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. Prodigy

    Organized religion, the more someone tells me they know what happens to me when I die, the less I trust them.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  2. Patrick M

    God, the Ultimate Supreme Being, reaches out to all in whatever fashion He can. Whether it be as Allah, Vishnu, Buddha, the Dao, Jesus, Yahweh, etc. This is what spirituality is. It's the coming to know God as He reveals himself to you. Religion says you must only know Him in one way and any other way is wrong. This is not the case as I see it. God is Truth, so when these are revealed who is to say they are wrong. Religion is to define and limit God. Spirituality is to know Him.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      There is no god, see my previous post about the brain, neurons, etc for a full and complete explanation of god and spirituality. You're welcome....

      October 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  3. cryofpaine

    One doesn't need an organized religion to come to an understanding of God. Organized religions are run by people. Flawed, mortal people. People who are subject to temptations and imperfections. Why do you think there are so many religions out there? Because we are forced to try and interpret the divine through our imperfect understanding, and often that leads to disagreements on interpretations. And because there are those who would exploit religious fervor for their own selfish ends.

    Ultimately, religion and spiritual belief has to be an individual, personal experience. If you can find yours within the structure of an organized religion, fine. But that's not a requirement, and claiming that it is, and that those who have rejected organized religion are simply too lazy and wishy-washy to take a stand, well, it makes you sound like you're throwing a tantrum because the churches are losing their power bases.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Behold the Man

      Very good!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  4. selfcarechica

    You know what a cop-out is? Practicing what you don't believe because some dude told you it was right. THAT, is a lot easier than questioning and exploring. I mean you could even classify Jesus and Buddha in to the spiritual but not religious category. They both diverted from the formal and religious teaching of the day in order to listen to their hearts. And insofar as Mr. Miller saying those who are "spiritual but not religious" not reading sacred texts: I most definitely do, and do not limit my exploration to a particular religion, idea, or spiritual concept. While I am not Christian, I have read the Bible. There are those who consider themselves Christian, Buddhist, etc in a religious sense who have never read sacred texts associated with their religion. So, why judge those who do the same on a "spiritual" level? Growing up Catholic, there was no encouragement whatsoever to read the Bible. Nothing is all right or all wrong, Mr. Miller, and to lump all "spiritualists" into a category is akin to doing the same to all Christians, Muslims, etc. Without distinction, we invite assumption. Assumption in all of its form is an absence of mindfulness. Without mindfulness life is just boring; our actions become careless and disconnected from reality.

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


      October 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  5. Lauren

    I'm noticing that my response was never actually posted. What's the matter CNN, don't like the truth?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Helpful

      The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there are words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".
      • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.
      Two of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".
      And said moderators still have not solved the chronological placement of comments once the number of comments gets above about 100. They recently have taken to dividing the comments in batches of 50 or so, for some strange reason. Maybe they did this to solve the chronology problem only to make comment reviews beyond the tedious.
      “Raison's Filter Fiber© (joking about the copyright)
      1. Here's my latest list – this seems like a good spot to set this down, as nobody's posting much on this thread.....
      bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to post that wonderful argument:
      Many, if not most are buried within other words, but I am not shooting for the perfect list, so use your imagination and add any words I have missed as a comment (no one has done this yet)
      – I found some but forgot to write them down. (shrugs).
      c-um.........as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, etc.
      sp-ic........as in disp-icable (look out Sylvester the cat!)
      ho-mo...whether ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, etc.
      t-it.........const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, (an unexpected one)
      va-g....as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant
      ar-se....yet "ass" is not filtered!
      jacka-ss...but ass is fine lol
      p-is.....as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, etc.
      o ficti-tious, repeti-tion, competi-tion.
      There are more, so do not assume that this is complete.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      LOL another paranoid persecution complex using tool has shown their face. "WAH WAH CNN don't like me". They somehow think that some person is able to instantly censor a post as it's being posted, which would take not only superhuman reading skills, but superhuman reflexes as well. Oh it"s always funny to see the moronic people that can't be bothered to proof read their own posts to get by the automatic word filter.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Apocalyptic Fart Blaster


      I can't handle the thruth. CNN protects me from it.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Apocalyptic Fart Blaster


      I can handlt the thruth. It's the truth I can't handle so CNN protects me from it.

