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. Robert in Manassas

    Spiritualism is the individual's personal relationship and how they express it with their diety or lack thereof. Since spirituality is individual, the individual acknowledges and allows another individual to belief as they wish provided it doesn't impact their basic personal human rights or freedoms.

    Religion is the dogma of what "man" has written on how they believe "God" should be perceived, worshipped and many times used as a crux to justify why their opinion has more merit over another's. Religions often malign the freedoms and beliefs of the individual over the dogma of the religion.

    To understand why there is such a notable transition from religious to spiritual it would be prudent to assess it from all angles before passing judgement on what is a subjective and very personal decision.

    When religions attempt to unduly influence those who are not members of that religion through political, financial or societal oppression, then those who are not overly biased within that religion take note of it and act according to their own conscience vs. what their religion tells them to react.

    The spiritual person still cares about how they interact with other outside of their religion and how they treat them and are treated in return.

    The religious person allows the dogma of their religion to override their conscience without empathy of others due to blind obedience or personal integrity.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Michelle

      I totally agree. Well said!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  2. Mikka

    This article is absolutely great. It is the same as my thoughts and feelings expect the author but it on paper. This is the me generation, where most people are selfish, and believe in their own truths. WOW.

    Seven thousand comments+ says you did something good!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Sarah

      Are you stupid? All of the comments condemn this article for the egotistical, insecure, unintelligent rubbish that it is.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • y22nxdf2

      Haha! isn't religion wonderful?? It makes you see what does not exist, such as support for your confounded beliefs in this forum. No wonder people who think science is a scam fly to conferences to preach Creationism on jets. They must believe their airplane is really a miracle of God disguised as a wonder of science.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • culuriel

      The only thing religion gives you is a smug sense of superiority. That has no basis in fact. "Spiritual, but not religious" people may be annoying at parties, but they don't bomb abortion clinics or behead anyone.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  3. Tim

    Alan: I applaud anyone who has the level of independence required to weigh his or her own beliefs based on their own experiences and logic instead of going with the masses and fitting a certain mold to appease critics like you. Religion should only amount to a relationship between an individual and his or her perceived creator; anything more is an attempt to commercialize something sacred. Since different religions by and large promote the same morals expressed in different wording, I think it's natural for someone to pick and choose religious expressions to help define their beliefs. In no way should someone criticize another's beliefs because they don't fit mainstream trains of thought. Get off your pedestal and just stick to your beliefs, and don't tell me or others what or how I should go about deciding my beliefs.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  4. manomundo

    Nothing like a religious nut telling everybody else how wrong he thinks they are.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  5. morgancarlson

    It's people like this that have the neo-atheists, as I call people who lack any spirituality, thinking that spirituality automatically connects to religions. Religion is a control mechanism, plain and simple. Religions were devised to control the masses with a cookie-cutter build of philosophy and rules that bind them into a set lifestyle. People that come up with their own beliefs are people that can think for themselves and process new information better without declaring a war to justify their level of corruption. Anyone that wants to have free thoughts and explore an area that science cannot explain does so without religions interfering in their journey.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  6. kh

    My relationship with the god of my understanding is personal, deeply felt, and provides me with the spiritual connection to God on a daily basis. Disheartened with the organized religion for decades, I finally realized that man made organized religion kept me in contempt of the beauty of God in my life. I'm a bit baffled how you can be so self rightous to assume that your interpretation of religion can be the only path. On the same note, can we please get organized religion out of politics, though the common thread of corruption in both organizations certainly tend to tie them together for self gain.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Bobby

      I picked up on the language you employed that you probably have experience with AA or some like-minded 12-step group. I do too, and what I observed when I participated in such a group was that in fact, these groups are at least as dogmatic as any Christian church is in cramming down the throats of attendees the notion that "God is whoever/whatever you want he/she/it to be", and there cannot be any absolute concept of God. Free thought and expression, and deviation from program dogma is not tolerated. And one of the central themes of the dogma I kept hearing parroted over and over is that organized religion is bad and doesn't work. So, at least within these organizations, the concept of "spiritual but not religious" is every bit as dogmatic as any Christian doctrine.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  7. Ann

