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. reader

    This article is garbage. Idiots like this who just don't get it are why there are so many "spiritual" people out there in the first place– it's embarrassing to be associated with these loons that think you need to be following a set book of rules to feel spiritually connected to something.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  2. Joe

    Religion is for the ignorant, who need to be told what to do. They need to be given a book and a set of rules and told "here, believe in this and all will be OK in your world, and you'll go to heaven." Spiritual but not religious people, in general, are too smart to fall for that garbage. That's why they've rejected the church. Official evangelical doctrine, the author of course fails to consider, grew out of a movement of "spiritual" early Christians. They had no official book. They were reliant on verbal traditions. Keep in mind official scripture was formed through a committee of men to control the peasants. It's worked beautifully – up until now.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  3. Guest

    Sound like the pot calling the kettle black! Saying your spiritual makes every bit as much sense as saying your religious. Both are referencing the supernatural, for which no supportable evidence exists.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  4. TruthStandsLoveKnows

    Mr. Miller,
    Thank you for an excellent to the point article!! Thank you also for your courage knowing that people will maliciously attack you and your position. And to CNN - thank you for printing this article.
    Judging from many of the comments about your article, the words sting "the worldly enlightened" yet you have nailed falsehood to it's psuedo-foundation. The phony standards of people lying to one another in the name of "spirituality ends in failure. Failure as truth; failure as worth; failure to satisfy; failure to have real meaning; failure to stand for anything; failure for redemption based on any individual's lack; and failure to live an honest life. Understanding the magnitude of the True Living God is the beginning of wisdom. Trying to make God into some sort of human formula or spiritual side show is fallacy and leads to the ultimate failure - death without eternal freedom. To deny God and exalt human "intelligence" is not thinking and is the worst indecision. The "cafeteria-style" religion so promoted in the comments to your article may taste good going down, but will leave a bitter aftertaste. Forever.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • Joe

      Oh you're quite wrong. Every time human intelligence unlocks the secrets of the universe we use to prescribe to "god" or "magic", the church retreats. It's perfectly logical and reasonable to presume there must be no god, or presume what the church has taught us is wrong. Remember, you were the fools who believed the earth was flat and punished those who saw reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Don I

      If you haven't tried it don't knock it. Please offer your prove there is a God. A person who is spiritual doesn't worry about a God who punishes someone and sends them to a made-up Hell. People love and are tolerant of others without a God.
      Your intolerance and self-righteousness are reasons people are turning away from religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  5. someone

    What if being religious means following the forces of Darkness and being truly spiritual is following the forces of Light? What if any of the major religions are dead by now and those, who follow them follow a corpse and Light cannot be a corpse? What if non-major religions are made up by impostors, by the blind ones? If a blind follows another blind, they both fall into the pit? To be truly spiritual means to seek Enlightment – the ultimate goal of our existence. We are here not to blindly believe into something, not to have some ideas about God, about spiritual. Any ideas about God are NOT God, like ideas about an apple are not the apple! And blind beliefs are just that – just ideas in the mind. Spiritual is not ideas, spiritual is not the mind. Truly spiritual is above the mind! To be truly spiritual is to act in a spiritual way, each moment of one's life. To be truly spiritual is to be conscious, awake, present in each moment. To be truly spiritual is to be ALIVE in each moment. Those, who do not know how to be aware in each moment are not awake, are sleep-walkers and do not really LIVE. To be spiritual is to remove all the Darkness from within one's psyche through hard work which is done at each moment of one's life. Blind beliefs or ideas do not remove all the Darkness that each person has inside of them: anger, pride, greed, gluttony, laziness, sadness, lust! Only a few have found out how to be truly spiritual and of those who have found out, only a few have applied that and of those, who have applied only a few have awakened: Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha Shakyamuni etc. You can count those who have awakened on this planet using the fingers of one hand, maybe two hands. To find out the way to the true spirituality, one has to pray to God and ask to be shown the way in their dreams and in daily life. To be shown the way and to be lead in the right direction. True spirituality is like the most precious pearl, that costs all the treasures int he world. To get to the true spirituality one has to sell all the world that one has and buy that precious pearl!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • snowboarder

      what if blah blah blah

      September 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • someone

      Everything in this world has a birth(start), life and death(end). Each process, organization, person, tree, insect etc. Any religious organization is no exception. It has it's birth, then it lives and then it dies... What is different to a person or insect with regards to organizations, that even after they die on the higher levels of existence, they continue existing as walking corpses or zombies, on lower levels of existence. Following what's already dead, cannot lead someone to the Light, but only in the opposite direction. Light is Life, it's always alive and changing, renewing itself, never something stagnant and petrified.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • someone

      "What if" because someone has to be careful and carefully choose the wording not to tick off those possessed by the Darkness. "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

      September 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  6. Sara

    I believe in God and Jesus Christ our Lord. There are many things, however, I do not believe in. I do not believe that our world is only 5,000 years old, or that God wants women to submit to the will of men. There are many statements in the Bible I agree with. There are many statements in the Bible I disagree with. Therefore, I suppose that makes me spiritual, but not "religious". I believe that what's in your heart is what Jesus and God take a look at. Do I love others? Yes. Do I care for and try to help others? Yes. I don't feel that accepting a wafer at church absolves you of bad behavior... whatever. I do what I feel is right, I pray at night for my loved ones, and the world's suffering, and I try to do the right thing every day, for everyone. That's just how I feel, take it or leave it. If that makes me wrong, I guess I'll be wrong!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • snowboarder


      September 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  7. Free Thinker

    I would also add that the Christian emphasis on the value of every individual that has given rise to Western civilization has created the individual approach to religion and spirituality that the author takes issue with.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  8. Henry

    What a dummy ....naturally with the advent of the internet
    we are thousands of miles away from the religious environnement on the 50 ies .....or the 1800
    We can read about Buddhism and hour and talk to a lama an hour later via skype
    We are living in a wonderful time where you can think outside the box (churches)
    I have travel in 72 countries so far ........I love all kinds of approach to the DIVINE
    SO I AM SPIRITUAL ...and I have not ....and I do not want to be part of a church that offer me a ONE WAY .
    I do my yoga practice ...I read a lot ...I have many spiritually minded friends ....

