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. think

    this article is directed at the hindu / buddhist / indian / eastern religions of meditation – yoga – etc.
    trying to get them riled to go to war too cnn?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • ytman

      Understand that this is a blog. I've largely given up on the Belief.blog section of CNN. I stopped believing about the time a "Card Counting Pastor" made the argument that gambling was A-Ok and that it was super easy and luxurious. This was around the time of the worst of the recession and was undoubtedly aimed at desperate people clinging to hope.

      It was very disgusting to see a guy, probably on bill of the casinos, using his religious position to convince people to gamble their money away in hard times... the worst of humanity right there. Jesus would not have approved.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • think

      they were probably just trying to convince their rich religious friends to get more involved in the game of derivatives – and give the rest of the USA to the highest riskiest bidder(s)

      October 1, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  2. Ryan Cameron

    The choice is not between "human based knowledge" and an adherence to "Scripture", the choice is between intellectual honesty and self-delusion.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  3. clinky

    I think the kind of people the author is trying to identify make a small minority of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. I consider myself "religious" but not interested in joining a church or organized religion. The funny thing is, I'm more tolerant of Christians than this author (ramrod Catholic?) could ever be of me. I think Christians have a lot of the picture right. But I can't go along with the idea that Christianity is the only true faith and should replace other beliefs. Even within Christianity, many people veer off of orthodoxy and give their belief their own personal inflection. At least for me, dogma is plain boring, kills the relationship to God that makes faith come alive, and it doesn't nourish my soul.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  4. Jay

    A person can be spiritual and NOT religious. Give me a break. This article assumes that "religion" is right or proven. Poor article and argument by the author. Bad Form Mate. You lose. "God" is shaking HER head laughing.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • Commander

      There is no god

      October 1, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  5. HeathanMike

    I have enjoyed quite a few of the posts on this blog. There are way to many to read them all. The general jist? That the author, Mr. Miller, is missing important points about what it means to be spiritual. I happen to disagree with his whole outlook, though in a narrow sense I'll agree labeling oneself as "spiritual" might just be a cop-out. That is only because, in a sense, we are all spiritual. My understanding of the term is simply "the relationship between an individual person's beliefs, values, and behavior or choices. So you might say, the more our behaviors and choices match our beliefs about life and about right and wrong, the more positively spiritual we are. But Mr. Miller, in his praise for Christianity as the foundation for western civilization, ignores the likelihood that without its emergence, some other religion or philisophical paradigm would surely have taken its place. Every civilization on the planet has developed or adopted religious or philisophical models of some sort, because we big brained humans find ourselves begging for some answers to existential questions about life and purpose, etc. Mr. Miller acused the growing "spiritual but not religious" population of copping out, but he neglected to acknowledge that an important reason so many people are abandoning organized religion is that the information age has made it much harder to remain ignorant of the factual errors, hipocracies, and abuses of power that pepper organized religions with strong hierrarchical authority structures. Why continue to ascribe to a religious system that is clearly in error at times and dishonest, punitive and abusive at others? I still think religions prod us to consider important questions about life and are, therefore, important. But that positive might be outweighed by the negative if a religion's authority representatives and even its scriptures expect us to abandon thinking for ourselves.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  6. StanleyMann

    So Alan Miller, what's it to you that people are spiritual, but not religious. Are you threatened by that. Or do you scoff at them because your religion allows it? Mind your own business. If these people face hell, then that's there thing. What a waste of an article.

    Most of these spiritual by not religious crowd are anti-war, anti-discrimination, and pro-tolerance. Something that the three major religions should take note.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  7. ChaseR

    Whoever wrote this is a part of why we humans still act and think like cavemen today, I mean we have electricity, internet, motors, tools and entire "civilized" countries of millions and millions, but when it comes down to the core issue of human life in the late great U.S.A. we act and are build upon a very caveman way of thinking and being, PERIOD! Its been proven that most stories in most religions are a lie, or taken from another religion, I mean most of the stories in the bible like the wise men and the virgin Mary ETC, we're taken from other religions long before the Jesus based religion, now with ideas like that really? You want me to pick between a lie and a bigger lie!? No thanks! I'd rather spend my whole life searching for the truth than spend my whole life believing a lie, THAT SIR IS WHAT BEING "SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS" IS ALL ABOUT! Seeking the truth! Something you and our parents gave up on, your generation kept sweeping things under the rug that it has stacked so high that we not have to move mountains bigger than entire countries to get back to something true and pure and real.

