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. Gypsy

    Your entire article is a cop-out and is also mired in the "either/or" dogma.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  2. whodathunk

    Alan – "nice try", but you don't understand anything about this belief system. Go back to church and ask for forgiveness

    October 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  3. mike

    This is one of the most poorly written articles I have ever read.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Doug

      'poorly written' or do you simply disagree with the thesis?

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

      Poorly written.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  4. rroman81

    I think spiritual or religious have no real differentiation when it comes to comparing to secular humanist way of living. The fact that people believe in higher power out there is incompatible with basic scientific principles. Folks in spiritual category always attempt to differentiate from "believers" but in fact they are not that far from them. They both rely on the fact that you need to turn somewhere else for moral balance instead of yourself. That's the biggest problem overall.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • k

      The fact that people believe in a higher power is incompatible with science ... why? Why do scientists go out and attempt to understand the world in which we live? Because they pre-suppose an intelligibility behind it. There is some underlying form. Where did that form come from (much less the belief that there is form behind it)? Take it as a cosmological argument, if you want. We're all contingent beings. So where did we (all creation) come from? Doesn't there have to be a first mover? You can't endlessly kick the can down the road. Understanding science is – at it's heart – a religious endeavor; it attempts to get to the structure imposed on creation by the one who creates.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  5. EPUnum

    Well... it's an opinion alright. Miller sees this “spiritual but not religious” so clear cut and canned, but it's not. His concern is what he thinks religion provides humanity in conjunction with God as if it were the road map to him, it isn't. There are many good religious philosophies that speak of great morality on earth but not one of them is 100% perfect. The old Bible testament tells of 10 of Gods laws. These are good laws but, an eye for an eye really doesn't work that well; not 100% perfect. Miller is trying to make the point that organized religion is morality for a civilized culture. Tell that to the Mayans.
    "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". Man's religion isn't God's.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  6. robert sinkowitz

    The basic tenet, "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.", couldn't be more wrong. Further belief in Jesus, the Prince of Peace, or recognition of the Bibles place in our history and as our social fabric's moral compass, does not necessarily require belief in a super natural being whispering truths to be recounted in the writings of our fellowmen.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  7. John

    What a narrow minded, old fashioned, and just plain outdated opinion piece. Dogmatic religion is the #1 threat to humanity in the 21st century and the fact that people are drifting away from it should only be seen as positive. A personal connection with God/Source/Universe or whatever you call it should have nothing to do with how many senseless rituals you perform.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  8. Max

    I belong to a group which believes in spiritual growth and belief in God “as I understand him”. This group has been around for 75 years and helped Hundreds of thousands if not millions of men & woman. Being spiritual does mean believing in a higher power than yourself and others. Organized religion is the same just ‘organized”. While organized religion may not be for everyone is has its place. Some people need it. Isn’t it great to live in a country where you can openly practice your beliefs? Like this article, others may not agree.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  9. Doug

    What an excellent article. Thank you for this intelligent, honest and courageous confronting of the naked emperor clothed only in its mindless post-post-modernism.

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

      you can't be serious – are you?
      what is intelligent about this article?
      i think the writer misses the point that many who are spiritual and not religious have explored what religions have to offer in the form of moral compass and dogma and organizations and whatnot – and have found it hard to find the peace within themselves that they innately attribute to what they seek through contact and participation in religion to begin with. Those who look for a deeper understanding of god and or spirituality and or life itself in their religious participation – and do not find the knowledge they seek there – will continue to look until they find what it is that best meets their notion or experience of a deeper connection to life as it is and can be – finding it within and within just like all others.
      so, other than to annoy a lot of people with his obvious inability to think for himself deeper on this subject without causing others obvious harm by his intentional shaming remarks to incite reaction – what intelligence does this article demonstrate? Most people these days are fairly tired already of this terrorist like intellectual attacks – wouldn't you say?
      It is just annoying – because it is so obvious he is continuing the USA patriot instill fear, hatred, and division Act. Most are seriously tired of it.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  10. James

    Standing in a church makes you no more a Christian than standing in a garage makes you an automobile.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  11. ROn Furrgotta

    People who follow religion think we would be immoral without it.....Do you honestly think a thought like" Oh well Today I'm going to go down the road and kill Fred because it looks like his life is pretty crappy, I'd be doing him a favor" would exist without religion? You can't be serious....

