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. i'm confused

    This opinion piece is a bunch of garbage... The author is trying to argue that individuals seeking spirituality without religion are some how selfish and just wanting "to do whatever they want without the constraints that organized religion places on it's members".

    The great fallacy of this authors argument is it fails to acknowledge the HIGHLY subjective nature of any modern effort to translate the true meaning of ancient religious texts. As a result, this leaves all of the religious extremists/zealots today free to interpret their "faith" however they see fit... This allows crazy individuals to justify ANY level of violence, up to and including outright genocide, in the name of God or at least their understanding of God.

    The corner stone of ALL religions is also the ONLY religious principle that I was taught in the "business ethics" class I took in college... Put simply, if everyone did their very best to follow the "the golden rule" (i.e. due unto others as you would have them do unto you) in everything they do, WE WOULD HAVE A BETTER SOCIETY TODAY EVEN WITHOUT ORGANIZED RELIGION OF ANY KIND.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  2. BOB

    I find this article completely missing the point – It asks us to pick a set of beliefs and principles as a group which is the opposite of what this groups wants and needs. Really awful and wordy in a silly way. Disappointed in CNN. Interesting subject, poor analysis, poor author

    October 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  3. palintwit

    Teabaggers will gladly crawl a mile over broken glass just to sniff the tire tracks of the truck that took Sarah Palin's dirty underwear to the laundry.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  4. Chris

    "Imagine all the people, living life in Peace."

    October 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  5. Nameless_1

    This article is an excellent example and the the very reason that I claim that "I'm spiritual, but not religious": bigots like the author pushing their beliefs unto me, under threats of eternal damnation; arguing that if I do not follow them, I am a rotten human being destroying society.

    Remember, spirituality is from God, religion is from men, to coerce and control others through fear and ignorance.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  6. snoozie

    Maybe if we had more people who were more spiritual and less religious, we'd have fewer wars fought over which doctrine is the "true" one. IMHO, religion is the anti-spirituality factor in many cases. Not buying this author's take at all.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  7. dsi

    Maslow (as in hierarchy of needs) found that self-actualization is only achieved by those with a REALITY-CENTERED perspective on life (i.e. Albert Einstein).

    October 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  8. The Bottom Line

    So basically, Alan Miller is the dumbest writer to hit this blog. And one of the meanest.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  9. s

    nothing is ever black and white in this world and our belief systems shouldn't be either. that's how you get hostility and extremism.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Really now . . .

      Actually, disbelief is not an extreme. It is based on the total lack of evidence supporting religious claims and the universal fact that everything ever examined operates according to natural laws. Nothing supernatural has ever been found.

      You position is that the belief and disbelief in unicorns and leprechauns are the source of hostility and extremism, a black and white, and people would be best to adapt a "unicorns sort of exist" stance to be lukewarm.

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

      Religions thrive on division, discrimination, bigotry and hostility. . . nothing new there.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. Gideon Jagged

    "Spiritual but no religious" does, indeed, preprent a disgust with religion. This disgust is well-earned. The primary reason it is used by most is to that they don't have to deal with the negative fallout of the label "atheist". As more and more (young) people find themselves in this situation, they will simply come out and call themselves ahteists.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Gideon Jagged,

      indeed so. "Spiritual but not religious" is the mantra for those who are afraid to embrace the atheism they feel inside.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  11. earent

    Alan, why do you care about this issue so passionately?

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

    Wow, someone really touched a nerve. 220 pages of comments!

    Truth hurts, doesn't it?

    October 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      apparently so sir.