    Thanks for being you, it makes me thankful that I'm me, your brain washed and I hope you get help, cause you scare me.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  8. Best News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    that is revealed in an absolutely matchless, Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

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



    October 1, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Ryan Cameron

      Its funny how REligious People resOrt to caPitalizing things to desperately grasp at credibility when they clearly have none. Whether you spell god with a capital "G" or not, he is still Imaginary.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  9. JustDad

    spiritual but not religious, fits my understanding of President Obama's upbringing by two Muslims, His Athiest mother, and non practicing methodist grandparents.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • Dazagil

      It might fit your understanding of his upbringing but he claims to be a Christian and has been a regular church-goer for decades. Damn, do ya'll Christians not take all the people who claim you as Christians. Is there a test somebody has to pass before Christians like you will consider me a Christian? So saying you're a Christian and worshiping Jesus isn't good enough for you though? Do white non-Americans have to pass a harder test to be considered Christians as white Americans do? Was Jesus this hard to please? Did he refuse folks who didn't grow up in a familiar church?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • JW

      That is why you are JustDad. You'd be surprised what happens when you get out the house – figuratively and literally.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Rogue351

      Exactly why there should be a separation of church and state. There are good people in all religions, there are good atheist as well. But the GOP would lead you to believe that unless you are actively religions in a christian religion then you are bad. And we all have seen exactly how well religious fanatics continue to adversely affect the middle east. But for some reason the christians seen to think they are amine from going down that path yet again.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • StanleyMann

      You know what dude. Just get over the fact that he is not a MUSLIM. Get of the Republican cult propaganda talk show brain washing. Obama is a Christian. He was baptized as a Christian! That's that. If you don't like him, don't vote for him! But spare the rest of us from spreading more stupidity!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  10. Mongo23

    There have been many gods and many religions. All people have emotions about a friend’s passing, a wedding, a new baby or puppy or just a beautiful sunset. If someone can’t really believe the dogma of the local cult, they may call it spiritual when they can’t quite give up the god thing and just admit that they don’t believe. That’s okay. If you admit that you are an atheist, some good Christian or Muslim may feel the need to beat you up.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      Or you can try being part of an organized religion in China and how the CCP treats you =).. Oh how easy it is to make sweeping generalizations. Rather being overly smug in your beliefs , no matter what they are just makes you a jerk.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  11. Pax

    The difference is religious people live their lives deeply fearful of going to hell, spiritual people have already been there!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • think

      spiritual people live in the hell religious people created

      October 1, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • Brewski

      So true!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  12. Ali P

    While I don't agree with everything being said here (like people who are "spiritual" and not religious are not deep thinkers, I think this article generalizes and is too harsh), the author makes some interesting points. I have honestly debated between implementing the two in my life and have found organized religion the better choice because it challenges me to change in a way that I found lacking in spirituality. I believe that we can find out truth through spiritual means (prayer, scripture study etc). Adhering to a set of principles that you tested and tried through prayer is the only way to discern what it and what is not true. I think that living in a climate of such relativism keeps us from living our lives based on that truth because just accepting whatever appeals to us is neglecting the obvious fact that we don't know everything and need direction from a higher and more omnipotent power.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  13. G

    one Truth – all has been forgiven...by Yeshua on the cross....peace.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • think

      some man was sacrified to the all holy religious annihilation war / control machine –
      and they figure everyone needs to be enamored of their sorry asses ... for ever more?
      the sun is christ – it is a story repeated to represent the fact that the sun hopefully rises bright after every winter solstice long nite.
      but ...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  14. Eric

    Being spiritual, but not religious: It's called "not buying into the 'establishment's' idea that in order to believe in a higher power....a person must pay to build churches and pay for people to tell them every week they're doomed to burn in hell for "sinning." A person can live happily, and embrace other people's beliefs....and respect......without EVER having to pay "offerings"...But, a religious society has deemed that it's "tacky" to be without cash........I say: Apply those words you read a little more to your own lives before "ye judge others".....But, just an observation.....People are welcome to believe what they choose....I'll choose to voice my little opinion....and respect your opinion as well.....and, I only ask that you give fair thought to the opposite point of view....as I will gladly do the same......and see which one spreads more happiness in the world.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • Ali P

      The organized religion that I belong to encourages you to ask questions so that you aren't "buying into an establishment", in other words, that you find out the truth for yourself before you join. In my experience, an organized religion (ie chapel, congregations etc) creates an invaluable support network and can be incredibly uplifting. Congregating and worshiping are supposed to be there for support and fellowship and that has been the case for the 30 years I have attended a church.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:57 am |
  15. clinky

    The author repeats the exact same patronizing and intolerance that anti-Christians show. Everybody settles spiritual questions in their own way. It's not unlike choosing who to love. We don't have arranged marriages anymore, and neither do we need to follow the church that family members belong to.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  16. think

    don't you think it is funny that cnn censors some posts that give more insight into what is really 'going on', but they don't edit out drivel articles like this? what fools

