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. dave

    Religion is to God as Language is to Communication

    October 1, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Religion is to God as rules are to Dungeons and Dragons.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      You analogy is to understanding as horse shoes are to facial hair.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Eric Radio

      Yes, both have severe limits and both can be utilized to mislead and manipulate.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Gary

      Religion is to God as swearing is to communication. It can get a point across. It can enhance the listener's understanding of the subject. But it tends to be devisive and to build walls between the parties and may well lead to fighting among them.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  2. susie77y

    Yawn. Yet another "my way is superior to your way" screed. I look forward to a better future where mankind has broken the shackles of the gods and walks in freedom.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  3. IrishInNJ

    "The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world."

    I strongly disagree, the idea of sin has always been accompanied by a fear of damnation and eternal retribution....mere thoughts deemed unworthy and forcing the thinker to their knees, literally to beg (and pay) for "forgiveness".

    As a free thinking atheist have no more concern or respect for the spiritual than I do the religious but this article serves neither. You can't make an argument for the nonsensical and nonexistent.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  4. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Saying you are spiritual is simply confessing that there is a certain way of thinking that you are fond of that sets aside ordinary reality. Something to do on a rainy day when the codeine's all gone. I can see that religious people of the proselytizing sort will look at a deeply spiritual non-religious person as the big one that got away.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  5. One one

    It's not clear to me that the author is making a one sided argument. He seems to be leaving the door open to

    "a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action"

    October 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  6. ciaopaparazzi

    Religion is what turns people off – not faith. Get rid of organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      I don't know – from an intellectual standpoint, "faith" is a pretty big turnoff.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      +1 for what Rufus said.
      Belief without proof is sometimes dangerous and always foolish.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  7. wwks

    There is no such thing as the Karma Sutra. The Kama Sutra is not a religious text.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • GenericSnarkyName

      You have your religion, I have mine.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  8. Asimj

    If only Muslim countries gave people the right to think freely. Without the threats in quran and laws propping up the medieval faith, locking people up into it, Islam would be gone in an instant.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Why would you expect that? It hasn't happened with Christianity (though granted, the threats in the bible have not been taken away)

      October 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  9. Ann Roehrs

    Mr. Miller appears to be just one more person telling other people that their spiritual belief system is incorrect thinking and that this way of thinking will be the downfall of Western Civilization. ANYONE who tries to tell other people what to believe or how to worship has absolutely NO credibility.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  10. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Sounds like someone feels threatened.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Not my post. Knock it off, troll.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  11. sinn mctavish

    what is a church....a collection of people to worship a deity of their choice...... right on...... I am a spiritualist...... Jesus is awesome and so are all the many hundreds of beliefs in the world............ the one key ingredient is faith....... far out.....

    October 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  12. Atheist Hunter

    ooops wrong room. This must be the waiting line to hell. my bad.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • WASP

      @AH: aha aha nah this is the waiting line for the DMV. lmfao

      October 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Atheist Hunter

      already got my license.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  13. Christopher

    Can sumpathize with some of what he says, but organized religion bears much of the blame here. Their rigidness in matters where they are obviously wrong- both factually and morally- has done great damage and pushed people away to seek answers for themselves.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  14. Seiker

    The path of "spiritual but not religious" is one of self-discovery and enlightenment. Those on this journey may sample from a variety of different belief systems because we understand there are universal truths throughout, and it does not matter what name you have given your god. People who are truly exploring this understanding of our being have most likely read all of the sources you claimed they did not because we have a desire to learn and understand. What is wrong with an individual relationship with a higher power? Is it better to follow doctrine just because that's what someone said we're supposed to do? Should we not question something that lacks feeling and emotion? Growing up I was taught it was a sin to question my faith. My question is would an all loving god punish someone for trying to gain additional insight into spirituality? Demand for blind obediance breeds control and slavery, and personally I want nothing to do with it. I have achieved more enlightenment, grown more, and felt a greater sense peace with myself and the universe. Strict religious doctrine, however, is not without it's benefits. It has given me a foundation and basis for comparison. It brings a lot of good to the world, but it also serves to prevent the masses from seeing the truth, making them much easier to control.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Mr. N

      There is no question there are universal truths. That's a non-sequitur.

      The question the author poses is a simple one: Isn't following those truths a doctrine anyway?

      It seems as if you take issues with the portions of a religion that you don't like, so you pretend there is no doctrine to follow even thought by your own admission, there are universal truths that should be followed.

