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. Matthew

    Spiritual practice (eg meditation) is sometimes referred to as esoteric religion because it is a practical, experiential process of exploring your interior, and the techniques for doing so are often found in the world's religions. But in this practice there is no myth, belief, or dogma, and as Huston Smith said, there is a transcendental unity of religions, because the mystical states induced by these practices are universal.

    So there may be an argument that some spiritual but not religious people err by trying to simply figure everything out for themselves – according to Ken Wilber for many people the soul is just the ego in drag – rather than standing on the shoulders of the giant mystics, saints and sages, most of whom say, "don't believe me because belief doesn't get you anywhere, do these experiments and use these techniques and you can find the truth that way."

    But because the esoteric core of religion is so under represented in our society, scientific materialism throws the baby out with the religious bathwater.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  2. Civilization

    Reason #2 to believe in God:
    Honest scientists call the "Big Bang" theory the Big Mess theory because it has so many problems. One of the biggest is that there just isn't enough matter in the universe to make the theory work. Thus they invented "dark matter" to make up the missing 2/3rds. But Dark Matter doesn't exist, except in the imaginations of the scientists.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • ssmote

      Actually, articles were all over the news last month about new evidence for dark matter. Time to update your attack.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Mike

      So every time a scientist has an incomplete theory, he should just say "Oh, that's just God". Clearly, you know nothing about science. If you must believe in God, then it makes more sense to feel encouraged by our advancing knowledge of the universe. Perhaps we get closer to God the more we peel back the unknown and reach closer to the truth. The more ignorant we are (which Christians and other religions try to encourage) the further we are from God.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, bullish!t, Civilization. Scientists do no such thing. Cite your source or shut you fvcking pie hole.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • TomPaine

      Which god are you suggesting?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  3. mws12345

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller."

    My thoughts exactly.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  4. 4sanity

    If spiritual means seeking a connection to the "divine' without all the baggage of control imposed by "organized" religions, then that's a good thing ! Dogma and its backers was never very friendly to independent thinkers. To put it bluntly, why do I need some else telling me what my relationship with "god" should be ? Can't he/she speak for themselves ?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  5. Religious Pedo

    Religions and Romney should pay more taxes.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Religious Pedo

      I almost forgot to mention... I'm a complete idiot, too.

      In case you couldn't figure that one out for yourselves.

      Yup. A total moron.

      That's me, folks!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  6. Baby

    To CNN : shame on your management for paying for this article.
    To My fellow spiritual but not religious ... Bravo ... We are raising our children to think for themselves. Finally, maybe we can avoid all the wars we hear about on TV, that have organized religion at their core, like our current presidential race.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  7. AROCK

    I don't understand why people like Mr. Miller insist on all forms of understanding being black and white. The last time I checked the universe is made up of shades of grey

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  8. Fisher of Men

    A religious man sits in church and thinks about fishing. A spiritual man sits in a boat – and thinks about God.

    Reverse the subject of this article to 'religious and not spiritual' and what do you get? People who follow a a man made set of traditions, rules and customs that have become their God. It blocks them from meeting the one and only true God and His son, Jesus Christ. Don't believe this? Seek him right now this very moment and see what happens. He won't disappoint you if you are sincere.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  9. Melissa

    I have to wonder how many spiritual but not religious people you have had conversations with. Those that I know have many expectations of themselves and do not simply want to experience "nice things" and "feel good".

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  10. Civilization

    Here is #1 of my 3 favorite reasons to believe in God (I am a pastor with a degree in science who teaching on the secondary level.)
    1) Other than God, science has no explanation for how life started. Even under the most exacting lab conditions, they haven't come even close to recreating life from non-biological materials.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • George Marshall

      God is not sciences explanation. Science is not amenable to the supernatural. You're preaching to the choir.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Peter

      So what happens the moment science recreates life from non-biological materials? You stop believing in God?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • monkeymcdermott

      The difference is science admits it doesn't know, religion immediately moves to magic invisible man in the sky did it territory whether that means you have to ignore other evidence entirely or not.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Reality

