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. Anna

    So – how "churchy" of you... if I don't belong to a church I don't have a "set of principles", a "belief system"?!!! This is EXACTLY what the problem is! Narrow-minded...

    October 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  2. JC

    What is wrong with admitting you don't know the answers? I have more of a problem with people, who, in spite of all the mystery, insist that they know the truth. Saying you are 'spiritual but not religious' is not a cop-out, it is merely an acknowledgement that we are looking for answers instead of having them fed to us. This article is condescending and narrow-minded and belongs on Fox.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • snowboarder

      that JC is a real truth

      October 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • HamsterDancer

      Agree 10,000% !

      October 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • bo

      Well said, JC. My thoughts exactly.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • John the Guy

      Succinctly, correct.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Bob Conway


      October 1, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  3. Wag

    Religion frequently has nothing to do with spirituality and religion frequently has no clue what spirituality means. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. Even the spirituality of atheists can exceed that of religious adherents. Does pious behavior in front of the pulpit equate to spirituality? Not in the least.

    I expect that the writer's obsession with those who profess spirituality without religion has compromised his own understanding of what spirituality really is.


    October 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  4. Rebecca Stanford

    What arrogance you show Mr Miller! You have proven with your diatribe the root of why so many people are indeed turning away from organized religion in favor of things spiritual. You're an ass, in short.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  5. Really?

    The author clearly missed the point here. I think there is a valid point about whether people are just copping out and claiming to be "spiritual." BUT, I think it has more to do with societal expectations about how if you are not religious that you are somehow missing the point.

    However, that is not the point in this article. Is the suggestion really that it is inherently lazy of "kids these days" (sorry, this article just really has that old man sound to it) just do things that make them happy rather than committing to an ideological belief system? So, we should just pick a religion and stick to it because that takes more work...?

    I suppose I do not get the upside in blindly following a thought process. Sure, it may take more work to do that, but it also takes more work to walk around on your hands all day, however, I am A-okay with foot walking. But hey, that's just me.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  6. Tommy

    The invisible man.....if theirs a god , he must hate us...this writer is another control freak....

    October 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  7. snowboarder

    spiritual-but-not-religious is just another step away from religion. people are realizing that the ritual and dogma of religion is false.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Miss

      Wow what a discussion. Jesus Christ said that true religion is pure and undefiled before God is to help the widows and orphans in their distress. Religion is a good thing, not a bad thing, as Jesus defined it. Anybody who wants to make up their own set of philosophical / spiritual ideas about God and uses that to justify their behaviors, doesn't qualify as being "religious", in the correct use of the word. They are making up their own stuff, trying to use "religion" as an excuse.

      Don't blame that on true religion. Its actually 'pseudo-religious". Don't associate them to be in the same group. They are polar opposites! ! Just because the "pseudo'" people misuse the term to justify their violence, doesn't mean the "religious" people are violent. They are not and have never been violent. They are busy fulfilling the religious mandate to "help the orphan and widow in their distress and to forgive those who hurt you and pray for those who spitefully use you."

      Btw, Jesus never said to "kill the infidel'. He said to love them and pray for them. He did exactly that to those who crucified Him. He fully embraced his captors with love and gentleness. (And then Jesus rose alive from the dead, proving that love and forgiveness conquers violence and hatred.) Christianity is different than other pseudo-religions, in this way, including Islam. Don't put Christianity in the same categories with the other groups that call themselves religious groups. It is uniquely different.

      IPeople who broaden the term "religion" to mean any philosophical / spiritual idea, are making it into something ENTIRELY different than anything Jesus Christ said or propogated. If the followers of that idea (I'm going to call it "psudo religion) decide to be violent to people who disagree with their "pseudo religion' that doesn't villainize, or even reflect on, the followers of true religion. Don't blame them. Blame the people who perverted it.

      Jesus said that people would misuse His name, calling themselves His followers. Jesus said that many would say to Him, "Lord, Lord, in your name I healed the sick, cast out demons, ...... in your name..Jesus will andwer get away from me, I never knew you. Only those who DO the will of my Father which is in heaven......."

      Jesus meant that people who use His name as their excuse for violence and hatred, don't have anything to do with Him. only those people who BEHAVE and live out his ethics are genuinely His and follow true religion.

      You referered to Islamic violence; Muslims are not followers of Jesus - true religion. True religion would help the needy; false religion can be violent.

      A group of religious people is more able to help the needy. That is how hospitals were started in England and in the U.S. Countless churches organized groups to do voluntary work overseas and in needy places throughout the U.S. Hospitals in England and the U.S. were started from Christians, organizing together in groups, called churches. All great mission works happened because of organized religion. Isolated individuals cannot accomplish as much as an organized group working together.

