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. Mark B

    Why anyone would believe in something that has never been proven is beyond common sense. The only reason people believe these stories is because they have been told they should. Thats why every country has it's own religion and why people in these countries follow these religions. I am not saying religions are all bad and that everyhing in the bible is dribble but i think we have to come to realise that the world we live in is a direct reflection of ourselves and we are the only ones who can change that. God(anygod) did not create war and genocide we ouselves have and god did not intervene when he should have so even if he did exist what use is he? Right now innocent lives are being taken all over the world it is a discrace and our western leaders and ourselves(humans) have to take the blame.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • snowboarder

      a lifetime of indoctrination and groupthink

      September 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • P. O. Carl

      It is called faith, and it is severely lacking in the world today, as so many posts testify.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  2. Louard26

    The author suggests "spiritual" people feel superior to the "religious" ones. I have not found that to be the case. Quite the opposite, the "spiritual" people I've met tend to be more humble and respectful toward those who have managed to make it work within a more codified set of beliefs.

    I wonder if the author is projecting this belief more than encountering it for real. I wish him peace.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  3. Traze

    This article is poop.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  4. 2/8

    Alan Miller should really remove his head from his rectum.....it's hilarious how people on both sides of the argument think they know best. NOBODY KNOWS BEST. The scientific crowd believes they have all the answers, the religious fanatics say we'll burn for everything we do. Both sides need to just go home and mind their own business.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  5. Jeanette Hedges

    This somehow echoes of the 47% remark.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Jeanette Hedges

      Kind of lumps together a whole sector of the population and loads a huge generalization on them.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • iagree

      that's because it was
      trying to marginalize and shame and blame
      just like islam
      cnn is islam leaning in it's choice of more shameful pieces don't you think
      couldn't put down Christianity – so decided to put down those without a religion
      just to get them riled
      you have to seriously be grateful you don't have to actually pay to read this crap
      if i had to pay for this drivel as a source of real news to get and keep knowledgeable about the world's news
      i would definitely search elsewhere

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  6. Natalie

    Lumping any group of people together and making broad sweeping judgements is never a good idea. Some spiritual folks maybe fence-sitters, but many don't want the bible or any other religious literature interpreted for them... they are critical thinkers rather than sheep.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Tanya

      The new term for those who cannot bear the idea of believing in something is always a dubbed as a "critical thinker" One has to wonder whether they think at all ?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • snowboarder

      surrendering logical thought to religion is the ultimate loss.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  7. Mick

    I agree with the author. I can understand where a Bible fundamentalist nut job is coming from: There's this ancient book and we are to follow it to the letter, and believe everything in it right down to the talking donkey. But don't these "I'm spiritual but not religious" people ever get the feeling that they're just making up crap? Where do their ideas about spiritual stuff come from? If you have the intelligence to understand that evolution is a proven fact and things like the guy living in a fish's belly and the virgin birth are not, then why not dump the spiritual nonsense altogether? Reality is kind of an interesting place...give it a hearing.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Sintine

      ::laughs:: Just making it up!!!
      Where did your ideas come from?
      Oh, wait, they are not *your* ideas...they are an archaic text that hints at the universe being 10,000 years old....which we know is totally false....Thanks for the laugh Mick.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  8. B Squared

    If the author of this article had taken on the hipocrisy in main stream religon he might have better understood the issue he rendered opinion on.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  9. Brian

    There is a grain of truth to this article. You cannot have only the niceties of religious beliefs and not the rest. At the same time, there is no reason one has to embrace the rigid rules and beliefs that one does not share. The sad truth is that no religion, belief system and/or sect has a monopoly on truth. One must continually to strive to find one's path, in the end we will know or we will not know.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  10. alexanderglidewell

    I can agree with this, despite falling into the category the author is referring too. Too often it seems that "spirituality" is being used as an excuse to not think about or seek God, which, in my belief, is one of the worst mistakes to commit in ones life.

    I'm not convinced organized religion is the way to go, however...too often religion is abused or dissolves into an "I'm right, they're wrong" squabble instead of a quest for understanding of God, whatever he/it may be. We do need a reform in the church, sure, as we do in every other religion: we need tolerance, and as I've said already, a commitment to finding god through the way that is best for oneself with the support of others that can only be found with religion. This without the pettiness found in the current system.

