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. Mark the Spiritual

    What a crock. Alan's article screams of "why can't you be Christian like me?? Say it! Say you're Christian!" God forbid (pun intended) people use elements of many world religions (which mostly share the same roots and ideas) to build their own unique belief system. If a person meditates to feel closer to God, but connects more to the Catholic form of God, who is this endangering??

    October 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Clark

      Amen! As one of these aforementioned "world religionists", I couldn't actually finish reading this article!

      October 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • k

      What a crock. Alan's article screams of "why can't you be Christian like me?? Say it! Say you're Christian!" God forbid (pun intended) people use elements of many world religions (which mostly share the same roots and ideas) to build their own unique belief system. If a person meditates to feel closer to God, but connects more to the Catholic form of God, who is this endangering

      But religion/belief isn't like picking your underwear. If you believe in God, then it's He who does the choosing ... not you. You don't get to say "ok I like this, I don't like that ...". What God is (or is not) is not up to you. This isn't an exercise in narcissism (where it's all about you). So what harm does it do? Hmmm. Well, looking around at society, it seems to do quite a bit of harm. As the author rightly points out, there is an overwhelming sense of moral relativism today. What's right for me may not be right for you. Again, this puts you at the center of the issue ... and not God (or others).

      October 1, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  2. Just WOW

    What a fool. A christian trying to describe the point of view of a "spiritualist" makes about as much sense as a spiritualist trying to describe the point of view of a christian. Clearly, sir, you have no idea what you're talking about. Although I do understand why you might be concerned about the things you are describing here, you are WAY off the mark here. The "me" generation? Really? Firstly, your reasons for why people are taking this route aren't far from the truth, that I'll admit. However, how can you say that these people are taking this route because they don't want to cause malcontent with others around themselves are being selfish? They care more about how their neighbor feels than they do about how their parents feel about God. Selfish? Sounds like more people should be more considerate like this, we'd have less problems in this world.
    Sounds like someone is just mad because their faith is losing momentum. Your faith is losing momentum because the society is evolving and seeing all the holes in the story you pitch. Deal with it, for Pete's sake at least learn to be more accepting of other people's beliefs. That sort of thing is one of the biggest reasons why your faith is losing it's foothold.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  3. Karol

    I think you started to get to the real point when you mentioned mega churches. That is what can lead a person to a "spiritual life" outside of "religion". . My relationship with God is more meaningful when it's not wrapped around 1200 people who don't even know I'm there. Otherwise I think your take misses why so many of us are finding God outside of a building.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Maybe so many are finding God outside a building because you can no longer smoke indoors. I hear He has developed a nasty nicotine habit since that whole Inquisition thing.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  4. steven l

    Why can't one be spiritual and practice his or hers own personal relationship with God in their own terms. You are saying that you can't be religious unless you go to the industrial complex called Church. What would happen if one day you found out that when God does return that he is really an alien coming back to see what a mess we made of this world and to each other.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  5. Jim V

    Mr Miller, I was raised in a very orthodox Roman Catholic family. I'm not Christian anymore. I believe in God, so I guess that makes me 'spiritual'!? (lol).
    I didn't want to debate your contentions about not having a structured dogma and church and religion. You are right in many respects.
    I wanted to bring up this heretical field of study known as the historical-critical method (HCM), for analyzing the scriptures. If you set aside the supernatural and traditional asceticism and altruism, from the Gospels, you get a very "secular Jesus"!? You get a historical Jesus that is precisely what you are speaking against?!...
    The historical Jesus said several times that He came to "destroy the church". Jesus was also always bad mouthing that "fig bush"?! Mr Miller, those things are all emblematic of structured "religion"?!
    Jesus also always bad mouthed the "religious clerics and priests" of His time. Talking to modern day rabbis, the Pharisee were a very hard working and pious group of men. Why did Jesus criticize them so heavily?
    Jesus by His own admission didn't subscribe to dogma and structured religion. He said think not that I come to destroy the law and the prophets. Well, it sure must have seemed that way, or He wouldn't have prefaced His statement like that?! He also said that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.
    Jesus also purportedly made a very secular remark once. He said "whatever" we bind or loosen, will be acceptable to God.
    Again, I understand your concerns and contentions. I'm just saying, the very Christ of Galilee, might not be in your camp, as much as you might think!?