    The "spiritual but not religious group" is more ethical, more intelligent, more grounded, more environmental, more peace-oriented, more open-minded than any other group I've come across. It's the natural evolution of society moving upward in consciousness and away from being sheep, told what to think by a shepherd of a church.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Julie

      Wow they are so openminded that they call anyone that doesn't think the same way as they do "sheep". Got it.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • k

      What data can you provide in support of your assertions? I, for one, would be quite interested in seeing this.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  8. scallywag

    Judeo-Christo religions are so full of conflict, intolerances, anger, and argumentive people.
    Thank Buddha I'm a Buddhist.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  9. Michael Allen

    So basically thinking for yourself is a copout? Right? Or are you just mad because there are less "faithful" emptying their wallets into your coffers?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  10. trevor

    Spiritual but not religious is just fine, thanks. I'm not self centric or lazy about it. I put my family and friends and often even strangers ahead of myself. You don't know my background, my daily observance or how I came to this understanding. Labeling it a cop-out is a cop-out.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • yote54

      LOVE IT!!!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  11. ChesterL

    Lame, Lame, Lame!!!! The writer of this article doesn't get it!!! Basically he's saying you have to subscribe to one religion rather than being a free thinker. Guess what, as a 52 year old, I wish I would have woke up years ago and starting being a free thinker and find my own path. I wasted way too many years being involved with the church.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  12. Carl

    Those who consider "spiritual but not religious" as a danger are in severe need of mental help. Keeping the few good things about faith (helping others, feeling a connection to the Universe, trying to understand yourself and your place in the universe) while dumping all of the negatives (dogma, intolerance, that undeserved feeling of superiority) is beneficial to society in a way that organized religion never has been and never will be.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  13. ShariInPhoenix

    Spot. On. Thanks for your insights!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  14. sunoferis

    "The lowest form of atheism is to put a church between a man and his God." -RAW

    October 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  15. David

    Love each other.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  16. ReasonableXX

    Sounds like the only "danger" here is to Christianity and its outdated (and somewhat primitive) belief system. The ridiculous myth that morality can only come from a dogmatic belief system has been refuted numerous times throughout history. If morality can only come from religious philosophy, why is property and violent crime lower in less religious countries (and US states)? Why does such a high percentage of the prison population identify as religious? Are religious people trying to tell us that the only reason they don't run around killing and raping people is because they are being watch from above and fear punishment? I don't know if that qualifies as true morality if the only reason you don't commit evil deeds agaist your fellow man is because you might get caught and punished.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • mk

      'If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed'-Einstein

      Religion gives us bad reasons to be good, when good reasons are actually available" – Sam Harris

      "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christianity. Your Christianity is so unlike your Christ".-Ghandi

      "Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you're told. Religion is doing what you're told regardless of what is right."

      October 1, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  17. this guy

    How many on this comment board truly believe they will go to a heaven (assuming they're righteous and deserving people) when they die?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • ROn Furrgotta

      For me, I can't know for sure where I am going, if anywhere, when I die. I just know that it feels good to treat others the way I want to be treated, and to try and leave a positive legacy for the people I leave behind when I die. You aren't really doing "good" if you do it for your own salvation....You do good because it just feels like the right thing to do and makes the world a better place for the living.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Saved

      I'm going to heaven when I die, because of what Christ did for me. I have made a choice in this world and although I trip a stumble often, He is always there for me and you!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • LOL

      Regarding SAVED's comment....Is it just me or does anyone ever picture some glassy eyed overwight person with a personality disorder behind a keyboard when they say something like this?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Hey Saved...

