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. Woffman

    He is right in a sense. Religion has been the inspiration for countless works of beauty, acts of kindness and (to an extent) human advancement. OK, I get it, but how can you invoke the positive Ying and not revile the malignant Yang. The Dark Ages, The Inquisition, The Crusades, Jihad, Catholicism and countless/endless individual acts of violence and deceipt carried out in the name of religion?

    October 1, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  2. Dustan Brenneman

    This article should be in violation of the so called rules of conduct.

    • You agree not to upload, post or otherwise transmit any User Content that violates or infringes in any way upon the rights of others, including any statements which may defame, harass, stalk or threaten others;

    • You agree not to upload, post or otherwise transmit any User Content that is offensive to the online community, including blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, abusiveness, vulgarity or profanity.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:40 am |
    • Lori Denise

      Thank you ! My thoughts exactly.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • andy harris

      Not to mention his constant generaliztions about such a broad subject and term. I dont get how so many people read this poorly written thing.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  3. Mike

    Without faith, what is your frame of reference for good? A nation without faith is a nation without a foundation. Glad to see so many justices attend red mass together!

    October 1, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • David R

      Pretty simple: good is what improves people's lives.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Oiler41

      Uh, I think you should turn that "red mass" mirror around. People are leaving organized religion for this very reason; because you and yours say "believe this way or else,,,," and when that is challenged, the challenger becomes part of the "red mass". I'm not a sheep and therefore don't follow the premise of blindly following the masses. I am not afraid of free thought; it is interesting that organized religion is afraid of it.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  4. Herself

    I am just amazed at the intolerance of the non-religious. And they call Christians "intolerant"! HA!

    October 1, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • sam stone

      both sides can be intolerant

      October 1, 2012 at 6:42 am |
    • Oiler41

      Yes, those silly "tolerant" religious zealots who have caused more bloodshed in the world based on differences in religous beliefs. No intolerance in that now is there? The facts are the facts, and it is noted that you said "Christians", therefore exactly showing your own intolerance for other religions that aren't based in Christianity. Funny how that works isn't it?

      October 1, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • I don't think so


      Did you read the article?

      October 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  5. hubert39

    Religion is real important to some. Being a member of a certain faith in real important to some. Believing in the teaching of Christ is important to some. Their are around 300 religions in the USA. Choose one, or start your own religion. All religions were started by man and women.
    But don't take religion to seriously. It can cause to hate other religions and people.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  6. Silver

    Agreed. It's fence sitting. If you believe in an actual God, that inevitably means there is more after this life and there is a purpose to this one aside from partying, doing what you feel like, "YOLO", and "trying to be nice to others". You've got to choose whether you're doing what God's eternal laws are (if you belive there is a God, of any nature), or whether you're just going to live on the World's standards.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • sam stone

      how is this fence sitting?

      October 1, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  7. Michele

    The article is right. Those of us who consider ourselves spiritual but not religious don't look to anything organized. That's the whole point. Religion is about dogma and rules, whereas spirituality is about the soul. Just because you don't understand it, just because it scares you silly to be without some church telling you what to think and do, doesn't mean being spiritual is wrong. It just means you don't understand what your Jesus was telling you when he said God was not to be found in a building.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Please Grow Up

      Well said, Michele.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Ben


      Very well said.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  8. Redjerry

    God didn't invent man. Man invented god...

    October 1, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • SoundFuture

      Man kills God, man invents dinosaur.

      ...dinosaur eats man, woman inherits the earth.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  9. some thinker

    What rubbish – this is like telling others what to wear and what not – Youngsters are making wise decisions now a days taking good points from various religions – why is that wrong?

