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. Songbyrd66

    Danger?! Really? The only danger is when a person, or group of people declare that their way is the "only" way and that the rest of us must be lost. I'm not lost simply because I don't believe as you do Mr. Miller.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  2. Darryl Cox

    "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".

    I was exposed to enough twisted perversions of the word of God at an early age. Churches of every belief have become the power havens for the heads of that church. God created us each in his own image and he created the world for us. He gave us 10 commandments to live by and take care of one another. I can feel his presence in the wind and the trees. I can see it in the sky. I have had enough of the money changers at the front of the stage passing the pan to line their pockets and tell me what God meant in a passage in the Bible. This is not 400 years ago, I can read and think for myself. I don’t need them interpreting Gods word for me.

    Thanks for asking though, and God keep and bless you!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  3. Ryan

    "...not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament"
    The "Karma" Sutra, eh? Not only is the text you are trying to refer to not a religious text, the text you do refer to doesn't exist.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  4. MIkey

    Dear Sir,
    You fail to make even a single compelling point in your entire article. I am one of the people you describe as Fence-Sitting and Not-Knowing. Other than insult me, what was the point of this article? To inform your hard-core counterparts that people like me exist? I wish I could believe the world was 10,000 years old, Mary was a Virgin, and Noah fit two of each of 5 million species into the Ark, but I have this thing called rational thought that trips me up from time to time. "Not-Knowing" is more honest and honorable than "Knowing" something that is hopelessly false. I wish I could be as blissfully ignorant as you, but alas, I have the capcity for rational thought so there comes a time when I have to admit that I don't know what the truth is. But guess what . . . you don't know it either!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Darryl Cox

      I know how you feel, then I stumbled on another thought. Evolution, for sure because it is going on all around us every day. Evolution from nothing ..... can't get my head to agree with the with the "you can create something from nothing scientists". I find that the Bible works quite well if you only concern yourself with the parts that even the Bible say God himself wrote. That pretty much narrows it down to just 10 lines, or commandments. The rest is just faith, there is no more or less to it than that. If a being is so amazing that to created us with a word, or thought, wouldn't it build in a natural correction system .... evolution?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • OTOH

      " the parts that even the Bible say God himself wrote. That pretty much narrows it down to just 10 lines, or commandments."

      What is the evidence that *that* ever happened?

      The 10 commandments were nothing special and nothing new and nothing that men in other cultures hadn't already thought up.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • OTOH

      p.s. Where *are* those tablets, btw? "Oooops, the most important "writing" in the history of Earth, and we lost 'em"!?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Suzi

      I so agree with this post! I could not have said it better! thank you.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  5. Dave

    So, the article says "spiritual but not religious" is bad, because it threatens religion, and, hey, look at all the great stuff religion has done for us!

    So, overlook the bad because there is good. That could be said for pretty much anything, including terrorism. Sure, lots of people get killed, and there is a lot of hate, but those people sure are passionate about their cause and have really given meaning to their lives (short though they may be).

    Great article. Complete garbage mostly, but the grammar was nice, so let's give it the Pulitzer.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  6. vivdrummer

    I couldn't disagree with Mr. Miller more. Spiritual but not religious simply means one is able to think for themselves and decide what is the truth instead of religious leaders (and very powerful ones at that) telling us what to believe. The universe and its origins are too complex and beyond comprehension to explain with pinpoint accuracy, so it's not wrong to think that there might be a higher power at work. Spiritual but not religious is not a cop-out, it's taking control of our beliefs based on one's perception of the world and how our experiences shape us. And let's face it, religion's ability to control people's lives does not make it that appealing. Remember, the Old Testament and the Jewish Torah state not only that God condones slavery, but they even lay down the ground rules for it. The New Testament states that woman shall not give instruction to a man, but she must remain quiet and subserviant. It's no wonder people are moving away from religion.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • JFCanton

      The success of this depends on how dedicated the person is to interpreting it. A lazy understanding is unlikely to be a correct one.

