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. YoozYerBrain

    Is this the guy who disproved Zeus?
    Who is the guy who disproved Zeus?
    Is it this guy?
    Who disproved Zeus? Did I miss something? Shi ppity shoo, could be real trouble here!

    October 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  2. Mikey

    The author says that those who are spiritual are just in denial or finding some cop out, yet how can spirituality be a cop out when it doesn't really follow any specific dogma? Most religions follow a dogma that has been taught , same with Atheism choosing not to believe in anything is a dogma, Spirituality however is beyond belief and non belief , it is about going deeper and trying to find a understanding with oneself and thus having a greater understanding of others and the universe, being spiritual is a way of life, it is not about what you believe or don't believe , if you look at a rose with your eyes are you really seeing a rose or are you just seeing what your eyes want you to see?is this realty that we live in really a realty or do we just want to believe that's its the only realty, because that is what our minds have told us to think?, who knows spirituality goes deeper to the core a rose might exist or not but its still a rose , how did that rose come to be ? how did we as humans come to be? what is our purpose? are we here to instill fear and control over others like those who decide to follow some dogma choose to do? or does our lives have more meaning than that?this author is seriously delusional if he thinks being spiritual is a cop out if anything its the closest thing to realty that we have.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  3. Ted

    Generalizing is difficult here, but the main difference I see is that the "spiritual-but-not-religious" people tend to believe that God is love and can be understood and approached in multiple valid ways. Consequently, there's more than one path to spiritual salvation - similar to what Unitarian Universalists believe.

    So where the author sees spiritual-but-not-religious people as fence-sitters, ironically I think they see themselves as risk-takers, pioneers, and classic freethinkers, since they've moved outside the "guaranteed safe" zone of conventional religion. Their belief systems can be as philosophically rigorous as any other religion, too.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • stillthinking

      you have to be able to sit on the fence in order to see both sides

      October 1, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  4. Wowzers

    Safe to say the man that wrote this cares more about the label of himself and others than the fact of himself and others. He equates the label to the fact. Must I label myself or anyone else? What place have labels on human beings? Can I know something that's living? Doesn't the label become a screen through which I distort what I am and/or what others are? Is not the label a source of division and separation? Are not labels the key variable in the science of violence between human beings? I am this, you are that, now we fight, or we disagree and destroy each other and the world economically. The man that wrote this has quite clearly become a victim of his conditioning rather than a student, and does not have the ability to ask a question seriously without someone else giving him a starting point. What he writes will not stand the test of time. It will blow away as all arbitrary measurement must. He must write things that essentially amount to throwing daggers because he does not understand the fundamentals of division and objectification, or that of beauty. His points are not made on a basis of attention and care to reality, but on the basis of opinions given to him.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  5. EdG

    I have found the spiritual path to be far more rewarding and practical in every aspect of my life. I have come to my understanding of a power greater than myself and have no need to label it or try to comprehend it. The results is a sense of compassion that allows me to interact lovingly with all beings and the understanding that I am connected with all things. Nothing separates me from the universe. I respect all religions and hope their journey is as joyful as mine.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |

    Jesus was a faithful, religious , praticing Jew and I'd dare say, a bit spiritual too. I'm a practicing Catholic who will continue practicing until I get it right!

    October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good one James. I've been trying to come up with a pithy response that encapsulates the spirituality of being Catholic (which I suppose exists in other organized religions). You did a fine job. Spirituality for it's own sake is all well and good but the sacraments of the Catholic Church provide a vehicle for me to encounter my spirituality and express it.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Paul

      "Catholic Church provide a vehicle for me to encounter my spirituality"

      Yeah, those alter boys sure know how to take it up the azz.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  7. Al Mohajerian

    Alan Miller wants you to take a stand. How about taking a stand in truth and humanity and let go of the religious boundaries. Why do we need this "us vs. you" all of the time? Why not believe in humanity? So, being spiritual is great. Being religious is nothing but an attempt to create cult like organization. It makes you feel good, because there is that sense of belonging. It is the slave mentality. It is good to believe in God and be spiritual. That's the strongest stance of all. Submission to some of the archaic religious rules in an impediment to human evolution. You all know this to be true in your hearts.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  8. How did ALL of the Protestant denominations start?

