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. laura s

    wholly disagree. mr. miller has overlooked a valid alternative explanation to "fence-sitting" by the spiritual but not religious. perhaps we seek a relationship with god, but find that no currently available religion provides a body of belief that is sensible to us. personally, i find the array of religions that evolved in the last 5,000 years seriously outdated.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  2. Uh-Clem

    This is worker speaking. Mr Miller seems to think that all the great accomplishments of the past and allusions that such dogma is necessary for the future denies one basic, fundamental hypothesis. Perhaps the accomplishments of the past were in spite of his beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  3. Threeironroarke

    Moral relativism is super lame.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • The Dude

      Then the human race is lame as we have always had moral relativism even within the oldest faiths (that still exist)

      September 30, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  4. Jessica

    Embarrassing CNN, this man is an idiot.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Secular Jesus

      Ayup. He missed it when we all walked out on his control paradigm.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  5. wow

    This article, and by extent the author thereof, displays the heinous ignorance that drives people to become "spiritual but not religious." As the world's many different theories on life become more and more accessible, people will naturally expand their own personal interpretations on life to include perspectives of those whose ideas were formerly alien.

    This is epitomized in the author's final statement "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." As though life is simple enough to be boiled down to "Black vs. White: Pick a Side." As though accepting moral guidance from different sources, many of which preach similar messages of compassion, is somehow lazy. As though not knowing the answers to life's great questions, and admitting this FACT, while always searching for an answer one knows will never come is somehow easier than blindly accepting religious doctrine taught from childhood OR what was ascertained from scientific gatherings as indisputable truth. No, I think it's far easier to think you've got all the answers than to accept the fact that no one does and no one ever will.

    By the way, Mr. Miller, yoga is not a religion. Zen is not a religion. Daoism is not a religion. They are theories; philosophies on life; suggestions that may help one to come to a greater understanding of who we are as humans and why we are here. The "religion" that the "spiritual but not religious" seek to escape is the dogmatism perpetuated by each of the major religions and their sects that states "THIS is right and THAT is wrong." The very dogmatism that THIS ARTICLE perpetuates in saying that those who are on the fence must pick a side. The fact is this: no matter what side you "pick" you can never be sure it is fact. The only fact is that there are no facts. If that's too alien a concept for you to wrap your head around then it's because you've closed yourself off from a different perspective. You, yourself, have become a victim of the dogmatism.

    On a side note: Bach would still have existed without the Bible. The Church merely commissioned his work; they did not give him his talent.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • BurnNotice

      Well said.

      Thanks for pointing it out.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • wow

      I really do believe this article exemplifies–more than anything–how human brain capacities can evolve, even from one generation to the next.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  6. Michael

    As someone who is spiritual but not affiliated with any religion, I have the highest regard/respect towards my fellow humans, know exactly where I'm going after this life, and will pass these constructive values to my offspring. Why make it more complicated?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  7. Maria

    "Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history"
    False. What is seminal in Western history is the culture of ancient Greece, destroyed by Christianity. Speaking of reading, why not mention why christians went to the Library of Alexandria? Their intention was definetely not reading... Organized religion was a stick in the wheels of rationalism and science for centuries.
    "Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking..."
    So what is the alternative that organized religion has to offer? Truth, the "only" "unchangeable", "eternal", “divine" Truth with a capital T, that we should accept without any sign of critical thinking and rationality, just because it was written in some old book?
    "A belief in God and Scripture" or rather a belief in God as represented in a Scripture creates people ready to accept a bundle of beliefs and conceptions dating from the times when people beleived in a geocentric and an anthropocentric universe. It creates people ready to replace their brains with a book or with the brain of "someone who knows" (priests, pope, ecc), therefore people much easier to manipulate...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  8. Chris

    As a spiritual-not religious person, I take exception the "me" generation thought here. I find God in the world by looking for his spirit. I follow the Golden Rule religiously–pun intended. The organized churches don't offer me the available openness of His word. They are too small minded about how God and Christianity are not just a "Western" culture. Maybe if we all understood how God plays in our lives and those of other cultures in this wide world, there would be less violence-less not none–and we could ALL follow His word in our own way with out finger pointing.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Steve

      I think it is important to be able to differentiate between "spiritual not religious" as a cop-out (which is the crux of the article) versus "spiritual not religious" as a means to avoid the "lowest common denominator" tact that churches often take.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  9. Everything in Moderation

    First off, young Christianity picked and chose from older traditions without any more sense of depth than today's typical lazy spiritual person. It's pretty arrogant to now take a stand against that practice.

    Second, while there will always be people among every crowd who do not put effort into their understanding of anything (science, math, sociology or religion). To claim that such people come in any greater number among those who are spiritual but not religious is simply the pot calling the kettle black.

    Painting non-conforming agnostics (which is the short term for spiritual without religion) as flakey, lazy fence-sitters is just frustrated conformist name-calling. It is, in fact, the lazy way of understanding the people who disagree with your church's creed. Instead of asking us why, you simply label us as somebody not worth listening to and dismiss us from your sheltered spiritual life.

