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. Al

    Good article. I used to say that i was "spiritual but not religious". i believed that doing whatever felt good and feeling better and not give into religion. However i realized that clear thinking was supreme over all of my emotions. I would follow my emotions to do whatever made me fell good but came to the conclusion that i was trapped under my emotions. There was no salvation for my spirit just a longing to feel better all the time. I noticed the struggle in my friends that were spiritual but not religious as well. we knew we were spiritual but could not find salvation, only a temporary escape from feeling down.

    This is common path I am seeing in those that begin to realize their spiritual self. It is the first step to getting closer to God for those who never new him before.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  2. T-Roy

    A Spiritual person may be agnostic, but a religious person is delusional. Religion was created by man for man. Spirituality is something you feel and might deal with privately in your own head. I see someone Spiritual as less delusional as someone holding onto to Bronze age dogma taught to illiterate farmers and animal herders in Palestine who needed to know which animals to sacrifice and how to stone their daughters for going outside during the periods

    September 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  3. max_headroom

    I believe religion is a cop out for those that need to replace facts with feelings.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  4. Geo

    seriously this is one of your front page headlines? ok lets break things down to the plain and simple truth that not a single one of us knows what this whole existence thing really is or is all about and lets also step away from generalizing "spiritualists" i know many people who dont give a damn about yoga nor goto church and are immensely spiritual and those who meditate daily and practice other pseudo spiritual practices to feed their ego. frankly spiritualism is plainly and simply living in such a way that your there to help make the world a better place for all. plain and simple the only real spiritual truth i know of is the golden rule and if this article is throwing that out the window as garbage then CNN doesnt deserve anyones time of day.

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.
    Dan Gilgoff – CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor" then where is the counter argument on the front page to balance this bias out?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  5. sfe

    Could it be those who are spirtual and nor religous have realized the fallcies behind religion?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  6. Civilization

    Reason #5 to believe in God:
    Almost everyone has a sense that this life isn't all there is, that there is a spiritual world out there, that there is life after death. If this were not true, why does almost everyone have an instinct that it is true? Where did this universal instinct come from, if not God?

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

      From our outsized egos, you moron. We imagine we're so far advanced that we alone are destined for eternity.

      How stupid are you?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • MLB

      Well said

      September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • ambor

      I agree that there is more than material, but to make the leap to there being a separate God instead of a universal force, for example, has no evidence.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • visitor

      Well, from anywhere. There is a whole universe and possibly even more than that full of possibilities.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  7. deedee

    Wow – of all the things I've ever read in my life, this simply has to be the worst. Follow an organized religion or else you're self-serving? Author: grow up.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  8. jrmoehring

    "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature." – Frank Lloyd Wright

    September 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Athy

      How true!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  9. Civilization

    Reason #4 to believe in God:
    The Bible records hundreds of very specific prophesies about future events that all came true. Prophesies about Jesus were the most common with about 60 very specific prophesies about his birth, life and death given in detail hundreds of years in advance. How could this be done without there being a God.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • nodieties

      By people familiar with the prophesies taking it upon themselves to fulfill them (including Jesus) and by people making up stories after the fact to show how they've been fulfilled.

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

      Son, you can't use a section of one book whose origins and credibility are deeply suspect to "prove" the credibility of another section of the same book. Well, to be clear, it's not a book so much as a collection of texts voted upon (purging many from the list) by powerful men whose sect became the most powerful in their era. Those texts have since been reinterpreted and translated so many times by people who have changed the meaning on purpose or accident. You should be more educated on this subject.

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

      So how about listing a few of these prophesies that came true? They have to be specific, not some weasel-worded crap that can be interpreted in various ways. List a few that didn't come true, just to be fair.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • I Come in Peace

      A book can be written and tomorrow, or thousands of years later, "man" can make those things happen. Pretty simple.

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

      And don't list any prophesies that were written after they came true!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  10. zoobadger

    Yeah, being merely "spiritual" means you dodge complicated questions about which groups of people to kill because they don't believe in the same God as you.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  11. pacoder

    Sorry. You aren't allowed to control us anymore.
    Maybe if you spent more time worrying about yourself and not judging the rest of us you'd be happier.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Scott603

      well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  12. Mike

    Atheism is a bigger cop out than spirituality all day. To completely reject the essence of creation that is eternal love simply because religion is missing the point is a gross case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  13. spandyman

    About 2,000 years ago a fellow spoke to the people and said, just maybe, organized Jewish religion wasn't getting the job done. That people should have a direct and spiritual relationship with God. That seems somewhat counter to your argument.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  14. Scott603

    What a deeply offensive article. My Jewish grandfather came to this country to find religious freedom, signed up to defend it, and as an electrical engineer helped work on the space program. My other Jewish grandfather ran a camp for disadvantaged youth, he had Jewish and Christian children in it, didn't matter to him as long as he had a chance of improving their lives. But your "Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture" line, in eleven words subjugates their American citizenship and value to second class status.

    Both of my grandmothers adored the fact that in America we have Religious Freedom, and they would both fight for anyone's right to be "Spiritual but not religious."

    September 30, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  15. Mike

    "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."

    That's because there is no understanding or explanation for what, who, why or how the universe was created and whether or not we are alone or here by chance. A body of belief by definition is collective illusion. Scientific theory tells us so much, the rest we have to admit we do not know.

    These are basic fundamentals of reality – and for some reason so many people are misled and insecure in their lack of understanding that they resort to better-than-thou holy soapboxes as you did with this piece. You don't know any more about the cosmos than some hippie on a beach and for some reason this makes you feel insecure because with that basic truth your entire false faith-based reality comes crashing down.

    What good are all of the churches, the sermons, the study or the millions of followers believing the same fiction when that hippie on the beach has the same chance of being right about the one truth as you do?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  16. #1jesusFan


    'spiritual' people are just lazy hippies

    "Religious" people go out and mass-murder all those who don't believe in the SAME EXACT things that you do.Thats how it's supposed to be.DEAL WITH IT!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • yavaid

      so Religious people or not Spiritual? Mind you Christianity is not the only relegion this article addresses or does it?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  17. Prarie

    he sounds a bit bitter. it's much more interesting to not know! what a strange concept that because I don't have my decided explanation of the world, I'm selfish. I think maybe it's the opposite if anything, but the idea is way too broad.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  18. Kumar A

    What on earth is "Karma Sutra"?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Religious Pedo

      Ask your mother.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Religious Pedo

      Have you tried the Reverse-cowboy position?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Kumar A

      I did ask her and she did not know as well.

      Wait a minute! Was the author referring to "The Kama Sutra"?! 😛

      September 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • mkar

      Sutra means formula. Karma sutra refers to the principles of Karma.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  19. Albert Person

    I would have to agree wholeheartedly with Daniel D.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  20. MysticYat

    Right, because you can't possibly live a meaningful and spiritual life unless you choose to negate and vilify everyone else's belief system...... Religion – the opium of the masses.......

    September 30, 2012 at 8:24 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.