    October 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • rochdoc

      I agree with you in most points. But it is not like "you" bind or lose, but "in may name". As I posted here before in reply to Christian bashing atheists, Jesus was not for dogmas, but was working to "release" and "redeem" us from the sins – the sins which bind us through the "laws". This is exactly why the religious put him to death. At the same time you can not ask a true Christian who beleives Jesus was the only begotten son and his presence and coming was predicted from the start of time to see him as a "secular Jesus". When you follow some one with unwavering faith the path becomes a religion. YOu just cannot just blame Christian Church for being a "religion" – that is just absurd.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Amy

      Yes! And I cannot imagine how the Jesus portrayed in the Bible would react to a mega-church with a wealthy pastor and a gift shop. I imagine it would not be a positive reaction...some cash registers and offering bowls might get tossed around. This is the least of the reasons for why I cannot verbally identify as a Christian any longer, although I still hold some essential beliefs. He does acknowledge it being "my take" and i'm sure CNN posted it to get the reaction that it has...but it would be nice if they could post a response to this judgmental and naive opinion.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  6. MagicPanties

    my invisible pink unicorn thinks religion is a cop-out

    October 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  7. God's PR Agent

    Like they say in Star Wars, Only a Sith speaks in absolutes. The author's black-or-white mindset is childish. What is his motivation? Is he some agent for organized religion imploring people to choose between heaven and hell? I choose to not believe in ANY of humanity's mythologies, and acknowledge that I simply don't know the answers to the big questions and never will. If you'd like to delude yourself into thinking you know all about the great beyond with absolute certainty, go ahead. His harkening of the historic significance of The Bible is beyond irrelevant and shows that he's just trying to bully people into getting in line and conforming to the Christian cattle-drive, with no reverence given to any other world religion. What a useless excuse for a tool this tiny-minded sniveling idiot is. I have nothing but contempt for his effort to limit the choices people have in defining their spirituality.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  8. Matt

    Article... "Religion seems ridiculous, but you should believe in it, because it's less selfish and makes you take a stance. Even if deep down, you know it doesn't seem like it fits with today's world... well, that makes it more special for you to cling to this stuff." Yay!

    October 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  9. moe smith

    Churches dont make money off the "spiritual". that's the biggest problem they face: loss of funds. otherwise, they wouldn't care one bit.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  10. Mike

    The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.

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

    Polytheism is more fun than monotheism.
    With an entire pantheon from which to chose, there's a God for every mood.
    Personally, I'm a big fan of Bacchus. His revelries are way more fun than the Jewish carpenter demi-god's birth and death day celebratiions.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  12. ShawnDH

    Sure, because only people who are brainwashed into believing that ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales are real and that Jesus was magic are allowed to exist.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  13. thedangersofreligiousnotthoughtful

    The tilte of this article states the intended purpose:
    to place fear in others that there are dangers in being spiritual not religious
    to place doubt in those whom choose to think for themselves
    to place all into submission to the political need to feed males egos looking for support for their ill gotten thoughts
    to see how apologetic or how easy to manipulate this 'group' of people is / will be
    to annoy and sensitize to stupidity where religion is concerned – so as to not want to vote for r.
    basically – to manipulate
    as usual
    as always
    and – they hope – or do they??? – forever
    this is the wave of the future
    annoy a group of people to react – so their reactions can be recorded
    just to see what happens
    take and give

    October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  14. Matt

    The spiritual but not religious came to me, because after reading "End of Faith", it became clear to me how organized religion is used and has been used to harm those in the name of God. On the other hand, I got tired of arguing with everyone about how ridiculous all the customs and practices are and guilt-based living. This opinion of yours glosses over everything associated with this stance, as much as you're claiming those of us who adopt it gloss over being Religious. So, way to do the "same thing." It's the best way I could think to say that I don't know everything for sure, but I'm leaning more towards reason and Science. But, now I can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner and still be a good person without arguing with family and friends on a question that will probably never be answered in our lifetime. Oh, but I can pretty much all but tell you that it's not going to be answered by a guy in a funny hat, stuck hundreds of years in the past. If you think that "firmly" believing in that nonsense makes you a stronger or smarter person, because it seems more difficult, then wow, good for you!

