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. Raj

    Abdullo is angry. He is religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  2. Liz

    Actually, this belief structure works for me. It keeps me positive, intrigued, and motivates me to keep seeking answers. The universe is a beautiful mystery beyond my complete comprehension. But I have learned through reason and experience that being kind, brave, and humble are keys to creating positive experiences. I think that those virtues can work for anyone, religious or not.
    Or you know, you could throw stones or whatever.
    Whatever floats your goat.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • Athy


      September 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  3. madhuthangavelu

    You do not have to a god fearing Christian or an impeccable Hasidic Jew or Wahabi muslim or practising Hindu or Buddhist to be overwhelmed by the sheer power of nature's mysteries. Why ?...just spend a few minutes pondering the size or the workings of the universe or the processes the go into life and death, and boy, even the aetheist will have their hairs stand on end. Now that feeling is spirituality...gently rubbing against your attuned mind. As we explore deeper and deeper into the workings, the more magical it all appears to be. Something popping up from nothing, other things disappearing to nothing...and the whole universe revving up and speeding outwards into inifnity. And that is just the tip of the hard science iceberg. It gets even more tricky when we address the workings of life. These phenomena surely have nothing to do with religion, so might we call it spirituality ?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Athy

      It's just nature. The fact that some of us cannot yet fully comprehend it doesn't make it spiritual.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • snowboarder

      spirituality is a person standing in a silent room convincing themselves that they hear something meaningful.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Gadflie

      snowboarder, and religion is believing that the someone else who did that was actually right.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Know What


      Cool, huh? Lots of spine-tingling stuff to ponder out there. Guess what, though, people with certain mental illnesses and brain damage and such neither notice nor feel a bit of it. What does that tell you about where these feelings and reactions come from? Enjoy your euphoric fantasies if you wish, but claiming that they are some kind of "spiritual" "truth" is bogus.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • jamesbrummel

      "Spiritual" means non material and non temporal, end of sentence. Spirituality is an effort to raise an awareness of reality on that plane, the one without all the stuff that clutters our minds and lives. Religious texts are parables describing what are very difficult concepts communicate. I don't feel the ideas are complex, but expressing them is. In a way once expressed they have entered the material world and are therefore no longer spiritual.
      whoops, time for my weekly blood offering. Ciao.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  4. vartooka

    Cope out? Not in my book. The word religion has become meaningless and has almost a dirty word for many people which is why they are looking elsewhere for their God connection. People are disenchanted and tired of being told they are sinners and not worthy. I don't blame them for turning their backs on religion and have joined their ranks. There is so much hypocrisy and self-righteousness abounding in politics these days, it is pitiful -using God to attempt to get elected. Luckily many see through this. Many religious and political leaders have abused their power and lost touch with the true essence of what it means to live a religious life. Holy wars are waged. Holy? How can anyone call war holy? God doesn't need to be defended. I think God is perfectly capable of self-defense. Stoning women for infidelity in the name of Allah? Get real. Whatever happened to "vengeance is mine". Not sure I believe half the stuff written in the "holy books" anyway. I believe what my gut tells me and what feels right. There is an internal compass that if we all followed it, this would be a better world. Google "new message from God". It's the most genuine thing I've found in years. Someday someone will mess this one up too, but for now it feels clean and pure.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  5. Agapatos

    Religion is different from mere spirituality because religion is communal. Therefore it takes more courage & energy to be religious. You are not just carrying your own cross, but helping to carry the crosses of others around you as well (your family, your congregation, even the whole world in a way).

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • snowboarder

      are you seriously suggesting that it takes more courage to be part of a group? you're just funny.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  6. Raj

    I would like to ask religious people one question. Is god male or female? If male why not female.
    I am spiritual. This is my answer. God is knowledge, Wisdom, formless, is in every form and being. he is pure Consciousness.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Wr

      Source? And... pulling things out of your ass doesn't count.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • Gadflie

      WR, by that standard, no religion is valid.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  7. Eric

    All religion is dangerous.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • Athy

      Mostly to those that practice it, but there can be collateral damage if we're not careful.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  8. Gadflie

    Here's my religion. I try to be the best person I can. If there is a god and that's not good enough for him, so be it.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Athy

      Way to go, Gaddie.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • Staff


      September 30, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • JesusNotReligion

      Gad...Here's the Bible's take: JesusNotReligion...Know Jesus, Know life...No Jesus, No life...At the heart of the Biblical gospel is this: If we could save ourselves by our so called "good works" then the Jesus of the Bible (not Religion) came and died in vain. On the cross, Jesus is quoted as saying, "It is finished!"...He "finished" for man what man could not do for himself in order to "bring us to God".  It's like this: You can't train enough to be "good enough" to broad jump the Grand Canyon, or to swim from California to Hawaii...You have to be taken there. You may be a better swimmer than me but you too will fall short...

      And btw, how can we define what is "good" without an absolute source of truth? It would be a free-for-all, with all of us defining what "truth" is and eventually trying to impose that truth on society – i.e. Political Correctness. Eventually a louder voice than yours, with a greater number of people, will force on you or your children a "truth" that you will not agree with.

