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. BondJamesBond

    Spirtual isn't good enough? Please, the bible was pieced together over centuries, duh...just like today, people piece together whatever religious message makes them feel good. Case in point, the old testament vs. the new testament is a testament to the fact that humans circa 80 A.D.-300 A.D. were searching for a more spiritual religion one that forgave your sins, told you you were loved unconditionally and that GOD is love...if that isn't a receipe for spiritual happiness. In fact, Jesus was the original spiritual leader...who rejected the religiousity of the Religious of the day...Mr. Miller, get thee back to history of religion classes...free at the local nunnery.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • J.damen

      times have changed and its not working anymore

      September 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  2. The Deist

    Thanks for the advice, buddy, but I will continue to reject revealed religion as the BS that it is.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  3. Matt

    America is a Christian country and will always be. In God We Trust!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • snowboarder


      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Athy

      No way. It never was and never will be. Get used to it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hindu pagan christian's do not believe in truth absolute God, they are un American.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • The Deist

      It has never been a "Christian" country. Our founding fathers were Deists and understood very well that religion is a scourge and the government needs to be separated from it. It says "In God We Trust" not "In the Christian God We Trust". Keep your fairy tales to yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • MatterOfFact

      truth here. the Puritans were thrown out of England because they were too weird, so they came to create a colony where they could be fundamentalist Christians and support a belief system where they are righteous and all else in the world are damned.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • J.damen

      But dose God trust us?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      GOD means truth absolute and hindu pagan christian do not believe in truth absolute, so hinduism, absurdity of hindism Christianity has nothing to do with GOD.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  4. Good News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    that is supported by an absolutely matchless, Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

    So it is time to be Spiritual, and yes, also rightfully Religious!



    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • snowboarder

      don't use these links. they will infect you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  5. J.damen

    there are too many religions in this world to say any one is wrong and the bottom line if you need it to make you a better person so be it ... but if more people had faith in themselves and believed this life is all we have no heaven no hell and that we only live on is through children we would have a better respect for life ,,, we waist our time worshiping religions that separate us as people and even worse than any kind of racism ... we are all people human beings and truthfully the one thing that lives and breaths and supports the billions of lives we take for granted... this planet is what we should warship ,,, not a book not a person or animal statue ect...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  6. Plato

    Stop trying to figure it out for yourself, you selfish, prattling, hipster fools! Mr. Miller has spoken! CNN has clearly brought out the A Team to fight back against the terrible plauge of human curiosity and individualism that is so rampant in our free society. Time to commit to a God, no doubt about it. No more filling my belly on free samples at the grocery store, I want the main course!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  7. Emily

    How is this rant newsworthy?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Vetiver

      Thank you Emily! I got to the end of the article and thought, "Is it a slow news day?"

      September 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  8. kelvoir

    This author is retarded. These spiritual people the author describes are just crazy hippies who he actually takes seriously. He should also take my ideals seriously. Why would I believe another human who preaches the bible, claiming it is the truth? As for me, I do not have religion for reasons, one of which I just said. I would not say I am spiritual because I am not a hippie, but instead just have faith. Faith in eternal existence and my definition of consciences and life, being god and nothing more (Science explains formation of rocks and evolution, but does not explain why chemical elements became living things. You could say, "Well, amino acids..." but you would be retarded too). I do not look into or believe in stories of humans performing real magic like Jesus or any religious text. I do not consider good morals a practice of religion, but rather an act of being a decent life form.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  9. McGuffin

    This dude presumes to tell other people what they believe and then judges them on it?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  10. Nathaniel


    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Plato

      No thinking person will be fooled by this article, but it will make devoutly religious people feel good about themselves. Which was, after all, the point to begin with.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  11. snowboarder

    questioning religous authority is a virtue.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Athy

      Outright rejecting it is even more virtuous.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  12. Random Thoughts

    Spiritual is not collective, it is a threat to the church because it stops donations if you don't go. No constructed belief, no savior.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  13. Yadira Rivera

    Waoo I was having an argument last week on this matter about not believing in god .. But yourself and doing good to others that there's no god or devil but us in believing in our selfs and bringing good energy.. And that also because of religion we are backed up in time it's like a computer or a cure for cancer or even I phone shoulda been out maybe a 100 years ago or more but because of religion weare so backed up now religion I mean all religions are illiterate and ridiculous it insults the human brain so much ...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  14. Ravi

    This guy has no clue what the spirituality means. Spirtuality starts where the religion ends. Looks like he is sponsored by some useless churches..

    September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  15. Matt

    Here is a couple of gems from Matthew 6

    "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."

    "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

    Sounds to me like God has more in common with those who aren't in organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  16. snowboarder

    the establishment always wails when they begin to lose power and defines the fallacy of the "war on christianity" in america. the true definition of privilege is when one screams pejudice when deprived of their elevated position in society.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  17. Ras

    Atheism/Non-Christian should be banned from USA

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • snowboarder

      how unamerican of you

      September 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • The Deist

      First Amendment, creeper

      September 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Hahaha

      Depending on how one genuinely defines Christian, that would mean the nation might have maybe less than 1000 people lol.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • Random Thoughts

      Amazing. Either you are a troll, or just plain "lacking intelligence"

      September 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • the truth

      You should be banned from the US..Atheist are fine.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Duke

      Bigots should be banned first.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • DC

      If you want to live in a theocracy, I'm sure the Ayatollahs would welcome your application for citizenship in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I Imagine you'll fit in nicely.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Some guy

      Christianity should be outlawed everywhere

      September 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  18. Random Thoughts

    Spiritual is a threat because it loses connection to the church coffers. No money – no savior.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  19. jefferytodd

    The irresponsible youth, if I got you right, who wish to learn how to understand and express their world by not simply buying into the doctrine that has been taught; the same doctrine that produced the pedophile priests, the corporate and government officials who have preyed on people for the sake of their greed, always using their religious beliefs as their shield and let's not forget the men who have put women down for centuries. That's they search for truth.

    This was the most ridiculous rant I have ever read. I hope that one day I am in a position such as the Battle of the Ideas to be able to speak to your absurd face in person. I do not deny your right to express yourself, but for this to be published one-sided like this is absurd.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  20. Anthony

    I grew up in a fundamentalist, bible belt sub-culture. I've spent my adult life as a minister in that same ultra-religious sub-culture. I recognize Mr. Miller's use of a tool I've seen red-faced preachers and finger-wagging elders take to anything and anyone different. They've used it on people who made different money, or listened to different music, on folks from a different part of the country, or just had a different color skin. Congratulations, Mr. Miller. You're a master with the broad brush.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Oscar

      Couldn't agree more Anthony, you are a true voice of reason and I am glad people like you are around.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 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.