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. Good News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    that is supported by an absolutely matchless,
    19 coded, SYMMETRICAL Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL MIRACLE!

    So it is time to be Spiritual, and yes, also rightfully Religious!



    October 1, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Diana Howe

      Get the hate out of religion and i might consider it... BTW, i have read the bible front to back, and the koran, and the torah and many other religious tracts... i'm not impressed... i speak to my creator directly... i don't need any one between me an my creator.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Helvetica

      And more than one magician. Also, I'm pretty sure there is more than one Easter Bunny but I can't get my parents to admit it.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:03 am |
  2. Pat in AZ

    How ridiculous. I am almost 68 years old and live in an active adult community. Of all my friends, I know only one couple who faithfully attends a church, yet my friends would all classify themselves as spiritual. None of us is younger than 65. Organized religion has a bad name today because of the things mentioned in the article and in some of the posts. I believe that spirituality over religion is a sign that one is more evolved than a person who has to be told what and how to believe based on a particular religious doctrine or a particular group of leaders.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • up

      Perhaps, but what if your wrong.......................................No matter what faith any of us is, all faiths that worship God tell us to treat all with love respect and dignity. No matter the vehicle that we choose to worship God (what ever we may concieve God to be) we must love and care for one another on this earth for that is the reason that we are here.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:48 am |
  3. DaveGinOly

    The authors asks, "So what, one may ask?" And then replies to the question, "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."
    But this would be true of any religion, of any faith and of any set of beliefs/teachings, that may have happened to have secured predominance. Predominance would not make any hypothetical religion "true" nor its teachings "correct" any more than it makes the actual predominant Western religion "true" and "correct." (However, this is why I'm fascinated by the history of Christianity. It strikes me as remarkable that our civilization was built on a set of Iron Age mythologies that, somehow, have remained current. How the belief system remained current and how it influenced every facet of our society during its evolution through time is an astounding story. Someday, humankind will look back at its history and think the entire world must have been mad to allow itself to be so thoroughly warped by belief systems that began as stories told around camp fires before man even knew how to smelt metal.)
    Personally, I found the casting off of organized religion (as opposed to the casting off of the religion's beliefs) the first step towards atheism. It is very difficult to overcome several decades of indoctrination into belief in a "supreme being" and an "afterlife" in one fell swoop. Some people will only make some of the steps and never come to atheism, but others, like me, finally bite the bullet and have to admit (to ourselves – so strong is our former belief system) that religion is just all made-up BS to make us feel better about life, our existence here, and the fact that we die. Does that seem gloomy or harsh? Well, yes, it does. And that's why belief in gods and an afterlife began in the first place; the alternative was unpalatable.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  4. JesusNotReligion

    Some passages to consider about JesusBotReligion:

    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.

    These passages, whether or not you believe them, speak for themselves...and they also speak against "RELIGION" & THE "SPIRITUALITY" OF SELF RIGHTEOUSNESS, WORKS and any form of Spiritual ASCETICISM...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 (or have the potential to) save yourself! You still think you can swim from California to Hawaii by training hard enough (i.e. Work your way to heaven by traiming yourself to be a "good person" – doing your own "good works")...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 type of "faith" that says "I don't BELIEVE in the Bible or in Jesus,!" KNOW THIS: You all just heard the gospel of JesusNotReligion...I hope and pray that someone tonight will believe and receive the Jesus of the Bible that I just wrote about. He is truly God's love, forgiveness and gift of salvation, who did for us what we could not do for ourselves. This "Jesus" is "Immanuel", God with us! AMEN!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Helvetica

      You are part of the 'religion problem'. happy?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • David

      To quote these scriptures as if it is clear that your interpretation (and it is your interpretation) is the truth of the scriptures, is small-minded.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • hawaiikaos

      Why do you think it is acceptable to format information in this way? Even if I were interested in your opinion, I am completely turned off by the cray-cray formatting, as I am sure are many other people. Look at how others write. Look at how the author of this article writes, and how other articles are written on this site. Please format your comments to fit in with the prevailing style if you wish to be read and taken at all seriously.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      You have no idea how JesusNotReligion not only gave me eternal life to be enjoyed in the future, but changed my life 26 years ago – and set me free from myself, from religion and from making comments like yours. Your argument is not with "Christians",it's with Jesus. Why don't you take it up with Him right now instead typing out your ignorance for all to see. And I dont mean "ignorance" as an insult, Im ignorant of alot of things, but not about the Jesus of the Bible...and that, only BY HIS AMAZING GRACE...Go talk to Him now in your own way, and seriously ask Him to reveal Himself to you...Good night. I will be praying for you...and you cant stop me...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • Sully

      blah blah blah

      Religion is a method to keep people in line
      Spirituality is a word that is borderline meaningless. It has no explanatory value

      Be a good person, leave the world better than you found it and live to help and not harm.

