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. Mind

    I was raised CAtholic, and by choice became pagan(actually, not Pagan, which is it's own religion, but Druid, for those Christians out there who care to learn something) because to not see god in everything around you is utterly ridiculous to me. However, I am more spiritual than religions, as Spirituality is a relationship with a higher power, whereas Religion is a man made construct to tell others how to worship a specific version of God

    October 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  2. Soul Bear

    The people on this post have it so RIGHT! The individual experience to your spiritual – non physical part of your being is more important than any arrogant religion

    October 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  3. Daniel

    Simple answer. God does not exist. As soon as you can admit what you already know. As soon as you stop convincing yourself you can move on and find meaning in the one life that you have to live instead of wasting it on an outdated myth.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  4. RW

    Seems all the preacher's do is call for war, I'm looking at you Mike Huckabee.....

    October 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • wimsy

      Remember when the right wingers were absolutely certain that Huckleberry would be elected president? i loved the tour he gave of his double-wide!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  5. ahpiii

    "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 is not true. Most people I speak with who are not affiliated with a specific religion care more about humanity as a whole and the future of the species than those who I speak with that claim the world is going to come to an end, and soon. This last view is held by all the Abrahamic religions, and is equivelant to a doomsday cult. Why would you want to align yourself with that?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  6. Amniculi

    It seems to me that spirituality is just people hedging their bets. They want the comfort of religion without the responsibility of faith or dedication that goes along with it. that's just too much work. At the other end of the spectrum, they won't go atheist because they're afraid they might be wrong. So either way spirituality is lazy or cowardly. I agree with the author. get off the fence.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jake

      I'm an atheist. The problem I have with people who say they're "spiritual" is that it has no definition. I consider myself "spiritual" in certain ways, but that has nothing to do with believing in a higher being. There is a similar problem with people who believe in "god". Most of those people don't really believe in god, they just skew the definition to mean something less ridiculous that they can convince themselves to believe in.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Madtown

      LOL! It could be something else too. It could be that they've examined the claims of religion, found them to be hollow and lacking credibility, so they've abandoned the idea of organized religion as having the answers it claims to have. Cowardly? I say the opposite, they are being courageous in admitting that they have no answers to any of these age old questions, no more than organized religion has.

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

      I say let them sit on the fence. As long as they are "spiritual" they are, at the very least, examining new ideas.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • JohnB

      Hedging your bet by practicing spirituality? Really? I do not go to church, but I believe their is some unknown power out there that I can't explain. I have no idea whether it has any effect on our lives or even cares about humans. That said, I am spiritual and participate in providing good to others, not because I want protection in the afterlife, but because it is the right thing to do. Doing good to others to protect oneself in the afterlife seems pretty selfish to me!

      October 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  7. H. E. Baber

    <a=href "http://theenlightenmentproject.blogspot.com/"http://theenlightenmentproject.blogspot.com/

    Spiritual-but-not-religious isn't a cop-out–it's a bore. Why would one do spirituality when one can do religion?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  8. Erik

    The writer of this article obviously does not know what he is talking about. He wrote this for his ignorant and judgmental peers. You are just another babbling fool Alan Miller.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  9. denver2

    Personally I find the suggestion that, "everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without [the King James Bible]", to be shockingly stupid and unimaginative.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Jake

      It is an idiotic point, but it is true that plenty of amazing art was commissioned by religious organizations. That in no way makes religious beliefs true, of course.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • denver2

      Make no mistake, Jake. I recognize the important contributions to the arts made by organized religion- particularly Catholicism- and yet, to suggest that people wouldn't have composed music or wrote books w/o KJV? The mind boggles.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  10. Matthew

    The problem that exists that I agree with in the columnist is not the "Spiritual, not religious" mentality, it is the FACT THAT PEOPLE SCREAM AND THROW OUT HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL OPINIONS but yet have never read anything and do not have an accurate understanding of the topic they are discussing.

    Let's take the author for example, he points out Crusades. People scream about Crusades all the time but they know absolutely nothing about them. The First Crusade was started by Pope Urban IV as a way to aid Alexis Comneus, the Emperor of Byzantium, who was under attack by armies from the Seljuk Turks. The First Crusade was successful at this endeavor and then went on to take Antioch, Jerusalem, and the Levant and build four Crusader Kingdoms that were constantly at war with each other and local kingdoms. It was the Seljuk Turks (A MUSLIM CIVILIZATION) that attacked the Byzantines (A CHRISTIAN CIVILIZATION) that caused the war.

    Although the Crusades were more about NATIONALISM than Religion as Muslims at times sided with Christians against other Muslims and vice-versa. So please stop blaming Christians for the Crusades because it shows your widespread ignorance of history.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Poundaround

      It was Urban II.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • wimsy

      Christians had no business being over there in the first place, but they couldn't resists inflicting their absurd beliefs upon others - who wanted to stick to their own absurd beliefs. It takers colossal arrogance to blame the victim for your aggression.