    October 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • y22nxdf2

      Even a hypothetical amoral atheist such as the one you describe does not come close to the hienous murderers and tortured inspired by religion we have seen through the ages. This article writer is FULL of it. Full of religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  12. Carrie

    Jesus said "I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me". And he WAS truth.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Huebert

      Evidence please.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • morgancarlson

      Funny, I seem to know his father without him even being there.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  13. thingmaker

    This is the dumbest thing I've ever read. BTW, those using the Hitler/Stalin/Mao issue as proof that atheism caused/allowed their murderous behavior: This men were very religious but they were not believers in a Judeo-Christian God. Such a God would mean there was someone higher than them and they would have no such thing. So they made themselves Gods and built a religion around themselves. The drive for power is THE power behind organized religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  14. Robert

    I have to chime in here. I am a Unitarian Universalist. If you would pick one religion, if such the help founded this country, it would be this religion. Some but not all of the founding fathers were Uniterians, which was merged with Universalist. There are no creeds just principles which give the framework for an ethical moral life. A person is free to develop their own belief system whether it part Buddha, Chirstainity or any of the other religions out there. Yes we do have ordained minsters, but if the congration does not like what the ministers are saying they can be fired, by the congregation. I have seen this happen a couple of times. This is a religion where the "Spiritaulist, but not religous" can fit in. They just do not know of it, since UUs are not evangelistic.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  15. oddeofun

    Hmmm. I wonder what the author's view of actually Buddhism is? I think what's important is not so much a wariness of "spiritual but not religious" rather taking care not to fall into nihilism. You needn't believe in a creator-god or a "higher power" in order to embrace a meaningful life.

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

    Spirituallity + Politics = Religion

    This is the reason I left the church! I don't want politics in my relationship with the Divine and I don't want God in my government! When the preacher started telling the fold how to vote, it was time to leave. By the way, I'm OK with a prayer in school, and the 10 comandments in our courthouses. But a small group of people (of any religion) who want to tell me how to believe from a government office isn't going to fly with me either.

    I do believe in a Universial Higher Power, and I do pray!

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

      You sound like you appropriately support separation of church and state then say you're ok with prayer in schools?

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

      @JJ I am OK with a quick prayer in school as a blessing for an event. I would rather it not end "In Jesus name". It's when it's a forced "Christian" based prayer I have an issue with it. Leave it open for everyone/anyone to name the Divine of their own following. If you're an Atheist a respectful bow of the head and inner giggle at those around you is OK too.

      I feel prayer fosters respect for your fellow humans. I was banned from a medical website a few years ago because a poster asked how prayer fit in with the treatment of your child (I have a son with Epilepsy). This woman refused to see any doctor of any faith besides Christian. She was afraid that they would pray for her child to another god. I on the other hand feel that there is only one Divine and a million whys to reach out to It. I told her that I didn't care who prayed for my son, that simply by lifting his name in a collective energy was more than I could ask for – be it Jesus, Alla, Buda, Krishna, Oden, The Force, etc. I explained that I had friends who where Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and Hindu and they all kept Jake in their thoughts and prayers... I guess I should have noticed it was a christian based board. ; )

      October 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  17. Sailor101

    What a crock! Just because "Spiritual by not religious" does not fit into the pre-concieved notion of what this guy believes in the believes that he can dismiss it and everyone who would label themselves that way. How biaised is that and for CNN to even run this piece makes me raise my ebrow in response. It almost sounds like this guy supports the Mega-churches which for the most part I have not seen or heard anything positive about. Just let people worship the way they want, there is no need for a fixed building in order to get in touch with the spirits or gods, there is not need for a book to define what is right and what is wrong. Practise your virtues live by your values treat others fairly, what more could we ask for?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  18. sam

    This is a horrible article. Why should religion have a monopoly on spiritual feelings? For the most part religion subdues metaphysical thought by urging it's followers not to think independently on the big questions of life but rather rely on their doctrine for old outdated answers. Answers that can usually be summed up as faith is more important then reason.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. y22nxdf2

    "Take a stand" he says. You mean, like saying "my religion is better than yours." We've been there. We've seen the carnage throughout history that comes from your ultimatum. Keep your damned religions. We choose peace.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  20. mary

    why does everything need a "definition" to be accepted? I am spiritual in the sense that i believe in God as a higher power but I am not religious in the sense that i dont practice an "organized" religion. "God is everywhere.....Period"

    October 1, 2012 at 11:16 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.