    October 1, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  10. ROE

    Another control freek who is so insecure in his own beliefs that he needs orgainized religion to help him think.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • tebo

      the author sorta reminds me a young boy who will annoy the little girl in pig-tails sitting in front of him in class – by putting her pig-tails into the ink bottle to cause her grief and him merriment.
      sort of like that
      not only that – they did it on purpose to annoy everyone – so the islams could laugh too

      October 1, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  11. Eric

    Just because you don't like to think for your self doesn't give you the right to try to push your lack of sight on to other people. "I am a Jealous God" really.... really.... really?????????? Are you serious. Jealousy is a Human emotion. You think for a second that the creator of all tings... ALL things is jealous ROFL..... Yes the bible was an important piece of literary history and still his but people have the right to think for themselves. We are here to live, not to be robots. OH I almost forgot. MORE PEOPLE HAVE DIED>> BEEN MURDERED OR SUFFERED because of your religion that any other CAUSE IN HISTORY OF SUFFERING. Spirituality teaches to accept no matter who you are or others are. More importantly, it doesn't instill in you that you are a dirty rotten sinner from the time you come out of your mother's womb thus making you feel guilty about living your life. Religion, like the evolution of live needs to widdle away, just like our tailbones did.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:31 am |

    So the religion that you were tought by your parents just happens to be the one true religion! What a wonderful coincidence!

    October 1, 2012 at 6:29 am |

    Thank you CNN for another stinking heap of an article. The author writes "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either." For crying out loud! Not religious like me, therefore stupid.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:25 am |
  14. Van Smith

    It is clear to me Mr. Miller has no advanced knowledge or experience of the Divine. What turns people off are the "scribes and Pharisees,' the HYPOCRITES that one finds omnipresent. The surest way to find hypocrites is look at organized religion! They rationalize and justify their sin by presuming on the forgiveness of the Divine with NO REPENTANCE.
    Repentance simply means 'leaving the sin behind.' One may only deem oneself forgiven when one no longer is enslaved by sin.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:24 am |
  15. Harted

    Great article! I love it. Thanks! Glory to God!

    October 1, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • Chris

      Well, we know at least one person was in the choir.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  16. SilentActivity

    I think the guy on the beach is getting ready to sneeze.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  17. Smooth Criminal

    It is very understandable why people whant to distance them selfs from religion. Religius people have realy lost the plot, some have lost their minde.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:23 am |
    • Herself

      Hopefully at least we can spell.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • Chris

      Don't sweat feeble minded christians who wouldn't spare a moment of indignity to be caught considering that, until they die, they're just holding on to a lottery ticket, not a boarding pass. If they can cling to a typo, they've won the argument. It's like trailor trash beating Stephen Hawking at scrabble and somehow declaring his knowledge is useless.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  18. maru-chan

    Spirituality is not fence sitting, it predates man made religion. I know I have ascended higher spiritually and my connection with the creator has gotten deeper because of meditation (listening to the creator) and prayer (talking to the creator) and communing with the spirit of my ancestors. Not because of some man in a black robe dictating prayers to me, interpereting "god's infinite word" with his own limited human understanding.

    My self-established spiritual connections are more valid, more real and way more beneficial to me than fabricated white jesus and a book that was "translated and REVISED (meaning its NOT the original, see the first page of your KJV book)" that was only published in 1612. Bible readers: do you study or cite Bishop's bible, Geneva bible, Tyndale bible, Coverdale bibe, and all these other versions? Why so many versions if there is only one truth?? Religion limits God to your human understanding. I overstand that God is infinite, formless, and limitless, so to put God in the form of fake Jesus or whoever and say thats the be all end all is just plain silly.

    My ancestors collective conscious goes back thousands of years, I trust their guidance, principles and spiritual enrichment over any so called messiah.

    All of todays so-called major religious of today are simply watered-down and/or perverted versions of ancient spiritual systems that predate so-called doctrines. Christianity is a suckling baby in comparison to Dogon, Ifa and Kemetic spiritual systems, I would never trade in tens of thousands of years of spiritual thought for a mere two thousand and a cheap knock offs of the originals. Take it back to the source, we've been lied to.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  19. bobk

    this is one of the things wrong with human kind. if there were more spiritual folks, and a lot less of organized religion, this world would be a better, more peaceful place....

    October 1, 2012 at 6:21 am |
  20. awasis

    The real danger is following a religion. You can't think for yourself, someone has already done it for you.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:20 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.