      There's nothing wrong with learning about all of the world's religions and reading all of the books you can (I have), but you are advocating more than that: You are advocating that people eschew organized doctrines centered around these universal truths because it somehow makes you feel better. More to the point, I've yet to meet an organized religion leader that does not recommend a personal relationship with God, so that point of yours, along with many others, is a straw man.

      Your stance on religion in general sounds more like one of laziness and convenience, than one of a person truly searching for truth.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Seiker

      Mr. N,

      My apologies if I was not clear. You raise some good points in your argument. In regards to your comments about doctrine, I agree that there is doctrine I adhere to. But is flexible and changes as I learn more and more. There have been times when I have gone down a path that I later learned did not work for me, and as I continue to search for knowledge and truth I am able to adapt and modify my "doctrine." What I am advocating is that people follow their own paths in life in regards to their spirituality. If organized religion brings them peace and happiness, then that path may work for them. There are many ways to the source, and not all ways work for all people.

      You raise a good point about religious leaders advocating personal relationships with god. The methods recommended to developement those relationships does not work for me, personally. That is not to say it won't work for someone else.

      My biggest concern with the doctrine of organized religion is the indoctrination it creates among many of it's followers. Religion promotes peace and love, yet fosters abuse, war, and anger. I fully support someone who is passionate about their religion, and someone who wants to respectfully debate their belief systems with mine because I know that at the end of the conversation I will walk away with a greater understanding of not only their belief system, but also a greater understanding of myself.

      In regards to your final comments, it disappoints me that you resorted to name calling and negativity. In so many of these forums people turn to personal attacks. Why can't we debate without putting the other person down? Just because you disagree with my thought process and my logic does not justify your choice to call me lazy. My spiritual path is a way of life. It has impacted the choices I have made and the careers I have taken. I have made major life decisions based on my spirituality and incorporated it into my everyday life. I promote peace and advocate for it daily. I left an 11 year career in law enforcement to teach violent inner city students. Believe me, sir, there is nothing lazy about my journey. I live up to everything I have stated here, and impress that upon my students. I do not preach religion or spirituality, and when asked by my kids about religion I tell them they need to find their own path, even if that is through an organized religion. I do model humanity to my kids, and teach the value of respect for all things on this earth.

      My apologies to you, sir, if my thoughts have offended you. This was not my intention. I have the utmost respect for you and your beliefs, and have risked my life defending your right to have them.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  15. Todd

    Interesting point from Mr. Miller. I agree the lack of commitment is driven by the difficulty in making decisions right now.

    The main thing "Spiritual But Not Religious" is opposing is correctly identified as Religion. The reason is not lack of will. The reason is the sin of ego that all organized bodies bring in. They allow the holy relationship with God to become a 'group of principles' and commit the God-warned sin of thinking Good Works can get you into Heaven. God = Love. Religion = Ego.

    It's actually very liberating and very difficult to choose God over Religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  16. james

    For some of us the choice is to be spiritual without a church / faith, or not to be spiritual at all. Apparently the author would prefer that we reject spirituality altogether.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  17. RichardSRussell

    Danger? DANGER!!??? What danger? What is this guy on about? Have "spiritual" people been starting wars, flying hijacked jetliners into skyscra-pers, burning witches, gassing Jews, oppressing gay people, or buggering little boys?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      He is worried about the church losing its power to control people’s minds

      October 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  18. Rebel4Christ

    Very good article. He is right spiritualism is all about me me me! That's why you never hear of spiritualists going out into other countries and feeding the poor.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Dave

      No they're the ones who just funnel money into the organizations that do. The more organized religions take the food to the needy with a sermon and a T-Shirt with their faith advertised across it.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • WASP

      @rebel: ........while holding a bible in one hand and food in the other. yeah great people

      October 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  19. Nick Miceli

    Or, Alan, perhaps people are sick of being dictated to by rigid, monomaniacal zealots like yourself.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  20. Step forward

    Dear Mr. Miller,
    Religion/ social order and beliefes have had a positive evolution. It started with the Magna Carta and then the Ten, The most moral of Tens, the first Ten Amendments of the Bill of Rights of the United States. That's the set of principles, the framework, the guidelines for a better, smarter. kinder and mor just belief that yes, has it's labor and sufferings to get there. Self discipline is criticlal here as with out it none of it means a thing if self governance is not self imposed instead of the imposition of say, an inquisition maybe? Young America is aware , lively and well ahead of orginaized religion when it comed to the responsibilities of the world and our future issues. Open your mind and read something critical for a change.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:12 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.