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. Donald Lawn

    The real danger is being "religious" but not "spiritual."

    October 1, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • Florist

      Yup. The nerve of the "writer" is just laughable. Are people like him supposed to judge people so harshly if they don't think the way he does? (Hint- they're not. The Bible says not to do that.) So everyone should think exactly the same way, but only if that's what Alan believes? Why don't we just elect Alan our overlord? He could tell us what to think and believe during every minute of the day. All hail Overlord Alan!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  2. abc123

    The author urges us to "take at stand" (that is, pick a religion). If we don't, then we are mentally lazy. I hold the exact opposite view. Picking a religion is, in my opinion, mentally lazy. Why? Because none are provable, none are verifiable. Picking one amounts to saying, "Dealing with the unknown is too much for me, so I'll just pick one so that I don't have to deal with it."

    October 1, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • James

      so true! well said!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • dan o


      October 1, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  3. lilgtogirl

    Not all people are so worthless, ignorant, or childish as to need a set of rules written by a church in order to live a good life. Lets face it, most of you are not following your own rules as it is. I mean crap, for most of the world there are only 10 and you can't even get those right.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  4. american pat

    what a miopic view of spiritual people.

    there are multiple reason why people can be spiritual but not religious, but 'copping out' would strike me as one of the least likely ones.
    If anything it is blind believers such as Mr. Miller that 'cop out' and renounce to use their intellect but instead blindly take whatever their church say.

    in view of today's world and knowledge, a strict belief in 'old religion" is illogical and borderline ridiculous in some aspects, as the vast majority of all what any of the structured religions claim is patently and obviously false, like the old roman and greek 'gods' before.

    that doesn't mean that people who recognize the clear implausability of the traditional religions don't think that there might be still be something on a spiritual level.

    a really appalling article.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  5. Phyllis

    Winston Churchill wrote in a memo that information about RAF encounters with UFOs must be restricted because he didn’t want to undermine religious faith. Churchill essentially confessed the need to hide the truth to maintain religious faith. Churchill’s position, in itself, was a shameful cope-out. Religious faith steadily eroded with greater communication and mobility in a changing world without getting a kick-in-the-pants Churchill feared knowledge of UFOs would deliver.

    Now people demand to know about UFOs that Churchill and Ike Eisenhower carefully hid and are turning to greater spirituality with less religion. The truth about UFOs still waits in secret files.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • government cheese

      The youth are dumber than ever. Look at the school system that takes so much money. It needs reform.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • Insert Truth Here

      If you look at the religious texts of various belief systems around the world, there is quite a bit of evidence of extraterrestrial visitors. I believe our lack of knowledge at the time resulted in our calling them "Gods". However, I can no more prove this than anybody can prove their religious figures exist. In any case, it doesn't change how I live my life. I still work to protect the environment, help the less fortunate, volunteer with Girl Scouts, and work to avoid judging others (a feat that is not always easy since we live in a society that thrives on passing judgment).

      October 1, 2012 at 1:35 am |
  6. government cheese

    Why do politicians have to get rid of God? So they can implement their own rights and wrongs. Religion is too hard to overcome.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • n0e11e

      uh...there are no politicians that are trying to "get rid of god". in fact, most of them have made it a top priority to shove THEIR VERSION of god down the world's throats, ignoring silly little issues like jobs for veterans [see house resolution 789: "reaffirming the importance of religion..."].

      October 1, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  7. Keith

    wow, 181 pages

    October 1, 2012 at 1:20 am |
  8. bob

    Some pretty harsh attacks on Christianity. Funny how other religions are left out of the way of the angry mob, yet Christianity is brought up CONSTANTLY. Secondly, how is the unbelief in a higher power working out, the three biggest genocides of the last century caused by atheists. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Attack Christianity because of a knowledge based argument, don't attack because of the usual BS on corruption and damnation. Face it people with power are corrupted, left right and center, and sadly Christians are no different. When 4.2 billion people out of 6 on this Earth are Christian, something must be right. How does a following of a few friends in the 1st century balloon into modern day Christianity? How does a religion that rebukes power, wealth, and worldly pleasure attain the momentum that it experiences today? As Christians persecution is an imminent and we embrace it as a fact, it will come, we will be ridiculed, and mocked, and killed. Yet at the homeless shelter, there is usually a Church group volunteering, in the slums in Calcutta where no one dared go, Mother Teresa served.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • Keith

      I am a Christian, but I would never go to an Evangelical church because those guys aren't Christians. that is why many of us have chosen Spiritual not Religious as a life choice. I don't attack Christianity, I am attacking Christian Churches. I believe they should all be taxed just as any other business is.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • rob

