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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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?

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. JJ

    Religion is oppression. Being spiritual is freedom.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Religions are hinduism, corruption of truth absolute by hindu Jew's, criminal self centered, CON MEN to divide humanity.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Goose66

      "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be..." Amen, brother! The current 20-something generation thinks they have it figured out; that they are so much smarter than the billions that came before them. This is of course at each stage of their spiritual evolution as they flitter from thing to thing until they wind-up 40-something Christians, Muslims, Jews, or Atheists.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • ssmote

      @Goose66 – if you think it's whatever you want to believe or that it's something young people engage only, then you don't know what you are criticizing. Educate yourself first.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  2. pat

    I read the bible before I knew much about church at 10 to 12 years old, not saying I understood it all, but when looking into the "churches" found them practicing some other non-biblical scripture, the gospel was turned into some political chicanery and self serving manna from man, with some aspects of the original but salt of the Earth had lost it's flavor. Still go, just hope the bride of Christ repents.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  3. anonym

    look at that picture depicting spirituality. It looks so cheesy.

    Atheism never harmed anyone.

    The religion of Self and Family is the only one you need.

    Look to yourself and your family for guidance. Not a mute, imaginary being.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • pat

      Tell that to the atheist scientists building apparatus to kill large amounts of life on Earth like a plague.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Ben

      pat, so stay away from medical science altogether and ask god to prevent even the flu. See where that gets you, you stupid religious coward.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  4. menotyou

    Oh please. How about the dangers of believing in an imaginary friend in the sky who controls every aspect of your life? Humans are such stupid creatures and any "God" responsible for putting us on this earth to destroy it as we have is not one that deserves to be worshipped.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • kate

      brilliant 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • pat

      Stole taht from Carlin? Imaginary? Where does this causality stop? Just at some rocks and nuclear furnaces? Our vision of "All" is no more advanced than when the Earth was the center and no the ancients did not believe the Earth was flat this was just stories to scare would be maritime traders from horning in on trade routes. And this was not started by the Catholics, but tousands of years before and the people of the time had no microscopes or telescopes, we have both and still we fall short.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  5. Mae401

    It's amazing to me how much religious intolerance there is. If you had actually studied the spiritual not religious category of people instead of casting what it is you believe about an entire group of people, then you might have actually learned something. As one of those spiritual but not religious people I will give you a glipmse of some of my beliefs. I believe in the laws of karma and the universal laws of attraction. I will do unto others only as I wish to be treated. I lend a helping hand when I am able and accept people of all religions and walks of life as equals. I believe in the Higher Power or God, but I do not believe I need a priest to tell me what to believe or how to behave. If I act badly, with the laws of karma ensure that I will reap what I sow and I have seen it play out. I commune with the Higher Power by honoring the animals of this planet, working with nature in all her glory while still striving to be a tax paying, stand up citizen of this country. Saying that spiritual but not religious individuals don't have to work on their beliefs, themselves is a load of hooey. I have accomplished more deep soul work as a spiritual but not religious person than I ever did growing up Catholic. And now to give back, I help others as they journey down their spiritual path, never casting judgement upon them if their own beliefs happen to differ from mine. Religion tells you what to believe, spirituality makes you seek out and discover what you believe. Religion is easy. Spirituality is not for the faint of heart. Our Founding Fathers established this nation to be one of religious tolerance and they would be extremely disappointed.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Do you believe in Truth absolute and hindrance to truth absolute, hinduism.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • anonym

      You can be a spiritual cop-out, or a religious sheep.

      pick your poison.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  6. Ben

    You don't have to belong to an organized religion to understand the Biblical underpinnings for Western Culture. You just have to read the bible. Anyway, most people who belong to organized religions are no more hard core about their faith than the "pick and choose " crowd. Being Catholic does not automatically make you Thomas Aquinas. In fact, most American Catholics today probably don't even know who Aquinas was. Bottom line, the article describes a trend that is pervasive in both organized and non-organized religion. Hence, the central thesis is false. Good try though. Have a nice day.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  7. Mahendra

    In this highly complex world, Religion minus Dogmas should be The Choice.

    Whatever religion one follows, do not follow it blindly otherwise one is destined to be screwed up at some point. And killing in the name of religion should never be accepted else that's a very inhuman religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  8. Geo

    if anything ive never seen a single religious person addressing the complicated questions, if anything they ignore them entirely and let circular reasoning sort it out

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • pat

      Everything is based on the "dot," "line," and the "circle." Everything rotates on it's axis and this includes reasoning and many sciences rely on this to date things.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  9. a.ferrell

    This is garbage. Religious people can cop out too. Some religious folks use blankets statements to address issues instead of confronting the complexities of them. Assuming such things about people, as you are, is also a cop out. You can feel the sense of one's "spirituality" or "religiousness" through individual interactions. You should't just lumo people into a nebulous category and make assumptions.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  10. Josh

    I choose rather to follow Jesus' example of questioning the dogmatic authority of my time. I believe organized religion is a futile attempt to catch wind in a jar. When you do so, it's no longer wind, it's stale air. Jesus hated religion and advocated for spirituality. I do the same.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Teach it to hindu pagan christian's please. Son of blessed Mary never used word religion but Theen. consti tution.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  11. Timothy

