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. Steve Wilkinson

    The last sentence of the article summed it up nicely. If there is one thing we don't like to do today, it is think too hard. Sometimes it is laziness, but often it is more that if one has to hold a coherent worldview and think seriously about such things, it often gets in the way of living however one wants to. That's really the bottom line today.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:01 am |
  2. timbonzer

    This article should be called "Danger of religious but not spiritual" Religion is a cop-out to spirituality... I'm going to listen without question and blindly accept & agree to the best-selling fantasy novel of all time. I'm willingly going to accept ONE possibility as truth & fact and reject everything else, after all, ignorance is bliss. I'm going to keep my mind confined because I feel safer in my own cage. I reject truth & science because, like everything else in reality, it scares me. I'll continue to believe in stories written & read by other humans as the word of God because I lack the ability to think for myself and I enjoy being gullible.

    The Universe communicates with us in many ways. Religious, Atheist, Spiritual, Apathetic... there's 2 types of people in this world, there's you and then there's everybody else. So at the end of the day (or your life) it ultimately comes down to one thing, that's YOU. So you should make up your own mind about what to believe (or not to believe) but if you choose any one particular idea as truth above all else, you're only isolating yourself from what it means to be a human being. Spirituality is such an internal affair, why on Earth would you subscribe to someone else's ideas when you have everything you need for the journey hidden right there, within yourself?

    October 1, 2012 at 3:59 am |
  3. NorwoodX

    I'd much rather be spiritual and not religious, then religious and not spiritual.

    The oh so very RELIGIOUS people are seldom spiritual.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  4. Anthony Ranieri

    "A take told by an idiot/"

    October 1, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  5. bhc2013

    There is no god.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • Linda

      What "spiritual but not religious" means to me: We live in a time when we are not confined to one village all our life, exposed to one religion and maybe one or two teachers. Our times are unprecidented. We can study a wide range of paths of development and select the tools that work for us personally. We can be honest and reject beliefs we really don't believe in. It is OK today, everybody, to practice qi gong, the elements of Mahamudra that call to you, cognitive therapy methods of visualizing, and new methods of energy work. It would be absurd to limit oneself. It is true that some people become dabblers; this is inevitable. They get nowhere as long as they remain at the surface of this path and that path. However, this is self-corrective. Sooner or later, a person gets tired of running in place. I am very grateful to all my teachers since 1969 when I formally began the journey of "spiritual but not religious." A "religion" is a political social organization. A religious person may be spiritual or not. A spiritual person may belong to a religion or not. For some, it is possible that saying "I'm spiritual but not religious" is a copout. For others, this may not be true.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:11 am |
  6. Kevin

    Dear Alan Miller,

    You obviously feel insecure about your own connection to spirit. The fact that you even wrote this shows you are still very ego centered, which is a state of being that will deny spirituality on any level. The irony is that someone so disconnected from spirit could write an article for CNN about spirituality in any capacity. Who did you really talk to about this subject -'these people'...??? Who did you interview about their individual spiritual path...more of 'these people' from the 'me generation' ? My guess from the way this is written is that you didn't do any of your homework at all. This sounds like antiquated fearful thinking by someone scared of his own spirituality. The next time you write and article on spirituality why don't you talk to some people who are actually on a spiritual path? I know that sounds crazy, but you might actually learn something...or feel something...

    October 1, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • BB

      Well said. This whole article sounds like it was written by somebody out of touch with their spiritual side.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  7. slice

    Religion is confusing; it is far too diverse and divided. It is pushing and pulling, it is prejudice. Religion is asking me to walk this way, to believe in this path in order to receive salvation, enlightenment, it is black and white. Religion, which one will I choose, which one was I born into, which one holds the truth and who will point me in the right direction. I would love to walk blindly and with an open will into the arms of religion but who will guide me through the darkness on my way there? I will close my eyes and ask God for an answer, I will close my eyes and ask God for guidance, I will close my eyes and let God be my guide, I have faith that the lord will show me the way from within myself and I will trust what God tells me. I do not stand on the fence, I am not searching for the answers, I am already where I should be in my spirit, right here, right now.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  8. Dancing Carl

    The "spiritual but not religious" conundrum is a dichotomy of beliefs that springs up from atheism's ideological imbalance. That is, atheists tend to focus on the use of science and / or logic-based arguments to undermine the supposed existence of god. They tend to ignore the question of why it is that people believe in god in the first place. More specifically, their strategy implies that if god's existence could be proven, then religion is a viable doctrine for mankind to follow. What's more is that it implies that it was not possible for mankind to reasonably be at odds with religion prior to the advent of scientific analysis.

