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. katfish

    Seems the headline for this article is backwards. Religion is quite a bit more dangerous than spirituality

    October 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  2. nojinx

    This is a desperate attempt to recapture the masses as they move away from dogma and belief in supernatural things.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. Huebert

    I say that religion, not spirituality, is the cop-out. Religion is a prepackaged philosophy that one can adopt with out any examination or critical inspection. Spirituality requires at least a cursory examination of the practices and beliefs that one intends to adopt.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  4. snowboarder

    hmm. search for answers yourself or take the word of millenia old dogma?

    seems like blindly accepting what you are told is the ultimate cop-out.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  5. Chad

    Funny how all these atheists respond to the accusation that they dont believe in anything other than truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking , by saying they dont believe in anything other than truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking..

    I dont understand why you are so incensed? He got it exactly correct. It's not like he's saying "atheists secretly believe in God" or anything...

    October 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Chard, did you ever manage to connect your god to evolution or the Big Bang? If so, do cite the article and page. Thanks in advance.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Huebert

      I don't know anyone who believes that "the truth is whatever you think it to be". Truth can be demonstrated or defended, and preferably both.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Funny that Chard's been asked to produce such proof and can't.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Which God?

      Chad, sorry, but he didn't get much right. All life is sacred (but NOT in a religious sense) as as such it commands and deserves respect from all. In that sense, life is spiritual. All of it is connected, whether or not you think so, or some phony god says so. Ignore it and you upset a normal balance. God does not provide anything. Life and the earth does. It also depends on so much more: like location, seasonal changes, water, etc. It lives or dies. It is food and eaten, all up and down the chain. You don't know much outside of that fairy-tale book, do you?

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

      @Which God? "...All life is sacred..."

      =>How can life be sacred in the atheistic/naturalistic viewpoint? That's impossible.

      Life in that worldview is just chance, there is no overarching meaning to anything.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Chad

      @Huebert "I don't know anyone who believes that "the truth is whatever you think it to be". Truth can be demonstrated or defended, and preferably both."

      @Chad "virtually every atheist on this board believes that there is no such thing as "truth" (something that is true regardless of an individual viewpoint on it).
      relativists (atheists) demand the ability to define their own truth.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Huebert

      Terms like sacred, and meaningful, are nothing more that value as.sessments. If I value something, to me, it is sacred. That is part of the beauty of the naturalistic view point. It allows for an individual to hold some things sacred, but it is easy for me to understand that my notion of sacred is not the same as everyone else's.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Chad

      An atheist can make the statement "I hold life to be sacred", but they cant say "life is sacred", the latter would indicate an objective, absolute truth that they dont believe in.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Which God?

      Chad. You are STUPID, IGNORANT and WILFULLY so. Your knowledge of what an atheist is, thinks and feels is woefully IGNORANT, just like you. Pray to your god that you find some compassion in all the life around you. I can see, from your remark, life means nothing to you. I don't think you will know until it is to late for you. When you are dead, you are just that. DEAD. Your god won't be there 'waiting.' He isn't around now is he?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Chad

      I dont understand your response at all,
      – as a Christian, I hold life sacred, as an atheist you can individually value life, but ultimately (as you pointed out), you view it as the product of chance, there is no ultimate meaning, and when you die that's it.

      – and God IS here..

      October 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • California Dan

      Who says that all people who are spiritual, but not religious are atheists? I consider myself a Christian who does not attend a “normal” church. I find it hard to take direction from a man who “pretends” to be an expert in reality knows as much as I do. Sure, he may be able to recite chapter and verse in a debate, however, every church I have attended is rife with scandal or some sort. This is why I am more spiritual than religious.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Huebert


      I see you have degenerated in to semantic arguments. Good bye little Poe.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Chad

      @California Dan, I agree there is some major confusing of terminology..

      The authors major mistake was using generic terms "spirituality" and for that matter "religious"..
      The important thing is to define the object to which you are attempting to connect to.

      "religious" doesnt encompass everyone that believes in Jesus Christ as their savior.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Says the Vegetable: "Life in that worldview is just chance, there is no overarching meaning to anything."