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


      October 1, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • think

      you mean like dissing people who pray on beaches, or wherever they feel and want
      or dissing people who know something about the healing benefits of hand motions – like with yoga muntras – but this doesn't feed the war and health fraud industry – so – hey – let's malign this type behavior for the one percents benefit – because we can
      this type propaganda truly sucks – it's purpose is to harm
      forget to go to church today – people who put this drivel to demean their news organization
      get real

      October 1, 2012 at 1:46 am |
  17. Victor Tapia

    I am a spiritual person that does not believe in religions. I do not agree Alan Millers article at all. I do not identify by any religion not only because I can think on my own rather than be told what should I think and believe in; but, because History has taught us what religions have accomplished: dark ages, wars, and the biggest human rights violations in history. I have made a choice to not depend on a pastor or a priest or an iman to tell me if I am a sinner and will burn in hell or if my actions will take to heaven. I have a conscience and this was a our greatest gift. Each knows if what we do is right or not. Praying is communication between me and God, a direct line, if you like, The perception that this thinking is dangerous reflects the lack of understanding. It is not about picking pieces of this or that, it is simply put, opening our direct line. The notion that belonging to a religion will demonstrate commitment is a so deceptive. Finally Yoga, Zen, Feing Shui and other things are to live healthier in mind and body; but, my relationship with God, brings light to my soul, without the hate religions often preach.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Ali P

      Part of a religion and think on my own every day. I understand where you are coming from though...pretty sure I have felt in a similar way. My religion teaches us to pray about what we are taught (in and out of church) to verify its truthfulness and therefore we can act according to our feelings. I think this author is commenting (in a rather too harsh way unfortunately) that there is a backlash against ALL religions that is unjustified and generalized. I agree with him on that point.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  18. jackdermody

    The writer of this article is a master at fallacy. He implies that people who call themselves spiritual but not religious must not think deeply enough nor even acknowledge the "great thinking" of history. Really? When so many religious movements are based on lies, social bullying, faulty logic, and incomplete "Enlightenment," it"s easy to see why people hesitate to call themselves religious. For sure, almost all religious people are seeking exquisite spirituality and seek every possible avenue to strengthen their faith. It"s the leaders you've got to question with clear eyes and a sharp mind.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • dan o

      very true

      October 1, 2012 at 1:41 am |
  19. James

    spirituality brings us all together as one in the "sameness"
    religion tries to define us by where/with whom we grew up
    dont we need more "oneness" these days!!?

    October 1, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • Insert Truth Here

      We most certainly do need more "oneness". Care to join my religion – Humanity?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  20. AlienAbductee

    Oh these comments are HI-Larious ^_^ I find it VERY hipocritical that the author accuses free thinkers of being self serving with their "man made" ideas and yet personifies that very indulgence by merit of his own self clamed rightful stance on Christianity. Or what he thinks to be Christianity. Is it not self indulgent to convince yourself that eternal happiness in paradise await you, while eternal suffering awaits the other people that think differently? Does not the Bible itself have the imprint of man all over it? To quote Aldous Huxley "He who controls the past controls the future. And he who controls the present controls the past." VERY relevant!!! The Nazi movement had their own "interpretation" of the past, which defined their present and would have reframed their future. Religion does the same thing. If something from the past does not fit into the conceptual framework, it is either discarded or blatently distorted to fit in with the belief of the past. People are waking up to the lies of religion. They accept that we are not just physical. There is much more to us. We are spirit. But we have brains as well. Those who KNOW they are spirit, and happen to also use their brain, will not be manipulated easily. And that is what we are seeing. The organised religions are loosing sway over the minds of the masses. To convince another sentient life form that they are forbiden to seek a relationship with the devine on their own terms is a direct violation of ones equality in this universe. The shift of the ages has begun. And man kind will not be allowd access into "the heavens" untill we surpass these kinds of issues on Earth.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • government cheese

      Is it not self indulgent to convince yourself that eternal happiness in paradise await you.

      What exactly do you think religion is?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • dan o

      that is an excellent analysis. You are both more intelligent and more literate than the writer of the article

      October 1, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • john

      The author doesn't accuse freethinkers anywhere in this post. What are you reading? Freethinkers don't believe in spirituality. We know bu11sh1t when we see it.

      And all the stuff you were spouting in your post – that is just religion that doesn't want to call itself religion. It has no substance at all, just an attempt to be edgy.

      Every last thing you claimed about spirituality you claimed with the same amount of evidence that other religionists have. You are no different at all from them except in number of followers.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:22 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.