      Christian missionaries defended the Cherokee against the United States from stealing their lands..... at the risk of their lives. They could not have accomplished this as a few isolated individuals. They had the Brainerd Mission from England supporting them and sending them from England. Samuel Worcester, a Brainerd missionary, brought a legal suit against the United States for stealing the Indians land. Then when the suit was lost, the missionaries accompanied the Indians from North Carolina to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears to aid them. They also went ahead and prepared the place in Oklahoma for them. They worked arm-in-arm with Sequoyah, running the post office, running the schools for the children, printing the Cherokee Messenger (newspaper), teaching the Cherokee to read and write.

      To claim that "all religion is bad" is a badly misinformed idea. The only informed approach is to differentiate between those who use religion as an excuse to be hateful and violent and those who truly follow religion. Jesus differed between the two; we have to as well.

      Let me know what you think. Thanks

      October 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  8. dc4sense

    So religion is bad unless it comes from same organized group? Carry a step further – it is bad unless its MY religion, and get all of the bloody deeds done over the past several thousand years, all in the name of some religion. What I think he is really lamenting is how hard it is to brainwash people in the modern age (unless you live in the middle east).

    October 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  9. jake1969

    BTW, in my experience, I have found those who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" to walk a far more spiritual line close to God in life than organized religion types. They normally aren't very materialistic, usually very caring of their families, often animal lovers and very appreciative of nature and God's gift to us. Meanwhile, 2/3rds of my orthodox friends follow the organized rituals better, but then basically ignore all the beliefs and tenents and live life dominated by materialism. I think many others see that too, which is why so many are rejecting orthodoxy.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Alpine18

      I Wholeheartedly agree jake1969... I believe the real 'cop out' are those that need a structured religion to get close to God. As as all can tell right now by watching the news, structured religion isn't working out so well, now is it..?

      October 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  10. Jorge

    Suuuure Alan, I'm supposed to disregard centuries of religion-empowered war, political pandering, intellectual and social oppression, slavery and genocide, disregard my own spiritual path and embrace a fit of literary onanism produced by a diddling business hack with delusions of idealogical grandeur. OH YEA, I'M SOOOOO READY FOR THAT.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  11. zevington

    why is this trash on cnn?

    October 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  12. 1ChaosTheory

    "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." –Mahatma Gandhi

    October 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  13. M. Keller

    "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it?" The generalizations inherent in this piece show that the author has done embarrassingly little to try to understand the views he is attacking. The group he seems to address includes such a broad swath of the population that to lump them in together is irresponsible at best. I understand why people glory in their own "old-fashioned"-ness, but this is not old-fashioned. Rather, it is harmful, small-minded, binary thinking that nuanced thinkers have always rejected. The interplay of religious ideologies is truly old-fashioned. That is, unlike our jingoistic evangelicalism, it is older than Ancient Greece.

    This is an embarrassing piece, and I'm surprised that CNN would post such unskilled, unfocused drivel to their website.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Sarah

      YES YES YES! Incredibly well said.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  14. hoop

    The spiritual person seeks knowledge.
    The religious person seeks reward.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Blarg

      The skeptical person seeks truth.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • ME II

      And both are likely going about it the wrong way.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  15. pastmorm

    Holy Alan Miller, Batman! I think CNN really needs to rethink where they get their "major" CNN contributing writers...I mean, Co-founder of a Brewery? SERIOUSLY???

    October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  16. All you need is love

    Laughlin – you are absolutely correct. Everyone responding is just giving creedence to this drivel.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • old ben

      Lame response. Nice job at giving no substance to your ideas.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  17. Ryan

    Talk about painting with a broad brush! Belief in God but not in religion is somehow lazy and self-centered? We don't want to choose? I submit that I did choose. I chose to reject those who are arrogant enough to think that they understand God or think that he cares about the minutiae of their daily lives and religious rituals.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  18. spiritualu

    Amazing article. I, too, am a Spiritual but not religious person. When I did go to church, I had the opportunity to take several church goers (religious people) to the side privately and I asked them what they thought "God" was, and did you know that in this one church, in this one religion, that I got back many different answers? I've seen this at other well-organized churches too. I think it's beautiful, and not a bad thing, really. It means that we all have a personal relationship with God. Jesus was a spiritual person and not a religious person. I don't recall Jesus creating a building and preaching in it, either. He went out into the masses and went from town to town. I think, that is where Spiritual but not Religious came from. It's not something invented in the 60's by some hippies and it is not a cop-out. It is an out-of-control organized religion that is not feeding us what we need. I have seen a few religious nut cases, and I have seen a few spirutal nut cases, but please authoer, don't classify all spiritual people as nut cases and we won't classify all religious people as nut cases. The important thing is, when people ask us "Who is your God?" we want to let people know that God is important to us, just not in a religious way that is organized.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  19. Gabriel Malakh

    What does it mean to be spiritual?

    October 1, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  20. flyonthewall

    jms is definitely in the closet. every second post.. jeez.

    October 1, 2012 at 9:43 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.