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. anonymous

    Here's one; how about being human and loving your fellow man without prejudice? So what if kids these days are "non-believers". Most religious affiliations prey on the faith of others by perpetuating their fears that if they don't give "alms" they won't get a slice of heaven, or if they don't behave a certain way, they'll go to hell. I for one, am in the doctrine of being humane to others. What's so bad about such a belief?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  2. S.R.

    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. Alan you are obviously not intelligent enough to understand a relationship with god outside of a structured environment. You are one of the wealthy that cannot understand or care about "lower" class people or new idea's. Go back to your bank account and continue to pray to that which is your true god!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  3. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

    It's only a cop out if it's not what you really believe. It works fine for me.

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


    October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  5. William Demuth

    Saying I am spiritual and not religious is just a PC way of saying religious people are Azzholes of the lowest order.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  6. bob

    What a load of hogwash. Being spiritual means one can evolve from dogma, doctrine, structure and form to something more free, open, inclusive and understanding. People shouldn't have to fit into little boxes with assigned labels, that's what separates humanity today. If younger people are leaning towards this next wave, it's because they are aware of how closely everyone is connected. Enough divisive tactics already.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  7. Aaron

    Religion in general has never been about a connection with God, instead it is a means to control the minds and actions of others. The idea that God would care about what "club" you belong to is ridiculous. The spiritual movement in this country is not about lazy individuals, it's about people who think for themselves. There is a reason Christians are called "sheep". In America you would get more compassion from a "spiritual" person than a so called Christian.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  8. EBK

    Alan – first off, nobody in the spiritual-but-not-religious mindset is "peddling" anything. I love how you use that word early on to try to subtly put a negative spin on a view counter to your own. The truth is, most of us are not fence-sitters at all, but people who've tried organized religion already and found it to be insincere, stifling, and hypocritical. How many people do we all know who grin politely in church on Sundays and sing their hymns only to leave their and return to their lying, negative, cheating ways. It's become the norm unfortunately. We are not about "feeling good" (another nice way to minimalize what you don't understand) – we're about removing fear and replacing it with love. And if you understood that love is what the great prophet Jesus himself wanted for us, then you'd see we're not that far from each other. If you need rules and dogma in your life, good for you – that's awesome! I just hope it gets you to the same place where many of us "fence sitters" are going or have already gotten. Peace, brother. 🙂

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

      Thank you, couldnt have said it any better

      October 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  9. Loki

    God forbid that someone would think on their own about what they believe.

    Oh, wait, this guy's god does forbid that.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  10. Steve

    Wow...... I am 50 years old and have been refering to myself as "spritual but not religious" since my early teens. I have spent countless hours pondering mankind and God. I have also spent countless hours in deep discussion with friends and family about the issue of a higher power and the meaning of life. Yet Alan Miller seems to completely discount my beliefs! His thickheaded opinion about people like me is exactly why I have a personal disdain for formal religion. I believe that going to church is a wonderful thing, for some people, but not all. I live next door to a church and have been nominated as layperson of the year three times, yet I am not a member and have only attend Sunday service there 4 times in 25 years. I cannot put my spiritual beliefs in a context that would be considered a doctrine. It is much to complex and nuanced. Thus I choose not to participate in an organization that has such lines, boxes and walls around what they believe. If people want to belong to such organizations, good for them. I hope it brings them joy and meaning, but don't belittle my beliefs. Shame on you Alan Miller!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  11. Pete C

    The problem with regligion is it's harmful folly. If folks want to practice religion, go to church and all that of course that is fine and WELL within their rights to do so. But ANY intrusion into the public realm MUST be squashed. The whole idea of Gay marriage has borne this out rather clearly! Our Declaration of Independence CLEARLY states that as we were creating this nation our founders relized that ALL citizens would have the FREEDOM to pursue happines in ANY way THEY saw fit NOT as OTHERS (Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh) decide they should make that pursuit. There is NO asterisk within the Declaration that provides ANY sort of guideline as to what that pursuit needs to look like. Until religions acknkowledge that they have NO MORE insight into what "God" is, does, wants or thinks than ANYONE one else on the planet, we need to keep their thoughts along side other fantasies where they belong!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • RockoT

      While the founding fathers would certainly not have understood their own words would extend to the state endorsing gay marriage – I agree with you, the modern context, absolutely the pursuit of happiness would include it.

      However, you are confusing two very different subjects – would you be happy with outlawing of all gay marriages, if not a word about it had ever been uttered from a pulpit?

      No, ultimately you are advocating for gay marriage – and the reasons why people are against it – not really important, you simply want it to become the law of the land.

      And it's not very hidden manipulation that you want to say, if someone adopts a spiritual-but-not-religious viewpoint, they are allowed to go vote in favor of gay marriage. But if someone is religious – they shouldn't be allowed to vote for their viewpoints.

      Eh – sorry, I don't buy it. Ridiculous. The founding fathers did intend that the state would not establish a church – they never came up with rules disqualifying people from voting based on their religion.