      Some passages to consider:
      Ephesians 2:8-9...For BY GRACE are we saved THROUGH FAITH, and this not of yourself, it is THE GIFT OF GOD, NOT OF WORKS, so that no one can boast.
      Romans 6:23...For the wages (payment) of sin is death (lit. Hell), but the FREE GIFT OF GODis eternal IN Jesus Christ the Lord.
      Galatians 2:21...I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

      John 3:16-18, 36
      16) For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17) For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18) Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 36) Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.

      1John 5:11-13
      11) And this is the testimony: God HAS GIVEN US ETERNAL LIFE, and this life is in his Son. 12) Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13) I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life.

      I think these passages, whether or not you believe them, speak for themselves...and they also speak against what you have written. If you could be a 'good enough person' (according to how you define "good" – by whatever "truth" you are using to define what "good" means for you today), then Jesus is not your savior because you still think you can save yourself! You still think you can swim from California to Hawaii by training hard enough (i.e. Being a "good person)...but the "wrath of God" is on you...it has not been transfered onto Jesus...and you will indeed "perish" as you read above...BELIEVE IT OR NOT...either way you are still excercising...a faith that says "I don't believe in the Bible or in Jesus, so be it!" You just heard the gospel of JesusNotReligion...AMEN!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  9. Abdullo

    why do these spiritual bums need to to demonstrate physically 'I'm spiritual but not religious' , like the bum in the picture above praying Sun like Hindu religion! Why can't he be simply walking on the beach?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
    • JSiD

      You're an idiot, Abdullo. He could be praying to one of the corners of the earth like a Muslim. How do you like that false comment?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Rob

      And just who the f*** are you?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  10. Kristen

    The author asks "which is it? God and Scripture or human based knowledge". Many of us believe it is a glorious combination of both. Human based knowledge is what allows "God", or the whole to know and learn about itself. There is always great mystery, but the pursuit of knowledge is our journey back to oneness. Ultimately these are deeply personal issues and beliefs. As long as I don't foist them upon you, what do you care?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • Wr

      Oh sheer BS. At least have a working knowledge of the philosophies (yes, Humanism is actually a well-thought-through philosophy) before spouting off. But then, that's the entire problem. People aren't thinking through, doing their homework and making an informed choice. They're just doing what feels groovy. Use your brains, people!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • snowboarder

      the religious constantly attempt to force their beliefs on the masses. we find ourselves defending liberty from religion constantly.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  11. pbernasc

    Danger without religion .. ha ,... really how about, the danger of being religious while being stupid at the same time? man, religious leaders will say anything to get more money from the suckers who listen to them

    September 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • serotap

      I actually don't think the author is all that religious. I mean, what religious leader is also the Director of The New York Salon and Co-Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery? I think he is a person with a perspective about empty spirituality. He is simply saying that a foundation-less, free- for- all spirituality is meaningless. On that note I agree.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  12. Nico

    What a shallow and ethnocentric article. The author bloviates about the 'retrogressive' culture of a so-called spiritual but not religious person. With role models like Rick Santorum saying wanting to go to college and learn about the world in which we live is snobbish and elitist, the prevalent anti-science position that many believers take, the xenophobic and anti-muslim rhetoric that comes from many believers of christianity; who can blame us? Mr. Allen Miller can you explain to the rest of us godless heathens your superior value-set since we clearly have trouble understanding your mighty and superior establishment view point.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  13. Cheryl

    Phhhhhht...This guy's pompous, judgmental essay hints at why we're spiritual but not religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  14. Rose

    Frankly, if people spent the time they do thinking about the afterlife and invested that into thinking about this life, we would have a heck of a lot less problems than we do today. But whatever people want to believe is their personal business... who are we to say that a certain person's faith (regardless of it being associated with a religious group or not) is wrong when nobody has all the answers?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Rose – religion bring us crusades, witch trials, prejudices, wars. Religion is harmful. It is the scurge of humanity.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • snowboarder

      unfortunately, it never stops at an individual faith. invariably the religious work to impose their delusion on the masses in law and indoctrination through public school curiculum.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • kme

      "...who are we to say that a certain person's faith (regardless of it being associated with a religious group or not) is wrong..."

      So "who are we to say"? We are those pointing out nonsense in order to reduce its prevalence in the public square, just as we did to end the witch trials, the monkey trials, monarchy, slavery, animal and human sacrifice, and all of the other terrible ideas that infest us until will choose to rid ourselves of them and get on with a better human experience.

      Scientology is BS, we know that, we can PROVE it is nothing more than a huckster's money-grab. Mormonism is the same thing for the 19th Century, we know, for example, that some of the texts Smith claimed to be translating said nothing of the sort.

