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. ChesterL

    Really??? Is this article really saying we shouldn't practice free will and critical thinking? Guess we should just go back to the middle ages!!!!

    October 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • t3chn0ph0b3

      Thinking critically about religion only leads to its abandonment in the long run.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      I think religion in general says we shouldn't practice freewill and critical thinking.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Silly1

      II actually thought is was anyone that could get away with it tried to limit free will and thinking. Abuse to increase personal wealth and power has no religious or scientific boundaries.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  2. Dan

    Who is this nutjob? Organized religion has been and continues to be responsible for some of the worst things on this planet.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      What about your organized mob gubmint god? You put him in charge of everything. '2Cr 3:17 Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord [is], there [is] liberty.'

      October 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • MRM

      yes – but it is also responsible for some of the best parts of our society as well. Hospitals, charities, universities, etc. To consider only one side reveals your bias.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      MRM, you want to give them MORE CREDIT? They did it all on credit already and stole the children's inheritance. Even got excessively greedy and killed a bunch.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  3. dionysusBeer

    According to the article's logic people are better off being in Jonestown or Al Qaeda then they are minding their own business and worshiping God in their own way. To me it seems that good intentions and good deeds should be more important than belonging to the right club.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  4. Oakeshott

    I use to feel bad about not having a religion, then I read this article and the feeling went away.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • lisatherese4

      And the author of this article gives the gift of one more example to explain why so many people identify as "spiritual but not religious." Remember when we were taught tolerance was one of Christ's teachings? Ah, those were the days.......

      October 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  5. Peggy Munro

    "Spiritual but not Religious" allows for disassociation with "Religious Extremist". I refer to myself as anything but religious because I am ashamed of some of the behaviors and bigotry associated with the faith within which I worship.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • ChesterL

      I agree 100%. I was involved with my church for many years. I finally realized the intentions of the leaders of the church were self-serving and not really spiritual in any way. I left a couple years ago and don't miss it at all.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  6. Anybody know how to read?

    'Isa 29:14 Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, [even] a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise [men] shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent [men] shall be hid.'

    October 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      What is your goal with that post? Are you using religion to prove religion? Imagine if the argument was over 'Green Eggs and Ham"?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • AJ

      Quoting fiction does not help make your point. If you have an opinion, state it.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Mathew 10:34 And Jesus said "do not think I came to bring peace, I came to bring the sword" blah blah blah whatever. The ot is an outgrowth of the priesthood of Adad the Sumerian god of thunder so you quote out of context. AN is the one god, I guess, since he's Adad's boss...and the OT and therefore the NT are all outgrowths of the Sumerian pantheonic priest-perverts like abraham protecting their vested interest. Open and then YoozYerBrain, please....

      October 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • OTOH

      @Anybody know,

      Isaiah (and all of the OT) = ethnocentric, "We da' best!" "Da' Bestest god chose us and is on our side!" "Go, Hebrews, Go!"

      October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      YoozYerBrain, Jesus didn't hide EVERYTHING from the dark sided spirits. So they got anxious and jumped the gun with their counterfeits. Big deal. 'Course YOU know everything.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • sam stone

      Ooooh....a quote...you don't get much more convincing than that, nosirreeeebob

      October 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Here, let's try again AnybodyKnowHowToRead;

      There was NO real person named Jesus who existed 2K years ago and did the things that were described because there is NO archaeological, governmental, temple, or area-centric contemporary writings that even mention such a person. Odd, doncha think? And, are you missing my posts regarding the priest-pervert abraham and all of the other Sumerian stuff and how there's a vast misperception of the entire book of writings? Didja miss the part about sociopathic murdering paul/saul as the progenitor of the lies? Basing your arguments on quotes from books you yourself don't seem to understand is as valid as me quoting the back of the cereal box except the back of the cereal box usually has nuggets of truth! As well as nuggets of yummy goodness from Capn Crunch on the inside. Now there was a deity!

      October 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Anybody know how to read? wrote;

      "YoozYerBrain, Jesus didn't hide EVERYTHING from the dark sided spirits. So they got anxious and jumped the gun with their counterfeits. Big deal. 'Course YOU know everything."

      I DON'T know everything but by throwing off the fear and ignorance perpetrated by the priest-perverts I can YoozMyBrain to find out what I don't know. You can do it too, try it, it's fun! Just read history and archaeology and chemistry and mythology etc et al, but DON'T STOP AT 2K years ago. It's really not that hard...but I haven't been scaring you with the boogey man since birth like the priest-perverts have so I don't blame you for being confused. But now you're old enough and can YoozYerBrain...please...

      October 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  7. There is NO FENCE.

    If I am accused of sitting on the fence, what kind of fence is it? White picket? Iron ornate? Chain link? Pink flesh colored fence with d i l d o slats that penetrate any fence sitters? Thats what the Priests would prefer no doubt.

