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. seto

    terrible article. people have the liberty to believe whatever they want. the only price to liberty is individual responsibility. our ideas should always serve us and not the other way around.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      The first principle of government is governing yourself first and you branch out from there. THAT is taught by fathers. Beasties know that and do everything in their power to break that relationship. Takeovers are much easier during the following chaos. Christianity is about family. The Beasts are about rebuilding the Tower of Babel.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • seto

      may be the first principle but it's definitely not practiced. I don't know what you mean by fathers and beasties or whether you agree with me or not

      October 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  2. this guy

    Too bad the teaching of religion to a person isn't treated in the same way alcohol is. Illegal until 21.

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

      Exactly- teaching fantasy as fact to children and scaring them with the boogey man, and cutting off the end of their penis is all child abuse that the priest-perverts take as their right! It's child abuse!

      October 1, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  3. Jim

    Dude, that is the worst article I have read in a long time. Spiritual but not religious is an idealogy that is based on the fact that religions claim to have all the answers, and that you understand that you can't possibly have all the answers and how silly and pompous religions are to claim that they do. Some of the most horrible acts in the history of mankind have been carried out in the name of what religions claim are the right answers. I refuse to be one of those people that thinks they know it all. C.S. Lewis portrayed it best in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle: At the end, the dwarfs thought they had all the answers, so when they were sitting in the middle of Lewis's portayal of heaven, to which the faithful crossed through a stable, all they could see were the walls of the stable. The dwarves were so blinded by their own idealogy of what heaven was, that they could not see that they were already there, right in the middle of it. Everyone else could see them, but all they saw were the walls of the stable. Those who claim to have all the answers are the most likely to ignore the truth when it is right in front of them. Those who keep an open mind may see the truth when it is presented. That is why I choose not to follow a religion.

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

      So you admit to being part of a philosophy that is a "reaction" to another movement? LOL.

      That means you are couched forever in negativity. It kind of proves the article writer correct in his basic premise.

      Are you ABOUT something positive? Or are you just about criticizing flaws that you perceive in other groups?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • t3chn0ph0b3

      Limiting your conception of the universe to a creator is in itself extraordinarly closed-minded.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • The Truth

      "Are you ABOUT something positive? Or are you just about criticizing flaws that you perceive in other groups?"

      What's more positive then getting rid of negatives like yourself RobyBoby?

      There would be nothing more positive for this planet than if organized religion currled up and crawled into a hole at the bottom of the sea and was never heard from again. What a happy ending that would be.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  4. Christopher

    The prolem I've always had with organized religion is that at some point after all the "Do unto others" "Turn the other cheek" "Help thy neighbor" they all say "Oh, by the way, do it our way or burn in hell".

    When asking abount concrete, verifiable evidence of any religious afterlife experience the response is always "It comes down to faith". Faith offers no answers and discourgaes any questions.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  5. Hank- from the desk of Karl

    Just to reiterate an earlier post by Colin....genius Colin- should be reposted on on every page from here on out!!


    This morning there was a knock at my door. When I answered the door I found a well groomed, nicely dressed couple. The man spoke first:

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts
    out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    Mary: "Well, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."

    Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"

    John: "In this town, Hank is the same as good luck. All good things are attributed to Hank'"

    Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."

    From the Desk of Karl
    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but I think the theory that the Moon was somehow 'captured' by the Earth has been discounted*. Besides, not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists make mistakes, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      That just about sums it up!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Christopher

      I just spoke with Hank and he's gonna kick your guts out!!

      October 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Hank Sr. I only have heard on recordings. Hank Jr. I have seen though. He rocks!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  6. Gingeet

    This article has been posted before and is just as useless as it was before.
    Maybe the author was hoping that maybe the second time around it would be better?