    So then, if I understand the author correctly, it is more important to believe in the Virgin Mary, or that Joseph Smith talked to god, than it is to have no concrete religious beliefs whatsoever? Is he pimping for organized religion then? And what do beliefs have to do with anything? Is it not more important how you treat your fellow man than whether you share his beliefs? This article is more CNN rubbish.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  12. vanloren

    This is an opinion rightly shared by a very closed minded individual. Why this made it to the top news here on Cnn is beyond me.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • sandy

      I agree this article is absolute junk. Spirituality does not need a strict guide that's the whole point of not being religious. CNN needs to think before posting such a close minded, ridiculous article.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Andrew

      Agreed completely.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      Spirituality or an organized church that does not require sacrifice of it's members has nothing meaningful to offer. In being spiritual, you convince yourself that you are above or removed from the guidelines of organized churches. If one does not want to go to church, you can find all kinds of reasons not to. You simply make the choice.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • ssmote

      I think the ignorance at the core of the article is precisely why CNN published it. 163 pages of comments and counting. That's a lot of ad revenue. If they published enlightened perspectives that broke down the duality this young man Mr. Miller promotes or explored the depth of a spiritual life beyond "feeling good", you would not generate much controversy or money.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  13. Josh

    This is doctrinal garbage. No valid argument made, other than that those who don't follow a dogma are wishy-washy rather than open-minded. Not a convincing argument in any way.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And therefore perfectly fitting for a CNN religious blog article.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  14. T R Opett

    Have you ever noticed there has never been a war fought over "spiritual but not religious" values? By the way, there is no "karma sutra." I think Alan is a person with an agenda but someone who does not have much to say.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Translate word Karma Sutra please.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  15. miketofdal

    Honestly. Who asked for this guy's opinion on a question that only he asked?

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


      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  16. Patrick

    "When your body and your ego and your dreams are gone, you will know that you will last forever. Perhaps you think this is accomplished through death, but nothing is accomplished through death, because death is nothing. Everything is accomplished through life, and life is of the mind and in the mind. The body neither lives nor dies, because it cannot contain you who are life. If we share the same mind, you can overcome death because I did. Death is an attempt to resolve conflict by not deciding at all. Like any other impossible solution the ego attempts, it will not work.
    God did not make the body, because it is destructible, and therefore not of the Kingdom. The body is the symbol of what does not exist. The Holy Spirit, as always, takes what you have made and translates it into a learning device. Again as always, He reinterprets what the ego uses as argument for separation into a demonstration against it. If the mind can heal the body, but the body cannot heal the mind, then the mind must be stronger than the body. Every miracle demonstrates this." A Course in Miracles

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • P. O. Carl


      September 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  17. Juan Holanda

    The world is slowly but surley dividing into two camps: the religionists and the non-religionists. Don't those that believe in divine creatures- be it Atremis, Zeus, Jupiter, Saint Anthony, Yawveh, El, or the countless others- realize that all gods are passing cultural creations? Don't they relaize they are all just pushed into the minds of children by one or another preacher needing to collect money in order to live in the name of his god or godess? Mr. Miller: religionists ate the weak ones that need to be told by 'religious leaders' what are the names of their gods, what rites they must follow to honor them, and what is the purpose of their being. It is for the storng to find for themselves what is the meaning of existence and of being human and how to interact rightly with the world and those in it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      Each person is free to choose. Where did this freedom come from? It did not come from man, because men seek power. Now, you have to find where it came from.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  18. Ken McIntyre

    Too many flaws with organized religion. I try to be a team player with my wife and go to church with her, but I find it hard to stomach the messages. The positive thoughts, stories, lessons, I find very helpful. But always around the corner is that relentless snicker of non-Christians or who's going to Heavan and who's not. I cant stand that, and it does more harm than good to talk that way as far as Im concerned. Not to mention Christian friends of mine (intelligent people) believe that there is nothing wrong with mixing religion and politics. As long as its Christianity and politics, right? Dont need it....dont want it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  19. Geoscba

    I find this to be a bit nose-in-the-air. In comparison to the majority of the people around me (I'm currently in South Carolina), I would say I am spiritual but not religious. Although I have a strong sense of right and wrong, I read from several texts, and I make it a habit to try to send out what can loosely be considered "prayers" everyday. I don't run around all neo-hippie like and go, "hey, whatever feels good must be right, man,". Give me a break. I understand that there are people say they are spiritual as a fad, simply to have something to say, but lets not generalize. I feel quite a few major religions have a tendency to divide, but almost all of them have good ideas to take into consideration or to follow. This sounds a bit like one of those "these young whipper-snappers today..." rant.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Religions were created by hinduism, corruption of truth absolute to divid humanity by hindu criminal King's and hindu Jew's, self centered CON MEN to make humanity fight each other, please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word choice to open file.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Donna

      I agree. The writer came through many angles, but made no point. He sounds like a guy with an axe to grind but who never took the time to sharpen it.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  20. Larry

    A disappointingly shallow piece on a topic that deserves serious consideration. Instead, we get sound-bites. Can CNN post someone who actually thinks to address this topic?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262
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.