    Lots of us walked out of organized religion after reading all the literature (yeah, the whole bible, cover to cover) and learning about the traditions handed down through all the "learned men" and finding it didn't line up with our actual beliefs.

    We are smart enough to recognize the errors and shortfalls of religious thinkers who did not have the comprehension of modern science, but are self-aware enough to know that we, as individuals, are not true atheists because we still have the same yearning and sense of something beyond scientific explanation.

    We are spiritual without the creed because we refuse to accept the limitations of it, not because we're too lazy to follow it.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  10. stephanie

    Not only hypocritical but just poorly written.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  11. Mr. Black

    "Spiritual but not religious" people are just closeted atheists. They would just come out and say they were atheists, but as victimized as most Christians usually feel, they are quick to pounce on that person with the kind of vitriol that would make Charles Manson blush. Don't believe me? Then the next time Fox News runs a story on someone like Bill Nye, peruse the comments section for the evidence.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  12. omgwth808

    i am deeply spiritual atheist

    September 30, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  13. Willyboy

    Pure nonsense. The only danger in rejecting organized religion is to organized religions. Good. Religions have caused far more harm through the years than they have done good. Let them go the way of the dinosaurs...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Chris

      Amen, brother!

      September 30, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  14. Dangerous?

    It is dangerous to submit to a prepackaged dogma. It is letting others do your thinking for you.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  15. John

    On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • The Truth Will Prevail

      That is truth.... Amen

      September 30, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Beatrice

      Christians adopted the idea of Satan and Hell from other religions not Judaism. In Judaism Satan is inclination to do harm not a sentient lesser god in the tradition of Hades and Greek gods tradition. There is not eternal Hell in Judaism there is a purgatory type place called Gehenna. In Gehenna the "wicked" atone for their sins for about a year but no more than a year. There is no original sin in Judaism; Paul made up this idea. On a side note Paul never mentions the resurrection or the virgin birth, coincidence?

      September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Truth


      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  16. clara1114

    It’s true that what passes for spirituality these days is mostly simplistic pleasure-seeking (“If I concentrate on getting that parking space, I will!” and hung up on nice ideas of Oneness rather than on doing the inner work necessary to have a true experience of Oneness. It’s for people who are seeking a lifestyle rather than the bottom line of life. For most of us, the latter path requires a teacher who has actually traveled the path to guide us. Unfortunately, much of parish life is probably the last place one can find a true spirituality that enables a seeker to progress from the surface level of God as other to God as a concept and finally to a true experience of God as All. Most clergy have never gotten beyond that first level themselves, so they are not equipped to lead others beyond that. I am fortunate to have found a teacher here in Baltimore with whom I have studied for over 13 years. It is the most difficult work I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. She is part of a spiritual lineage, not a religion, but also attracts students who prefer to follow a particular religious path because, as she is quick to point out, at the heart of every religious tradition is a core of mystical truth – the early Church fathers in Christianity, Sufism in Islam, Kabbalah in Judaism, Yoga (not the exercise) and Kashmir Shaivism in Indian tradition all have developed detailed methods of taking a seeker all the way to that truth - they are merely different roadmaps to the same place. But this way of being spiritual hasn’t gained much traction in this age of instant enlightenment where people who pay money for a weekend intensive seriously expect to come out with anything but fewer dollars in their pockets. That is sad because the truth is that everyone, no matter whether one is religious or non-religious, has the possibility of finding God but only if they are willing to stake not their dollars but their entire scaffolding of beliefs and attachments, their sense of who they think they are for a chance to find out who they really are. If anyone is interested, my teacher’s book, “Walking Home with Baba” will be published on October 15 and is available on Amazon.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  17. Jacob

    You know how you can be 100% sure this article is total garbage? The fact that they needed to post a picture of a sort of chubby, dopey looking guy who is obviously supposed to represent the people discussed in this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  18. Rich Full Thinking

    Why is it a danger to adopt your individual approach to spirituality? Who are you "hurting" other than yourself? The danger exists with proselytizers such as Alan Miller. They want you to conform, out of their own fear of the unknown, to some conjured, organized, group think about the concept of god and the hereafter, because in numbers there is comfort. If enough people believe in one way together we must be right. And if we are right then we don't have to fear. Those who don't believe as we do are wrong, and we can then project our fear of the unknown onto them. Unfortunately, more often than not, they feel threatened by these others and feel compelled to convert them, or shun them if they're not successful, often throughout history through today with dreadful consequences for the unconverted. Years ago I accepted the concept of negative capability, that I would try to try to find peace in the mystery of life and death, peace in not knowing. It doesn't mean I'm not afraid, but at least it means I don't try to project that fear onto others.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  19. Tell the Truth

    When I look at the zealots that destroyed the World Trade Center on the one hand, the Catholic Church banning the use of condoms on the other, and the virulent anti-Christian "prosperity church", I can't help but wonder if organized religion is dangerous. The fault lies not in God, but ourselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  20. skyler

    GOP, nice try by challenging the church beliefs of ex-conservatives. Nice try! Your author has one of the most stupid arguments.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • whatsup

      Sorry, but this guy speaks for the GOP about as much as Rev. Wright speaks for the Dems.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:38 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.