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. Earnest

    If you treat people right you'll have a better life – and probably only one life at that. That's my religion and so far it's working out fine.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  2. georgebushSR

    Really really bad article

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  3. spbutNotReli

    The only appropriate comment I can think of in response to this idiot (author) is- Go F yourself. Hope that's clear enough for you.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  4. Barbara

    I am not religious. I hesitate to declare myself to be spiritual. I think that is a judgment for others to make about me (kind of like beauty).

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  5. MeMeMeMe

    This is just another piece of trash bought from a content farm, showing the journalistic decline of CNN

    September 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  6. Somename

    Religion advocates and evangelical types display within their message whats really wrong with them and religion. Mr. Miller here is afraid that non religious types feel free to run around doing whatever they want with out a concern for moral or spiritual consequences. I have noticed that many people who are overly religious are so because they are afraid to handle life on their own. They are afraid that without the guidance of some god with a rulebook that they and everyone else would run wild in the streets killing and stealing etc. They don't seem to understand that most of us who shun religion aren't immoral, we simply know how to love one another and follow a positive spiritual path because it comes naturally to us. Fear, hatred, greed, religion is a medication for these symptoms. But humans can be stronger than the crutches we use. "Spiritual but not religious people" are learning to just be human and love one another without doing so just because somebody told them to.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Hamm

      This guy's not interested in any old people adopting any old religion just to have a set of morals to guide their lives. He's interested in preventing Christians from drifting away to "spiritual" lives, and trying to frighten those who have back into the fold. He doesn't really care about morals, he's just interested in keeping people on the Christian reservation.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  7. scb

    I am a Catholic, but I can see some benefits to Spiritual but not Religious: they don't try to convert anyone, subvert the political process to support their own doctrine, or go to war to protect their position. What evil they do they don't do in the name of God.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Athy

      And at least they're halfway to the truth.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Gloria Dyer

      Well said, Many religious people have been evil. The muslim terrorists that blow themselves up in the name of Allah, The Catholic priests that abused the youth in their parish. Politicians that go to church regularly, but commit evil.
      You can be religious and evil, but not spiritual and evil. Spirituality is your one to one connection with a higher power. Those feelings go to the core of your being and are infused in your life.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  8. Kris W

    Wow...there are a lot of comments here. The fact that I am commenting speaks to how offended I was by this article. As a "spiritual, but not religious" person, it is the judgement contained in this article that will guarantee that I am never religious again. You see, I have never been able to rectify the fact that the bible I learned from as a child spoke often of not judging others and yet every organized religion I have tried ends up judging someone somewhere and never bothers to look back at itself. This is not the type of lesson I will ever allow my children to be taught. As such, we've found ourselves left with "spiritual, but not religious". Interestingly enough, I've found that my beliefs align well with many of our Founding Fathers...not so "new" after all. Maybe more of us are becoming enlightened....or perhaps just plain exhausted by all of the judgement of others. Thou shall not judge is still a belief of organized religion, right?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  9. snowboarder

    we attended a hand fasting ceremony for friends becoming married this weekend. if only more people gave rational thought to their marriages.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  10. Runtime Al

    This article says nothing except that you're wrong unless your a Christian. Or maybe one of the other main religions, but if your not with one of the big three or four, then your useless. I'm surprised he never used the term "new age" anywhere in the article, because that's obviously what he's talking about. To sum up his message, don't think for yourself, just accept what you're told. To which I would reply, we're no longer buying the baloney you're selling.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Dippy

      It's "you're", not "your", three places. But to your credit, you got one right.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  11. alasmindmenow

    This article..this article is Alan Miller's outlook on "spirituality". After reading the article and then the comments posted by the general public, Miller's whole goal was to upset anyone who does not commit to an orthodox religion. Even as I sat and read his article, being a person who has attempted both sides of the religious "fence" I felt as if Miller did not represent both sides equally. Belief is power. Reason is power. These are two different ways to perceive an ever changing world and act out in a universe where control is not something that any single human can truly obtain. What happened to orthodox Roman gods? Even the Greeks had gods that were worshipped at one point in time. These beliefs in higher powers change, evolve and even stand. The only thing that one man can do for another through faith is show them the way-not put them down.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  12. Chris H

    FAIL ARTICLE AND FAIL OPINION. People simply mean they believe they have an eternal spirit but they dont believe in the hooey at churches or in Jesus or Muhammed. Simple, but i guess thats to much for the author to comprehend.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  13. Insert Truth Here