      As long as you hit those points, believe in whatever ghosts or gremlins you want

      October 1, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • Keith

      You are a prime example of the problem with Religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:59 am |
  5. Bel

    Just because YOU don't understand it does not make it a cop-out or any other negative term you wish to use. Many find great peace and joy on there own path...no one should judge another...even the Christian Bible says that :-).

    October 1, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  6. Al Ward

    I think religions around the world are hemorraging followers. It is similar to discovering that your parents are humans and that they can be wrong, so you stop taking their suggestions seriously. Science, wars, hypocrisy are just a few things that turn people away from religion. It is just part of growing up, at some point there will be a new universal consensus/religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Helvetica

      See, you almost had it, but you undid yourself at the end. There is no 'someday...' It is all anybody wants to make of it. And where do you get the 'parents' thing? People dont practice organized religion because they're 'rebelling' against their parents? Maybe if they're ten...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  7. Insert Truth Here

    The judgmental nature of this article is a perfect example of why many people in modern society have turned away from religion, particularly organized religion. I do not know how many of these "spiritual but not religious" people the author has spoken to, but it does not appear to be many, if any.

    I believe the real reason people have turned away from religion is due to a desire for transparency alongside with a wider access to knowledge. Two centuries ago how many Americans were aware of the beliefs and traditions of religions aside from Christianity and Judaism? How about one century ago? A half century ago? Now look at today's society. The high-tech, fast-paced society we live in has put an endless amount of information at our fingertips at all hours of the day or night. People can communicate and share views and ideas with people halfway around the world. The result of this is a wider understanding that there really aren't that many differences between us. Most of the religions of the world share similar morals, and in many cases even extremely similar beliefs. As a result people are looking at the differences between religions, which are in many cases rooted in long-standing and archaic traditions – wearing of abayas or djellabas, not eating pork, paying 10% ti-thes to the church, wearing your "Sunday best" to church, worshipping saints, etc. What do these differences really represent, and how did they come about? In some cases these traditions served a purpose at one point in time – for example pork was unsafe to eat in the ancient world due to disease. In other cases it's a bit harder to sort out the true starting point of certain traditions. Yet in many of these cases people are beginning to question the need for these ancient traditions.

    As I said earlier, knowledge plays a huge role in the decline of religion, particularly organized religion. With this comes not just an understanding that we are not very different from one another, but also new questions. How much of the modern English Bible is true in the form it is displayed? How much of the story was left out or twisted for political and/or religious reasons when it was compiled and translated? Furthermore, why do we need a preacher to interpret what God meant by every action, quote and story in the Bible? Are we not free-thinking people fully capable of reading a story and developing our own views and interpretations?

    I personally am not religious – though I once was. I am not among the "spiritual but not religious" heading either. When people ask I say I am not religious. I believe in humanity. I believe that we must come together to overcome our differences, and embrace those differences. We must learn to love one another for who we are. As a species of extreme influence on this planet we must learn to work together to resolve the problems of the world. Starvation is a logistics problem – how do we get the food to where it needs to be (don't take my word for it, look up the amount of food that is thrown out around the world). Unfortunately humans have complicated the problem into one of finances and politics. Even if God does exist, he is not going to swoop in and put an end to the problems humanity faces. Expecting him to bring an end to all our of wars, hunger and disease, and punish the sinners of the world is a way of shirking the responsibility that should fall on the shoulders of humanity. Where was God during each of our modern wars? Who brought an end to those wars? Not God. People, standing up for what they believe in, being willing to give their lives for what they believe to be right, brought those wars to an end. However it is that same line of thinking that started those wars. This is why we must learn to overcome and embrace our differences, rather than fight over them and force our views upon others. Yes, I believe many of us are capable of this huge feat. Unfortunately there are people on this planet that are not yet capable of this, and in some cases may never be capable of embracing those differences. They have been too warped by the poisonous preachings of extremists. Still, I see the advances we have made over the last centuries, and I continue to believe that humanity will someday stand together. Unfortunately I fear that day will not come in my lifetime.

    I encourage everyone out there to step outside their comfort zone and talk to someone who has vastly different beliefs from your own. Talk to someone who is "spiritual but not religious". Perhaps you will be enlightened and uplifted by what you learn.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  8. JP

    This is yet another example of CNN trash. The perspective is totally dichotomous, an "either or" perspective. It is yet another trapping of Western philosophy. This author is clearly thick headed, with very thin perspective. And as usual, this "news" source (CNN) is absolutely asinine.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:36 am |
    • KATE

      If CNN is TRASH......why are you reading and responding to the articles? Bored are we with all that other stuff?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  9. OnlyOne

    Alan, you aren't going to improve your credibility by grouping the Kama Sutra in with the Bible and the Quran. Oh, and there's no such thing as the "Karma Sutra".