      The popularity of debunking the OT based on the rules for slavery is particularly annoying because it disregards the context. No part of the Bible-and no part of ANY relevant religious text-was written in a world where a lack of slavery was imaginable. The value of the Bible on this topic for Western history is that it gave us the tools to come to the conclusion that the practice was wrong. Were we going to get there with Aristotlelian ethics? Bloody unlikely.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  7. Chachi

    This is one of the worst, most pointless articles I've read. The premise is ridiculous of course: being "spritual, but not religious" is actually the only logical, realistic, and healthy way to understand the world, meaning of life, etc...

    But, I read it wondering how the author would defend his deeply flawed premise. Well, as it turns out he didn't even defend it with any kind of logic other than that old tired line about how agnostics shouldn't "sit on the fence", yada yada. Completely pointless.

    I can only conclude that this guy had some bad experiences on dating websites whenever he was matched up with a girl who posted her religious views as "spiritual, but not religious" so he's developed and irrational obsession with these people.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. Sean

    I think Daniel Tosh said it best when a girl says that.

    "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual." I like to reply with "I'm not honest, but you're interesting!"

    October 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      very funny! But of course Tosh (with his particular humor) is making exactly the same point the author is.

      "Spiritual but not religious" is a cop out. For singles its a way of expanding the pool of potential partners by being non-specific about faith.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  9. FlawedLogic

    So using what you put forth in this article it would be better to be violently religious as long as the violence you are conducting stems from an organized and 'official' religion; than to be a peaceful free thinker that recognizes the power of inner belief? And who are you to judge the beliefs of others? Every argument put forth in this article could be refocused on any other religion to direct individuals away from it.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  10. Stephen

    A cop out? Your article is a cop out. For believing in yourself is the first step to true enlightenment. All religions are similar philosophies entangled in the times that they were proliferated. Hence, polar oppositions and war created by the ignorance of not understanding its counter parts. God Is Love in every religion. Love yourself, you are a divine being, regardless of religious context.

    This article is far slanted to the right, in hopes of inspiring the demonstrative act of believing in mystic values that don't adhere to the self in our current civilization. Trusting and believing in yourself if the beginning of all spirituality. This article has some valid points but is as red in color politically as the website itself.

    You should be ashamed of your ignorance, and should seek higher knowledge. Read all religious books, combine them, and true answers can appear thru deductive reasoning. Just like looking into yourself, one can clear their own personal suffering thru this process as well. Religion is archaic philosophy lost in delusions of grandeur. I digress....

    October 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      you seem to have missed the alternative in the second last sentence:

      "or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" (atheism).

      October 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  11. revolruf

    We DO NOT have to make a choice. Sorry it bugs you so badly but that's the way it is , and who are you to say different? I'm agnostic so there is NO fence to pick sides from. I'm happy and content. Just because you think you needed to make a decision does NOT mean we have to. Kind of makes you look like a jerk! How about MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS AND LET OTHER HUMANS BE THEMSELVES AND GO THROUGH LIFE THE WAY THEY WANT TO.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      So, don't challenge me by making me re-examine my true beliefs then?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • dsi

      People with a true set of principles don't need to re-examine they're beliefs because anyone who leads a principle centered life don't need someone undermining those principles.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  12. sd

    read something do something know something become something
    ken wilber
    david hawkins

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

    "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." cough cough BULL SHlT ALERT!!!

