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

    Steve Jobs was a critical thinker. He was spiritual. He changed the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Andrew Thorn

      In a hundred years or less, no one will remember who Steve Jobs was – but there will still be people who remember Christ

      September 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • snowboarder

      andrew – that is sad.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I don't know, Andrew. People still remember Henry Ford, you know, the guy who brought cars to everyone. Revolutionary thinkers seem to remain in memory.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • reality please

      Steve Jobs changed the world? Oh please. The world is immense. Steve Jobs is/was next to nothing.Well, maybe a little more than nothing than you and I, but still essentially nothing in the scheme of things.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Abdullo

      @Andrew -no one will remember who Steve Jobs was ....RIGHT, because he did not promise free iPads or iPhone 5, if you were his follower; other Gods, Mohammad did.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Raj

      His contributions and all good work of people like Gandhi is an act of divine. Their names may be forgotten but their contributions will continue to shape society for good.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  2. Cynthia

    The author is so angry and unloving. I'd chat with the dude on the beach enjoying a "moment" any day before listening to another word from the author. It's just sad – and a darn shame.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  3. asingh

    disagree with this guy as well. People that i know are "spiritual not religious" have extensively studied and looked at many religions only to find a common thread among them all. Hence for them there is no need to adhere to one specific set of doctrines. It is actually the opposite of what he claims. They are not fence sitters, they just don't ascribe to any particular faith because most faiths exclude other faiths when in reality if you are to live in a pluralistic diverse society you can't say one is true and the other is not when they at their core teach the same things. The only difference is in the human created division of "our prophet can beat up your prophet" mentality. Yes religions have brought us to this point, now people are evolving and realizing that spirit is but one universal pervading force that takes many forms and colors. We are all one.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Gloria Dyer

      I so agree. Organized religion has caused more wars than anything other .

      September 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • pale

      What matters is what is true. You think religion is outdated, whereas what you're advocating has been practiced for thousands of years: rebellion. You can't evolve away your sins. Neither can you reach perfection. Only God is perfect, and the only way you can be perfected is to be remade in the image of His Son. That means repenting of your sins and asking Jesus into your life. You need to be born again, and you can't do that on your own no matter if you had a trillion lifetimes.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  4. Stephaniemary

    Enough's been said about the abysmal level of ignorance displayed by this misinformed, literate-but-obviously-not-educated writer...so I wont go down that route–though I am itching to (seriously–the Kama Sutra as a religious text?). But doesnt this proponent of religious-but-not-spiritual school of thought not realize how laughably ignorant he sounds?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • networkcircle

      Such garbage this author has been trying to peddle!
      The entire idea that the youth of the world has renounced structured religion and decided to follow a more subtle and fluid form of religion, i.e. spiritualism, explains the inability of rigid, structured and often forced religion to satisfy the emotional and spiritual needs of the inquisitive minds.
      A waste of a few minutes that I spent reading this biased and uninformed article. CNN should not publish such extremist views.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  5. andrew

    The writer's anger is perfect: but will change nothing. It's his own rigid desire for complete control of the human masses – and complete failure to do it – that makes him shout out at us. But he can shout to the heavens until he turns blue and drops dead from it, and I STILL won't be bullied back into church because of his shouts! I hit my knees and pray on my own terms, not on his, and that drives him crazy. Get used to it and get over it. I go by the sermon on the mount, not by what he says, because he gets too political, and wants to sell me things; and that's get people killed. No thanks, I'll do it myself and I don't need some dude CONTROLLING me up with his self-made rule set on when, where, or how I hit my knees and talk to the Good Lord.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
  6. Rachel

    You sir are a complete idiot. I was raised in the Catholic religion and I lost my religion when I learned that Christians believed anyone not baptized Christian were going to hell. A place where, as a child, they said was eternal suffering and burning. So a large portion of this planet and the rest of the universe is going to be burning in hell for eternity? Also my Mom was going to hell for being gay. People are spiritual without religion because we have evolved to beyond the need for mind control and being told we are going to hell for being human. If you take into every flavor of religion into account nobody is getting into heave. I believe in a higher power. I believe in the divinity of humans.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Stephaniemary

      well put rachel! seriously..."religion as the opiate of the masses...."!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • BurstBubble


      September 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Danny

      Rachel, thanks – and well said. I'm on my fourth trip to Afghanistan. I'd love for him to spend time in a country where the belief in a book is mandatory and interpretation waivers not.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • ross

      Similar experiences for me Rachel. At a point, it just didn't make sense that if I had been born across the ocean, and followed the religion of that area, I would be bound for hell. The article is pretty sad and seems to just be a way for the author to tell us how his way is right. This is part of the big problem. For me, it is pretty simple to see that we, as humans, are a tiny little part of existence. To really believe that we can have a complete understanding of God or a creator is extremely arrogant. To believe that the words written in the books I was taught from are complete truth and that the people taught from a different book are completely wrong is foolish. If following religion brings peace and makes someone a better person who helps improve this world then they should go for it. If peace and selflessness are found in a less traditional sense, how is this bad. Going from the rigidity of right vs. wrong, black and white world of religion, I still struggle greatly trying to not have to have definite answers to the questions way bigger than can be understood. It seemed to me that Jesus was a pretty open minded guy who didn't exactly follow the religious teachers of his time. Open your mind folks, we are little tiny beings in a great big universe. It is impossible to have all the answers.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • pale

      Your religion failed you, but what you failed to do is ask God what the truth is. Human beings are inconsistent, but God is not, and He cares for you. Invite Jesus into your life and He will lead you to the answers you seek.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  7. jusbel


    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • A matter of Faith

      It's more likely that PEOPLE are corrupt....