    October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  15. Eric Radio

    What amazes me is that such an ingnorant and uninformed person is given a forum anywhere let alone at CNN. I could barely read this drivel so forgive me for not commenting specifically. Just astonding!

    October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  16. dave

    I believe, the guy on the beach should eat a salad and do some sit ups

    October 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • One one

      And I noticed he is holding his hands up. Does "spiritualism" work better when you hold your hands up ?

      October 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  17. Metuka

    Wow is all I can say. Judging something you do not understand seems to be a common theme these days. To be closer to God one must be closer to ones self. I read the bible and I study Kabbalah. I feel more spiritually closer to God and I do not like what religion has become in this day and time. Do I want to say I am Christian which basically means that is my belief and I feel that Catholics or other religions are wrong and better yet go to war over it or murder for it? Spiritual but not religious is based upon treating others as you would treat yourself. Learn to love yourself so you can love others. I grew up in church and it was the basis for my relationship with God however I have grown so much more since then with my relationship with God and that is not from more church. It was from becoming more spiritual within myself which holds me to be a more moral person. As this author is an example of religious politics and closed mindness- uh yea I don't want to be counted in with him. Sorry. At the end of the day we are all God's children. How close you want to be with him is within your own heart. Whether you attend Church or gain closeness to him just from reading the bible or being involved in Kabbalah – Spiritual but not religious is not a cop out. It is seeing beyond the politics to what is really important and to what is really going on in our world and society. I choose not to be a part of religious classifications as we are all one and religion should not be used as a reason to murder or to go to war. Therefore I choose not to support that or be a part of that. I am spiritual and have respect for all religions and beliefs because I choose not to judge right or wrong because only God knows that; therefore I will not catororgize myself as a Christion, Buddahist, Islam, Catholic etc. I think everyone that does is missing the bigger message from God. I think that is the ultimate test. Just my oppion. Judge me as you will. It matters not to me. God's oppion is the only one I care about.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Anne

      Well written!

      October 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • One one

      How do you know what gods opinion is ? Are you relying on the scriptures of an organized religion ?

      October 1, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  18. Alan

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    No, it is exactly the opposite - being spiritual encourages thinking and deciding as opposed to having someone else (pick any organized religion) decide. Spirituality encourages responsibility - scripture and doctrine supplant reasoning, thought and making difficult decisions.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  19. dave

    ---Science does not tell you lying is wrong. Science is not morality. Ask Messrs. Oppenheimer, Nobel, Gatling, Browning, Mengele folks at Dow, Raytheon, etc.

    People who are anti-religion or atheists often forget about Mao and Stalin

    October 1, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      --Mao and Stalin did what they did out of a desire for political power. Not atheism. Something theist often forget…education.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • One one

      The Christian bible doesn't tell us that slavery is wrong.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Deanna

      You do not need religion to tell you what is right and wrong. You don't need religion to teach you morals. If you are a good human being, that comes naturally to you. Being brought up in a happy, loving family, and/or having good friends also nurtures that understanding. Religion teaches you that you will be punished if you doing something bad. I don’t, and I believe most people don’t, need fear of punishment. Most people want to the right thing, because it is the right thing to do. I am a firm believer in treating others the way you wish to be treated. Not because I fear retribution for hurting someone, but because I have empathy towards other people and I don’t want to be the cause of their pain.

      How many wars were caused by “Spiritual but not religious people, agnostics, or atheist? Zero. How many were caused by religion? Hundreds!

      When you are spiritual but not religious, you do not believe something because you were raised, forced, and/or quilted to. You feel with your heart and soul what may be out there. Most of us have studied and can appreciate many religions. We have studied their histories, how they came to be, and how they have morphed/changed over the centuries.

      We are not ignorant to other peoples beliefs. We have found that none of them feel right for us.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  20. Jeremy

    Let people enjoy their personal nonesense and rational thought neglect any way that they choose.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • One one

      That's ok as long as they don't try to push their delusional beliefs into our schools, laws, and public places.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:37 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.