I would listen to the scripture and say to myself "Really?!" So I have evolved into believing that we are not humans going through a spiritual experience, we are spirits going through a human experience. Plato among other philosophers had it right. Their might be the ONE, however there is no ONE way to get there. Everyone should just learn from each other and respect either others faith's and decisions.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  3. Non Atheist

    Control freaks do not quite understand how to control those with free spirit who do not pay tributes to an organization - so they are worried and therefore such an article has been written ...

    September 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  4. Spartacus


    Here is My take,

    You have to be a Complete Wacko to believe in any religion !!!

    Religion does one and Only One thing, it celebrates mankind into groups and celebrates out differences at the very time in it's history when mankind needs to celebrate all of it's similarities!!!

    Thus Endeth The Lesson !!!

    September 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • The Wizard

      Yes, actually. Hate, prejudice, tolerance. Just a few things that religion has given us.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  5. drnight

    Ultimately, everyone has a one on one relationship with God. If you put your religion or "church" first you're missing the point. The purpose of religion should be to help you find that relationship, not get between you and God. So, many seek the relationship outside of mainstream religion with varying success. Spirituality is not just about feeling good it's about Being Good.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Spartacus


      September 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • End Religion

      I have no relationship with any god.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Athy

      Nor do I.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  6. Cipher3113

    I don't know who Alan Miller is or what kind of journalism he thinks he's practicing, but this article is a complete joke. Mr. Miller writes this piece as an op-ed without taking into consideration the opinion of the very people he bashes throughout the article.

    I am "Spritual, but not religious." You could even go so far as to call me a non-denominational Christian who has shunned all churches. Organized religion is responsible for wars, bigotry and hatred all over the world. Churches are nothing more than the mafia wearing "holy" robes. Their drive is simply to gain more money largely at the expense of mostly unquestioning believers. (The same believers who think angels are among us, and that Global Warming is a farce.)

    I don't need a church to tell me who to be, what to think, or how to feel about any subject. THAT is true spiritual freedom, and if Mr. Miller sees this as a "cop-out" for not dealing with "bigger issues", then I challenge him directly to discuss this topic further with me.

    Mr. Miller says: "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."

    My response:
    Being spiritual but not religious offers me a closer relationship with who and what I determine God and Jesus/Mohammed/Abrahim/Yahweh/Buddha/Amon-Ra etc to be. Virtually every organized religion in the world levies a statement of "believe in this religion or you'll go to hell." Yet so many of the proponents of those religions are corrupt themselves in some fashion or another.

    I have a much more positive relationship with who/what I consider as God. My God lets me question him. My God lets me follow common-sense. My God doesn't tell me who I should vote for, how I should feel on a specific topic, or that I should love all people as my family (unlike most organized religions that tell me that I should hate Gays, Islamics, Jews, etc for no other reason than "God" has deemed it so.) Most of the rules of the ten commandments are common-sense approaches to happiness and positive growth as a human being.

    Lastly, my God understands that I make mistakes, and that we all atone for our mistakes when we learn from them and help others to not follow the same path. It is the Christian bible that states "God helps them who help themselves." Is that not true?

    Finally, and most importantly, is my "real" position on the topic: The construct of the Christian/Catholic Bible is a product of the Council of Nicea (first convened in 325 AD) who determined what canonical law should be. Mr. Miller – you are still following laws made by men, NOT by God.

    God is not in Church. God is in Nature, and in the hearts of all men. It still comes down to an issue of whether we choose to hear Him. Mr. Miller, you still choose to follow religious creed based on the hypocrisy of men. Take a moment to really analyze who isn't dealing with the bigger issues, then look in the mirror.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Chad

      Your god is you.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • LM


      September 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • M A F

      Well written. God is not in church he is in nature. This is what we need to teach our children.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • mizzjohnson

      Well said - Thank you!

      September 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • gadgetjay

      Can I get an Amen. LOL. Seriously, well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Stephen Burke

      The expression "God helps those who help themselves" is not a biblical quote, it is found nowhere in the Old or New Testaments; This is a quote taken from Greek myttology, also this is found as a the "moral" from one of Aesop's fables. It is fine to have an atheistic/humanistic viewpoint if you wish, but don't betray your ignorance by misquoting the Bible.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Cipher3113

      Stephen: That wasn't ignorance. Just because I choose to be spiritual, does not mean I am ignorant on the subject. Hence why it's the ONLY part in my entire statement followed by a question seeking it's validity. Unfortunately, sarcastic tone doesn't transfer well in written word. I'm glad I could rent a moment of space in your mind though. Thank you.