    October 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  7. Jennifer

    This may the most ignorant thing I have read in a long time. It is a shame that the author clearly shuts down his mind in judgment when he hears the phrase, spirtual but not religious. Had he actually taken the time to find out what that means to the people who invoke that label on themselves he might have save the world a little dumbing down.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  8. rgtoomuch

    @ snowboarder....Government should never be allowed to do that to either athiests or believers. So are you saying it is the government that is the root of the problem? I am just trying to understand what you are saying.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  9. Jim

    Spirtual but not religious translates to this "I recognize the lies and hypocrisy of organized religions but don't have the nerve to be an Atheist"

    October 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Pete

      Jim I'm glad you stated this. I'm glad the younger generations are noticing the ridiculousness of organized religions involving inconsistencies and a clear history of evolution (of their supposed unchanging truths). It will take time and courage but I think we will soon see a new surge of reason.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      indeed so sir.

      The vehemence with which posters are responding to this article only underscores your argument.

      They are in denial and this article makes them think. They don't like it.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  10. Anybody know how to read?

    Have you figured out the cost yet for turning the gubmint into a god? A little broke, are ye? Actually in the hole, ye olde hole in one.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Uh, shouldn't you be over at Faux "News" with the rest of the total losers?

      October 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  11. Chris Fannon

    "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."

    That's the dumbest thing I've ever read. Would you say undecided voters are just ones that aren't trying to have any interest in politics? The "fence-sitting" is often just evidence that people are ACTIVELY thinking about the inherent conflict of the human experience, between the human and the divine, rather than completely committing oneself to an all-encompassing concept beforehand.

    Spirituality is not an issue of "picking sides." It's an ongoing relationship between man and God. If people are more comfortable framing that as an individualist experience, rather than a communal one, who are you to judge?

    October 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Timothy Tebow - God's OTHER son

      A christian. that's who he is to judge. That's their speciality.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      There is no god, yoozyerbrain please...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      "Would you say undecided voters are just ones that aren't trying to have any interest in politics?" Many of them Yes!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Diane Baumann

      This is the problem, Chris. This "fence sitting," as they call it, from those who would name the position of anyone who has the capacity to think for themselves, in other words, are being POLITICAL, and not SPIRITUAL, at all. This entire article by MIller and Gilgooff is based upon premises that are inherently political, and thus, that are insufficient for thinking people, as far as spirituality goes, or anything else, for that matter. If we were inherently capable of reading anything accurately politically speaking, we wouldn't come up with a political (i.e., partisan) solution to the problem, to begin with...

      People like Miller and Gilgoff are uncomfortable with ambiguity or difference - precisely because they want fascistic control over the thoughts of others - which leads me to believe they want the power or control that goes with ACTIVE SUFFOCATION of difference or diversity, which leads me, again, to align them with fascistic ideology...

      If there are any questions as to what I mean by any of this, please read my article here, posted at 2:48 PM, p. 224. Thanks.


      October 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  12. dionysusBeer

    I've never gotten the conniption fit people have with other people who are simply minding their own business but simply don't believe in the same god. If there is a just God out there then he likely doesn't care what name you call him by so long as you try to be a good person. If you're Christian and call him Jesus or Jewish and call him Jehovah (and I'm aware that they aren't allowed to speak his name but that's what they know him as) or Muslim and call him Allah or Pagan and believe in many gods or atheist and follow Humanist principles what should matter is what you do with your life and how well you treat others. Not what vestments your preachers wear, who can be the loudest, or how many days per week you go to your temple. And certainly how many other people you ostracize and demonize shouldn't be a bonus but a sin. Besides, if you're trying to get some more people off the fence or trying to get them to your side of the fence you're not going to do that by pushing them.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • TparTpatriot

      This liberal relativist bs is making me sick! There is only one True God and you either follow Him or you don't. Don't like it? Tough! That's reality and no amount of nihilistic nonsense will save you from your fate in hell if you don't accept the one true God.

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

      wow TparTpatriot troll, which ONE TRUE GOD? You know that yahweh is the semitic name of ADAD the Sumerian God of Thunder, so if you're referring to the old tesament's version of the "one true god" it's Adad the god of Thunder and his boss was Enlil who's boss, the ONE TRUE GOD, is AN. Soooo? I'm just reading history here, not making anything up...