      I am a pastor of 20 years. I have been teaching creationism which I know is scientifically false, i decorate my church with gold and merely pray for the poor... Oh yeah, and I like to cover up crimes against the defenseless.... Yeah buddy!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  11. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    This is simply a societal transition from indoctrinated belief into Atheism. It cannot happen overnight as society will collapse into chaos (at least temporarily). So for the author to suggest either believe or don't is a dangerous concept that serves only to divide our society even further .. we need the weening period.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • ferg liston

      walking away to the light of logic and reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Mike

      That's a little presumptuous isn't it? So the ills of society and the human condition will simply melt away and atheism will usher in a golden age?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Mike .. please read again, I never said or even implied that. That chip on your shoulder is blocking your view of reason. I'm simply pointing out what seems to be the reality in what's happening. Disagree if you wish, but give us a objective and realistic alternate view.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  12. Archkat

    It used to be an accepted fact in polite company do not discuss religion or politics because the discussion very quickly becomes impolite. That has changed. Many, otherwise good people, have become empowered and now feel it is socially acceptable to berate and attack anyone of a different religion or harass them into coming to their church. The answer of "spiritual but not religious" is a go to phrase for "Please, don't attack me for not being a Christian." If there's a better way to say this then Allen Miller should let us know.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Excellent observation!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  13. Gina H

    I think you've missed the idea that those not professing to be religious, do so because of their distrust of organized religion. Blindly following a church doctrine and preacher is less desirable to me than one who takes responsibility for finding truth. Churches are run by fallable people and it is not wise to put your trust/faith in that. My husband and I consider ourselves spiritual, not religious, for these reasons. We are Christians and put our faith in the God of the Bible. That is our authority, where we find our belief system or "religion".

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • ferg liston

      but there is no god....can you still allow yourselves to be good in the absence of an invisible friend?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  14. Religious Pedo

    I am religious and a pedo.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  15. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    The only thing "dangerous" about this country's trend toward rejecting "god" and religion is that there will be less money in the offering plates to prop up the charlatans that promote such fairy tales. Boo hoo hoo!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  16. Civilization

    Just like science is an organized cooperative search for knowledge, religion is an organized, cooperative search for God.
    Just like there is pseudo science and phony science, there is pseudo and phony religions. But to throw them all out because of the failures of most is stupid.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  17. ferg liston

    there is no god so what's the point?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • TIO

      That's right: then why claim to be "spiritual" but not "religious"?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  18. visitor

    I am "spiritual" but not religious, because my spiritual experience does not fit into the box of other peoples' religions, and vise verse. If it did, my spirituality would be easier. The "feel good" people are the people who are religiously dedicated, not the other way around. I can only speculate on why this guy thinks it is easier to walk one's own path rather than join a club, and my guess is he isn't very smart.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • TIO

      u r a spiritual dead-end: it begins with you and ends with you. hope ur happy (but ur not).
      the whole point of religiosity or spirituality or both is for humans to believe that there's something beyond themselves, greater than themselves.
      unfortunately, the hard road ur going down doesn't extend a minute past ur death because it won't postdate YOU. ur kids (if you have any) will come up with their own belief system.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • visitor

      "the whole point of religiosity or spirituality or both is for humans to believe that there's something beyond themselves, greater than themselves." Well, yeah ya think? At what point did you figure that one out? And at what point did I ever say that the universe starts and ends with me?

      And my path actually IS mine. If it ends with me so be it. If it doesn't so be it. I am not so arrogant to pretend I have enough universal wisdom to understand the entire universe. I'll leave that to the dogmatics and those that are afraid of their own demises.

      And no doubt my kids will need to come up with their own spiritual systems, or lack of them. And so will YOURS. If you don't think that is the case, you are probably one of those parents who think "oh not my kid" while they sneak out of the windows at night and smoke pot.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  19. Hank1f

    Religion for those afraid of going to Hell. Spirituality for those of us who have already been there!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  20. db

    I'm religious but not spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Religious Pedo

      then you are either a fool or pedo.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Longbeachbum

      I think the author falls into the same category.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:28 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.