    I do believe this will happen- the question, of course, is if it will occur peacefully or if we're about to go through another period of religious-themed violence in the vein of what we have seen time and time again throughout history.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Athy

      Just reject belief in god. Then everything makes sense. If you can't do that you are cursed with a lifetime of confusion (assuming your intelligence level is above that of a sheep).

      September 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Michael

      You generalize far too freely. I would identify myself as "spiritual" and have spent most of my life thinking about the issues involved, though I consider "God" to be far too limiting a term to use it to describe said issues. And it's been my experience that this is the case of many, if not most, who describe themselves in that way... far from being "too often," as you say.

      Why do you assume that there is a deity? Why only one? Why does it have to be personafied? Etc., etc. Interestingly enough, I think that these are questions that YOU have not asked YOURSELF, hence why you so freely toss that word "God" around and assume that everyone's on the same page as you, that every religion thinks this "God" concept that you speak of is important, etc. As for me, I will believe in deities when I am given a reason to. Thus far such a reason has eluded me, though I do think there is a certain energy to things, similar to what is described in Taoism.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  11. Yossarian

    Alan Miller, your essay was a piece of condescending drivel. I wasted a few minutes reading it and I want those minutes back.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  12. DUU007

    I grew up Catholic and don't want to support a system/religion that protects, endorses, and supports known pedophiles. I have been to dozens of other Churches that are stuck in the past and don't have progressive ideas or ideology (fine, but disingenuous at best). On the contrary, progressive churches are trying too hard (spiritually desperate). And finally, the church/religion that is right has a bunch of people there worshiping a person, in the name of God (too Jonestown for me).
    Alan Miller is a joke. If this is the best CNN can come up with, it's time to dump CNN off the favorites ...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  13. Raj

    God is omnipresent. He is in everyone. Every being is divine. Therefore universal Oneness exists. Organized religions elevate humans who look like them as the only form of divinity and nobody else.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • godisboring

      That sounds awesome but is there any real reason to believe that?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • snowboarder

      you're just making that up

      September 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Bill

      hey guys ... to see what he's talking about g**gle "self-inquiry" ... you might be surprised.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  14. godisboring

    Doesn't thinking usually bring about the end of any religious belief?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Bill

      Einstein to Bhor: "God doesn't play dice!"
      Bhor in reply: "Stop telling God what to do"

      Thinking and reason reveal to us a deep history profoundly more interesting than the myths that you're referring to. We replace one set of beliefs for another, and ironically, these can't be challenged by dis-belief ... Science becomes the new dogma.

      Now ... it when we ask ourselves whether or not we are our minds ...??? ... when we lay down the weapons of the mind and stop thinking ... when we refrain from replacing belief with dis-belief ... then the magic happens.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • snowboarder

      bill – that is poetically stated garbage.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  15. Chad

    Funny how all these atheists respond to the accusation that they dont believe in anything other than truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking , by saying they dont believe in anything other than truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking..

    I dont understand why you are so incensed? He got it exactly correct. It's not like he's saying "atheists secretly believe in God" or anything...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, Chard, did you ever manage to connect your 'god' to evolution or the Big Bang? I must have missed it if said event occurred. Can you refer me to the page and article in which you made this ground-breaking revelation? Thanks in advance, Vegetable.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • snowboarder

      the religious are concerned about losing control of the populace.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • >

      I like you Chad
      hakuna matata or maybe don't worry be happy. You whistle cause I stink at it. I'll provide rhythm.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • old ben

      You idiot, the author wasn't just doing a poor job of describing alternative forms of spiritual awareness, he was also being judgmental in a very one-sided, illogical, and irrational way about it with things like:

      " retrogressive aspects of contemporary society" and
      "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard" and
      "Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." and
      ". . . 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."

      In my opinion he was completely wrong about every point he made to try to support his overall weak point of the article. It's one of the worst that I've read on here.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Bill

      snowboarder: I agree with your comment in this thread and thank you for your characterization of the one above as "poetic"... I mispelled Bohr's name ... but that conversation is said to have actually happened.