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

      Just like religion–Who's version of history would you have us BELIEVE is Gospel?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  11. William

    I don't see this movement as completely abandoning religious tradition and principles. Rather, those that have been involved in the Church are understanding the restriction that tradition can have on personal faith. This could be emphasized in today's non-denominational Church's. They see the issues concerning the restriction of faith among their members that come from random traditions that can be based in nothing.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Which God?

      William. Religion is religion is religion. Non-denominational or not. They still practice a belief in a god, and practice a dogmatic doctrine. They just don't tile it. It is still BS.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  12. Jenny

    Read from an atheist perspective, this article is ridiculous. Picking a religion (any religion, just choose one) just for the sake of structure is the flip side of NOT picking one because it has structure. Either situation is inherently contradictory–the notion that you can (or ought to) 'pick' what to believe in based not on its 'truth' but on the relative appeal of its organizational principles. Either something is TRUE or it is NOT TRUE.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  13. Anthony

    I am definately NOT religious, but I am Spiritual. I am not fond nor partial to Christianity at all. Christianity seems driven on hatred of others that are not like them.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  14. The Truth

    The issue is the "me" generation or what I like to call the "have it your way" generation want their religion to be the same as they can get just about anything else, their own individual way. They can make up what ever they want and surprise suprise the rules conform to their lifestyle and beliefs anyway. If their own made up rule gets in the way of having fun then they just change the rule and call it a spiritual awakening, or what ever they want to call it.

    In the end they will find an empty pit of nothing in their spiritual needs, because to feel accomplishment humans need a bench mark to measure progress. You can not measure progress in something that can change on a whim. This is why a devote (insert religion here) typically feels spiritually fulfilled and satisfied unless they have a crisis of conscience about the religion. Those who go the "have it your way" spiritual life never feel satisfied and go through several methods and types of spirituality and in the end reach no closer to their goal of fulfillment.

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

      the – they reach no further in their spirituality is because spirituality is a crock.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Which God?

      Snowboarder. I wouldn't go so far as to call spirituality a crock. In the religious sense, for sure. I think that the term has moved to something else. Looking at it from outside, it appears that those 'seeking" it are looking for something to replace the 'religion they have given up. They aren't satified with the junk they've been taught. They do want meaning from life, and seek to find it, that comnnectedness, if you will. Give them a brak, they are learning to walk on their own two feet, trying hard to get away rom the bull they are giving up. It's how I see it, anyway. YOMV.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  15. BW

    I don't think that it is a matter of having a belief that includes "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," it is a matter of believing that they do not have to conflict. In an increasingly shrinking world, its a belief that my friends of different religions can have an afterlife that is not doomed to eternal damnation, just because they do not believe the same things I do or because they grew up in a culture different than mine.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  16. frankblank1

    Article brews up a tempest in a teapot. Here's a category we need: "Christian Who Despises Christ's Teachings." This will cover 98% of America's right-wing fundamentalist 'christians.'

    Another: "Believer in the Golden Plates Seen Through a Hat." Lots of good and relevant categories out there.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  17. nojinx

    These "fence-sitters" only cling to spirituality because of the indoctrination they had to suffer in faith-based households. This, too, will pass.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  18. Astrogal

    I like to put it this way: I believe in God, but not in religion. Religion is a man-made doctrine. Who is to say who has the "right" interpretation or who has not, in the course of thousands of years of human history, incorrectly – either innocently or maliciously – interpreted the Bible for their own gains and to control the masses? I believe in God and an afterlife, and in living the best that you can – but beyond that, I do not profess to know the great truths and I am respectful of other people's beliefs (or non-beliefs). I grew up in a fundamentally Christian household (who can be more intolerant than the Jehovah's Witnesses lol?) but over time that truth was not for me and I am seeking my own path.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • frankblank1

      This seems too sensible for widespread public acceptance. If it were a movie, it would show only in Art Film Theaters.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Anna

      Well said.

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

      Wait, you profess to know God and of the afterlife? It seems you only went half-way in your application of rationality. Why not believe in the all aspects if you are going to believe in the basics?

      It is not true that you are seeking your own path. You are still trapped on the path your were indoctrinated on to.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  19. AverageJoe76

    I don't know if being agnostic is considered 'sitting-on-the-fence', but the author forgets that people go through phases; so 'sitting-on-the-fence' may be the result of leaving a major religion and not having decided on what's next. And WHY do people HAVE to pick something, when nobody knows NOTHING about God. NOTHING. Nobody can honestly say they know God's thoughts, and words of instruction (from God's lips to our ears). So making people decide does nothing but invite insanity, because it's you talking to youself, not God.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  20. rikifromnj

    Let me go and sit in a cold and damp church every Sunday where they take my money, so I can think about what a horrible person I am! Or, allow me to be a member of a Catholic church where my money goes to support the legal bills of child molesters, while schools are closing all over the country (hmmm – can't imagine why enrollment is down). No thanks. I am a member of the Church of the Golden Rule and use the brain that God gave me to make my own decisions and treat people with honesty and decency. The rest of the lemings can follow along blindly without any thought whatsoever. Feel free to do whatever religion tells you to do, without any justification, except that... "that's the way its always been done". Its quite disturbing to think that people, in this day, are ok with this.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:06 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.