    October 1, 2012 at 12:34 am |
  10. Tony

    All religions are spiritual but not religious, since there are no gods.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • KATE

      No gods, no devils, no angels, no spirits........wow....soon we won't have anything left to argue about!!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  11. Frank White

    Religion is a tool used to control the ignorant and the weak. When will our society stop encouraging adults to believe in fairy tales?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Mina

      for it was once told on the jews through Isaiah "Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. " NOW its directed into all of you people who dont believe in the lord jesus.. for your ego is too high that you are spiritually blind, thinking you are genius and having brilliand brains to think and depend on " science aka higher power aka secret energy aka quantum physics " and forgetting that God himself is the provider of all of these things and especially ur little brains that u can think and imagine with.... but your ego and the devil are blinding you when in fact you are not blind.. for " If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth " john 9:41.... REPENT people and return back to JESUS , for he is the only LIGHT, GATE, WAY, LIFE & TRUTH to Heaven " And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" john 8:32 search the books people as long as you have eyes and alive.....

      October 1, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  12. Julie Babbitt

    Thought provoking! The intent seems to be, take a position.. We have come a long way from thoughtless witch burning, fear of what we don't understand. Thinking outside the religious box, freedom of thought, reading, analyzing information, shaping our beliefs based on what makes sense to us. Suddenly, I am grateful for living in a country where freedom of expression is encouraged. Reading from the responses to the article I am pleased to know there are many thinking people in existence, rather then those that live by blanket phases , letting someone else do the thinking.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  13. SMH

    Being religious and not spiritual seems to be a common problem in this world. Maybe that is the problem that should concern you most.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • SSE


      October 1, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  14. Soulbird

    Religions are bad. Open your eyes. It's apparent that all these "Gods" are man made. I'm glad society is shifting away from religions. It's about time. They belong in the dark ages...with the rest of mythological beliefs and figures of days gone by. Science is proving all the false claims wrong and I love it. Only difference between Santa, the Easter bunny, and tooth fairy is adults haven't been told it's a lie yet. It's just something to soothe and control the masses. Wake up people. Religions are the biggest joke mankind has ever played on itself. Invest in science..it will find the answers. The higher the IQ, the lower the belief in "Gods"..spiritualism..is a kinder way of saying "atheist".

    October 1, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • Richard

      Religion was needed to keep society in order. It is evolutionary in that it will go away in the future, but not all people evolve at the same time. Some people still need it but it is hard for everyone else that is past religion already. It is hard to say how well this is going to work out.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • gecko

      I've seen/heard the God-Santa-Easter Bunny comment dozens of times. It's as naive suggesting that Star Trek and Doctor Who have as much relevance to sciences as quantum mechanics or biochemistry. What data do you have that suggests that higher IQ = less religious thought? I am assuming your error is in equating world view with intelligence, e.g. "the more educated you become the more likely you are to reject the notion of God." Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.
      I was raised within a religious household and studied as a scientist in a secular university. I do not see any incompatibilities between science (which can explain the "how") and religion (which can explain the "why"). Rather, I see a lack of any depth of understanding in individuals on of either topic.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  15. denny

    The only possible reason the writer would take such an ignorant position is that stupid sells. He's successfully generated lots of meaningless buzz.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  16. nepawoods

    "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say." ... I've seen this confusion put forth by the "religious" before, that not knowing is a lack of, and can be overcome by, taking a stand. If you know that you don't know, accept it, embrace it. Do NOT take the stand that you know what you don't; it is a lie.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  17. USDude

    You either believe in Jesus or you don't. See John 14:6 "Jesus answered, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Hopefully you do believe in Jesus – and if you don't, please see Mathew 7:7 "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." God's Word is ALIVE!!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • rationalist63

      The greatest man in human history arrives on earth. He cures the sick and raises dead men from their graves. He cures the blind and the lame. He is crucified and then rises from the dead himself! Yet outside of the bible there is virtually no historical record of the man! Seems a little hard to believe. 

      October 1, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • USDude

      Seems a little hard to believe that a monkey turned into a man – those who believe that have a lot more faith than me!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Humanist11

      Seems a little difficult to believe that 10 million animals fit onto a 50 foot boat too. At least science has proved evolution and natural selection. I don't think science has proved how all those animals could have fit on that boat along with enough food to feed them.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • Humanist11


      Seems a little hard to believe that a monkey turned into a man – those who believe that have a lot more faith than me!

      Read a science book and you will see irrefutable evidence! Here is a good place to start. Read "What Evolution Is" by Ernst Mayr. There really is a wonderful world out there without the confins of religion. I would feel bad if you never experienced it. Don't worry, you can still be a good and friendly person!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  18. ed

    Wow, this is just incoherent trype, Miller represents the POWER religion that us "spiritual" types are trying to get away from. I was a pastor for 10 years, have written three Christian books, and all I can say is I am happy that Miller thinks people like me are such a threat. Maybe we can get rid of the Constantinian religion they call Christianity soon!

    October 1, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  19. lostisland

    Pot calling kettle black comes to mind.....

    October 1, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  20. lostisland

    Religion under attack by spiritualism! Where can I buy tickets? – Should be a fun show full of zany behavior from both sides.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:26 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.