      You really need to revisit your facts. Of the roughly 7 billion people on Earth, there are about 2 billion Christians, and that number is declining.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • leonid7

      Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were communists, which is a secular religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:55 am |
    • n0e11e

      your numbers are so far off it's not even funny. 4.2 billion christians. really.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  9. kamanakapu

    The first and greatest lie this planet has ever known is the lie that the human male is needed by, and important to, the human female and their children. This lie is the grandfather of all lie’s, the lie from which all other lie’s, directly or indirectly, spring from. There has never been a single human male who ever did anything that was truly needed by, or important to, the human female as a gender.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • government cheese

      You don't believe in the family?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • Keith

      My wife says you are crazy.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • Florist

      They don't do anything of monumental important other than supply sp erm. Also? They open pickle jars.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  10. peter

    anyone else realize that the author is assuming that we know which God he talks about?

    October 1, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • n0e11e

      the one true god, obviously. 😉

      October 1, 2012 at 2:04 am |
  11. Zero Gods

    "Spiritual but not religious" people seem less dangerous (to themselves and others) than religious people. In the best case, they're simply taking good ideas from various religious and philosophical sources, sprinkling in a bit of wonder in the universe, and calling it a belief system. Most don't seem to get overly carried away with it. Quite a likable bunch, really.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • BldrRepublican

      "Quite a likable bunch, really".

      That is until one of these "likable" people who believes that all are create equal and free meets another who believes that since he was born of a certain lineage that he is allowed and COMMANDED to take slaves.

      Yes, this just happened in the Denver area. The middle-eastern man is considering suing, claiming his "civil rights" to take a slave are being violated.

      So, by your argument, he should be allowed to take a slave. After all, I'm sure he's a nice guy....

      October 1, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • OTOH

      Geez, Bldr,

      How many times do we have to remind you the there is nothing prohibiting slavery in your Bible. Enlightenment thinking, more than anything else, changed people's views on slavery.... and yep, it has not gotten through to some people yet.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  12. PascalWasWrong

    More of the same – "Don't think, just go to church and let them think for you!"

    Keep on keeping that head in the sand, telling us we're wrong or regressive because we're tired of the same old story from the "one true religion" folks, like bldrRepublican here, who is quick to point out that 4/5ths of the world is religious (so it MUST be right), but can't seem to figure out that those religions all think theirs is the one and only truth.

    There is no god. There is only the tao.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Keith

      For many of us the way contains a creator God

      October 1, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  13. Jeff

    Alan – I think something exciting is going on and you might be missing out on it. The taboo of the average citizen openly questioning the tradition that has been passed down to them over the course of thousands of years is finally morphing, in many cases, into intelligent dialogue. The concept of historical context is being given its proper place and people are freeing themselves to explore what becoming closer to their creator, in whatever form they align with, presents itself. These are people that don't see writing off spirituality all together due to the ugliness they find present in all major religions of late. They're turning inward and searching for answers that invariably will lead them to feel closer to other human beings and "god" as they see him/her/it etc. I find spirituality without the need for traditional dogmatic alignment exciting and a new hope for a cynical world that has witnessed the emperors new clothes.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  14. Simon

    Why are Christians threatened by those that don't believe? Or those who want to believe their own spirituality? It's not a cop out. It's the same thing any founders of all religions did themselves once upon a time.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Seems that there is an element on both sides that is of fear of those in opposition to their own views. I think that it is because to some in both Atheist and the Faithful camps for the other to exist is to threaten their views.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  15. Bob Jones

    "The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world"

    Frankly this idea of sin is not necessary to consider "the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world".
    I proceed with the latter and ignore the ignorant baggage that accompanies the former.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Keith

      The idea of sin has only existed since the King James bible.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  16. Ken Levy

    Anyone who understands consciousness and spirituality realizes that this article is full of crap. Us people who are spiritual and not religious are threatening to the power structure because we have critical thinking skills, an open mind, and exibit a higher level of awareness. Therefore, we must be demonized to the general public by the corporate media. Anyone who wants to get into spirituality needs to read eckhart tolle- the power of now, great introduction into spirituality/consciousness.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • government cheese

      Eckhart took religion for his own needs. He tried to reproduce it as if he was God.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Keith

      We all take Religion for our own needs. what is your point?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • Matthew

      Tolle may be a great start, but it is still just a start and a full on tradition like Zen or Advaita Vedanta may be a good finish. Trying to see the partial truth in what the author says, lots of people may call themselves spiritual without engaging in any real practice which is meant to promote transformation. There is value in digging into certain traditions and their practices – they've been in the waking up business for a long time.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Brewski

      “Eckhart took religion for his own needs. He tried to reproduce it as if he was God.”