    The truth is that there is much more to debunking religion than determining whether or not god exists, and unless that part of the puzzle is addressed thoroughly, people will always feel the need to fill the void left behind by the simple rejection of deity-based ideologies through science-based arguments. The problem is not religion, but why people turn to religion in order to be "good" people. Until that mystery is solved, those who know enough to doubt religion but not enough to disregard spirituality altogether will always be stuck in limbo.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:22 am |
    • Wiser

      Bottom line is that being spiritual but not religious isn't a cop out. Carl Sagan was a spiritual person, and a famous scientist. There's a huge difference between being spiritual and being religious, look up the terms if you don't understand them.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Brandon

      That is completely and utterly incorrect, atheists are far more aware of why people believe in god(s) than the people that believe in a god. That awareness is a big part of the reason they are atheist.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • Carl can't dance

      No to just about everything you said.

      These "spiritual" people are not atheists. Many if not most would not qualify as agnostics. Catch a clue.

      We have no strategy. We are simply asserting the obvious, and refusing to allow you to impose your religion on us or the government.

      If a god could be proven, then you are into the "which god" problem. The existence of one renders all but at most one religion incorrect and void, and there is the strong possibility that all religions would be wrong. Thus, religion is not at all certain to be viable should a god exist. Moreover, that god would have to prove his worthiness of worship. Or put another way, if God turns out to be Quetzlcoatl, are you going to obey?

      Science is not the be-all and end-all of atheism. We only use to to point out the utter failure of religion to provide even the slightest evidence, to point out that many religious concepts are factually absurd and impossible. Atheism always existed, but had to stay underground due to the murderous tendencies of religious people towards alternatives.

      The basis of atheism is simply – I see no evidence of a god. The world does not operate as if there was a god. The people who say there is have absolutely no evidence, but say things anyway. They only got their knowledge from another person, usually their parents, and then added using their imagination. Religious people use dishonest arguments and fear to coerce people into conforming – a huge red flag.

      Science is only a rebuttal to your absurdity.

      Religion does not make people good, or even better. Studies prove atheists commit far less major crime, are less supportive of war and torture, and less intolerant, and so on. The more religious a region or country is, the more crime.

      Your whole argument is a straw man fallacy, by the way.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • Dancing Carl

      As an ardent atheist, I find the replies to my comment deeply disturbing. They are a trend among my fellow atheists which points toward an inability to respond to other points of view without becoming downright nonsensical and combative.

      At no point did I say that spirituality and religion are the same, so Wiser's comment therefore has no basis. The only response that was even close to being on point was Brandon's. Yet, it contadricts the post from "Carl Can't Dance" in the sense that "Carl Can't Dance" stated in his own words that atheism boils down to his notion that god's existence cannot be proven.

      And as I stated in my comment, there is a lot more to debunking religion than whether or not god's existence can be proven. It's the tendency of atheists to focus on disproving god's existence while ignoring the equally relevant factor of human nature that leaves people with a need for spirituality despite having rejected religiosity.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • Carl really can't dance

      More mumbo jumbo.

      The whole lack of evidence thing is pretty definitive.

      The question of why people feel the need for spirituality is not relevant to the legitimacy of religion. Put another way, in absolute terms, no religion can even give the slightest basis for thinking they have any basis in fact. That renders your relative question moot. All you are left with is "Why do people need the delusion of superstition?"

      And your question will not debunk religion either – zealots will not budge. Your question is irrelevant.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:43 am |
  9. Dave

    Wasn't Christianity, itself, a movement by a man, a small group of people, to leave the established church, to feel a deeper connection to their god, and to believe that faith and belief was an individual relationship with a god? Shouldn't all begin with spirituality? The larger churches have developed as people congregate to express similar beliefs, in similar ways. I only hope those who claim to be religion are also spiritual, though I have observed that to be less true. If more people began with true spirituality, then established a place to worship based on that true and meeningful spirituality, we might have fewer problems in our world.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • Phillip

      Couldn't have said it better myself . . . .

      October 1, 2012 at 3:56 am |
  10. st

    umm, what is Karma Sutra? never heard of it before..do you mean Kama Sutra?

    October 1, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • Fred Phelps

      Just like a non-Christian to try to ruin Mr. Miller's good Christian ideology with facts and reality and things like that.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  11. John Gauger

    This article is ass backwards.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  12. homino

    Wow, really? This chump appears to supports the actions of those he's criticizing. Very typical selfish epistemological determinism. He really should take a moment, use some common sense and see religion for what it is...

    October 1, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  13. Liz

    This article is dangerous nonsense. It is a blessing to be "spiritual" and a sign of healthy seeking to span many beliefs. This is called 21st century communication. Surprising that CNN would advocate such specious and scary opinions.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  14. Elliott

    What an incredibly ignorant article.

    October 1, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • MrBo

      As opposed to your extremely enlightening comment...