    The fact is the religious have only been able to substaniate and define the fence as well as they have their God, which is to say, not at all. There is NO FENCE.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      You're just repeating an old mob saying.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      I don't think he's talking about a guy who buy's stolen good's and resells them, which would be the mob version you speak about...

      October 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Mass Debater, Ya think he knows my ol' pal Tom? Yeah, Tom Sawyer, and the white-washin' scam. BTW, Banksters know how to wash money real well dese days.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  8. Jim J

    This article articulates precisely why people are leaving organized religion. There are thousands of branded religions out there, and the fact that your parents had one of them handed down to them, and they are handing it down to you, carries no weight whatsoever that their religion is the right one and the thousands of others are wrong. Hating, or even killing, others because their religion does not comport with your own is a grotesque product of the system. If you can laugh at Zeus why can't others laugh at your god? I feel sorry for the author of this article; what a waste of his time.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  9. GodOfEverything

    This author is a clown. Organized religion is nothing more than a money-grab. Religions have relied fear-mongering to fear people into believing. Everyone can have their own relationship with god. If you need other people to validate your religious beliefs, then that is on you... I make no apologies for being comfortable enough in my own skin to not feel as if I need to pay a religion to validate my belief system.

    The truth is that all religions are cults... even Christianity. Religion was in fact created to bring order in a time before organized laws were in place. Religion was also created to explain why things were before science was as established as well as it is today. The people who created religion believed that the earth was flat, and that lightning was the will of the gods. Today we know better.

    Religion has been wrong so many times throughout history that anyone who blindly follows any religion is incapable of thinking for his/herself.

    If ignorance is bliss, than this author is the most blissful man on the planet.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  10. AverageJoe76

    It's a shame that mankind wastes so much time and effort arguing/ debating/ fighting/ misleading others and themselves about God. We spend a good portion of our lives worried about a being we've never met physically or heard audibly (for MOST of us here). Truly, mankind has burdened himself with the concept of God.

    Humble yourselves. Stop lying to yourselves. Your human, and you don't know anything about God except for what some other human told you. That's pretty much that.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Here, AJ76 lemme explain god and spirituality for you;

      God and spirituality are feelings created by the bio-chemical firing of neurons and connections within your brain and don't exist in objective reality. No feelings exist in objective reality and no matter how intensely you feel that feeling to be true, it's a biochemical process that occurs in your brain. Period. When the lights go out and you sleep why isn't your conscious "spirit" flying around free of your useless body? Cuz it doesn't exist outside of those neurons firing even though it might FEEL like you have a "spirit". Believe me I know, because I yooz my brain. And for other reasons that I don't want to go into...

      October 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  11. Iva Pinion

    This article is insulting to the younger generation that chooses to examine its religious and spiritual beliefs independently while rejecting the notion of fear with which previous generations have been engrained. Deciding that any one MAN MADE religion is all-knowing and the key to eternal salvation is sadly misguided and blissfully ignorant. All holy book scriptures have been subjected to the views of given authors – which is no different than a modern-day biography – and, at best, should be used to guide one's decisions – much like a fable written for children. To call those who actually reflect on their own spirituality and make conscious efforts to live based on a moral compass, rather than as herded sheep, self-obsessed is not only pretentious but a reflection of your indoctrination in the school of those who believe out of fear – which is worse?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Evenstar13

      Have you read and learned the lessons of these "books"?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Sarah

      It seems as though this author had a conversation with an 18 year old niece or nephew. There's a lot of presumptions happening here. When this author has had the the same life experiences as each individual on this planet, only then can we properly discuss my or your relationship with a higher power. Until then, be good to your neighbor and allow me to follow my own path as I allow you to do the same.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Evenstar13

      Follow whatever path you choose. I may or may not agree with you or your opinion, but we all have to make our own way in this world, and to take responsibility for our actions. Should I disagree with your beliefs, in no way does that mean that I hate or even dislike you. I just means that I disagree with you. Civil disagreement is one thing, contempt is another matter entirely, and there is entirely far too much of that already!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  12. PudninTane

    The primary danger is boring everyone to tears.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  13. Jeff Cisco

    Well thank you Mr. Know-It-All. The writer seems to think that any religious belief is OK so long as it's tied to some organized religion. Who is he to decide what people should and should not think? Mr. Miller, please help me out and give me a list of religions that you approve of. I most certainly would not want to offend you by holding some kind of unacceptable belief. Sarcasm aside dude, the Crusades called and it wants its agenda back. Jerk.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • dionysusBeer

      Good point. Would Scientology be considered a legitimate religion? Raelism? Heaven's Gate? Those are all organized and they all have dogmas.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  14. Lauren

    This is one of the weaker reasoned articles I've read in some time. Alan – the views you expressed here are overly simplistic and fail to do your subject matter justice. Those who claim to be spiritual but not religious are not trite, uncurious souls – in many cases, I've found them to be among the most curious people I know.

