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. Bible Clown©

    Sorry, but most people are compelled to worship something. If they lose faith in Christianity, they become Muslims or pagans or Communists. It's human nature, and nobody really understands it.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  2. toydrum

    I was raised Catholic and, in fact, have post-gradu

    October 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  3. David Flores II

    There are these two jokes I know:
    How many psychiatrist does it take to change a light bulb?
    answer: None, because the light bulb has to want to change.
    How many sociologist doe it take to change a light bulb?
    answer: None, because there is nothing wrong with the light bulb, it's the system.

    Here you have these 2 ideologies (religions if you may.) Now by the perception of the writer and others of this linear belief, only one can be the correct answer. But those of us who are "spiritual but not religious," realize that there can be truth in both answers. That both philosophy's may be correct at the same time. Thereby forcing us to critically analyze all reading and all teaching. To except just one answer for us, is to simple and only limits one's growth potential. We realize that there is a reason for each religion, in each region on this earth, and our principle goal is to understand the truth's behind them. Cause if this wasn't the case, all regions of the world would have had the same religion, before making contact with another regional religion. We are humbled in the fact that we are only human and bound for mistakes. That no single interruption may be completely correct.

    So to leave you with one more idea of perception; A tossed coin fallen to the ground, can land on heads or tails. To most that is the only answer there can be. You would almost be will to start a fight over it. But we almost fail to believe, is that it can land on it's side. It's something that most of us will never see, not for a lack of trying, but we know it is possible. Just like God; we may never see him/her, not for our lack of faith nor for our desire for reasoning, it is only threw that journey knowledge which we know it is possible.

    P.S. I must say I am sadden by CNN to allow such a weak ideology to pass on there boards. I am only hopping that this was meant to spark a debate. In which case good job, I see 212 pages of comments, but at what cost. If I wanted bias information like this, I would go to Fox News...

    October 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Madtown

      We realize that there is a reason for each religion, in each region on this earth
      Yes, there is a reason. Religions represent man's attempt to answer questions that are not answerable. Each culture(earthly region) has it's own variation.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      I'm guessing you don't "believe" in spell check? LOL.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • David Flores II

      lol, sorry for any misspelling. But hey, CNN ain't paying me for this. : )

      October 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • OTOH


      Even spell check would not have caught:

      threw – should be through
      bias – should be biased
      hopping – should be hoping

      Eye no, ewe sea!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      How many mice does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two, but getting them both inside the bulb is the tough part.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  4. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    @Allan Miller,

    all I have to say is wow!

    7,400 Belief Blog comments over a Sunday with no mention of gays, creationism or atheism (at least directly)!

    Congratulations. You have clearly hit a nerve. I hope there is a big turn out at your "I'm so spiritual" panel discussion event tonight in NYC:

    This is clearly a compelling topic.

    Throwing down the gauntlet to "truthiness" is a great challenge. People need to either accept the gift of faith within a single tradition, or embrace their inner atheist, even if it frightens them.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "This is clearly a compelling topic." It's a really weird one; either believe or be an atheist? No other choices?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  5. revkaruna

    If ones' connections with the Mystery is deepened and cultivated by a specific religion good for them. If it is through many teachings then good for them. For me the difficulty is when we judge another's practice and connection to the Universal when that practice does not restrict nor impact my own. Even of ones' practices seem "casual" how do we really know? And really, so what? If I judge myself as having a "casual" relationship with my spiritual life then it's my work to do and not for another to judge. The gift we can give is to support each other in whatever ways we are searching and connecting even if its not our chosen practice.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  6. Steve O

    Someone should let Alan Miller know that the term spiritual but not religious doesn't translate into indecisiveness. It translates into "I don't want to talk to you about religion, but if I say I'm an atheist you'll hound me and judge me even more."

    October 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  7. Ran

    I wonder which would be worse to the author...someone who is 'spiritual but not religious' or someone who is in any of the other religions that isn't his?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  8. Ralpheo

    I think many of the commenters here today, may wish to consider that people are not on a journey of self discovery, because they were guided there by a spiritual-but-not-religious movement. They are not on a journey of self discovery, because they rejected organized religion, either. They are not on it, because it's a good idea, or because they came to see the logic of it.

    People are on that journey – because that's just the way the world works. The idea of self discovery – is just a description of how human beings learn – it's not an advocacy position – just a fact.

    The author of this article above, is on his own journey – and he's shared his knowledge. Learn from it what you can. I would be mightily surprised if the author had hoped that every single person reading it would adopt his viewpoint in it's entirety.

    And frankly, such cartoon villains rarely ever exist. In real life, we have a thoughtful person, sharing his thoughts. You probably don't agree with all of them – neither do I.

    But if ever there is not a cause for hate – it's when another human being shares their viewpoint.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  9. Jen

    This article upset me a bit. I associate with being spiritual but not religious, because I do not believe in following a strict guideline that tells me what I should or shouldn't believe in. I like to have an open mind, and take philosophy and guidance from all faiths, to discover my own path, and there is absolutely no one religion that I fully associate with. I was raised Christian, by a very serious family of Episcopalians. When I was old enough, I made a personal decision to break away from traditional churches, because it felt more like a strict set of rules that I had to follow to be a part of a club. It had nothing to do with scandals, the people, or any negative publicity that seems rife in headlines these days. It had to do with me going through a personal discovery of what /I/ believe. I'm someone who believes all faith have some elements of truth and similarity to them, and why limit yourself to a strict edict that one denomination or religion can promise you, when you can gleam bits of faith, inspiration and motivation to better yourself from them all. But my faith can't be defined by calling me christian, muslim, hindu, jewish, or any other label. I enjoy the freedom since it allows me to embrace all religions and not feel I have to behave a certain way. But it does not demean my faith or make me less of a good person for it, rather I think it has helped me become a better one.