      Still a lying sack, I see. You have no idea what you're talking about.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Mark

    Must have been short on commentary this monday, to pull this non-sense out. Religion is a tool to control the masses

    October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  7. tchudy

    Seven years ago the Rector from my church was at the hospital to give my dad the annointment of the sick as he lay dying. Thirty minutes later my dad died. As we gathered by his side to pray, my aunt asked the Rector "what happens next?" in reference to his passing. The Rector looked her straight in the eye and said "I don't know, that is the great mystery". What?!? A mystery? That's the best a man of religion can do? At that moment I realized that this guy, an educated priest didn't know any more about death than I did. And neither does the pope or any man on earth. I believe that there is more to my existience than mere chance, and just maybe a supreme being had something to do with it. And what if I'm wrong? That's the way it goes. Before "organized" religion, human beings decided what was spiritial to them. They lived and died with their own beliefs. And so will I.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • LowlyOne

      I don't know what world you live in where not haveing the answer means religion is false. Science doesn't have all the answers either. Does that mean science is false? One thing theology and science have in common is that for every question answered we end up with 10 new questions. We will never have all the answers in either theology or science. If a religion claims to have all the answers that should be the first red flag that you are being lied to. The priest was being honest with you. He could have just made something up. Would you have preferred that?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  8. Bill Deacon

    What will you do when you find that human solidarity and systemic truth is codified in philosophies that we already have but are rejected by people out of nothing more than their own rebellion? Philosophies such as the Judeo-Christian ethic, the rule of democratic law and the principles of free economies?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Which God?

      Bill, you aren't talking philosophy, you are still talking religion, something that is dogmatic. and on a narrow path. You talk nonsense.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Madtown

      Is it human solidarity if not all humans have access to the philosophy? The problem I have with individual religions asserting themselves to be the "one and only truth", is that they are simply not available to every human being occupying the planet. My belief is that if there really was only 1 way, all creations of God would be privy to it.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • snowboarder

      bill – the three things you so carelessly grouped together could not be more opposed. the least democratic prinicple in the world is religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  9. GG

    I was born and raised catholic. I went to catholic schools all my life. I studied religions in college and still read books about different religions because I think they are interesting. I'm spiritual but not religious BECAUSE I understand what religion is about. To accuse us of being ignorant about religion shows the author's own ignorance about this new movement of "spiritual but not religious." I hope more and more people adopt this way of thinking... hopefully then, we'll have less wars started in the name of God and less intolerance amongst ourselves.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • dan

      or, as i like to think of it, the only way to keep the population down...

      October 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      GG, I'm curious. As someone who was, no doubt, raised to value the sacraments, how do you currently practice your spirituality?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  10. Mike

    Why you religious people cannot be a little respectuous to others, as you expect all the respect from the world?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  11. Anna

    How are "spiritual-but-not-religious" people supposed to take a stand in what they believe in when they don't fall into another category? Should we explain ourselves to everyone who doubts our motives or that we are "good people"? Yes, there is something out there, but until I die or see it with my own eyes or heart, I'm not going to make up rules about it and put a label on it.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Amniculi

      And just what is that "something"?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Anna

      Whatever created us, leads us down our path. What exactly it is or looks like, I don't know... not dead yet.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Amniculi

      So, what you're saying is that your spirituality is based on a feeling? What is that feeling based on? If you have no evidence of anything why claim to be spiritual?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  12. RobinMO

    The problem with "spiritual but not religious" is that it still invokes some supernatural concept or experience rather being grounded in reality. It retains the escapism of religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  13. dom

    Yeah, sure it's a cop-out. As much of a cop-out as say.. conforming to 2000 year old fairy tales instead of thinking for yourself.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  14. Amniculi

    DEATH TO ISLAM! DEATH TO CHRISTIANITY! DEATH TO HINDUISM! DEATH TO BUDDH....actually, Buddhism, you're ok. More of a philosophy than a religion. DEATH TO RELIGION!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  15. Agnes

    The author has basically said nothing here. Nothing at all.

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

      This is definitely true. What a bunch of worthless drivel.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Amniculi

      Uhh...then you didn't read the article. He was basically telling people to stop fence-sitting when it comes to faith.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Chase

      I agree this author must have missed a couple valid points regarding this "movement." Why challenge or discuss a topic people will inevitably hold very dear to their hearts without fully understanding it? I'm surprised the editor allowed this to be published.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And I don't see a thing wrong with fence-sitting, when there is no proof that any religion has evidence that its version of a supernatural, omniscient being even exists. Why should I commit to any set of beliefs when that's all they are-beliefs? Why is it not acceptable to simply concede that I don't know whether a god exists or not, when I've seen no evidence to show there is one nor have I seen any proof there isn't one?