      As far as the rest of what I said there ... you're right about this: if you don't look for yourself then yes, ANY idea is garbage. Have you looked for yourself? Have you studied and reflected and tried to find the truth of the matter? ... the reason, if any, underlying your existence?

      Set aside your anger and look for yourself and don't settle for bullsh!t ... don't stop at simply tearing down someone else's house ... not to say you shouldn't do that, most of them are nasty tenements that should have been condemned long ago ... but once you've done that, don't stop.

      Go look for the truth ... in the meantime I'll hunt yer' @$$ down this November at Killington as I bomb down those two blues on my Volkl AC 50's ... ya' know I move on them things baby ;>

      September 30, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  16. Bill

    When did the words "faith" and "belief" become conflated? Doesn't this seem particularly absurd given that they actually have opposite meanings?

    As any truth that can be stated in words is non-absolute, questioning of belief, all belief, is what eventually sets a perspective free to discover what's being sought.

    It's the entire point of moving away from religion. Paradoxically, once all belief is seen through, at that point the core, the kernel of truth at the center of all faiths is seen and understood at a profound level. Prior to dissolution of the complex of memes that mindlessly drives most religious people, there can be tolerance of other viewpoints.

    Afterwards there is true and unconditional love.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      OK, who has the Idiot Translator Ring now?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  17. unbeliever

    I am neither spiritual nor religious. I am an intelligent person who knows that morality has nothing to do with religion. It is quite possible to be a good person without believing in ANY kind of higher power. All you have to do is have reason to see that things like kindness, charity, tolerance, hard work, patience and self-control are what make up morality. It is perfectly possible to practice and teach those without any reference whatsoever to any god or higher power.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • Chad

      If you are a relativist, there is no such thing as "good" or "bad", just opinions..

      Who are you to tell me that charity is "good"? What if I dont agree with you? Are you not then judging me by your standard?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Bill

      Well said. Law and morality is a system to assure orderliness, safety and prosperity.

      Render unto Caeser what is Caeser's.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What a dolt you are, Chard. Are you going to start in on your rolodex of topics again, beginning with relative morality? What's next after that?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Billy says "Well said." That's because Billy sucks your dick whenever he can.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Watch now while the Chard does his usual spiel on the subject of "relative morality," ignoring any evidence placed before him, as usual. Watch as he strokes himself with his own opinions, based on nothing, and bloats with ego until he reaches his zenith and exhausts himself in ecstasy.

      It's the only thing approaching s3x he ever experiences.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • >

      @tomtom Over the line dudette...over the line

      September 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      @>, bite me. You don't get to decide whether there IS a line or where it is if there is one. Last time I checked, you didn't own CNN or run this blog, so can it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • >

      @tomtom shall we go into a game of make me then?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Play with yourself, >. You aren't equipped to battle anyone older than 3.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • >

      @tomtom Aww c'mon where is your sense of fun? No make me game then?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes my time and annoys the pig.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • >

      @tomtom You are super funny tonight. Can u feel my laughter?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  18. William Mosher

    When we say "spiritual but not religious" we are being polite. It's nicer to say that than to say, "I treat everyone with respect and try to live a good life. I am able to do this simply because its the right thing to do. I don't do it because of the fear of retribution of a mytholigical being like other people I know."

    September 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  19. chris

    I am not in agreement with the author. Seems a bit pretentious and condescending to boil this issue down to a choice between reason and religion, and then tell me I must make a choice. We live in a world in which there are many immediately-accessible (at least intellectually) spiritual practices/beliefs/dogmas, all with historical claims and respectable moral frameworks. This is against the backdrop of scientific knowledge, which every year yields more plausible answers to the big questions. My personal belief is that blind faith is a cop-out, as it allows one to ignore both the shortcomings of a chosen religion and the natural progression of knowledge.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Athy

      So you're an atheist?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Agapatos

      Author is exactly right.
      'Spiritual-but-not-religious' is not having the guts to step out in faith.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Bill

      Agapatos– this guy was talking about "belief" ... what's that got to do with "faith" ... besides the fact that the words have opposite meanings?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  20. paddy

    Happiness agenda? WTH? You mean, the govenment wants to see people happy instead of locking them up or sending them off to fight? That really would be the end of the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:25 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.