    It's just my personal experience. It's not anyone's right to tell me that I'm less religious or less of a good person because I don't have a label for myself. I fully encourage anyone who is of the main faiths to continue believing as they wish to believe, and don't think any less of them for it. Why should they think less of me?

    Religion is a personal experience. Key word, personal. It's up to us all to determine who we are and what we believe in, that is part of being human.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      this article has clearly made you think – which was it's purpose.

      Being "spiritual but not religious" precludes faith. To accept a dogma is to accept a gift of faith. To admire the beautiful things in many of the world's religions is not a subst'tute for real faith.

      The article begs the question of people who identify as "spiritual but not religious": "What do you REALLY believe?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Hamrick

      Well, Jen, then you can't really adopt any Christian teachings because at the base of Christ's teaching was that He was God and He was the only way to Heaven. So, you have to decide what to do with a man who claimed to be God, told His disciples He was going to die and rise again, and did so.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  10. Bettina

    "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."

    Given that there is no solid evidence of the supernatural, any religious or spiritual belief requires a leap of faith – i.e. belief not based on evidence. Why in the world should such a leap be limited to the established religions?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      or option (b) perhaps ...

      "the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" (Atheism)

      October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Ting

      'Why in the world should such a leap be limited to the established religions?'

      Because God needs money. If you want God to help you out, then you need to fork over the money. It says it right there in the good book.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  11. Aja

    Hmmmm. I think Jesus would say to Alan Miller: "You're waaaay off."

    October 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  12. nojinx

    " The spiritual but not religious "movement" – an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect..."

    Then why introduce your reader to it?
    Has anyone heard this term before?

    October 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      SBNR is the Official Gubmint Religion found in 12 step programs and paid for by Officially Inc'd insurance corps. YOU PAY for it.. The roots are found in the feminism of the Socialists disguised as Christians in the WCTU. These steps were devised by men trying to get back with their wives, who could wipe them out in all sorts of ways. The modern day pharisees, AKA attorneys, loved all the changes the movement brought. KA CHING

      October 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • nojinx

      Wow, that was a unsupported mass of nonsense you vomited up there. Does "vomited" treat it too kindly?

      October 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  13. DM

    Although Mr. Millers article is receiving negative reviews, I believe he has a valid point. When people say that they are spiritual, but not religious that ends all discussion. Believers are called to share with one another in worship, prayer, fellowship, serving, and giving and receiving words of encouragement and faith. We as a culture seem to be retreating to an insular way of connecting to one another via high tech social media. I believe we lose that human component of reserving harsh criticism when we are present physically with one another. It becomes easier to lob verbal grenades when you do not see the pain inflicted upon your "spiritual" friend next to you.

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

      Incorrect. Some people want a personal relationship with God. Evangelicals are the ones that want to "spread the word"

      October 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • mike w

      Although his general observation is interesting at best, the problem though, is that all of his supporting arguments are nothing more than judgmental in the most narrow-minded way. It shows that he is grasping at straws to try to support his overall observation. One of the worst opinion pieces I've ever read.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  14. stmess

    science is difficult. spirituality is difficult. religion is easy – until you realize religion has been used as a scapegoat for many wars

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

      Being "spiritual is "easy"? Did you even read the article?
      The whole point of the author is that talk is CHEAP and that's all that self-defined "spiritual peoplle" do. Talk.
      Religion, which I personally don't adhere to, at least requires action and some degree of dedication.

      Being truly religious is not easy. What you probably meant that believing fairytales is easier than trying to understand science. For sure.

      I'm reading Lawrence Krauss right now, attempting to understand how quantum physics can approach an explanation of the Universe and Exitsence without the need of a "god".

      October 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  15. Rebecca

    I don't need religion to improve myself, I do that well enough on my own by reading avidly and by living a full, enriching life. I don't need religion to tell me what's right and wrong, I think I can manage to not lie, steal, and cheat with my own moral compass. I don't need religion to comfort me in my times of need. I weathered the death of my father and a divorce from a cheating spouse with the support of friends. I don't need religion to tell me that I'm less of a person because I'm a woman, or that my friends aren't really people because they love differently than the majority. I don't need religion to tell me to be a good citizen and donate my time, I already volunteer with two separate organizations. So what am I missing, exactly? Why is it so necessary that I believe in an imaginary being in the sky? How will that make me a better person, or a better citizen? When/if the Second Coming happens, I will be the first to admit that I was wrong. Until then, I'm quite content to be a heathen.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  16. One one

    "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."

    Translation: they don't need clergy to tell them what to think.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  17. nojinx

    The increasingly common refrain that "I'm spiritual, but not religious," represents some of the most progressive aspects of contemporary society. Unless you fear it.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      It does have many aspects of recycled Eastern mystical religions.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      But hey, waste not, want not.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  18. nimitta

    The author seems to have forgotten that the founders of every religion he cites departed from the religious belief systems into which they were born. Not 'drifted away', Mr. Miller – abandoned. And not 'anti-discipline' or 'anti-challenge', either! I defy the author to spend 40 days & nights in the desert like Jesus, or 6 years of ascetic yoga like the Buddha, for example. This is not to say that the droves of young people uncomfortable with the rigidity, dogmatism, and strange beliefs of their parents' religions are all awakening like the greatest teachers of antiquity, just that the guardians of the dogma back then sounded just like Mr. Miller today. They didn't get it, and neither does he.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  19. Timothy (yes from the bible)

    Jesus was spiritual but not religous.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Snippot

    Just like a religious nut to judge other people views. no thanks.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:21 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.