      Where's the edit button when you need it? My athiest middle finger gets out of line some times.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  6. Nat Q

    Most "spiritual, but not religious" people I know (and I was one for a while myself) do believe in some sort of higher, constructive, organizing, power than themselves. Why their refusal to label that power by the name, practices, and definitions of one of the existing religions–or their giving up that power entirely–bothers this author so much is beyond baffling. It's tantamount to saying "one of the existing religions is right, else there is no higher power...pick one and be done with it."

    It's ridiculous, insulting, condescending, and full of the author's sad and petty hubris.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • k

      Many, many people I have met that say they are SBNR have simply taken the moniker because they have not thought deeply about what they do or do not believe (some have ... but the majority have not). And it's used as a shield. How many of them have read Thomas Aquinas, for example? (not that Thomas is necessarily the yard-stick ... but an example) For many, religion provides a vehicle by which one might develop your own understanding of God ... based on the carefully analyzed thoughts of by-gone generations [it's like doing a piece of scientific research and building on previous work from other authors]. I can't say what the authors intent was. But if it was to get people to think more critically and more deeply, then I'm on board.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      "higher, constructive, organizing, power"

      Sounds like the laws of physics and natural selection to me.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Nat Q

      @Rufus: "Sounds like the laws of physics and natural selection to me."

      Luckily, though, other people are not required to define their spirituality by what what their beliefs sound like to you. You have your labels, why are you so scared of letting them have theirs?

      @k: "Many, many people I have met that say they are SBNR have simply taken the moniker because they have not thought deeply about what they do or do not believe"

      How wonderfully and conveniently dismissive of you!
      Am I to believe that in defining your faith you read the Denkard of middle ages Zoroastrian beliefs? The Sikh writings of Guru Gobind Singh? Or maybe the works of Dayananda Saraswati condemning the trends in idolatry of 19th century Hinduism? Al-Ghazali's writings on turn-of-the-millennium Islamic thought? Or did you already know what faith you were and read your own philosophers to shore it up?
      I read them. Aquinas, too. And many of his writings mean little outside the context of a pre-defined version of Christianity–else are so general as to be applicable under a mult.itude on non-Christian philosophies and therefore take no additional validity from their Christian origins.

      How easy it is for you to write off people based on your assumptions of what they have or haven't studied to reach their conclusions! It must make life so black and white, so easy, so self-confirming. Many "SBNR" people HAVE thought deeply about what they believe. In many cases thinking deeply about the stories they were taught is precisely what led them to set those stories aside–not a lack of thinking about them. But if being so sadly dismissive helps you get through the day, so be it I guess. But just so you know, there is a lot more out there you are missing out on understanding.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      SBNR came from 12 step programs. I hear they don't like graduates, which is socially unacceptable in their groups. Now that the gubmint god got involved insurance cos saw an opportunity and YOU PAY. The Big O and The Big R made sure of that.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  7. dionysusBeer

    If someone works hard, is generally nice to others, donates to charity, and helps when someone needs help what does it matter if he calls himself Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, spiritual, or even Raelian? Granted, the facts of their beliefs can be examined and debunked but how can you call them "self-obsessed"? And why can't a person from all of those groups follow Enlightenment values?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Behold the Man


      October 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The author is not talking about people who declare themselves to be: Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or even Raelian.

      The author is talking about people who declare themselves to be "spiritual but not religious". People who eschew dogma but still claim faith without being able to define what their faith really is. This is a half-way house. It is used by people:
      1. who are on an unresolved spiritual journey (ok we get that) or
      2. who are afraid to declare themselves one way or the other as believers or atheists

      To the second group, the author is challenging them to sh't or get off the pot.

      In context here (given the 'or') the "enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" is code for atheism.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  8. Miyafuji

    That to me sounds like "Yes, I believe in a higher being and place, but I don't believe the whole story"

    October 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  9. four

    One last comment... (this is unusual; I don't usually discuss my practice; it's personal and none of anyone's business.)

    I went to church, on my mother's behalf, when she was in the hospital a few years ago. Very shortly into the sermon I realized 3 things: 1) although my practice would tolerate any of the people in the congregation (welcome them even), if they knew anything about me, I'd be tarred and feathered — and certainly NOT welcome; 2) redemption & heaven were the only reason for good deeds, not simply because strive (in this lifetime) for compassion and truth; and 3) the guy really believed there was a place in the sky made of gold, and that living there was desirable.