    I might be more inclined to believe anything else he said if he didn't just pull this kind of completely unverified, unstudied verbal fecal matter out of his mouth. Even a general understanding of the population versus spread of the bible will tell you this is pure horse dung.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • snowboarder

      the early church forbid commoners from reading scripture.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • The Truth

      Yes snowboarder, I knew about that. What does that have to do with this guys bull shlt claim that desire to read the bible made humanity literate? How does that figure for the 2/3 of the planet that was born in places with no bibles but 1/2 of them become literate? This author wouldn't know a f a c t from a f a r t.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  14. Cricket 1122

    How nice that this person can just write off the rest of us because we don't buy in to religion. You know, I feel that relgion was the worst thing that ever happened to human beings. I am not religious, I do believe in God, and I believe in everyone else's right to not believe in God. Or to worship God however they choose, or do not choose to do. I believe that everyone can call the Maker whatever they want to. I say 'water', some say 'agua', it means the same thing. Religion seems to be about finding the differences.

    God gave us free will. To abandon that gift and band together under a label and say we all believe the same thing is blasphemous. Religion satifies a lot of needs, but it satisfies one very human need, which is to belong. Religion satisfies that human need to feel better than other people, to feel superior. But God asked us to lay down our human needs and take up the banner for Him. People will keep quiet if they disagree with a pastor, preacher, priest, etc because then they don't belong anymore. They are shunned for not having faith to just believe what they're told. That is one of the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

    I am a spiritual person, I believe in God. If you don't, that's fine. Are you wrong? Maybe not for you. Maybe you were born without a soul and you are here on this planet to not believe, and in serving that purpose well, you are doing exactly what you should do. Not possible for both opinions to be right? The bible says "With God, ALL things are possible." That means that it's possible for there to be more than one "correct". Maybe 'correct' is as customized as God can make it. Worry about yourself, and let everyone else do the same.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • was blind, but now I see

      The "all things are possible" verse that you referenced is refering to "if you believe in Jesus as the Christ and that He will answer your prayer", then all things are possible. If you take snippets out of context, you can come up with any message that you wish. Unfortunately, this is what most people do. Kinda like politics and the media!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  15. Jim

    What a stupid premise and what a stupid article; argument not well-articulated. Thanks for your relativist opinion Alan.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  16. me

    That is still religiosity and "phariseism". Could tell by the way he's holding his hands. (Got to have a perfect posture unless is not received by God ...)
    I am a Christian, and believe in Christ as my Saviour and don't believe that by following a religion (doing things certain order, bla, bla) will ever get you anywhere. I realized long ago that I could never impress God or gain "points" with my strugless to "please" Him. (NO ONE CAN). The only acceptable price has been paid in Christ on the cross. Accept the coverring, provided by God Himself – by faith and enjoy a life of freedom and celebrate your new life free of guilt, fear and deppression.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Colin

    A quick five question test that every person considering subordinating their intelligence and supplicating themselves to a the Bronze Age sky-fairy of Christianity should answer

    Q.1 The best theory we currently have is that Universe was created about 13.7 billion years ago in what is (somewhat misleadingly) called the Big Bang. To understand this we should:

    a. Simply declare that, because we don’t know what caused the Big Bang, the Hindu god Brahma must have created the Universe.

    b. Simply declare that, because we don’t know what caused the Big Bang, God must have created the Universe.

    c. Adopt the Australian Aboriginal belief that the Universe was created by a great snake in the Dreamtime; or

    d. Accept the limits on our current knowledge and just stop there, without invoking a magic act by any god to fill the current gap in our knowledge.

    Q.2 Likewise, we know that life on Earth evolved over the last approximately 3.5 billion years and likely began in a planet wide “organic soup” of complex organic chemicals in the primordial oceans, in an increasingly well understood process. As such, we should:

    a. Look for any limitation in our knowledge and, when we find one, jump up and say “aha, scientists cannot yet fully explain (for example) how DNA synthesis first occurred, therefore the Judeo-Christian god did it.”

    b. Look for any limitation in our knowledge and, when we find one, jump up and say “aha, scientists cannot yet fully explain (for example) how DNA synthesis first occurred, therefore the Hindu god Brahma did it.”

    c. Simply read our Bibles and find the answers there; or

    d. Continue our scientific research and experimentation and not make the bald faced assertion that any god, ghost or goblin must have conjured up life through some inexplicable act of magic.