    "Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices..."

    Gee – and PROTESTANT DENOMINATIONS didn't do that exact same pick and mix choosing? Henry VIII wanted a divorce that the Catholic church wouldn't give him so BAM – a new religion is birthed called Anglicanism. Which turned into Episcopalianism. And Luther was all in a tizzy about something he was protesting – and voila – the Lutheran Church was born.

    Each protestant idiot that came along that didn't like what he/she was taught decided to pick and choose and came up with a brand new bit of delusional doctrine.

    And now they get upset because someone ELSE has done what THEY ALREADY DID – pick what they want and ignore the rest.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Not sure who you think is upset but the Catholic Church largely recognizes that the Reformation was a needed and significant correction to the direction the Church had taken during that time.

      October 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  9. Truth

    The only truth comes from within. Do not allow the ignorance being spread by this article to penetrate your thoughts.

    Dear Alan Miller,

    Open your mind to the beliefs outside of your own. It is for your own good.

    Your Friend and Brother

    October 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  10. Casually curious

    This article is filed under "My take – Opinion – Spirituality" Personally I think it's a great article with strong points. Perhaps the religiously intolerant or "spiritual" readers/commenters beg to differ, that's certainly acceptable but I think this piece was posted in the correct area, under the correct assertion that's it's not "news" but rather an opinion piece in the religious section. This is what this is for, debate, discusssion, reflection. If everything in the "news" and especially in these types of forums where all of one thought/opinion it would cease to be anything worthwhile really. Where's the challenge in that? I suppose in a perfect world that would be the case but clearly we don't live in one.

    I also think that it's always worth while to read other opinions (regardless if you agree or not) and consider what the person is trying to say. I often find, myself, that while I don't always agree with others that the writer (who is generally intelligent) has or may have some interesting points I had not considered or understood. I find many of the unfortunate comments on here lacking much thought, reflection or grace for those who's opinions differ. I do realize that this while bring the knee-jerk reaction of "well where's the grace in this narrow minded article" but that's not the point. The point is to put thougths out there to think about, to discuss and, in the end become better people and perhaps find truth.

    Just my opinion.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • stillthinking

      that is what he wanted – you are right – and just like he said – he thought this crowd would be too stupid and lazy and non-committed without a clue to provide an intelligent conversation by just asking politely or nicely or in some other intelligent manner other than slamming them with his obvious not to high opinion of them and bigotry.
      that's all
      he is too lazy to discover spirituality on his own – or too afraid – so he slams them with cnn's corporate backing – to get the vote – that's all – they do not really want to know the truths – just want to rile and get out the vote.
      don't you know

      October 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  11. John N.

    Might be the stupidest article I've ever read. This guy couldn't be more out of touch with reality. Lots of people seek their own relationship with God or their creator, and by rejecting doctrine they are saying they don't necessarily trust the word of a bunch of hypocrites. Not to mention the books of the bible were written 100 years or more after the Crucifixion and facts get a little hazy after a century.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • The Hosted


      This author is a sad little man.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  12. zerohero

    I think a more interesting article might be: Why organized religion doesn't work anymore. I had a preacher tell me that if I didn't vote for the "Defense of Marriage Act" that I didn't belong in the church. Well guess what.....I left that church. Using the pulpit to advance republican ideals left me feeling like I was just in a building- not a place of worship.

    There are many ways to express your faith, share your beliefs and be a genuine person without the insecure horde coming after you in the name of Jesus.

    Regardless of the faith, I feel that religion for many people is about personal power over others, and this corrupts the whole reason people go at all.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Who put the usurpers from the gumit god in charge of marriage anyway?

      October 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • The Hosted

      Too much of religion deals in absolutes...and revels in it. It mocks others who don't ("thing with science is that the facts can change! And you still believe in that?") and each claims that its absolutes are the right absolutes.

      It is sad and destructive and limiting.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  13. TRH

    There's NOTHING fence sitting about my position on organized religion. I ACTIVELY and CONSCIOUSLY choose to not ally myself with groups who practice intolerance, hate, and fraud on so many levels. I'd suggest I have thought as much upon this issue as anyone out there, yourself included.

