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. Patton Swift

    wow this is the stupidest thing i have read in awhile.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • kle


      September 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  2. riCk maTher

    alan miller – who are you to judge ? No i do not feel superior to anyone who follows the teachings of organized religion. i do believe in the humanity of man/woman – and that belief will equal if not surpass what you think organized religions have done. Don't tell me where i must align my faith. Many people before the youth of today have rejected your religion dogma including myself. i have an old quote i found back in the early 1970s and not sure who had written these words ... "I have given up only my religion, not my faith; you shall not endure my heaven, nor i suffer in your hell.' All you are doing is stirring the pot ... cop out you say, well i say .... fu.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  3. wizardofx

    The author obviously has been brainwashed to be close-minded in his definition of what religion needs be. The spiritual but not religious, (SBNR) movement is finally becoming a force among the masses. Sadly religion has caused more harm to mankind than any positive spirituality. Being spiritual should be at the heart of all religions, and maybe it was taught at some point in each religion, however I don't believe so. Why?... because formal religions are used (now at least) to control the masses. They are a quick set of guidelines that the leaders can use steer followers to ACT and not to FEEL. Any kind of connection with a higher source or god SHOULD be a spiritual one, not forced as some false sense of duty stemming from fear. The closest formal yet spiritual example to this connection would be Buddhism, and even with this example are rules which might be too constrictive. At the end of the day, we will all be gone- broken down to carbon dust. If there is any energy left, it will be spiritual, not religious that will continue on IMHO.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  4. BRod

    All religion is hearsay. The only faith anyone religious has, is faith in other people – not God.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, stupidity.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  5. John M S

    Young people today are just like young people of any generation – except this current one is much more filled with a false sense of self-righteousness, perhaps fueled by fellow comrades on the internet. They routinely dismiss nearly everything that went before them, thinking that they're pioneers of some new frontier,...in this case 'spiritualism'.

    Years from now, they'll still feel as empty as they do today.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  6. Journey

    "I'm spiritual but not religious." Typical American dodging the point. Sort of like the "economy is recovering...sort of."

    Vote conviction...vote Romney/Ryan 2012.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • BRod

      Only someone who believes in a religion based on ultimatums (i.e. Heaven or Hell?) would say something so asinine.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • MLB

      Great comment, great choice!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • MCR

      What point are they dodging? It sounds to me just like "I think for myself and I believe in something beyond the seen material world." I can't see any problem with folks holding this position. It's just a subcategory of what used to be called "free thinker".

      September 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  7. rubywyld

    What a foolish article. The only danger this article is worried about is people thinking and doing for themselves and not being the typical sheep they have been for centuries.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • MCR

      Exactly. You'd think to publish on a major news site you'd at least have to cite some research in support of your position. Apparently not; you can just make up whatever you want.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • David S

      I think you missed the point. He's saying the people are not thinking–they're just feeling.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  8. Dave

    This guy is fuc..ed up!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  9. Dave

    For sure! A complete cop out ....from what? ...your crazy ideas of your own god that is no bigger than your own mind ...

    September 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  10. Non Atheist

    The ignorance of Alan Miller is exposed by mentioning "Karma Sutra" in his article. There is no such spiritual or religious text.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  11. Guest

    They want to be "spiritual" without making any change in themselves. They think they are perfect already. Everyone in their school says so..... That is what they want to believe. Pitiful.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • BRod

      So because they do not subscribe to your bully god who threatens hell to unbelievers, they somehow aren't making changes within themselves. If you truly believe that, then you are the one who is pathetic.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  12. BRod

    The "important questions" he is talking about are irrelevant unless you believe in a religion that has ultimatums (i.e. Christianity, Islam)

    September 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  13. Sigi

    "There is a God and he ain't YOU!"

    September 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  14. Walter Freeman

    Mr. Miller has offered his OPINION. That's all it is. My opinion is different. And mine is as good as his. He wanted a stand – that's mine. You are free to have yours too.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  15. J.W

    I think that even in churches many people disagree with the official doctrine. Even in organized religion the relationship with the respective god(s) is personal for each believer.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  16. jesus christ

    Read any article or book by Sam Harris. Better than this nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  17. Jeffrobn

    Sounds like a right-winger if I ever heard one...

    September 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • BRod

      Yep! Taking his religion to the voting booths and having wet dreams about making all of humanity live by his religion's rules.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  18. lookbothweis

    I would like to point out to this author that worshiping your religion is not the same as worshiping your god.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  19. alscru

    Awww.The whole situation goes right over the poor author's head. The " spiritual but not religious" position is nothing more than a collective response to the daily tsunami of bigotry, corruption,criminal activity and mindless violence offered up by the world's mainstream religions, and their respective leaders.They no longer have any credibility. Simple as that. As for the Author, he just comes off as another extremist. My way or the highway sort of thing. Seems personal. Maybe his kids won't go too church.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  20. Free Thinker

    Naturally, the movement away from organized religion is due to some flaw in individulas rather than flaws in organized religion.

    Contrary to the point of the article, the generation fleeing organized religion has tested religion's answers to big questions and found them lacking. At what point in human evolution was our place in heaven offered to us but not our ape cousins? To get into heaven we must accept Jesus as our savior, but what about all of the people who lived and died before Jesus? If I dont accept Jesus as my savior I am bound for damnation; yet Hitler has surely earned damnation–the two are obviously not morally equivalent.

    "Spiritual but not religious" is indeed a cop out, as it creates flexibility enough for the possibility of higher powers without the dogmatic inflexibility of the church. However we are driven to it not by a desire to be released from responsibility but rather by a desire for answers that jibe with our increasing knowledge of our complex world. To remain relevant churches must offer intelligent answers, not insist followers remain ignorant of obvious new realities.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Free Thinker

      I went back to check the sources of the Bible which you base you presumptions that the people before Jesus had no chance to go to heaven. Upon a conscious and with very little effort I found and read that they believed if they put their faith in a coming messiah that would save them from their sins and pay their debts by sacrificing Himself. Too easy. I read a book once

      September 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Free Thinker

      The ancient Greeks have no signs of waiting for a messiah; South American religions and Native Americans have no messianic concepts that predate the time of Jesus. Those religions that believe in reincarnation have no need for Jesus.

      My point is how fair is it to the continents that had no knowledge of the events in Jerusalem in the 30s A.D. and the people who lived everywhere before that time that they are condemned to damnation by dint of not having been born at the right time or place? The inherent injustice of this does not offer anything to modern people who are aware of other times and places.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:47 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.