      October 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • sam stone

      TparT: Get back on your knees like a good little slave

      October 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  13. Shawn

    Of course it's a copout. Religions are the cops, and the smart people want out. Religion is a means of control for weak minded people

    October 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  14. michael

    Pompous, sanctimonious drivel. This piece is nothing but cold, uninspired theological conservatism masquerading as smarts.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  15. Wreck Em Tech

    Personally I prefer, "I'm educated and sound minded, but not religious." Also could CNN choose a better picture than the dreadlocked white guy trying to meditate on the Panama City Beach with his bright orange wristband from the club the night before? He's praying for his hangover to go away and to score some ganga, not for the secret to life.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  16. Hank- from the desk of Karl

    To paraphrase what Alan Miller is saying;

    Yeah, you know if you don't kiss Hank's ass through the kissing of my ass you'll never get the point of how spiritual it is for you to kiss my ass, I mean Hank's ass through me. Only the religion of Hank can allow you to kiss Hanks ass by kissing mine. You go out and meditate on kissing Hank's ass without passing the collection plate that I have, Hank won't feel the kiss and will kick your guts out and not give you a million dollars when you leave town, so the ONLY way to get your million dollars is to kiss Hank's ass by kissing my ass. Amen- tal note to deposit the take from the plate into my bank account.

    Thanks to Colin, you are a durned genius!

    October 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  17. Just the Good News! Not the Good News plus

    I am a spiritual person, a Christian, since I believe Jesus Christ Died for my sins,I I pray to be God directed and Spirit led daily. Maybe I am a crossover, lol. I believe and read the Bible. I do not believe in religous doctrine(mans take) that adds hoops to jump through that are not in the Bible. That is the Good News plus.These doctrines have lead me to say I am spiritual, not religous.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Timothy Tebow - God's OTHER son

      Jesus Christ did NOT die for your "sins" as you did not exist. He died for being a raddical preacher. Wise up and use some logic and common sense.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Actually Timmy Tebow knows better, what he meant to say was Jesus didn't die for your sins because JESUS was never alive, never existed and was a literary tool created by the sociopath known as Paul/Saul, himself historically known as a murderer. There are no objective secular or religious or temple or government writings of that time that even hint at his existence. Why? Cuz he didn't exist... and the concept of "sin" is used to guilt you into following a dogma so it's invalid also. How bout this- morals and ethics are NOT supernaturally derived and there is no god, so you can be moral and ethical without that perversion. Religion gives you the Celestial North Korea of 24-7 thought police and after-death torture. Yay! Freaks...

      October 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  18. Jaime

    "The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world." Right, because if you say some Hail Marys and a few Our Fathers, bada bing, bada boom, your soul is clean. Religion or spirituality is what you make of it. Going to church every Sunday doesn't make you any more religious than listening to some Enya and staring at your eyelids an hour a day makes you spiritual.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  19. Pat

    This is not about "an unwillingness to take a position". We are taking a position – organized religion is harmful, hurtful, very often hateful, and to be avoided.

    October 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • michael

      Precisely. And demonstrably so.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Silly1

      Lol, have you read these posts? It is pretty clear organized religion doesn't have that market cornered.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Ivy

      Completely agree. It would be hypocritical of me to continue going to Church when I know the priest and community blindly follow not the teachings of Jesus but their leaders' self-serving, exclusive, and good-old-boy rules. In this great age of confusion, I choose to believe in God and not man.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  20. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of generations of inbreeding. Historians have long theorized that the south lost the civil war due to the number of mentally challenged soldiers in the Confederate army, a direct result of this inbreeding.

    Also, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance and Smokey and The Bandit

    October 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Your 'studies' left out the most obvious and historical, European Royalty. Nice ol' Athenaistic try, though.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:55 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.