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. Justin

    I just don't like going to church. I believe in God, just not luncheons, Sunday services, or Wednesday Youth Group meetings.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  2. Reality

    Putting the kibosh/”google” on religion and spirituality:

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • jamesbrummel

      "that Taoist legend is just ridiculous", said the guy who worships a zombie whose virgin mother was impregnated by a ghost.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • miller

      Your analysis of Buddhism is way off the mark. The "fat Buddha" you are refereing to is actually Hotei not Buddha. Also Buddha's don't reincarnate; as a matter of fact reincarntion doen't even exist in Buddhism; it's a Hindu concept. Buddhists refer to the continuing process as "rebirth" and it's framework is totally different than reincarnation.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Reality


      Obviously you missed "There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion. "

      And as noted many times before:

      The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      (references used are available upon request)

      And miller,

      See http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/reincarnation.htm concerning the complexities of Buddhism and reincarnation and rebirth. Looks like a lot of "theo-speak !!"

      October 1, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  3. realistic85

    I'm spiritual but not religious. I look at it like being catholic without being a pedophile...

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • say WHAT?


      September 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  4. Rufus T. Firefly

    "which is it? God and Scripture or human based knowledge"

    This is known as begging the question, since the question is set up so that one can't answer it without implicitly accepting that God and Scripture are separate from human knowledge. That's not necessarily true. There is nothing that indicates that God and Scripture are not the products of human thinking. Who wrote the scriptures? Who served on the Council of Nicea? Who serves in the Vatican? Who thumps bibles from evangelical pulpits around the country? Humans. The honest question is which human based knowledge are you inclined to accept? I prefer that which stands up to reason and critical thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  5. mighty7

    What a condescending, idiotic, arrogant, rude s#itsandwich of an article.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Runtime Al

      I agree. What an empty article. This guy is totally out of his league. I hope he takes the time to read the 5,000+ responses because just based on the small sampling I've read, a great number are miles more articulate about this subject than he is.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  6. Rob

    The implication that one can not have serious and well thought beliefs without having them handed to you from some organization of thought is quite ridiculous. Before religion was "religion" all of the earliest prophets from any religion would have just been considered "spiritual" because before them, no organized belief systems existed! Buddha was not a Buddhist, he started Buddhism from spiritual beliefs he discovered for himself.

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

      What the F are you? Einstein with religious'vity theory?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  7. Balanced Brain

    I am "spiritual but not religious". Partly to say I am not one of those right wing Christians but also to say I am NOT a Christian (in that I do not believe that Jesus is necessary for "salvation" – and also to say I am not an atheist. I do however believe that our souls are continuous and therefore there is not only an afterlife but a before life. I believe that prayer is effective, and that love is the most powerful force in the universe. If I fit in at any church, perhaps I would join, but then I am not great at joining anything. I like aspects of many religions, from Christianity and Buddhism to Taoism and Ba'hai., I love gospel hymns, but I don't adhere to any creed so am not inspired to join any faith that requires one or that has leaders named Harold or Jim Jones or David Koresh. I am fine with people and their religions, though I can do without the extremely judgmental types,who are, among other things, anti-gay. Churches do a lot of good things – socially – and a lot of bad things (wars) and are full of good people and hypocrits. None of these are my reasons for joining – or not joining. I have a spiritual life, I am just not religious in a traditional fashion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  8. Ted S

    "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". This is exactly as it should be because the principles emerge organically from the practice; and the practice emerges from the authentic yearning of the seeker. The principles which have emerged from my spiritual (not religious) practice include: there is an energy available to me when I still the habitual thoughts and emotions emanating from my mind, and this energy can fill me with clarity and peace; fear (except in extremely rare instances) feels inherently delusional and obscures the experience of union which I experience as the deeper reality; it takes discipline to align with the underlying peace and joy which is always available to us; when we judge anyone we deny their essence as a being who has the same potential to experience the energy inherent within them as we do; etc. etc. etc. My practice, Alan, is not about simply "doing what I feel"...it is about putting energy into those thoughts, emotions and acts which reflect the most authentic experience I am capable of. The whole core of my practice is to allow those thoughts and feelings which do not feel authentic to pass. I do not find that my path leads to self-absorption as you suggest. On the contrary, it has kindled the capacity to love and the desire to serve...the immersion in the energy of Creation pushes you outside of your self-preoccupation and into the expression of your heart. I do not find that I need the concept of sin to motivate me to move deeper into clarity or compassion; the energy of who I am takes care of this and needs no external motivation. I can assure you that there has been profound transformation on my spiritual path and that it has not been simply about "nice things" and "feeling better" (although both do come). More often than not it has been about allowing the transformation of deeply rooted unconscious emotional patterns... a process which has not always been fun (to say the least). Frankly, you have no idea what you are talking about (and you are projecting your own prejudices) when you refer to the spiritual as opposed to the religious path as "fence-sitting". How in the world can you say that a choice must be made between "a belief in God and Scripture" (one might ask, "which Scripture and which conception of God)"? and the "Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action". Sadly, my friend, with these parameters you have, in the name of religion, ruled out the direct experience of the Divine.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Runtime Al

