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. samdelbiaggio

    If I understand you correctly, you don't like the fact that I don't fit into a convenient box with a label? Sorry but it is a description not a movement.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Fred Derf

      It's all about you, right? You think people are concerned about what box you fit in? As if you are the center of the universe?

      You're funny.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  2. PDEngineer

    Tough questions? Why are pedos still allowed to hold dominion over children in churches? You are right, I do not have to ask myself certain tough questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Because it a holy tradition of hindu pagan Zoroaster ism, foundation of hindu Mithra sim, pagan savior ism labeled as Christianity.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  3. Hugh Mann

    "...struck at the heart of Western society..." – –

    how very poetic,,,and how very alarmist American.
    The self-important should not preach to the pitiful little people,,,we have no money to give you, and you've already taken our land and milk cow.....Please leave us the common dignity of NOT being thrown into your "flock" as if we were mere resources for your larder.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  4. Guy Watson

    I was raised in an Episcopal family. Alter boy and all the rest. Around 14 I realized there was a huge difference between what the church was preaching and what the people who attended were doing. The hypocrisy was inedible. I stopped going to church. In both undergraduate and graduate school I studied the worlds religions and history. I came to a personal decision that organized religion was the single most destructive element in the history of the world. It is hard to find a war that dose not have at it's core, a religious "driver". The current right wing of the conservative movement is the most hate filled organization I I have seen. Why would any sane person believe they needed a religion to guide their moral and ethical decisions. If you need a social group to make you feel comfortable maybe religion has a purpose but common sense suggests that believing in in fairly tales is not conducive to building a rational society.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • apotas

      You stated your argument so much more poetically than I. Bravo.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Baby

      Wow! This says it all ... Ditto on the bravo ...

      September 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  5. ourhumanevolution

    Mr Miller was probably molested as a altar boy to come out with such naive arguments for the preservation of Religion in the form of Charlatanism. Human Evolution has been at the same root-level for the past 100,000 years. The next stage is becoming more and more apparent wherein Science and Technology will assume their rightful place but it may not be for another hundred years. It takes courage for an Individual to get off his or her knees and face the Universe on its own terms. Having recourse to a sense of spirituality, however timid, is the first step.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  6. ytman

    I love how the new headline says its dangerous.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • truth seeker

      Religion has proven to be very viscous from the time of the crusades, to modern day genocides, to murders of people such as gays and abortion providers etc and everything in between. Oh and let's not get started on the pedophiles, who were allowed to continue to do their dirty deeds under the watchful eyes of the religious . I will take the dangerous lives of the spiritual over the religious any day.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  7. J Allan

    The Question is – Why do you care how otherw approach their lives, the religious/spiritual in their lives? Why can not you just focus on your own religious beliefs, checking how your life and beliefs match, how you prepare yourself of death? If anything, lead by example, not works.

    "Blessed our the humble for they shall inherit the earth."

    September 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  8. Mint

    Religion is man made, trying to explain something that can't be explained. Hence all the different religions, and they do a good job of fighting with one another too. Being spiritual and not religious is not about being undecided. It's knowing that there is a greatness that exist, but that no religion can explain it. Why not learn from everyone and make your own self more open to others, to differing views, to what's good about each and using that to make your own self better. Maybe the writer should have asked people who use the term to describe what they meant by it and not just assume it's indecision or lack of commitment.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  9. Andrew

    Is no one coming to your church, Dan? Maybe our churches should do more. I'm a lifelong Catholic, but you know what my church lacks? A community. All of my Mormon friends have events at their church every single day!

    Also, I can't help but admit that it alienates me when the Catholic Church hounds on gay marriage and abortion, like those were the main points of Jesus' message.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  10. latenite

    This hits the nail on the head. What's the difference between serving a god of one's choosing (because it feels good rather than because it's true) and serving a god of one's own making? Or between serving a god of one's own making and serving oneself?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • truth seeker

      So exactly what religion do you recommend I start following?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • ssmote

      You assume it feels good to choose a relationship with God that comes from within rather than idolotry of a book, which you assume to be true simply because others have told you to think that way.