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  9. Amanaceo

    Author has no clue. Spirituality starts where religion ends.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  10. enrique

    I hope they post my article "Fitness and exercise is a waste of time" A new idea I came up with, essentially portraying those who exercise as selfish........

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  11. Leigh

    Religion–any religion–is a collection of doctrine, and the message is often "Our way or the highway to Hell." Frankly, I find the article insulting. Because someone chooses to walk away from the ultimatums and hypocrisy of organized religion does not make them a "faith slacker." Saying someone must adhere to a religion's doctrine because, well, they should is wrong and encourages hypocrisy.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      As you as you realize that it's also BS to be "spiritual". Gods aren't real. Spirits aren't real.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  12. what1ever

    Why should you have to decide between being spiritual and being secular? This article was offensive on so many levels that I almost lost track of them all. The author almost starts with the assumption that there is one true religion and these people are drifting off from it. All religions are equally ludicrous. Why not pick the good from what you see and leave out the bad? Do you honestly think that there is something that you can get from sitting in a little white building every Sunday that you can't get from a little introspection?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      A little introspection would realize that it's BS to be 'spiritual'. Don't convince yourself that there are other people there when you're alone.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  13. ssheldonblog

    This article makes me sick and captures every reason I have a loathing for religion in general. People don't want to be in your club, get over it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  14. Tex Bravery

    Come on. Those of you describing yourselves as "spiritual but not religious" know there's no God, no spirits, and that all of that is made up. Just admit it. You have nothing to lose.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • steve

      I won't admit that because it's not true for me. Who are you to tell anyone what they do or do not believe? They may not believe as you do, but that doesn't give you the right to demonize them and tell them they do not believe in God.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      I am giving you the benefit of the doubt in assuming you understand reality: God is not real and spirits are not real.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Speak for yourself

      I disagree. I do have a God, and I do go to a mainline Protestant church. I choose to not be "defined" by the typical rhetoric of the church as it stands today. I am a Progressive Christian, and as such, I do take a bit of this and that to define myself or set myself apart from the Christian Right. I disagree with the author also. I find his opinion to be short sided and unrealistic for many of us..we are the future of Christianity, which grows and changes, like all healthy organisms do..

      September 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  15. Marie F. Sydney NSW Australia

    I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Have researched most religions and for me it's about the basic spiritual values which are the common thread in all religions once you take away ritual and ceremony. Spiritual values never change whereas relgion is subject to misinterpretation.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      What spiritual values never change? What does that mean? Prohibitions against cannibalism?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  16. Steve

    There is a more sophisticated approach to being spiritual rather than religious that the writer does not recognize. I have been a student of comparative religion for years and feel that the "experiences" of the divine reality of the mystics of various faiths are so similar and powerful as to render the dogmas of individual religions irrelevant. It is when we attach ourselves to these dogmas, which are fossilized interpretations of mystical experience, that misunderstanding and even war result.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • snowboarder

      without dogma religions are nothing.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      When people are "students of comparative religion" for years, they usually have a degree to show for it. Do you? What have you published in the journals?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  17. Henry Peter

    At last an article that seemed to highlight the trends of the day in this aspect.....this is one of the reason why I unabashedly always say out that I am religious. I am a practicing (always a work in progress) Catholic, very serious about religious truths, fond of spirituality as it embraces all and I love my Catholic Faith for it by itself is universal......vast and provides a complete balance in all aspects if one could take the time, study it and internalize it.......thanks for the article. I don't know why one can't be religious and spiritual.....in fact an authentic religious person must have a spirituality dimension. Whether that is in coherence with the faith or not is a different question.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • JJ1

      You have inhereted the delusions of your parents. Your brainwashing and indoctrination is complete. You are delusional to continue in your pedophile infested cult. You are criminal to further indoctrinate your own children into this child rape, power and money hungry cult. You are repugnant.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  18. Surazeus

    People are rejecting Christianity because the claim that one man who lived 2,000 years ago soared up into the sky as some kind of super god is completely ridiculous. Millions of us have come to realize we should focus on our own bodies and minds because we the living are the important and not some dead man named Jesus. Seriously, why do Christians worship one dead man instead of pay attention the lives and needs of billions of living people? The word spirit in Latin means breathe, so we focus on breathing and treating other people with respect. That is spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Henry Peter

      As Jesus would say, "Come and See..."

      September 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Surazeus

      As Jesus would say ... oh, he cannot say anything. Jesus is dead. Oops.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  19. jim scheid

    What is God? What am I? Spirituality is inquiry and discovery. How can one inquire and discover what is true and real if one fixates on answers and beliefs? There are well established approaches to spirituality available that have nothing to do with feeling good, instead encouraging and supporting our body/minds to open to reality, as it is. The fact that it may feel good to come into harmony with truth is not the point.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  20. snowboarder

    spirituality is the act of standing in a silent room pretending or convincing oneself of sounds that do not exist.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Tex Bravery

      I wonder why these "spiritual" people feel they need to commune with spirits or Gods to be important.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • snowboarder

      i expect it is genetic and they really have no control over the process. much like psychosis.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:31 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.