      You said it, pal.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  9. wardalee

    The author spends little time considering the outlooks of others and the reasons behind the "I dont know" mentality, and finds favor in the "Im gonna choose a side so I can find comfort in contriving a belief that I know."
    This article is just silly. Thanks again for the drivel, CNN.
    Being neither spiritual or religious, this article showed me what Im missing out on: irrationality.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  10. Somewhere

    Mr. Allen Miller, you Sir, are an idiot. What makes you think that what you have spilled onto the internet will make people think: "Hey, maybe Mr. Miller is on to something." What you effectively did Mr. Miller is say that people who "choose" are idiots and need to rethink what they are doing. I'm not surprised about your article, you're another name writing the same thing I've seen before. You give me no hope, none. You've pitted yourself against others, period. I do not want to learn what you've learned, I do not want to know what you know. Because from the sounds of it, I think I would create more enemies than friends if I spouted off like you did. Re-evaluate yourself Mr. Miller and take off your rose colored glasses.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • wardalee


      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  11. Judi M.

    I'm 'Spirtual, but not religious' and have been for decades. In my opinion we need to become more accepting of a person's differences rather than condemn an entire group who think or believe differently.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  12. Randy Cohen

    The biggest danger to the world is people who are religious but not spiritual.

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

    Sheeple need religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  14. mcashatt

    This seems like a very narrow analysis. To me, "Spiritual but not religious" translates politely to "I am still figuring this out *for myself* (as we all should be), and would appreciate if you quit trying to shove your antiquated, broken doctrine down my throat".

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  15. Robert

    I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
    -Thomas Paine

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

      an example of the indoctrination he recieved.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  16. Ginny

    Isn't that a direct (or very very close) quote from Donna D'Errico's August 28th interview on Fox? Here it is: "I don’t like the term spiritual because I think that’s a cop out. Either you’re religious or you’re not. There’s no spiritual, it’s a silly term that’s become a catchall phrase. If you’re not religious you’re not religious. What does spiritual mean? I go to Mass every Sunday and I pray the rosary every night with my kids."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  17. Dani3l

    Spiritual but not religious here. My church, the Universal Life Church, puts great emphasis on the primacy of conscience, and its only moral rule is "Do only that which is right". That is not a small statement. It is a recognition that no one can afford to abdicate personal moral responsibility through obedience to a codified doctrine.

    Theologically, this ties in to the notion of the Holy Spirit as the presence of God which is with us always and, so long as we remain sincere in our openness to Divine guidance, provides direct, personal direction through the action of conscience. That having this moral compass implies a Divine grace given to offset our capacity for evil is not a new idea, but neither is it one seen in many religious bodies today with such notable and important exceptions such as the Society of Friends ("Quakers") among others.

    I have clear theological, metaphysical and spiritual beliefs, and I pursue them with sincere reflection. I do not care to discuss them, as they are in fact personal to me, particular to my own relation to God, and might well be wrong for or even harmful to others.

    Also I must consider the likelihood that I am wrong, and remain open to a future visitation of insight that will help me learn to be a better person. Only I can do that for me. It may come through – and must take consideration for – other people. But no one else can think for me, or find moral truths for me. That is a task I must achieve for myself if it is to have personal meaning. If God endowed me with conscience and reason, it is clear to me that these are gifts I am meant to use wisely.

    I am, however, more than happy to discuss the broader notion of personal responsibility for everyone – religious, spiritual, agnostic and atheist – to take a serious and proactive responsibility for evaluating their own ethics, and for shaping their own behavior accordingly.

    This is far from a cop-out. It is the opposite of a cop-out. It is a stepping up, an acceptance of the demands of maturity and individuation. This cannot easily be centralized or organized, although it can and has been done in ways that some find fulfilling. That does not mean that those who feel called to approach the great questions personally are without sincerity in the search.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  18. EmM

    This article is dopey. Jesus was "spiritual, but not religious". He horrified the Pharisees by, gasp, healing on the Sabbath. He prevented the crowd from stoning a woman to death for adultery, even though that was the accepted religious law. He said, "It is written [in the Torah] 'you shall take an eye for an eye', but I say to you . . . "

    I guess in this author's opinion, Jesus was Doing It Wrong. Good to know.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  19. Erin

    A lazy article, written with the same care and thoughtfulness as is to be found on any nearby barstool.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  20. Rob

    Yeah we should all belong to religions so we can divide ourselves further into encampments that have hated each other since they came into existence. The crusades and stripping slaves of their beliefs were totally worth it because... ya know... we have BACH!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 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.