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. Snippot

    More people have died in the name of RELIGION than anything else. As a spiritual but not religious person, I will take a spirtual person anyday over a religious fanatic. Christianity cannot even agree, thus 1000+ denominations. Give me a break. Go to Topeka KS and visit Fred Phelps....enough said about Religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Silly1

      Greed is far and away #1 on the list. Religion is top 5 though...then again so is love.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  2. Brian

    Authors argument is invalid and short sighted. It is also only from the Christian worldview. I'm Buddhist and spiritual, and do not have to "believe" in a god. That does not make me a bad person. Author is a limiting himself, I suggest he go out into the world and meet people of many faiths before he writes such junk.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  3. Chris

    Your arguments are weak, disconnected and give off the same desperate tone that the large, draconian churches do in their bid to keep the power and money flowing. Everyone has the right to define and follow their own path towards being spiritual or not. Having an issue with that inalienable freedom, in my opinion, points to a deep anxiety [of yours] that would be a better cause to put your energy towards correcting.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  4. Conform or suffer...

    Mr. Miller is coming across as a very angry and intolerant man.

    Let us all offer him peace and love in the hope he can find comfort and acceptance of others.

    For all those spewing venom toward the nonconforming, I offer you love in place of your hate.


    October 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Andrew

    This article appears to be all uninformed speculation without any research or study or scholarship.

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

      Is this guy for real? I just kinda stumbled on this editorial and don't know Mr. Miller's background. His assertions are ridiculous, santized dribble and a throwback to some make believe binary world of the Cleavers...thoughtful, enllightened people vs. the huddled, opportunistic and selfish fringe. Thank god, shiva, or source creation (really, whateveer you want to call him or her) that we are not living in a world anymore where one single text – or, translation of a text rather – defines us. We continue to live in a complicated world that contains a multiplicity of expriences; one that demands that we seek out new answers by informing religions traditions with innovative insights that speak to our own lives.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  6. OneWay

    Being religious is nothing more and nothing less than systematically following the ordenance established by said preist or pastor with no real Relationship coming out of it with Christ. "Stand-up, sit-down, repeat after me, you are dismissed". No wonder people dont like church, especially the Catholic mass. On the other hand, a true realtionship with Christ will not confine you to the religious ceremonies established. A relationship will give you freedom to do just that, have a relationship with Christ as if He is your best friend.

    People need to stop being religious and need to start engaging in a life transforming relationship with Christ. There are many people sitting in church pews that believe that by attending to church their salvation is secured. NOT SO.

    For those who believe all I said is pure "crap, non-sense, garbage, bigotry, ect..." I respect your decision not to believe in anything. After all God did create us with our own mind and feelings to be able to choose which path we would like to take.

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

      The problem I see with aligning yourself with christianity, or any other world religion, is that it simply isn't available to all human beings in this world. How can you say your way is the "right way", and the only way accepted by God, when God hasn't provided the details of this way to all his equal human creations throughout the world? Or, do you not think that all humans are created equal?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Poundaround


      Not to get into a long discussion about it, but that was covered in Romans 2:14-16.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  7. MTP

    I'm not spiritual at all so this doesn't really affect me. But I cannot help but laugh at this article because it's a nice advertisement for the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. The final paragraph really sells it.

    You must decide! Find a religion and subscribe to it. Don't be part of the truth-is-whatever-you-want-it-to-be crowd! Be part of the truth-is-whatever-that-religion-wants-it-to-be because that's real truth! I suppose all of them are true. But not whatever fence sitting idea you came up with. That's not true. You're supposed to buy into truth other people came up with.

    I cannot think of a better selling point for being spiritual but not religious.

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

      For me, it is a strong case for being neither.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  8. Bruenor

    Wow,bitter much?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  9. Nev

    A perfect example of religion taking it's last breaths. Wish it would just die already.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Mike McCarthy

      Taking its last breath where? Unfortunately... it's getting stronger in other pats of the world.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      The default for man is having a god(s).

      October 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  10. Erik

    After reading this article, It's quite apparent that the author has zero idea of what it means to actually be spiritual, and instead tries to attack something different from his own beliefs.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  11. snowboarder

    spirituality is a man sitting in a silent room convincing himself that he hears something profound.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Huebert

      I'm stealing that.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  12. wimsy

    Why the rant? Why do you care what others believe? Are you so insecure in your own beliefs that you'll suffer a meltdown if others don't agree with you? 'll never understand how modern, educated, informed people can believe the ridiculous, laughable creation stories their organized religions offer, or the absurd directives set forth in the tribal traditions and old wives tales that became their scriptures. If you hadn't been steeped in this tripe since childhood, you'd never believe it.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • H. E. Baber

      I don't care what others believe. I just want them to pay to maintain church buildings and ceremonies, and I want at least some to participate to make it a better show. So what is so strange about that? I want restaurants, theaters and rec centers supported so that I can enjoy them–I want churches supported for the same reason. I happen to enjoy religion.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  13. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

    It could easily be said that it's a cop out to to follow a religion as well. After all, it's joining the masses usually based on nothing more than where you were born.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  14. Anna

    Should I not have faith in something bigger than myself – the Creator – because I don't want to label it as a particular religion?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Heinz Doofenshmirtz

      According to this author, yes,

      October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • nojinx

      You should not have faith in something you have no evidence for.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  15. Cephalo

    Religion is the Crutch that crippled you....