      That is quite absurd, both from an historical context, and from being any kind of workable democracy.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  12. Candlewycke

    Most people who say they are spiritual actually do nothing that is itself spiritual, it is an easy way to get out of answering the difficult question of what do I believe. Dogma is not a bad thing, neither is creed or motto. They give a person a foundation upon which to build. Even Atheists subscribe to some personal creed or ethos or motto. The person who is just spiritual is usually the person who just doesn't want to deal with the big questions. I for one trust a die hard atheist or a evangelical Christian over a person who is just Spiritual any day.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Madtown

      They give a person a foundation upon which to build
      True enough, but is the foundation constructed of anything real and valid? Wanting answers to the big questions is perfectly natural, we are an inquisitive species. However, making up the answers because the answers are beyond our reach isn't the way to go about it.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • SurelyUjest

      Trust based on a public statement solidifying which camp you come from spiritually is trust given without merit.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  13. Lew

    "How spiritual you are has nothing to do with what you believe but everything to do with your state of consciousness."
    (Eckhart Tolle)

    October 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  14. notafollower

    You have got to be kidding. I would bet that you think your religion is the 'right' religion. And therefore the spiritual others across the world practicing other forms are all wrong and going to hell. Lol. Another perfect example of mans folly when it comes to religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  15. Cynthia

    Just another stereotype to add to the list. All Jews love money, all Blacks like watermellon, and now all SBNRs are flakey. Yah I'll believe that and take that ocean front propery in the Nevada desert you're offering too. Thanks for adding to the hate in the world instead of working towards understanding one another.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  16. Suecaryl

    I feel bad for Mr. Miller. He's terribly wrong! "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." That is a ridiculous statement. He's got it backwards. Because, actually, being religious avoids having to think too hard. Once you "decide" on a religion, (and often, a religion is decided for you, in childhood) thinking is not necessary, and often frowned upon. You are just supposed to go along with the religion's doctrines and teachings. No individual thought process required. Churches have experienced huge crisis simply because parishioners "think".

    October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  17. Chris Orbach

    It's not a cop out to admit to not knowing what cannot be known, nor not naming what cannot be named. It's far more of a cop-out to clutch blindly at some person or organization's notions for what those things might be.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Al Brideau

      I assure you my friend that God has a name and He most certainly can be known. This is a promise from God Himself and He cannot lie. The Caveat however is that you must come to know Him on His terms. First, you must exercize faith in Him, be baptised by one who has the authority to administer in the ordinances of the Gospel, receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost and endure in Faith to the end. If you follow the God given formula with a sincere heart and real intent to know Him, then He is obligated to reveal Himself to you. To the degree that you excersize true siincere faith, is the degree that He will reveal Himself. Faith leads to pure knowledge and truth and it will set you free ...

      October 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      @ Al Brideau, 1. How do you know god is a "he"? Their is NO historical evidence stating this except poor translation throughout history. The original word in sanscrit was more non-gender defining, "HE/She, it" 2. When someone is questioning your doctrine and all you have is your doctrine to defend it your kind of low on ammunition. 3. We do not fear your made up places of reward and punishment because they do not exist. 4. Try to read other books and understand the period in which the Bible was written, follow the political and economic pressures that influenced the Nicean councils, become aware that your holy book while possibly inspired by an all powerful being has been manipulated by man from the moment the first quill touched the papyrus.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  18. Jessica Alba

    Worship me – im better than any organized religion

    October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • k

      Organized religions worship God ... not the religion itself. Unless, of course, you're equating yourself to God.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • sam stone

      organized religions worship THEIR version of god, which is tantamount to worshipping the religion

      October 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Al Brideau

      Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  19. Tony

    Religion is a relic of a time when man didn't understand the world around him. It was their science, their truth. Over the years as human knowledge increased belief in religion should have fallen by the wayside, yet religion persists. It takes advantage of people's search for meaning, their desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if it goes against truth and knowledge. It's this longing, this desire to belong that allows religion to survive in today's world.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Al Brideau

      This article is bang on. A man must stand for something or he will fall for anything. The scriptures are clear about the days we live in now. 2 Timothy 3:2 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. So do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  20. dave

    The people to fear are those who truly believe this drivel – those who need you to believe what they do. Religion is nothing more than the ultimate tool of fear-based control. It has been used to intimidate and murder millions of people over the years and it's exciting to see people finally waking up to something bigger. When you truly open your heart and mind, organized religion is not an option. All indigenous people understood the law of one, and there is a reason for that. Just because they didn't have iphones doesn't mean they weren't on to something.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • mk

      Perfect, dave.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • RockoT

      Look in the mirror dave. What I read in your statement is complete hypocrisy. I see a movement basically based on denial.

      Read the comments, you can see some harsh words directed at the author of this article. Your belief in self discovery – clearly not extended to people who didn't discover the right things – and come to lockstep agreement with your world view.

      If spirituality comes through self discovery, then I must allow the author of this article his viewpoints – gleaned through his own process of discovery – no exceptions.

      The attacks on the author are manipulation, not even the slightest attempt to hide it, either.. If you truly believe spirituality is entirely a personal journey – then you have to allow people to do that.

      That's logic 101. If you don't get it – a shame, but ultimately what history teaches is new forms of hate come up wrapped in all kinds of denial.

      What a load of self delusion on display today, without nary a word of support and love for another human being – the author of thie article – sharing his views, and his journey of discovery.

      The reason you didn't take that approach – is clear enough, you don't believe the things you say.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:51 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.