      ...if I were to REALLY react to your attempt to bash, I would talk more to what I'm assuming is your level. Something akin to John 8:7: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. However, I will choose to Matthew 5:39: turn the other cheek.

      "I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ." – Questionably quoted from Mahatmas Ghandi.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  7. GodFreeNow

    Clearly this man has a very limited perspective on the word, "spiritual" when referring to this classification of people. I know many spiritual atheists who are quite disciplined and proactive in their believe. Sam Harris would fall into this category. Is the author really suggesting that he's a do-nothing spiritualist?

    Some of us recognize that it is in fact "identi.ty" that gets in the way of enlightenment. Rather than the "me obsessed" generation he is referring to, amongst my friends there is a deep practice of "letting go of me".

    Generalizations make for interesting articles, but they do little in the way of educating people to the world around them.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  9. Non Atheist

    Why do Jews pretend to be scholars on Christianity?

    September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  10. RinTucson

    Aonymous is right Mr. Miller so is Dave F. There is no need to participate in or belive in any "conventional religous vehicle". The only reason Mr. Miller espouses convetionality is because the conventioneers are making money off of it. Spirituality is endowed to you by your creator not by manmade religion. Another way to look at it is: Spirituality is organic religon is not.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  11. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    To know hinduism, corruption of truth absolute called religions please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  12. Guest

    I'm guessing you don't know the difference between being spiritual and religious. I also think you'd be surprised how many Boomers and other older age groups are spiritual, rather than religious. In my case, most of us are wanting more in our lives that religion can't offer. We're tired of the doctrine associated with religion which takes away from the true human and soul growth we're looking for. And yes, we do believe in God and Jesus, more so than what a religious man might be telling us standing behind a pulpit based on his and his religions' interpretation of the Bible. I try to live my life every day as God would have me live it...that is what every human should strive for.

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

    I welcome this article because it makes me realize how right I am in rejecting all organized religions. The person who wrote it is either trying to provoke discussion by by taking obviously false positions, or his natural reasoning has been completely drained by some cult (organized religion)

    September 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  14. GM

    This is the arrogance of organized religion and part of the reason so many are turning away from it.
    To mock a BELIEF with just as much FACTUAL PROVEN basis as what they BELIEVE, is a sign of fear.
    To quote YOUR scripture, to validate YOUR argument, and mock mine, is pure ignorance.
    Belief is in the heart. I know many religious believers, whom I feel have this belief , yet I have met many, spiritual believers with just as much.
    At the end of the day no one KNOWS the truth. Maybe whoever is in charge isn't ready to tell us.
    BELIEF and KNOWING are two different things.
    The guy in the picture meditating on the beach, KNOWS just as much as the author or any other religious leader about God.
    His BELIEF may be different that theirs but you know what? He doesn't seem to be too concerned with what they believe,at that moment. Why should they be with his?

    To the author....it's ok to be a little scared when your kids are growing up and no longer wait for Santa or the Easter Bunny... but don't worry, if they have a good SPIRIT and LOVE in their hearts....they will be just fine.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  15. Mahendra Sharma

    Great topic:
    World made so many innovations in the world, scientists and engineers accepted all kinds of challenges, but people are scare to alter rules, innovations or to add new chapter in religion. Since thousands of years we have been following same old books which were written in olden days as per that time of world. Our religion requires modernization so young generations can adopt it.
    Spiritual takes us to more self realizations, you feel like you want to just keep flying without any boundaries because your soul is involve there. Religions are man-made, trying to keep community and society together but as populations grew it is going out of control, people stated manipulating with it and those who don’t have self awareness are dragging into influences.
    I myself born in Indian Brahim Family, at young age only use to go to Hindu temples but as I grew I went many time to different Churches, few times of Mosque. Most satisfactions or inner peace I get when I am disconnected with all religions. I still let our soul fly without any boundaries that is why I have chosen spiritualism.
    It world doesn’t do enough to alter or modifications in religions then there can be mess in coming time, because world populations is growing. One person makes a small movie in southern California which disturbs other people s life in somewhere. We shouldn't be blaming any country or religion base on one stupid person opinion.
    I pray for wisdom and awareness
    Mahendra Sharma