      We are all gods. The “Christian” bible says so.

      Psalm 82:6-7
      “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
      you are all sons of the Most High.’
      But you will die like mere mortals;
      you will fall like every other ruler.”

      October 1, 2012 at 2:09 am |
  17. Idiom

    This article is needlessly intellectual. Let's make is simple. Produce your God and I'll pay attention.You won't of course, because you can't. No one can, because he/she it/them doesn't exist. Far more interesting to me than this article, is why seemingly intelligent people are so easily persuaded to believe in fairy tales without any evidence what so ever. It appears to be a flaw in the mental filtering ability of a percentage of the population, either hard wired for a mysterious reason, or, born of fear, meaning, a percentage of the population just can't begin to entertain the probability that they are alone, its too frightening for them. Unfortunately, a subset of those people, are the ones that breed ignorance, hatred, fear of science, and start persecution, terrorist acts and war. The idea of a "God" is so incredibly primitive and thankfully, dying, which is the real reason people are focusing more on being spiritual and leaving behind the formal construct of religions that had 2000 years to make a change for the better and deliver proof of the facts behind their beliefs and, of course, have failed. Face the facts, folks...there's more evidence for the probable existence of life elsewhere in the universe then there is for "God" while noting, that if that fact truly bothered a God, he/she it/them could prove me wrong at any moment,...a moment that has not yet occurred in the 200,000 years of human existence.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • government cheese

      Produce hope and change. You can't.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Wow, that's a lot to just say that you are not one of the Faithful. While you point to the many years that no one can prove there is not a God or Gods, there have been Faithful that are still waiting for you to disprove such an existence. As you stated, You can't. It is the same peace on both sides of those that do not care and the same fear of those on the extremes of both sides.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Mike

      Amen Brother

      October 1, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  18. Colin

    A few questions should help shed light on the relationship between religion and rational thought.

    The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:

    (a) Children’s fairytales;

    (b) Medieval mythology;

    (c) New age pseudo science; or

    (d) Christianity

    I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Christian

    Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am

    (a) A victim of child molestation

    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover

    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions

    (d) A Christian

    You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:

    (a) historian;

    (b) geologist;

    (c) NASA astronomer; or

    (d) Christian

    I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am

    (a) A failed psychologist

    (b) A fraudulent geneticist

    (c) A sociologist who never went to college; or

    (d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.

    The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:

    (a) Architecture;

    (b) Philosophy;

    (c) Archeology; or

    (d) Religion

    What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:

    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they must believe under threat of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;

    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is one god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;

    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or

    (d) All of the above.

    If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:

    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;

    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;

    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or

    (d) my religious belief.

    If I am worried that my children, who I love very much, will not believe something I tell them, such as "smoking is bad for you," I should:

    (a) have our family doctor explain to them the various ill effects of smoking.

    (b) show them a film produced by the National Inst.itute for Health on the topic.

    (c) set a good example for them by not smoking; or

    (d) refuse to give them any evidence of the ill effects of smoking, insist they rely on faith and then take them out into the backyard and burn them to death if I ever catch them smoking.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Idiom

      Well played, sir.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • Keith

      None of those beliefs are universal to believers. Your intent to deduce belief systems to the idiotic are just that. You are the idiot. Spirituality can be used to provide you with a system of beliefs for those things in life that are not explainable scientifically or in the natural world. There is a part of human existence that needs a belief system, you don't have to call it religion or faith but no one can live without it. Every mental health provider in the world knows that this is true, Jung provided some guidelines to help people heal these areas of our psyche. Religion provides for many people a system that they can live with, most educated folks can't buy the whole Christian system so they use other systems.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  19. Harris

    This article is unintelligent.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Roger

      I completely agree. Most of the crappiest people I have ever known were those that regularly attended church. They seemed to believe that act of churchgoing made them holy. They were not introspective or making any effort to improve themselves since they thought that they were already "forgiven" Organized religion has helped out some desperate people but ofter seems to have the opposite effect.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  20. David

    At first I couldn't believe that this writer would even be considered any kind of authority on religion. THEN I remembered who we usually listen to about that topic in our society, and I believed it easily.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Keith

      Illiterate hillbillies created most of the Protestant religions in America.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:40 am |
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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.