      Regardless of your faith....If you say someone is going to hell that makes you a horrible human being. You can't say someone is going to be tortured for all of time and then hide behind your faith as a good person. You may say you follow Christ, but you are almost the exact opposite of who he was. You are a jerk.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Saved

      LOL, truth hurts:>) BTW, your profile on me was dead-on. Your comments were excactly what my Phyc Doc said. You must be pretty smart. Good luck in finding life's answers. Hint: You'll find them in that OLD book at your grandma's house next to her bed. Get your own copy :>)

      October 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • LOL

      @ Saved...first of how did you know about Grandma's old book by her bed? Also, did you know that that old Book happens to be "Wiinie the Pooh"? I shall now live my life in worship of the Pooh....I wish pray without pants to a jar of honey....My doctrine shall be "None shall Bother"... I will befriend a pig and live out my days in search of a little boy named Christopher or Robin...Thank you wise one. You have "SAVED" me.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Saved

      HeySaved, if you reject Christ as your Lord and Saviour, you will go to hell. I will not apoligize for that and Christ didn't when He was here. He preached and spoke love but was very clear on this point. We can't worry about offending people. BTW, I didn' say I was good but thank you for that comment. I said we do good works because we are saved through Christ. The human heart is wicked and if left to ourselves we will choose evil. Thank God He has freed us from sin. Doesn't mean Im perfect or without sin. I'm a sinner in need of a saviour. I do believe that too many Christians are trying to get the speck out of their neighbors eye instead of dealing with the log in theirs. If we would all manage our business, the entire world would be a much better place.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • LOL

      JEsus Christ, you are exhausting.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  18. Hub

    The difference is experiential vs. intellectual – not spiritual vs. religious. The issue i have with some religious 'followers' is that they preach the word but don't live the essence. The intellect divides and religions have mostly created division – not any fault of the enlightened leaders who inspired them – but because followers fail to experience the 'holy spirit' behind the message. Preaching holiness does not make one holy.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  19. Michael

    The only people who have anything to fear from more of humanity being spiritual, as opposed to religious, are those who would use (or condone the use of) "revealed scripture" to thrust their own "tribal" social ideals upon others. No one argues that wonderful things have been created to exalt deities throughout history, or that organized religions can be a positive social force. However, no one should try to deny that horrific things have been done, and are still being done, to human beings in order to "save their souls" or "cleanse" them from the earth. While these ideas are not necessarily being mentioned by the author, his failure to understand that dogma and intolerance are the simultaneous catalyst not only for the injustices committed by "religious" groups, but also for the exodus away from those same groups by the thinking people who just cannot conscientiously go along with their craziness.
    The "danger" as it is being perceived is not universal; it's quite specifically targeted, and it's aimed towards the social changes that humanity needs at this point in our history.
    The reason people stop buying stuff is because they either don't need it anymore, or that it sucks and no one wants it anymore. The voices of individuals who are "spiritual, not religious" are often soft and apologetic, but the voice of the people is deafening. Religious organizations SHOULD be fearful, because their grip on the hearts and minds of humanity is being shrugged off, calmly and certainly.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  20. ROn Furrgotta

    What this article means " I get paid by the church for my crappy articles on my less than reputable websites and columns to push traditional church attendance, You need to go to church and shell out $$$, otherwise you are a millenial hippy who is going to hell"

    Did I get that right?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • yote54


      October 1, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • ChesterL

      Yep, sounds about right!!!

      October 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • mjdkid100


      October 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Saved

      I feel sorry for ROn Furrgotta that you don't know where you're going after you die. Anyone in that position is not going anywhere in this life or the next. As far as your $$$$. The sooner you realize it's not yours to begin with and we are all stewards, the better off you will be.
      Remember, its not your sin that will send you to hell, it is your rejection of Chirst as saviour. We do good works not to get to heaven, we do good works becuase we KNOW we are going to heaven. Many blessings.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • ROn Furrgotta

      You can't say "Many Blessings" to someone after you personally attack them. Nice try.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Saved

      I'll quote something other than the bible. “Do or do not... there is no try.” -Yoda. Everyone needs to get off the fence and make a decision. Your either a sheep or a goat :>) Look it up.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • YODA

      @ Saved
      Much fear I sense in you

      October 1, 2012 at 11:59 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.