      If you ever seek true wisdom, you will know what I mean when I say the God you will experience is not of your own making and it will not be about yourself. Quite the opposite, actually. I will keep you in my prayers, young seeker. Be well.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  11. anwaw

    This opinion piece and the far more insightful comments contradicting it has made it clearer than ever that the superior path is the spiritual-but-not-religious, not adherence to a dogma because it had some influence on a part of the world a few centuries ago.

    Obviously, this author has not evolved yet to a point where he can move beyond those structures. To even suggest that following a path where other people do your thinking for you better engages the mind in the hard questions than someone asking and seeking answers to those questions is absurd.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Pancakes

      No, you are the less-evolved person.You have just wasted centuries of progress and have chosen to go back to the caveman idea that yes, there is some higher power out there, but what is it? Religion offers the answer to that very question (God), as well as a reason as to what our purpose here on Earth is-what we are striving for (to be with God in Heaven). You spiritualists are going back to the precursor of Greek and Roman mythology: you categorize your feelings that you get at certain times to be characteristic of something spiritual, but you cannot put your finger on what exactly you believe in, so you have a different spiritual element and explanation that you believe in for every different "feeling" that you get and experience. Have fun catching up to organized religions in a few centuries, because that's where you "spiritualists" are going to be.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  12. David E Levin

    It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify belief in the dogmas of established religions, because objective reality gets in the way. This is something to be applauded, not criticized.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  13. earthgrl

    It seems that all Mr. Miller has proven is that he didn't do any research in order to reach this opinion. His comments are devoid of data from people who actually choose to use the term "spiritual" instead of religious. He made no attempt to understand how and why people made the decision to leave formalized religion. The people that I know who call themselves "spiritual" read the Bible, Qur'an, and other holy books, and actively seek to discover more by interacting with others and engaging in discussions and spiritual practices like meditation and prayer – they are not afraid to explore beyond what someone else told them. The "spiritual" people I know spend their lives living by the code of "Love one another", try to live peacefully in word and deed, and serve others in many ways. They don't just think about what is sacred on Sundays – they live it. The "spiritual" people I know do their best not to judge and understand that God is so much more than our human minds can comprehend, so there is more than one path to God and living a good life. But this is an opinion page. It's just sad when someone forms an opinion without actually making an effort to be informed and then posts it in the media. I do love transparency though, so thanks Mr. Miller, for making your lack of knowledge and narrow-minded thinking abundantly clear!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Mark in Atlanta

      Totally agree. I dislike "lazy" spirituality that accepts easy answers and resfuses to study and question them, but blindly accepting that a Catholic Bishop's demand that people who support gay marriage should be denied communion is easily as much a reliance on relative truth as reading broadly and making one's own choice. William Blake refused to belong to any denomination that that even agreed on a time and place to meet. As he has one of his poetic angles ask, why do you come to Christ's tomb? Only his clothes are here. The spirit has already fled. So it is with "religions." The spirit has already fled.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Pancakes

      Ummm....your "spiritual" friends sound remarkably similar to Catholics in the way they act. Are you sure they just don't like the label?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  14. Joel

    The people dismissing the writer on here are funny. You tear into him like lions on a gazelle because he challenges and assails your religious viewpoint. And instead of trying to refute him (because you know you can't), you simply insult him or call him ignorant. Alan Miller is no more ignorant than you Spiritual-but-not-Religious people are enlightened (hint: you're not). Christianity has millions of followers all around the world doing good things, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. But no, according to the SBNR crowd, Christianity is one of many roots of evil in the world. So it's clearly evident that the mindless loons of the SBNR movement are NOT enlightened. They refuse to admit simple truths because it harms their argument and belief system. "You dare challenge MY belief system?! How dare you evil, pretentious jerk!" I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were somehow immune to criticism. So there is no enlightenment within the SBNR movement. But you have to be extremely cautious if someone believes themselves to be enlightened. That's when you get a David Koresh or Jim Jones. And then people die.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Tyler

      This is what I imagine that crazy people think. It's awesome to see one post it.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Veritas

      Obviously christians and followers of other religions do perform good works, but so do people with no faith. The church also has plenty of baggage in the hypocrasy and violence departments. Churches are generally extremely wealthy, the catholic church has the pedophile scandal and its cover up, jesus supposedly said to care for the least fortunate – that seems a low priority for the church hierarchy (although as you say that's not true for many individuals).