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

    Being a spiritual person, though not religious certainly can demand rigor which ultimately matures and refines a human being. This can be equal to, less than or better than religious commitment. Hypocrisy abounds in both. I find that spiritual practices that many of our younger generation participate in hone us physically, mentally, ethically, relationally, and polish the soul. MANY people these days devote themselves over years time to yoga, meditation and spiritual studies (which can include the study of the universality of all religions). Just because there is not a hierarchical organization guiding the practice, doesn't diminish the very real learning and transformation taking place. Some wise seers predicted that we would come to an era of developing the individual soul and that it is an important evolutionary step. This is happening on a grand scale since the 60's and is equally as valuable as belonging to organized religion. Many young people view religion as myth or historically relevant. Many of these myths no longer address our current state of the world, while some ancient stories do. I wonder how much time the author has actually spent with people who have devoted themselves to spiritual practices which transform them and serve the greater world at large. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, such change is afoot and bountiful. The article feels equally as judgmental and without merit as those who criticize and cannot value people choosing to devote themselves religiously. It is not an either or, it is both. I recommend reading Karen Armstrong's incredible writings and lectures.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  17. ed

    let me guess your a christian. Let people believe what they want who put you in charge anyway? Im sure that the the catholic religion would like some more young boys to join up

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

      "You're", not "your".

      September 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  18. Mike

    Why does it matter? If it works for somebody, let it work.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  19. Esther

    If 'churchians' are alarmed that people choose to be spiritual without their tenets, they should start asking themselves why truthseekers are avoiding them. There's a lesson here, not the least being coincident with the fact that Jesus's greatest enemies were members of the established 'churches' of his day.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  20. Amazing...

    I disagree with the writer in just about all aspects. He believes one needs to conform to a prescribed religious doctrine.

    Heaven's Gate members followed Marshall Applewhite–they all bought identical track suits and took cyanide together.
    The Peoples Temple members followed Jim Jones–first to Gyana, then to committing capital murder and then they all took cyanide together. This is the source of the term "Drinking the Koolaid"
    The Manson Family members followed Charlie Manson–into a commune, into drugs, and into murder.

    We are a nation of well-educated people. In all aspects of our lives, we are expected to be independent and critical thinkers...except in religious belief. Even if it makes no sense, we are supposed to believe what we are told, to "Drink the Koolaid."

    Follow what is right for you.

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

      Amazing,,, I think you're taking a few extremes and lumping them into the whole Christian experience. We all fall short of perfection which is required to approach a holy God. That sin issue is answered by Jesus and what He did on the cross. We are told as Christians to fellowship and do and be the Church. Without it, we are left wanting and lacking the one thing that can bring true joy, peace and real purpose in life. I go to an awesome church and I've found that when you follow the Bible, you will know when those crazy kool-aid toting wackos are trying to send you on a journey you shouldn't be taking.

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

      Abbotirene, Thanks for the response. My comment was intended to encourage critical thinking. Christianity (and other religions, as well) have turned a relationship with God (or the Infinite) from a wondrous life of freedom and discovery to a life of feeling forever unworthy.

      The worship service has been made into a soul-less and desiccated process procedure. Recite this, sing a song, repeat after me...No wonder people go to sleep.

      Traditions have been added (Lent, fish on Friday, Perpetual Adoration, having to attend church every week) which have NO basis in any of Jesus' teachings or those of His apostles. However, the church has raised their importance to the same level as Scripture. Neither God nor Jesus said anything about this stuff, yet the church considers it is a sin if you don't follow the traditions.

      The early church leaders wanted power and money, and it was by putting themselves between you and God, they got it. So I think my comparison to those other groups–though extreme–was a propos and makes the point. Do your own reading, decide what you believe and what makes sense to you, and make your own decisions about your relationship with God.

      So the idea that people have to sign on to a particular dogma just rubs me the wrong way.

      Micah says it all "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?"

      Not an easy road, but at least lacking in all the distracting junk that organized religions have dumped into it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 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.