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. barfly

    spiritual or religious, both stupid

    October 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  2. Dave

    I can tell you the guy in the picture doesn't practice much yoga at all.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Billy Z

      LOL, yeah he doesn't following the One True Way to do yoga! He will spend eternity in a Mc Donalds!

      October 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  3. fred

    Religion was built to control the population – period.

    Consider the middle east today. It's a mess. 2000 years ago, it was worse. Can you image the chaos that would come if they said "you only get one shot on this crazy merry-go-round called life, so make it count!"

    People with money and power would live in fear of their lives. So they invent a higher power (like Santa who knows what you do and will hold you accountable).

    Keeps the masses behaving in a civilized fashion. I admire the goal, just not the implementation which has run amuck.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  4. Spiritual but not religious

    That's just silly. I have been through major transformation. Just because something doesn't fit a model created by humans out of the 10k humans have been on earth, or because it is different than your experience, doesn't mean it is out of the realm of possibility. Spirituality is at the core of being human and having tools to understand it is crucial to our experience- and practice being better people on this earth from one another. Keep drawing more lines in the sand and see where that takes us.

    I have faith and think belief is a dangerous word.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  5. ernestb88

    It's exactly this type of mentality that has brought about the end of the Moderates and Independents driving our political system into extremism. People have a right to pick and chose how they please. If religion doesn't suit them but believing in God does, that's their right as a human being. Just becuase someone doesn't prescribe to one particular, recognizable ideology doesn't make them wrong.

    The idea that we need to be united for "any kind of project that can inspire or transform us" is absolutely ludacris. Did you ever think that the idea that could transform us as a species is to have our own true understanding of spirituality, God, faith etc. rather than following some mantra of an organized group determined by its leaders? I think not. The simple idea that humans don't necessarily need to follow some group religion in order to be good, spiritual, God-loving people is in itself a transformation of our society. Additionally, there's no "law of the universe" to suggest that someone cannot couple their spiritual beliefs, as you say, "commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action".

    My suggestion: don't be so narrow minded. Just because something doesn't fit in with your traditional understanding of how the world works doesn't make it wrong or any less beneficial than the old systems.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  6. matthew

    It sounds like you want to put humanity in a box as if it's either this way or that way. It's either believing in the bible or it's science. It also sounds like you have an agenda in this article to downplay the fact that humanity is waking up to the realization that there is in fact a greater intelligence out there, a universal consciousness, a power, that we are all connected to – and that the way to move towards that is through internal reflection and connection with others. Not some external god in the heavens. Are the stories in the bible real? Maybe. Maybe too, it's all a misinterpretation of what actually happened. Maybe religion has its place in human history. Maybe religion does do good in the world. Maybe religion does help to create a sense of values and morals that keeps humanity somewhat civilized. Or, maybe not. Have you seen the world today? Those leaders who claim belief in god and yet are around the world killing and maiming people by the thousands. I'm not a believer in god. I am more of the person you like to label 'spiritual but not religious'. Yet, I have a firmly planted set of values and morals that is in sync with humanity. I don't need religion to have this. I found it within me, as a human being, capable of free thinking and independent thought – able to see for myself what is right versus what is wrong. The illusion is that religion provides this. We don't need something outside of ourselves to provide to us what is already within. This spirituality, outside of religion, is the realization that we are not our physical bodies, we are the human spirit or soul, experiencing physical life for some greater purpose...completely and wholely outside of religious doctrine. Cheers.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Greg

      What Matthew said, thanks.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  7. fred

    Religion is for the weak minded.

    – The only way to go to heaven is to "do this"..
    – You must join small groups to continue the mind control
    – And of course you must give us 10% of your salary
    – Anybody who doesn't "do this" will burn in hades
    – And time of course.. you must not only give us your time, you must recruit others to continue building our empire – all in the name of God of course... Really it's not about power or building a huge church

    Religion is about controlling the masses.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  8. Religion_KIlls_Sometimes_Spirituality_Never

    Let the "religious" have their beliefs including this author. This pathetic article is sorry to say, but foolishly incorrect. The "spiritual" are well established in their conviction from the realizations and their avenues of exploration are always open. Let us educate the author a little bit. If someone who claims all the time to be something is most likely not. This is especially true when it comes to spirituality. To be spiritual is a victory for the human soul unlike claiming to be spiritual or religious or what ever. Grow up Mr Alan

    October 1, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Chr

      My only version of spiritual includes taking psycho active drugs. Anything else is a small version of religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  9. baelknight

    Not choosing an organized religion is not sitting on the fence. Its not choosing an organized religion.