      October 1, 2012 at 3:21 am |
  15. Richard

    The United States is a spiritually based society. It will not work any other way. The Declaration of our principles says, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...." This is the spiritual basis for the USA. It is spiritual, not tied to any religious sect. I may, or may not join a sectarian religion, but I am a spirit (intellect) basically in any case. Athiests may not accept this, and are free to live in our society, but not privileged to destroy it. Real participating American citizens are spiritual.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:57 am |
  16. think

    i wish that cnn would stop with the religious division stuff
    feeding the war and political machine agendas
    do WE THE PEOPLE truly deserve this broad sweep hateful behavior directed towards them to rile them to vote – and agree to another war spewed from the pockets of super-pac backed candidates and minions?
    it is an insult to 'our' collective intelligence
    i know you probably chat like this to your bar mates
    that's why the justice system is like it is
    like r. – sometimes it is hard to hide the truth
    what is your main point cnn
    get off your ars ... enal ... and vote
    why – for more death – or who to let 'them' kill this time
    you'll (who support this negative political probing) – seriously – get a grip
    newest game – i suppose – might become – who can we take off the island with us???

    October 1, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • CommonSense

      Wow. A rambling rant, directed towards no one, and saying nothing. Thanks for wasting pixels.

      Where's the "Unpost" button?

      October 1, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  17. gdchitown

    This article is clearly fueled by the writer's anger & doesn't make much sense in any rational way. It's pure "black or white" thinking, no shades of grey (which most of life falls within). You can certainly have faith, a relationship with God (in however you understand God to be), and be an ethical and knowledgable person and still identify as "spiritual" without joining any specific organized religion. Likewise, a person can join an organized religion and be a truly "spiritual" person. This is not a binary system! The author's logic sounds like the same logic used by George W. Bush when he said, "You are either with the terrorists or you are with us!" Not to say Bush didn't do some things well but that quote was one of his worst. Simplicity does not always equal truth.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:55 am |
  18. miscreantsall

    This author is a real piece of work. Lots of micro thinking and generally obtuse.

    I am not a young person. Yet, I am not religious! I am spiritual……….that's right…………spiritual..

    Religion is man made, hence corrupt………….so NO thanks on that.

    I have read the bible a couple of times, in its entirety. Catholic, Baptist and even Jehovah's Witnesses.

    I have delved into to other religions as well. I have also studied mythologies.

    I choose to have a personal relationship with the "divine" and stay away from anything that "man" has organised.

    Shame the author does not understand that. His words clearly demonstrate his own emptiness and ignorance.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  19. Brian B

    You are not going to find fulfillment just within yourself. dont you know happiness is a temporary stae of mind? We are creating a society that is looking further and further inward to find answers. We are not happy with our weight so we start yet another diet plan. I have aches and pains so I need a diagnosis. Listen, you can make anything a religion and spirituality is an al la carte approach to filling a hole that cannot if you are using a 'me' shovel. Go out and find ways to serve other people. make the most of expressing compassion and love to the broken around you. Do that and you will likely find Christ-filled love – love that He first gave us.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:45 am |
    • James

      "You are not going to find fulfillment just within yourself. dont you know happiness is a temporary stae of mind? We are creating a society that is looking further and further inward to find answers. We are not happy with our weight so we start yet another diet plan. I have aches and pains so I need a diagnosis. Listen, you can make anything a religion and spirituality is an al la carte approach to filling a hole that cannot if you are using a 'me' shovel. Go out and find ways to serve other people. make the most of expressing compassion and love to the broken around you. Do that and you will likely find Christ-filled love – love that He first gave us." Brian B

      Happiness is not a "state of mind", rather thru a perception of the mind one can change the way they feel within there own bodies. If clinical depression is a fact (the constant state of feeling down or depressed), then clinical happiness is possible as well, without the use of drugs to accomplish this. Thru some sort of event or perception somone has become down, the feeling of depression is within them. The continued perception in the mind thru compulsion, that the world sucks, my life sucks for whatever reason brings about the constant feeling of depression (chemistry in the body), therefore you have clinical depression. If you change your perception, that life is wonderful, the world is in my favor, nature is beautiful and I am a part of it, this will change your chemistry to bring about happiness as a natural state. Look at any child, they are happy for the most part, only when somone makes them sad do they exbit it.

      Spiritualism is not a walking the fence way of living, one learns thru experiencing it themselves what this life and creation has for them, not thru doctrine or teaching. It's journey inward, and thru that journey you learn the outward existence of the universe.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • James

      http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-850712 , just a followup, how perception change, combined with a brain excercise (meditation) can help with that, and it's effects..

      October 1, 2012 at 5:11 am |
  20. Simplicio

    “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
    –Sir Francis Bacon, Father of the Scientific Method

    October 1, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Tara

      You really think Francis Bacon would come to that same conclusion in this day and age? That's adorable.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • Michael

      Yeah, his lifetime was pre-Salem Witch Trial. ANYONE who didn't at least pay lip service to religion back then met a bad end.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:47 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.