      When someone is spewing wrong ideas, they ought to be *corrected* no matter where those ideas comes from. Faith is not a shield for ignorance....or at least it shouldn't be any more.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  15. serotap

    Upon second reading, I understand what the author is actually trying to say. He sums it up with this good point: "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." Spirituality needs a foundation. It's not a lazy free for all. Do what feels good is a rehashed, rebellious belief from the 1960's free love era. While spirituality needs the foundation that religion can provide, this foundation has a direct effect on the resulting spiritual experience. Unfortunately, many have been led down the wrong spiritual path, i.e., Jim Jones, David Koresh, Joseph Smith, Muhammad, Constantine and so many others through history. If spirituality needs a religious foundation, so too, does religion need to be kept in check with a foundation in the spirit of truth. Can't have one without the other. That's my take anyway. Now, bring on the detractors.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Simple. That is an opinion and nothing more. There is no way to rationally argue that an irrational belief must follow one path or another...

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • snowboarder

      not really sure what your point is. religions have dogma to controle the masses. independent thought is anathema to religious spirituality.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • serotap

      snowboarder, I agree. That was kind of my point....if religion is a foundation to spirituality (which is the point of the article), then spirituality needs to, in turn, keep religion in check or it becomes an overbearing, controlling beast.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • serotap

      MarkinFL, I actually agree with part of that. But, I don't see spirituality, in and of itself, an irrational thing in the first place. It becomes irrational with the wrong religious influence. No religion can fully explain spirituality, anyway. Our government (maybe a bad example) has checks and balances. So too should religion and spirituality keep each other in check. Unfortunately, many religions today taint spiritual experiences. But if you don't believe in spirituality, then this is all a moot point.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  16. Davidwl

    Who is this guy to declare the beliefs of others are dangerous? He sounds so condescending.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • Edweird69

      But it is dangerous! Religion brings us all kinds of horrific trouble. Wars, crusades, the list is endless.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
    • Wr

      His whole point is that they aren't beliefs at all.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  17. Mlink56

    This bible quote comes to mind concerning people in organized religions;
    Matthew 6: 5-6
    5 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.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  18. WachetAuf

    Some of you get it. Religion is the problem. Religion has been coopted by political forces. Jesus himself was not into religion. He invited us to examine God's spiritual gifts and to think for ourselves, to establish a direct relationship with those spiritual gifts. He was murdered by those who were short on spiritual gifts and heavy of the religious side. I expect that very few people who may read this will understand and that most will be offended. For at least 1700 years the religion they call "Christianity" has been devolving into its present Pagan condition. It has been cooked like a frog.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • snowboarder

      there is a remarkable segment of society that thinks he was meant to be sacrificed. are you suggesting he was murdered?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Well, nailing someone up to some boards and sticking them with a spear and then leaving them exposed to the elements until they are dead seems a pretty good example of murder.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
    • Tom

      You see very few Christians who have studied the history of their religion (from an unbiased perspective).. very few of Christians are willing to accept that they are worshiping an Egytian myth filled with Astrology. The fish of Pices, the crucifix, (the northern cross) to describe the changing of the seasons... back then stories were told as a way to teach people to remember when to plant, when to reap, when to store food, etc. It was all about survival.. like it's bad luck to walk under a ladder. Except at some point we ended up taking it literally... perhaps when we stopped living off the land and became ignorant?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • WachetAuf

      To my friend: Yes, I believe he was murdered. There is a reason we are not invited to view it as murder. We need to call it murder so that we can learn the true nature of those who murdered him. They were the political power brokers. A primitive Darwinian force lives within us all. Those power brokers do not want us to know about that dark force. It is how they obtain and maintain power. These power brokers have inoculated themselves by accepting as much "Christianity" as is convenient for them to maintain power. If we viewed them (ourselves), as murderers, their reputations would falter and they would not be able to maintain that power (Maintaining one's reputation is one of the moving Darwinian forces – it helps us survive). If the world was to believe that it was murder the power would be threatened today just as Jesus threatened the reputations of their spiritual ancestors. Until we finally understand that it was murder the crime will be repeated. My guess is that Jesus has come back to this world many times, has taught his message of tolerance and has been murdered each time because the political power brokers have felt threatened by the message of tolerance. He could be on this Earth right now but his message is being drowned out and repressed by many powerful political forces. How many more millions of people will die before "we" finally figure it out? The power brokers will not identify Jesus for us. He is a threat to their reputations.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  19. Alethea

    Thinking for yourself is not a bad thing, on the contrary: indeed we would not have many of the Scriptures and Religions hereto referred by the author if their progenitors did not think!
    Notable examples:

    Abraham rejected the historical religions of his time because he felt they were wrong.
    Jesus rejected the historical religions of his time because he felt they were wrong.
    Mohammed rejected the historical religions of his time because he felt they were wrong.
    Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha rejected the historical religions of his time because he felt they were wrong.

    These men used critical thinking and made up their own minds as to what the correct path should be. Why must we ignore their example, as suggested by this article?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • snowboarder

      those men, if they actually existed, were probably not part of the problem.

      those embelishing their lives are to blame.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  20. Raj

    For a white man white man is god. For a black man black man is god. For a brown man brown man is god. This is religion. The truth is all are the same. Every one has a different path but the ultimate goal is to seek the divine. This is spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:58 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.