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. Anthony

    Religion is a lie so please are soul searching! How many people have been killed in the name of religion..? We are all connected and the division is religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  2. casey james

    Everybody is spiritual and not everybody practices in a church or 'holy place' with others....including myself. And so.....I pray for Allan's awareness

    October 1, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  3. zenout

    this was SUCH a load of crap!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  4. Chris LaBarre

    "How much will it cost to buy you out of buying into a reality that
    originally bought you?" ~Saul Williams
    Perhaps what the author is saying is whenever a Spiritual/Religious belief is established it must be punctuated with turmoil and bloodshed- i.e. Hebrews defeating the Canaanites, Roman/Jewish persecution of early Christians, The Crusades.
    This so-called "new" trend to Spiritual not Religious could just as well be individuals calling the establishments to change to a more loving and accepting form.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Christian

      Chris LaBarre: Jesus paid for your sin on the cross. What would it profit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his own soul. Accept the free gift and don't sell your soul.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  5. dc

    don't dare use your brain and intuition... it has been laid out for you neatly in "Scripture"... terrifying article, terrifying concept, terrifying.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  6. courtsight

    Mr. Miller, you're a moron.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  7. Nox

    I love how the article points out the faults of the "spiritual-but-not-religious" but fails to make a comparison to the faults of the religious. Yes, they are more self-centered. You can say that in a negative light, but it's not self-centered FOR the self. The spiritual people believe that belief should be a personal thing, not governed by an outside organization. The article even goes so far to say they're picking and choosing. Perhaps if you are so sure your religion is correct, you would think that. From an unbias view of each religion though, perhaps all they're doing is taking the good ideas, and leaving out the doctrine of violence and restriction. Organized religion has historically brought more pain and war to the world than self-spiritualism, so before you go and say it's "a cop out" perhaps you should look at a historic track record going back hundreds if not thousands of years.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  8. Keith

    What a terrible, terrible article. This seriously makes me re-consider my reading of the news with CNN. To say that these 'non-religious' people that take peaceful soils within their own beliefs is 'dangerous,' is dangerous in itself. You might as well be calling Christianity dangerous at the same time, right? If there is ANY belief out there that is very open-minded and non-violent and mostly friendly to all, this is it. And yet, you've (falsely) managed to condemn it. Great job author, and great job CNN. What were you thinking, posting this junk?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  9. Snuffery

    When I say I'm spiritual but not religious, I simply mean that I believe in a higher power but do not presume to know what that power is. It's simply beyond human comprehension and probably for good reason. I for one don't have a need to understand how every little thing in exsistence works, I'm totally content with simply knowing that it exsists.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Athy

      There is no higher power. Once you accept that it all falls into place. There just doesn't need to be a "higher power".

      October 1, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  10. finngodo

    This author loses credibility at "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion..."

    Sorry, no peddling here. I'm living my life free of an oppressive faith, and yet spiritually connected with my world, and the natural order of life. You can believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want and I have no desire to get those to believe in what I do to validate my beliefs.

    Thank you.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • jerry148

      I'll have whatever it is that you're smoking.

      Oppressive faith? Speak for yourself, my good man. I've been Catholic all my life, and I've not once felt oppressed. Going to Mass on Sunday makes me feel wholly connected with both my local community, and that of the 1 billion+ of my Catholic brothers and sisters in this world.

      And not for nothing, but yoga, meditation, and/or deep breathing (what I assume you mean by "spiritually connected") is completely =/= spirituality. Maybe you feel calmer, but that's not "spiritual".

      October 1, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  11. SJMom

    My Take: You don't know what your talking about and have obviously run out of things to write about. Do not presume to understand someone else's life events and/or beliefs - now more than ever, we need promote tolerance - how dare you! - The real problem are rigid people like YOU!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  12. Athiest bob

    Oh wow, I lost a few IQ points from reading that.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  13. willard43

    You're right Alan, this "fence-sitting" is no good. I encourage all "spiritual but not religious" folks to take the next "logical" leap and go full Atheist. To suggest that the corrupt and arbitrary religious doctrines which have given us prejudice, inquisitions, jihads, war and burning at the stake is still a viable option, when so few who go to church actually read the bible and those that do only pick what's convenient for their agenda, is far more dangerous than "fence-sitting" in my book.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • Martin

      Agreed. Spiritual but not religious is a cop-out, but it's less of a cop-out than religion. At least it's a step in the right direction.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Stephen


      I would have to agree with you. Spiritual but not religious is problematic, but for none of the reasons listed by the author. You're right though, the cop-out is claiming that, while you can recognize the myriad aspects of organized religions that are illogical, paradoxical, immoral or just plain zany, the one concept you will continue to run with is the belief in "a higher power" (an idea you gleaned from those illogical religions mentioned above). Why? Because, admittedly, it's nice to feel like we're not alone in this, I guess. Just walk all the way over to the realm of the logical so we can finally have the numbers to tell extremist, "no, it is not okay to base your behaviors on belief systems with zero empirical evidence to support them."

      October 1, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  14. Leslie

    You're basically asserting that faith is synonymous with religion. That's dumb as hell. The mechanisms behind belief are evolving beyond the point of religious dependence. Its happened throughout history.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  15. brian

    A businessman is talking about the business of religion. Isn't that special – as the church lady would say.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  16. Dan Middleman

    Millions of innocent people have died because of religion over the past 3000 years. No one every died because of spirituality. Religion is man made rules based on a rigid belief system. Spirituality is simply my relationship with God. Nothing wrong with that, man. Religion has ruled the human race for 3000 years. Maybe we are evolving to the point that we no longer need structured religion, and we can just have our own relationship with God.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  17. Chris F

    Is this satire?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  18. pickettman

    Mr. Miller has probably pushed even more folks away from religion and over to the spiritual side with this article.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Robertovich Robertson

      He probably pushed the spirituals closer to secularism as well.

      He did wonderfully, didn't he?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  19. ericgoestoholland

    Not sure if I can say anything now, being a spiritual but not religious person, that wouldn't sound hypocritical based on the characterization of my beliefs within this op-ed. It was an interesting article and a welcome addressing of an important phenomenon in western religious history though. The writer's points are well-understood and, in some cases, are probably correct. There are, after all, some people out there who describe themselves in this way seemingly in order to add on to their self-concept, in the same way one might align oneself with a particular musical movement. But I largely believe that this author has confused the acceptance of uncertainty, and the idea that God might not conform to the traditional boxes, with self-centered spirituality. Is this author aware that many Christians are currently trying to separate themselves from the image of being "religious" (even though this is a bit of different phenomenon)? The point being made is really nothing new. It's the same argument traditionalists make about non-traditionalists over and over throughout history. I would say that this man should consider thinking outside of the box for once, but I'd be afraid of getting accused as "anti-discipline" or just another peon of the "me generation"

    October 1, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  20. Anointed fighter

    Jude 1:20-21 But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

    Matthew 7:24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, i will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

    October 1, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • ericgoestoholland

      "And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
      For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." [Ecc. 1:17-18, kjv]

      October 1, 2012 at 12:09 am |
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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.