    CNN – gotta do better than this as far as religious commentary. Please.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Thinker...

      Are you kidding? CNN loves this article. At 8000+ posts it is pulling in lots of money!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • mark

      Couldn't agree more. Get on it, CNN. This is garbage best saved for those who need it...like Mr. Miller.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • SpiritualButNotReligious

      I'd like to share my anecdotal experience, as a person who has visited many denominations, religious sects, and I've many conversations with those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

      Frankly, I find that certain denominations, are judgemental. I won't name them – they are the one's, when any given Sunday, you won't hear a positive sermon, but might hear an anti-Catholic rant, or an anti-Jewish rant.

      It's not pleasant, and it's almost getting reallly, out of place, in modern society.

      Unfortunately, I would rank the spiritual but not religious group, right down in the bottom, in terms of tolerance. So much time spent being against other people's views. Frankly I think that should be near ZERO percent, but its not zero with this group.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      SpiritualButNotReligious, Christians aren't even supposed to speak up? They might just as well because from experience many end up murdered. The originals suffered very greatly.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • GaryB

      Amen to that.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
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    October 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  16. Evenstar13

    "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." John 14:6

    October 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • The Jackdaw


      October 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Evenstar13

      The Jackdaw:
      That is so intellegent. So many people blame religion. It is not religion, it is what the hypocrites do with religion. Their fears and prejudices are the root of the issue. They do not truly listen to the word only to their fears and prejudices and they use religion as an excuse to perpetrate great evil in the name of rightousness.
      "And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many." Matthew 24:4-5
      It is sad that so many use something so wonderful for their own perverted and evil desires.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Madtown

      What if I've never heard of Jesus? What will happen to me?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  17. Consensus

    After a bajillion comments back and forth, it's gelled in my mind, the basic issue. It's all rather simple, really... 'spiritual but not religious' in its own labeling, gives its adherents permission to judge and divide people into groups – spiritual people – those are the good guys, and religious people – those are the bad guys.

    Dividing people into 'good' and 'bad' and villifying the 'bad' is as old as time itself.

    It'd be a little less obvious – the contempt and the hate -, if these people just said they were 'spiritual' but they were afraid to do that, because a lot of people consider themselves spiritual – a lot of people that they wanted to reject and not be inclusive with – so they had to make this whole bratty phrase up 'spiritual BUT NOT religious'

    It's become clear to me, that in the end, this is just a bunch of people, criticizing others to make themselves feel better.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Larry

      The article seems to divide them the other way. I guess self-righteousness is not an exclusive trait.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • response

      Larry, I can see the article especially CNN's purposely antagonizing front page hook "danger of being spiritual but not religious' as being perceived as dividing.

      But I think, at some point it is OK, for someone to say, look here is this movement in society, lets examine it. The author basically states the movement isn't about any particular belief or anything positive – but is a reaction to other people's beliefs.

      In other words, the spiritual but not religious crowd – are themselves the dividers – attacking other people's beliefs, which is kind of hard to deny, because its basically central and core to what they believe- namely that religion is wrong, they have the better path.

      its OK to strike up a conversation on intolerance – it just has to be. If we can't talk about it, we'll never battle it. You can say the author writer is intolerant because he called you intolerant first – but, lets sort it out then – who is intolerant?

      Maybe everyone here is guilty of that, but I'm telling you, the subject of the day is the spiritual but not religious crowd, and you examine that group for its tolerance level, and you won't find anything pretty, I assure you.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  18. scallywag

    Religion? Or science. Me, I'll take science any day.

    Science flies rockets to the moon.
    Religion flies airplanes into buildings.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Silly1

      So, what do religious scientists do then?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Silly1, they cope with cognitive dissonance. That's what they do.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Silly1

      Bummer, I was hoping they were flying rockets into buildings or planes to the moon.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  19. djames

    This article just reflects the endless cycle of humans trying to find fault with the beliefs of other humans. Like children "You're wrong, No you're wrong" over and over and over.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  20. Kristine Geldart

    Oh Allen. Why do you feel the need to fit SBNR into a box? There is no box. Perhaps it is just being.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Holly

      Exactly, Kristine.
      And to Allen, I'd like to add: I believe I am spiritual but not religious and yet, I am not saying that that is "better" or that I'm better. Just that I do not subscribe to any religion but I feel very close to "God" and attempt to make the world a better place by being Spiritual. It's not about "us vs them" – it's about what works for me.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • BetterDeadThanFed

      What a pointless state: "being." A pile of poo is "being." We need less poo in the world.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
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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.