      That's certainly my conclusion here.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Ting

      You nailed it. All of these spiritual people need to get into a church today. As usual, God is a little short on cash.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  13. Gil

    In addition to getting learning much from my pasture I have been in Bible study groups for years and still believe I'm just scratching the surface of understanding the vastness and depth of the Bible. I far too often see individuals stereotype and judge Christians due to their personal bias and uninformed understanding of the Bible way more than the reverse. In a paper plate, plastic fork, fast-food, disposable relationship society where the real religion is “me me me” I believe spiritual not religious about sums it up. Good luck with that!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Shaggy

      No, a life free of religious dogma allows you to determine your own rational place in society. It is the opposite of me-centric belief. Religious dogma tells you that only YOU are told the true secrets of the universe, and YOU are therefore special, and everyone else is damned. It is re-assuring for the small minded, but is a lazy and embarrassingly deluded way to find the meaning of your existence.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • mk

      When you are religious, you only do things for the good of your god. When you're spiritual, you do things for the good of humanity.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  14. pooh2

    Religion is good for many things. For instance, it often places the individual into a caring community, it may be used to improve on one's personality and morals, and it can be a source of emotional strength. It's absolutely the wrong use of religion to explain the world with it: science does a far better job in this. As far as spiritualism: it addresses roughly the same human needs as religions do. It ought to be be a valid option for some. Most humans have spiritual needs. Sometimes a a circle of good friends and family is sufficient, sometimes the individual needs more than that. It varies from person to person.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  15. Trent

    So let me get this straight....it has to be black or white....there is no shade of grey? What world do you live in?

    Choice #1: Follow a specific religon, which has been in the control/hands of man, for over as little as or over 1000s of years and thus has been bent/bended/tarnished to serve the purpose of the man in flesh masters.


    Choice #2: You are not allowed to believe in a higher power and MUST take the role that man controls and rules everything.

    Seems a bit over the top to me.

    Why don't I go to church, because I can think for myself. Some guy (or gal) up on stage claims he has a better knowledge of god than I do because he studies theology at a seminary school. This person will tell me exactly what god wants me to do. He will do so from reading the "word" of god which at various times has been in the hands of the known corrupt (popes, kings, etc.). This book itself (without the benefit of a printing press) from its inception was written by hand over and over again (no room for the person doing the writing to inject change and/or misprint something). This book was written in one language and translated and translated.

    Sorry, but I won't take marching orders from some guy who is reading from a book that was held in the power of corrupt men tanslated numerous times by the method of hand written copies. My rational side and knolwedge says that even on faith that the book is the word of god that man had his hands on it and thus what you read in many cases was meant to benefit specific men/people. It will be a guideline and I will use the values THAT GOD GAVE ME to take the journey myself.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  16. Nick

    The new religion...commenting on articles!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Blue


      October 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  17. LearningMan

    Here is what I learned today – that the spiritual crowd, has an unhealthy obsession with the opinion of Alan Miller.

    Wow, they sure needed that dude to believe something other than what he does...

    Frankly many are pointing out the hypocrisy of it all – to be fair, though, even among the spiritual and anti-reilgious crowd – we all have our internet hotheads, and your group is no exception. They sure make you all look bad, thats for sure. You seem like you require people to adopt your anti-religious view, or they are unenlightened, and lost, and responsible for war, torture, greed, hate, and all the earths ills.


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

    what a horrible article! people in relgions don't even follow a set group of beliefs, they pick and choose what they will adhere to from the bible. I'm one of those folks this article is talking about and I can site a 100 (that I remember, more I don't ) where someone who is a holy roller in a chruch temple etc weekly who has done bad to outright evil things, some I can tell you how they do these things on a weekely basis. So I'll keep my non affliation. I have less chances of running into the devil if I do. The demons and devils "mostly" go to chruch every single sunday.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Jeffe65

      No-one is capable of following everything put forth from any religion, so that's a sorry excuse for avoiding it. You do the best you can, and you ask for and receive help from God to strengthen your faith. As far as the devil is concerned, he's likely the only thing you'll find with the track you're on. Do yourself a favor and pick up a Bible and start reading it. You'll be amazed at what you find. Good luck...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  19. DT

    actually, the cop-out is accepting jesus and supposedly wiping away all your sins. THAT is a cop-out.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  20. jamesjanus

    I think if he weren't an idiot, this guy might have simply said "faith without works is dead", in most cases this is not an argument for the sit, kneel stand, hate crowd of organized religion. But since he is clearly not very bright, I suppose we will never know. What could and should be known is how this idiots rant got published here on CNN?

    October 1, 2012 at 1:03 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.