    October 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  16. zacaroni

    Haha, oh yeah the Bible is responsible for so many scientific and historic advances – all that visual art, literature, and music is really what improved our quality of life. What a false dilemma; "take a stand," as if a monotheistic/scriptural person and "human" knowledge/reason are incompatible. Again another aging monotheist who forgets to acknowledge that an inconsistent anthropomorphized deity (i.e. Abrahamic God/YHWH/Allah) is not the only notion of "God." Additionally, many younger people "pick and choose" their religious beliefs because many different religions have important teachings that are not incongruous.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  17. nathanjstrange

    I think it is a cop-out to wholly accept an orthodox belief system that purports to explain everything so long as you have "faith" and ignore anything that challenges that faith. Don't ignore the whole world around you and stick your nose into some old book that says it has all of the answers. True spirituality comes from humbling accepting what you know and what you don't know. Embracing the unknown reveals deep, profound beauty in even the smallest everyday things. I believe raindrops, spiders flying on threads of silk, and the warmth of a sunbeam are more powerful than any army of angels or demons you can conjure. So, yes, I am deeply spiritual and also deeply irreligious, and I think that rigidly adhering to any sort of orthodoxy is a barrier to experiencing true spirituality.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  18. Ron Watson

    This writer has the same mind-set that separates so many of us from the organized religions. He believes he (or his particular brand of religion) is the arbitrator and solution to man's spiritual quest and that any deviation from his proscribed beliefs is anathema. The Churches have mismanaged, by-in-large, the spiritual message of Christianity with their corruption, their immoral pedophile behavior, and their lust for money and power. Why would anyone want to journey down that path anymore, when the blind are leading the blind. To see the real deceptions of Christianity pick up the book " The Greatest Story NEVER Told, by Ron Watson on Amazon or Kindle.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  19. Keven

    Wow what a condescending, "want to be" articulate, insightful, and artful piece. POS. I CHOOSE to be spiritual but not religious because I have a strong relationship with god and I don't need a cult defining that relationship for me. I CHOOSE to think objectively and intelligently rather than being a sheep to the scripture. I CHOOSE to believe in science and know that science cannot explain everything, rather than believe in human mythology. I am enlightened and I know it and I choose to take responsibility for my actions and understand that the actions of human kind will have global repercussions that won't be solved by faith.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  20. Edward

    We're All in This Together
    Where do we derive this overt need to identify with constructs created by our ancestry. Why have some writings, customs, and traditions been reduced to sweet nostalgia, yet get others continue to pervade and define us. Cultural distinctions as a means of celebration is beautiful, but it can be manipulated by those with a thirst for power to control the masses.
    So why do we fall for the trick?
    Why do we fail to see that when we assume an identification through these constructs, that we only choose to separate ourselves from other beings and the whole of existence. That this fear of separation is at the root of all human suffering...

    So why do we cling to it so furiously?

    Do you believe that you are a Mets fan, or a Yankee fan? A Republican or Democrat? Irish or American? Catholic or Jew? Gay or Straight? Do you not just see it as a role you simply choose to subscribe to? Its just a costume you choose to wear...

    See that our contempt and judgement of others is only a self-inflicted wound. Recognize aggression and violence as a manifestation of individual fear. It is only through recognizing this that we may choose to put it down.

    This is a call to disarm.
    Remove your uniform, lay down your flag. Disavow the rhetoric, give your ideology a rest. Release your desperate attachments, Swallow your self righteous pride and arrogance, don't be afraid of the fear...

    Start being a human being...
    Recognize your connection to the whole. Remember that we all came from the same place, we are here now sharing this Earth, and we will go back to where we came from very soon... So lets spend our time wisely...We must use the gift given to us and choose to think for ourselves, by not allowing the past or others to dictate how we should live our lives...lets practice recognizing ourselves in each other...It may not always be easy...but each new day we can choose it...and that choice has an intrinsic value, upon which great things will be borne...

    Remember...We're all in this together...

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

      Absolutely! And we should all smear patchouli oil on our bodies and have a great, big circle jerk drum circle.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Erik

      Very well said Edward. You speak the words of a truly spiritual person. Thank You.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
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About this blog

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.