    People cannot handle it if you aren't either for them or against them. They call that fence-sitting. The whole "us vs them" nonsense is why the world is in the state that it is.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  10. Robin Marie

    Wow...this is pretty down right bashing against many people.......I am NOT a self-centered early adulthood woman but am 38 and have four kids and consider myself to be spiritual but not religious...
    i've lost my mom,dad, brother, and a few friends unexpectedly which had first gave me the sense of 'doubt' i know struggles help you grow but really?
    I see someone being spiritual as being mindful and present in what is going on in their lives at the moment and not focusing on what happened or will happened and it is a very difficult thing to do....just because someone doesn't follow the status 'quo' with your belief's does not make them any less of a person or more likely to commit sin

    October 1, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  11. Edward C.

    It is simple. I believe what I believe. I don't need your approval. And I don't care what you think. Period!

    October 1, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  12. Lynn

    'Taking a stand' has been, and will continue to be, a source of constant war on this planet. You're essentially telling people to pick a side...is it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindu? This message focuses humankind on our differences, rather than our sameness, and the end result has been to kill the "others" for thousands of years. A truly spiritual person simply wants a personal relationship with the creator who loves all of humankind whether they choose Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, another spiritual path or none at all.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  13. John

    Religion is man's interpretation of God. Spirituality is your personal relationship with God. I can see this guys point about a lot of obnoxious fence setters, but at the same time, the reason people are fed up with church is that for millions church has been nothing but serious abusive problems. I was introduced to God through religion, but without spirituality I couldn't have maintained the relationship. If our churches are to really become relevant they will have to start trusting God, admitting their faults, and truley helping people again. Unfortunatly right now it almost always just the spirituality crowd that focuses on that.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  14. Randy Hunsucker

    I consider myself spiritual and not overtly religious too. Here's why: so many religions are religious, but not spiritual!

    Many, but not all religions are anti-everything... anti-science, anti-gay, anti-peace and anti-any other religion except their own. They (and their members) seem to be pro all the wrong things: pro-Christian flags almost to a militant stance, pro-gun, etc.

    Key to my point here is that it is "many" houses of worship, but not all. But, the ones that are are becoming more and more extreme. It's ironic that these extremists in religious houses actually hate each other most of all and they are most alike. The Islamic, Jewish and Christian extremists love to kill each other. Truly sad.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  15. Tom

    Wow! This is a hot topic. We already have 188 pages in one day! I love how some of the words to this write that needed to be “quoted”. Like the word “movement” and “me”.

    When you boil off all the BS off, everything is just a belief that a person uses to make themselves feel better about the unknown. We make these beliefs our own little security blankets. And then place everything that is good in our lives onto these blankets. And if anyone dares to mess with our special blanket we will go after them with everything thing we got.

    Believing in only your blanket is too small for this world anymore. We need to grow up & leave our little blankets behind. We need to believe in things that can do more for kids than just ourselves. We can’t live for the past anymore. We have to give faith to the future.

    Choose wisely in what you use for your emotional security. Your kid’s future depends on it.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  16. bob

    Being "spiritual but not religious" is a person's way out of the madness that is organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  17. Joseph

    some of you are right but we do believe in a higherpower, we just dont want to go to church. What is so wrong about that!!!!!!!! We have a choice.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  18. Joseph

    Most of you guys on here are absolutely right. But lets show the others agape love. It is not their fault that they are brainwashed by the old society's way of belief. It is not our fault that we were raised in a society of new technology, innovation, evolution and new findings. So how about if you cant beat us, join us and they will see (miller) that we are all in search of the same things: truth and pursuit of happiness.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  19. Relik

    From my perspective, being spiritual and not religious is quite simply indicating that: You will not be guided by just one book, or a series of books....in addition, there is not just some people that lead the way (such as a priest or a rabbi). You are essentially taking the best of what you've learned from many teachers from all walks of like. With the goal in mind to be the very best being in this life you can possibly be....More lives and even civilizations have been destroyed in the name of religions, than for any other reason in history. Clearly it's time to adjust that model ... because it has not worked for the greater good.

    October 1, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  20. Best News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    that is revealed in an absolutely Matchless, most Powerful and Superb MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

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



    October 1, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Joseph

      you are right but we do believe in a higherpower, we just dont want to go to church. What is so wrong about that!!!!!!!! We have a choice.

      October 1, 2012 at 7:31 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.