      September 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • anwaw

      You have created a strawman argument. Everybody knows Christians around the world do good work to help others. What you fail to understand is that Mr. Miller is at a very early stage of development – positing a

      His very child-like essay here has been thoroughly debunked, not because of personal attacks against him, but because of the emptiness of the substance of his claims. He truly believes there are two options – worship the God interpreted through a book of his choosing or adhere to a materialistic scientific view. He is stranded in a very narrow duality and cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has experienced a higher plane where life does not exist in such dualities.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Mark in Atlanta

      Of course he can be refuted. And in many of these comments he is. You just can't see it because you assume it is not possible.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Jay

      Joel wins the prize for Most Logical Fallacies In One Post. He's also ahead on points for the Misrepresenting The Facts prize. Religion isn't the same as Christianity. The SBNR have chosen to dump religion, not belief in God. FYI: I'm atheist, so I think you're all nuts.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Thomas

      The writer understands religion, and its use, clearly and he demonstrates this by using his words in an attempt to construct many little boxes into which he 'places' every individual's belief who prefers a spiritual path to the religious. In other words he creates a very broad stereotype, far more imprecisely he uses terms, beliefs and concepts which are religiously based to define those who reject this path. The problem is he is not really speaking about 'them' he is speaking bout him ... and for myself it is quite OK that he needs religion and it is OK for those who are spiritual and who do not. Not surprising. It is equally as hard for those who feel ownership of spirituality because of the religion they practice to explain their feelings as is for those who feel spiritual because they are free from being 'owned'. It is unfortunate that the person's who practice either 'form' do not realize that both are complimentary not exclusionary and by ascribing a negative term like cop-out is not productive outside of self realization. It is difficult for some to come to the realization that spirituality, based in religion or not, is not a game of team sport and or 'pride' and is only as good as what it does for the individual.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  15. Tyler

    Sort of betrayed his own point by saying you have to choose between God or reason haha

    September 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Pancakes

      Excuse me, Tyler, but God is reason. All you so-called spiritualists are talking about a creator, and you can't see that it's God. You don't have to search anymore! The answer just hit you on the head! Yay!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  16. Josh G

    This guy has a lot of personal baggage to work out. He's obviously very angry. I think it's sad. But probably indicative of how a lot of modern christians feel about themselves and their seemingly very important religious views. Note that no one from the "spiritual but not religious" camp is posting op eds on CNN about how conservative Christians are uptight or ridiculous. Interesting. Maybe the passive agressive animosity is a Christian thing... maybe if the author was more spiritual and less religious he'd be less angry. Life is short. Don't be angry, Alan Miller. Live and let live.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  17. alex

    I lost few brain cells reading this. There is no argument in this article at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • seanjwebb

      I agree. It is a rambling stream of nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  18. Da

    I was about to go postal commenting on this pov from mr. miller, but can see anything I wanted to share has already been said as well or far better than I could say. I came away from reading this article feeling as though the story was bait to "out" those who aren't "true" believers.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  19. John D. Simpson

    Alan Miller really is saying it's his brand of Christianity that counts – and anything else, to him, is hogwash. The headline has the pretense of pitting those that are religious against those that are so-called only "spiritual", but in reality he lumps any non-Christian into the latter camp... and probably many Christians who don't agree with his approach are labeled as "spiritual" fakes to him also.

    I almost regret that CNN would even publish such a viewpoint so prominently, but then, we should be reminded that there are bigotted idiots out there, so thank you, CNN, for that much.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Pancakes

      You are absolutely wrong in your assumption. He mentions other religious works as being something to believe in and also integral parts of their respective religions which they represent, not just the Bible. However, the Bible has had the most impact on the Western World, so he chose to use that as his main example in supporting his argument. He may very well be Christian. Who knows? I, for one, choose the Bible.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Pancakes

      And with it (the Bible), Catholicism! I forgot to add that. I thought that was implied, but reading my previous comment over, I realized it wasn't clear.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  20. mr dude

    so being spiritual and deciding to not be part of an organized religion is not thinking too hard about a decision? Wow, this confirms my decision even more. Thanks for putting into your perspective.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
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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.