    Heaven should not be a "get out of jail free card." Giving money to a Church should not be redemption. And going to Church should not mitigate your behavior. If that is "Religion" — I will take my practice any day.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Behold the Man

      You nailed it. My in-laws consider themselves "good catholics" and yet they have specifically told me that they only do the right thing because they will be rewarded for doing it or get into trouble for not. I, on the other hand, do what's right because it is right.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  10. lunchbreaker

    Once you have dismissed any religion, what's the point in being spiritual. So you believe there is God, so what? Unless there are consequences to not believeing in a God, said consequnces being dismissed as they are part of a religios book, the question of whether there is a God or not is basically pointless.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Clyde M

      As an empirical rationalist (i.e., non-spiritual atheist), I can still see plenty of reasons to eschew all established religions and yet still hold on to one's spirituality or belief in some, possibly undefined, higher power. Why does it always have to be all-or-nothing with everyone. Short of when someone uses their belief to affect the lives, rights, liberty, and property of others, why do we all seem to care so much about what others believe or why? If they want to pass secular laws based on spiritual belief, then yeah, we should care. But if some dude wants to say he's personally spiritual, but not religious, and isn't trying to cram it down everyone else's throats against their wills...what's the point in questioning and condemning that choice or belief system?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • four

      not all spiritual practices do believe in GOD... some of them are actually older than Christianity. and i'm unclear on the subject of consequences, which are generally human-made constructs. life is. it is not life you change, but yourself and the way your choose to interact with it. there is not actual God in that statement — but there is a very deep and profound spiritual base. and it has nothing to do with good or bad (also human-made constructs).

      October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      the problem with being "spiritual but not religious" is that it is like saying "I believe in something – I just don't know what exactly." This is not faith and it is not really belief.

      That is the challenge that the author levels – believe in something specific, or nothing.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • four

      @GOPer.... just because you don't understand what I believe, does not mean I don't.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Nat Q

      @I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV
      'the problem with being "spiritual but not religious" is that it is like saying "I believe in something – I just don't know what exactly." This is not faith and it is not really belief.'

      According to whom? You?
      Why does there need to be a specific label on what they believe in? Especially if what they believe in isn't something that they feel they can fully understand or label? If they truly believe there is a god, but that that god has not yet revealed itself to us, or that the current specific definitions of each religions' god are merely incomplete aspects of this greater god...how do you label it? And how do you define their lack of a specific label as a lack of faith? Is that all faith is? The ability to categorize and label and define and accept those limits?

      October 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  11. Get A Clue

    Wow, this last sentence says it all, "A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?" I think it's clear most young, educated, independent individuals will choose knowledge, reason, and action, thanks. As time passes your religions will continue to become more and more irrelevant, it is inevitable.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  12. Robert

    Apparently this gentleman simply wanted to show the advertisers how many people read cnn. It's all about circulation.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  13. KK Putnam

    Really weird article... CNN has lost any credibility it may have imagined it once possessed. What a stupid people we have become to put up with this drivel.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • sam stone

      Yet you take the time to comment on it

      October 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  14. jdub87

    Sorry, if I wanted religious "enlightenment", I'd join the priesthood. I also like the fact the Spiritual-but-not-religious group are usually one of the last to tell you what you're doing wrong.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • sam stone

      Join the priesthood to find spiritual enightenment? You'd be better off eating a handful of magic mushrooms

      October 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  15. Chris Casey

    This is an amazing opinion. I didn't realize things were so amiss.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  16. Silverhawk

    I can understand the author stating that "scriptural but not religious" is a cop-out. However there are people who are polytheists who do willingly study and practice different world religions to get a deeper understanding of what is SPIRITUAL. They aren't confused or deluded they just want to know as much as they can. Along that path a person can adopt a particular spiritual path which is neither right or wrong but fulfills the person's spiritual needs to their greatest and highest good.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  17. The Guy In The Picture

    "Haa-Haaa Aaaaaa- HaaaaaaCHOOOOOO!!!!"

    October 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      October 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  18. The Guy In The Picture

    "Please Jesus, help me find my family that I lost at the water park. I swear I will not get so drunk as to mistake this rocky beach for the wading pool at Raging Waters ever again, just please leade me back to my family."

    October 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • OTOH

      Silly as it is, it is preferable to a picture of a young man of a similar age rioting in the streets or shooting people.

      I suppose that there's no guarantee that he wouldn't do something horrid the next day, though - Muslim bombers pray on their bellies 5 times a day!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  19. Doc Vestibule

    Religion minus shamans equals spirituality.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  20. BigPN

    The reason why certain folks prefer to be spiritual is because there are too many religions and they seem to be about making a profit. If you look at Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and many others, making money seems to be the bottom line.

    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.