    CNN informs me "Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!" And yet both comments that I have attempted to post are not showing up. Is live discussion really your policy CNN? Please let me know what was deemed inappropriate about my posts seeing as I feel my comments were less judgmental than the original article.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Helpful Hints


      Check over your post for any of these:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
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      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-oon… as in sp-oon, lamp-oon, harp-oon
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
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      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      October 1, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  14. Brandon

    Definitely a tool. The author believes one cannot define one's own beliefs? Must I proscribe to a system of beliefs made up by another for it to be legitimate? Very small mind indeed.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • pale

      I think what he is saying is that designing your own God and worshiping it is contrary to the truth of who God is, and in the end, idolatry. God is who He is, and not who you want Him to be. People want to worship a God that tells them that they're okay the way they are and that they are free to do whatever they want. In other words, they don't want to be held accountable or take responsibility for their actions.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  15. Rob

    To infer that the concept of right and wrong and morality can only be gained and exercised through religion is ridiculous. Morality existed long before religion and it will exist long after.

    To think that one has to choose this or nothing (science/rationalist) in regards to “faith” is absurd. If one wants instead to say “I do not know” so here I sit on the fence of “spiritual but not religious” how is that somehow wrong?

    Why would anyone encourage someone else to “take a stand” when they do not know what they would be standing for. It is akin to forcing someone to decide who they will marry at the age of 12 prematurely because there is no point in waiting to figure it out in the future when you can just “act” and make your mind up now even if you are not ready or perhaps never will be.

    To infer that one must be religious in order to understand and appreciate western history and culture is arrogant and crass. One can understand religion and even be an expert theologian without being a devote follower of a religion; the author is sadly mistaken in his attempt make these “interwoven”.

    The author believes in order to have positive exposition, understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind one must first either fully embrace or reject religion and this is a great fallacy.

    I completely disagree with the author and am offended by his intolerant and obtuse line of thought. The ultimatum of “make a choice” or “take it or leave it” is black and white and has no place in the realm of faith, which at the end of the day is what you believe in and is your truth, and it does not have to be anyone else’s, or exist in the social brainwashing and doctrine of “organized religion”. Therefore, shame on him for trying to coerce others to action toward an unknown target with nothing but conceptual fallacious blathering for support.

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

      Are you moral? Yes!! Really? How many times a day do you cheat your wife in your mind?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Liz

      Well put.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  16. Wellsaid

    I swear to ______ I can write better, more well researched and more thoughtful articles about religion and spirituality than this guy. Please hire me! Unless of course the point was to cause drama and a riot rather than a thoughtful debate. Which is, of course the media's intention most of the time.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  17. Gloria Dyer

    I must admit this sparked a lively conversation! I spent much of my life religious, but now at 65 I feel far more spiritual. I have studied many different religions over the years and I've enjoyed comparisons. No matter what you want to call yourself your beliefs are ultimately your own. Organized religions love to have rules to define themselves, but in the end your beliefs are your own. I think saying you are Spiritual is a more honest statement. Being Spiritual is less intellectual and more just a feeling of being connected to a higher power. This Mr Miller is out of his league and he has no clue what being spiritual means he's just making assumptions. His idea is to ridicule the spiritual people to join orgainzed religion to increase their power. Organize religion frequently abuses their position. They like to dictate lifestyles, ( no dancing or drinking of beverages with alcohol or caffine, no use of birth control, wear your hair long or wear only skirts, etc) I know I've been hurt emotionally by organized religion. I haven't changed my love for God, but I don't feel the need to participate with organized religion, and that is my right!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • pale

      The only question is, do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? It's possible to be "spiritual" without being saved.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  18. Andrew Thorn

    I am religious and spiritual, and I have no problem with people who are spiritual but not religious. What seems interesting to me is how worried people are about religion. Whether we are spiritual, religious, both or none, we need discipline in our life. Spirituality and Religiosity are both governed by principles and the only way to grow is by being obedient to those principles. I think the author is making that point. It may not be enough to simply say, "I am spiritual." for if we are, we must demonstrate it by our actions. You can choose the principles that you want to follow. I choose to believe in and follow a Savior who taught two such principles. Love God, and Love your neighbor – what a world it would be if we all just focused on those two things.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  19. Stacey Doss

    I could not disagree with your point of view more.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  20. Aaron A Reno

    This article is 180 degrees from my understandings as detailed at the site/link above.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:39 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.