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. karina

    what does the writer know about being spiritual but not religious? He's just an opinionated as*. You can keep your organized religion that is about nothing more than power grabbing and control of the masses and I will keep my God.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  2. karina

    what does the write know about being spiritual but not religious? He's just an opinionated as*. You can keep your organized religion that is about nothing more than power grabbing and control of the masses and I will keep my God.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  3. Barbara

    I agree that he's just setting up straw men–what a piece of piffle. An equally vapid argument is the one that assumes anyone who is an adherent to a specific religion is just afraid to think for him or herself and so gloms onto a ready-made structure. Those who make either of these arguments deserve each other, and can yell "I'm right, you're wrong" across the fence at each other for their own edification–just leave the rest of us alone.

    In any case, most "spiritual, not religious" people I know are very well versed in both the OT and NT as well as being aware of the main tenants of all the main world religions. Such knowledge informs one's understanding of culture, art, history, and current political tensions throughout the world. Dollars to doughnuts this guy isn't nearly so cultured–certainly doesn't seems capable of complex thought.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  4. snp

    um... so learning about multiple religious ideals and word moral principles and wanting inner peace and happiness cannot transform somebody or a society because it lacks positive messages in the form of dictated rules and structure written the way he prefers? WOW. he is an example of why "I;m religious" has failed humanity

    September 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  5. Me

    Hmmm... The author owns a salon, a brewery, and is an 'expert' on Christianity.... jack of many trades.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Jim

      Wrong type of Salon. A Salon is a gathering of people...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • karina

      and master of..NONE

      September 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  6. Warren

    A flipping judgmental ass.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  7. Noah Z

    I spent the first 18 years of my life in church and came to the conclusion that the churches orthodox principles are ones passed down by a long time forgotten group who told people how to read the bible and how to interrupt what is says. But I think that the interruptions they have were made in a day and time when there was little to no way to explain the way the world worked. And those who tried were killed for it. To me moral obligations are not something you can just learn from sitting in a large room once a week being told your going to be damned if you don't do things their way. It comes from looking at your self and the people around and learning to accept them regardless of their thoughts to how the world works. The things that I now teach my children are not about fearing a wrathful figure sitting in the sky just waiting for someone to screw up. I teach them how to think for themselves, respect people, honor their word, and work hard. I choose to be spiritual because I don't believe in hell, I don't believe that there is any difference between me and any other human on this planet except theologies that have become a tool to divide us instead of bring us closer together.

    This mans post is no different from the hatred spewed towards any other religion. Do you think this would have been posted if he had been talking about how wrong all of the Jewish people are because they don't live by the same ideology? Would this have been posted if it was directed at Muslims? It's time we accept there will always be people who will think differently then you. I hope that one day you can forget your hatred and move on to something that would fill your mind with something bright and not dark.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  8. snowboarder

    one thing can not be disputed, with the innumerable deities, religions and doctrines today and throughout history, man is very adept at creating god.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  9. Plato

    I think the hipster in the picture is actually rubbing sunscreen on his face, not praying. Also, nice crop job,

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  10. Liz the First

    "Religious" is about power, mind control, and money. "spiritual" is about finding your true relationship with deity, however it presents itself to you. who is to say that my perception of God is wrong and yours is right. God/dess gives each of us the image that we can relate to. we don't need some huge organization tell us this is how you must view and relate to God.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  11. dragonheart

    Oh thats nice... CNN will post/highlight a ridiculous article which pushes for more separation.... wait a minute... that's called freedom of speech.. my bad... for a second I thought it was the lack social responsibility....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  12. leszrob

    Make a choice on what ?............. the author writes..........." Take a stand, I say. Which one is it?"

    Which one is it?.....................how many religions are there that have their own ..........absolute .........definition of right or wrong...........divine and profane..............?

    The mere fact that there are so many choices in the world as to which religion is a 'choice' is evidence that being spiritual to ones own self is enough to be connected to a universal spirit.

    The question as posed,......."make a choice" .......... is naive and does not take into account that there are numerous doctrines, all spiritual in their own way , that have been adopted by society to address this question.

    Choosing ones own self spiritualism is just one of the many ways simple, spiritual people can connect to the larger realm.

    Some of us don't need others to dictate 'how' we must connect to a greater spirit...........we simply do.