      Seems to me that those who have a need to be on one side of the fence or the other are the ones making assumptions where there are no facts to support them.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Anne

      For many of us spirituality is the exact opposite of fence-sitting. We have seen what is offered in the way of organized faith and reject all of those options. "None of the above." is a definite choice. If someone offered to let me choose from three plates of rotting food I might just say "No, thanks. I think I'll go and grow my own food."

      October 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Jon

    You just said what I have seen happening in our culture for awhile now. This "spiritual buffet", where people pick and choose what fits for them, is about as far from the real truth as you can get. It puts people even further into their comfort zone by not holdng them accountable to the truth of God's word. I've heard countless people say their belief system is "just to be a good person". Another belief system which more people are holding to is "All paths lead to the same place". This is not so. It avoids the idea that there can be absolute truth. Relativism, and political correctness in religion, is poisoning the spiritual landscape. How much more self-serving can we be?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Madtown

      Which book do you believe contains God's word? Don't all the major religion's books assume they have the authentic word of God? If it's the word of God, why did man have to write it? Edit it? Choose the individual works to represent it? Offer new versions of it? If it's God's word, it would be perfect from the start.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • stefsays

      So, God coming to us all in his own way, or a way we can understand it for ourselves just when right out the window? huh?

      October 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • John

      How much more self serving can we be? I'd ask the same question of so called "christian conservatives" and their view point of how less fortunate folks should be treated. If anyone picks and chooses from the bible, it is most certainly that group of "believers".

      October 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Dustin Goldsen

      All well and good but how is one to know which "truth" is the real "truth"? The established religions don't exactly agree with each other on the details.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Jon

      I grant that there are many people who claim to be Christian that do not reflect the spirit of Christ. It's unfortunate that they have become the "face" of Christianity, for the most part. There are, however, many people that DO reflect the love of Christ, but they usually don't get as much TV time as those who are more popular or powerful. I can see how it would be hard to separate God's truth from people's personal views. When you see a pastor of a mega-church speaking in an un-biblical way it's horrible to watch.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  17. Mjak

    I find this article terribly offensive. The author seems judgmental, myopic and ill willed. Who made him judge or juror of
    other people's spiritual relationships? The author makes stupid asumptions, like being spiritual but not religious infer's a higher relationship with a G-D. I have no clue how he draws that conclusion. Nor do I understand the stuff about Sin. All I know is that people did not ask for this Author's opinion on how they define spirituality in their life. Prehaps he might have been better off spending time with those who define themselves spiritual but not religious and learn about them before making such offensive comments about them.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Amniculi

      Well, seeing as this is an opinion piece, it's his right to be judgemental and myopic. Don't like it, don't read it.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  18. The_Mick

    "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." That is a ridiculous claim. Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison and many of the other founding fathers had similar beliefs – based on the fact that each organized religion spun what might be considered a true "set of principles" to fit their polical-religious conditions. And they certainly had better "principles" than these pocket-picking evangelical jerks sucking the money out of poor people.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  19. Donna

    "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."
    This doesn't make any kind of sense at all. You should have some kind of point to make if you are going to take a stand.
    This whole article illustrates the core of everything wrong in the world, the idea that we should be able to force others to believe what we believe and that we are somehow obligated to explain ourselves to one another. I didn't ask to be brought into this existence (or maybe I did and don't remember) but I know I have no answers and are therefore in no position to explain anything to anyone. The best I can do is try to make my own kind of sense out of it.

    October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  20. Soul Bear

    Look at all these inspiring responses!!! This article helped, not hurt, by confirming that the "Spiritual Movement" is the most important revolution in our modern time and it's happening all over the world ..WHY??? Because we all have been sent THE MESSAGE. A peaceful movement towards the great spirit, we have all been "Awakened" to this at the most critical time. Those that DO NOT find their spiritual connection might not make it in the coming times.

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

      I agree with you that the "spiritual not religious" movement is one of the most important of our times. But I believe it is important because it marks a slow movement away from religion. Societally I think this movement is just a transition period to the majority of the world becoming atheist. Most people aren't comfortable enough with atheism yet to declare it, so they are choosing this middle ground, but the next generation will be comfortable enough with it because they will not have the strong ties to religious affiliations that this generation does.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
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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.