      September 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • mama kindless

      No, "A matter of Faith". people = religion = corruptness
      (which has nothing to do with whether or not there ever has been, is, or ever will be any deity – something that to date, no one knows the first thing about).

      October 1, 2012 at 12:32 am |
  8. Robert

    The article makes sense – if one comes from a religious orientation. Humanists in the 19th century, Buddhists to a great extent, those who follow eastern beliefs are (in my view) on a better path than the western and even middle eastern religions that set up the dichotomy of good-evil, heaven-hell. "Believe in me or live (sic) in eternal damnation". No thanks. Be good for GOODNESS sake.. not because you fear the consequences of god almighty (sic).

    September 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • pale

      What you haven't taken into account is what goodness actually is. If you are contrasting yourself to other human beings, anyone looks good in comparison to a Hitler or Pol Pot. Gods standard of good is perfection, and there isn't a single person who has ever lived up to that standard except one; Jesus Christ. So in comparison to Hitler you're a pretty good guy I am sure. In comparison to God you are not.

      If you take an honest inventory, how many times do you think you've violated the ten commandments? How many times have you lied, stolen, looked at a woman with lust, coveted, cheated, or hated someone? High hundreds? Low thousands? You are going to have to face Gods justice for your crimes, but that's why Jesus went to the cross and took the punishment for your sins; so you could be forgiven and set free.

      The truth is that you are a sinner (as I am, although saved by grace) and what you're hoping is that God won't judge you. Yet, He will and He has warned you in advance. He sent His Son so you could avoid that, but if you reject your pardon you are going to end up in His courtroom and eternity in hell will be your punishment.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  9. Spiritual but not religious

    It is wrong not to worship a diety???

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Athy


      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • pale

      God put you here for a reason; to know Him personally. He loves you. The way you come to know God is through Jesus Christ. You need to repent of your sins and ask Jesus to come into your life. He will send His Holy Spirit to come and live within you, and you will be born again.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  10. PurpleStikyPunch

    Simply put, I have a soul, and the existential existence of that soul has nothing to do with the architectural buildings of secular religion. It's possible to be Christ-like, or whatever else you believe, without having to attend meetings about it or enact weekly rituals in remembrance of it. "When ye pray, go out into the wilderness alone, and pray from your heart". That's all a relationship with God requires.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • snowboarder

      a soul? seriously?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Athy

      How do you know you have a soul? Where do you keep it? Does it talk to you? Does it need to eat or sleep? Does it watch TV with you? Man, what some people will believe.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • A matter of Faith

      According to?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |

      Did you mean "sole" ; or are you as big an idiot as you sound?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • pale

      The only way to have a personal relationship with God is through Jesus Christ:

      John 14:6

      I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

      You cannot approach God because of your sins. He is holy, and you are not. You need to repent of your sins and ask Jesus into your life. You will then be born again and the Holy Spirit will come to live within you. It is only then you can approach God because He will adopt you into His family as a son. He has commanded all people to repent and believe the gospel of His Son, and that is the only way you can approach Him..in the name of Jesus. Go out to the wilderness and ask God if this is true.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  11. say WHAT?

    The author of this article is acting kinda bigoted. What value does Christianity offer that cannot be obtained by secular morality and individual spirituality? None.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  12. Killmon

    "... is a cop out in your oppinion... ", because you are ignorant and your opinion is not well informed by reason. Simple logic dictates that is it is not possible to prove, objectively, the existence of anyone's "God"; that everyone one's belief in their God is subjective. Therefore any behavior executed to bring ones self closer to that God... or "Spirit", is subjectively chosen. Therefore, no one behavior, or group of behaviors, is objectively proven to be better than another. thank yo for playing though. how about you do what is good for your spirit (as long as it does not violate the rights of others, and leave everyone else alone -they do not care about your opinion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • say WHAT?


      September 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  13. Glenn

    wow, are you really this oblivious? you don't get that people are sick of "religions" that promote raping children and women, endless mind control games and manipulation, piling on guilt and shame over natural bodies and bodily functions, ... need I continue?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • say WHAT?

      + 1

      September 30, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  14. Anne Hatzakis

    The author seems to have an implied assumption that "religion"=monotheist and the fact that there is a growing polytheist segment of religion seems to have escaped him. Polytheistic religions tend to be more "spiritual" (orthopraxic) than "religious"

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  15. Milton J.

    Author is divisive demonizing and uninformed at best. I would just like to drop this here:


    September 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  16. alateos

    Behold folks, the "danger" of spiritual but not religious... remember when those crazy religious but not spiritual people killed each other through so many wars since the beginning of time? We can't let that happen again, or else we're doomed!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • say WHAT?


      September 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  17. john smith

    you are going to put the karma sutra and the Q'uran in the same sentence? this author has shown no clear understanding of the texts he is referencing.

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

      Kama. No "r".

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  18. someguy

    Classic type a versus type c personality. People are spiritual but not religious because the religious, like you, ask them to constantly explain themselves to them. They require people to participate in empty rituals that are just ridiculous. Religion is and will be dying.

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

      Right on.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  19. Narz

    Wow. What a bitter and judgmental man.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • say WHAT?

      1 +

      September 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  20. THACO

    ........ was this article supposed to have a point?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 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.