    And for anyone to pose this question is for him to be in judge of others that have attained peace in spirit, not according to the author of this 'outdated' article.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • lucianne

      "Spiritual but not religious" for me reflects my revulsion with the "Christianity" of today, which seems preoccupied with judging, hating, condemning anyone who does not share the absolutist beliefs of the fanatical evangelicals. This is not the message of the bible. Would you prefer that we call ourselves Jeffersonian deists? Or modeled ourselves after Franklin and his belief in reincarnation?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      please visit limitisthetth.com and click on word choice to open file to find truth about truth absolute

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  13. TMG

    "Imagine no religion,too." + or – 98% of all wars ever fought had to do with religion. Aren't we are seeing that today? Jesus wasn't telling the masses to get involved with a religion, he was telling them how to be connected to God. Take a good look at religions, they are like dictatorships, they all have to do with fear. "Let's instill fear into people and they will follow us." Every person on Earth has his/her own way of being connected to God and they should be left to their own particular path. Religions, especially our Western ones, seem to think their way is the only way. As your way is the best path to God for you, mine is being connected without the middle man. Isn't it funny when you tell someone you are spiritual, you can see the blood starting to boil up in them because you are not on their own path. Mine is great for me.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  14. Pam

    He should address why organized religion has failed humanity. This sermon is a statement of he outcome of the failure. I'm sure it went over well when he was preaching to the choir, but falls flat with a wider audience.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  15. Craig Holm

    Being and feeling spiritual is a normal and natural human experience.
    Being religious is a learned aberration which has historically required all manner of justification to include destroying individuals' sense of self worth, to waging war and genocide, and ultimately the assignment of eternal damnation to the disobedient.

    By the way, God has no need of a religion, but those who seek to represent Him do.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  16. Chelsea

    Mr Miller's frequent use of sarcastic, negative and disrespectful words immediately lets me know that he is quite clueless as to what "spirituality" actually is. He obviously is fearful of such a movement that is not restrained by dogma. He obviously has a need to tell us all what we should believe in. He needs others to agree with him. That would give him comfort. If you believe otherwise, you are wrong. The funny part is, that kind of judgement is what drove me out of the Catholic church and right into the doors of Unitarian Universalism. Mr Miller would NOT like the Unitarians either. We have no creed. So, yeah, I am spiritual but not religious person who is 57. But I don't do yoga.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  17. squints

    Funny how they call it the greatest "story" ever told. Exactly.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  18. Erin

    Who is anyone to determine whether someone is or isn't a god beleiver because they are spiritual. Standing in church doesn't make me religous or a god beleiver just like standing in a garage does not make me a car. To each their own. My morals are not based on a Sunday morning trip to church.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  19. vesselanaw

    I was in agreement with the article's observation until the last paragraph, which set up a false dichotomy between belief in God and scripture, and knowledge and action and responsibility. A believer in God and the Bible seeks and values knowledge, but with a different focus, one more on God, meaning, morality, truth, rather than trying to manipulate or quantify the created physical elements so much. however a believer in God is instructed to be in the world and not of it, this means to use knowledge and intelligence, which is God given in origin, but for peoples benefit and not their harm. Often an exclusively naturalist world view can lead to ignorant and unintended eventual harms and consequences, a meddling with nature and dna which can have harmful consequences. Also ones action, behaviour and consequences are of integral importance to a believer in God, trying to set up a Bible believer as a non thinking person who sees no value in knowledge, action or responsibility is actually a complete reversal of reality and a straw man

    Other than that, the main idea of the article I think is true, agnosticism, spiritual but not religious people to me are fence sitters, who are not thinking deeply enough to understand the importance of the question of God and His independent consciousness and requirements of creation. Atheists on the other hand are a lost cause and have become blinded by their arrogance and the cultural secular naturalist conditioning of the world system.

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

      I am far from arrogant...............point in case for Christians, they always think they are better than everyone else.............so not true.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Anan

      no one is a Lost Cause. If all were the same we would cease to be.


      September 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  20. james


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

      This person does not have a clue as to what being spiritual is.............................mine is not involved in GOD. I am raising my granddaughter who is legally blind and has three brain tumors, her suggestion of "self Centered" is absurd. Christians are self centered.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:08 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.