    Q.3 The statement “I believe in God because the Bible tells me to and the reason I follow the Bible is because it is the word of God” is:

    a. The reason 99% of Christians believe what they do;

    b. Circular reasoning at its most obvious;

    c. Specific to the Judeo-Christian parts of the World and totally rejected by all other parts of the World; or

    d. All of the above.

    Q.4 Probably the most fundamental tenet of Christian faith is that God sent his son Jesus to Earth to die and save us from the original sin of Adam and Eve. We now know that Adam and Eve was a myth. As such, any thinking Christian should:

    a. Honestly and courageously question this and any other aspects of their faith that don’t make sense.

    b. Make up some euphemistic nonsense like “well, we didn’t mean that literally” after having done exactly that for the last 1900 years until science comprehensively disproved it.

    c. Just ignore the blatant contradiction and sweep it under the mat; or

    d. Hold on to the myth because it makes them feel good.

    Q5. Please choose your favorite Catholic superst.ition from those below. For the one you choose, please say why it is any more ridiculous than the rest of the garbage Catholics swallow and give an example of a non-Catholic belief which is just as stupid.

    a. Grocery store bread and wine becomes the flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because a priest does some hocus pocus over it in church of a Sunday morning.

    b. When I pray for something like “please god help me pass my exam tomorrow,” an invisible being reads my mind and intervenes to alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to meet my request.

    c. You can pray to a dead person for something. This dead person will then ask God to fulfill your wish. If this happens twice, this dead person becomes a saint.

    d. A god impregnated a virgin with himself, so he could give birth to himself and then sacrifice himself to himself to negate an “original sin” of a couple we now know never existed.

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


      can you hold off with your tract-o-matic pasting until this is off the front page? At the current post rate, few will read or respond to them and they just clutter pages up with stuff we've all seen.


      October 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • me

      "We now know that Adam and Eve was a myth." As such, any thinking Christian should:....
      It sounds like you want to talk in other's name – unless you want to define what you mean by "We"?
      How can you prove that it is a myth? Because, someone said that 50 Billion years ago I mean why not 49.5 or 10. Will that make any difference? Can you verify that? Based on scientific method, removing/keeping what variables. Those numbers bunch of smoke. (We are still searching for that missing link, aren't we?) May be 30 billion years from now we will find it. If not we will keep manufacturing it.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • me

      There is one true answer and falls answers to your questions. You will get the true answer if you step out of your "box" and seek the truth.. What is the Truth? Only one person said; I am the Way the Truth and the Life. (He was either craizy or right) Why don't you find that for yourself?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  18. snowboarder

    the courage to challenge religion is a virtue.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Yes, Jesus challenged them too.

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

      bob – interesting how jesus followers are so unlike him in that regard.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      There are still those who love him and each other. There are still churches where they teach that we are promised our needs and spiritual blessings, not material wealth.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  19. JD

    What a funny article/opinion. I see many more 'dangers" with organized religions than I do with people being spiritual. It comes as quite a surprise as it seems to be why are so many people leaving organized religions when the obvious answer is that organized religions aren't speaking to people and are becoming polarized and intermixed with politics. There is no real danger in being spiritual and honestly I think of it as another evolution or reformation in religions and organized religions should be afraid, very afraid.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  20. Charlie

    I will ask the same question I asked the reverend who also told me I needed to attend Church, "Where do you think you are more likely to find God, in a grassy pasture surrounded by mountains under the clear blue skies that was created by God or in a small, wooden house called a Church built by men?"

    October 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • snowboarder


      October 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Yeah and don't forget the all-important money plate. As we all know God needs money, especially nowadays; I hear it cost alot of money to run Heaven. I wonder if God has a preference for US dollars vs. Euro. LOL. Does Heaven take Visa or Mastercard. . . I wonder.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:17 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.