    That doesn't mean I don't believe in a higher power. It just means I refuse to believe that words written, edited, translated, and revised by man are NOT a literal text from said creator. It also means I refuse to believe that people who don't share my exact beliefs are condemned to an afterlife of eternal flame and damnation. It also means I refuse to believe that someone of another faith is somehow less than I am deserving of less rights, happiness, or freedoms.

    There are VERY few (read none) formal religions that don't practice these or other equally abhorrant tenants.

    Consider Plato's allogory of the cave....we are all just interpreting the shadows based only on our own senses. I find it impossible to believe that some other person chained to the back of the cave with me has some "better" sense of the reality that NONE of us know in this world. And I find it reprehensable when there are people who claim to know better and take advantage of others based on that assertion.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Silly1

      So...based on the first sentence, does that mean you have decided not to be human anymore?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  14. tifo

    That was super moronic. OBVIOUSLY it can mean different things to different people, though this guy seems to think he can read the population's mind and they're all in agreement. If I had to ascribe a definition it would be that some people don't buy what big religion is selling but live by a set of rules that guide them (to be a better person/contribute to society/whatever). Or maybe they have those big questions, that we all do, about the mystery of life and the universe, but don't think that a guy in a white beard and robe has the answer (as any sane person would, in my opinion). There are probably as many different explanations for what people mean by that as there are people who believe it. DUH.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  15. Mike

    The one thing about feelings is that they are not subject to argument. If you say you feel a sense of oneness with something-or-other, no one can say you're wrong. But as soon as you start making assertions like "Jesus was born of a virgin and was raised from the dead," or "when we die, we are reincarnated over and over until we reach enlightenment" you find yourself having to force yourself to believe things that are unproven and unprovable and often patently absurd.

    The feelings of transcendence are real, but all the explanations of what it means just made up stories. Personally, I think it's just a pleasant brain state that some people like to experience over and over.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  16. snapdragon

    My question to the author..."So, what?"

    October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  17. discojoe

    Actually, grasping onto an organized religion is the best example of avoiding "having to think too hard about having to decide." By believing in some unprovable existential being, those that belong to formal religions avoid having to ask ANY tough questions. Instead of addressing the fact that humans are organic beings that are part of the evolutionary life cycle, members of organized religion can fall back on biblical quotes and canonical teachings. Religion is the ultimate cop out, so anyone espousing it should be embarrassed to questions anyone else's motivation for thinking the way they do.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • k

      Really? Tell that to Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II, or Benedict XVI (or a host of other people through the ages). These guys were/are hardly intellectual light weights.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      So you know every person that considers themselves religious and how much they think? Oh my, can we worship you?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • discojoe

      Feel free to worship me. There is just as much proof that I am a messiah as there is for anyone else. And if your best argument is "Well, a lot of people believe it," you don't have much going for your argument? Remember when people thought the earth was flat? How about the darker the skin, the more inferior the race? A lot of people believed those myths as well.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  18. jon

    this article is pathetic dribble. humans are not all hedonists, even without a magical man in the sky who apparently said what is good and what is bad

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

    Organized or spiritual....

    Where's your Messiah now?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  20. Rufus T. Firefly

    The "danger" of being spiritual is that it's a gateway drug. Once you accustom yourself to accepting invisible magical forces to explain things, it's only a matter of time before you are ensnared by some religion. You may be sending your money to Crystal Healing Therapy or to the Catholic Church, but someone will be out there waiting to take advantage of your credulity.

    October 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Behold the Man

      Hail, hail Fredonia!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I'm staggered by the volume of the response here. The burn-rate on these posts continues at a furious rate.

      The "nothing in particulars" (as Pew calls them) are out in force today.

      This article makes them think. They don't like that!

      October 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      I know, notGOP. I've hardly participated because it's too flooded to debate anything. That's okay though – I've lots of work I should be doing...

      October 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Indeed so. It will settle down when they take it off the front page.

      October 1, 2012 at 2:47 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.