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. JD

    If he were in "The Lottery", Alan Miller would be the first one to pick up the stones. It's tradition!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  2. Moonshadow

    I'm not religious, but do believe in God, how do I know this? I am, therefore God is. It is that simple, and my gut tells me it is true. You can know what the truth is, if you listen, inside yourself, through the silence of meditation & prayer. It takes a lifetime of practice, in & out of your daily life. If you expect instant results, you will be sadly disappointed. I have found All that you see, all that you witness in this wonderful universe, is a reflection of who God is. You and me are also reflections of who God is. God as a flower, God as a tree, God as you & God as me. We live as individual, feeling separated from the whole but are still connected through our heart. Allowed to choose through our free will & God will support whatever direction you choose, but choose wisely, because again, God will support what ever direction you choose. As far as this article is concerned. I consider it folly.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • SciGuy

      The article is good; your post is folly.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  3. pvs53

    Religion is a narrow view is spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  4. Dan64

    Young people today are bombarded with news about criminalityand immorality rooted in organized religions

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  5. cm

    I consider myself spiritual, not religious. I truly believe spirituality and your relationship with your god is a personal journey. I choose the way I live because I want to, not because an organization tells me to. I don't litter, I support charity, I treat people with kindness and empathy, I apologize when I am wrong, I don't abuse animals, children or drugs and liquor. I can appreciate and respect the teachings of Christianity, Budda and multiple others. I can do this because of my own free will, remember that? Free will to choose my behavior, to live by my expectations and convictions of myself. If belonging to a religious organization does it for you, I say all the more power to you. But, it is when I go hiking in the mountains and become part of nature's raw beauty that I feel one with God. When I hold my child, I feel one with God. When I see the people sacrificing their time, money and investing their emotional strength to help others in need, I feel one with God. I don't need organized religion to see the work of God, others do and thats okay. It is my spirituality that makes me reflect if I am living up to my expectations of doing what is right and just, not what just benefits me. To say I am a cop-out or I sit on the fence because I don't attend organized religion is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. Regardless of what this author believes, I own my beliefs and choices.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Sara

      That is really beautiful. I'm an atheist so replace "God" with "Universe" and I hold the same sentiments as you. Just beautiful.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Michael

      With all respect I would argue you sound very "works based". The sermon on the mount was not meant to instruct us "how to live". This is the most misunderstanding in the New Testament by non Christians. It was meant to show us how totally evil we as humans are and our need for a savior. Someone to live and die in our place. Remember...the book of Romans says that "NO one will be justified by works of the law".

      September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • PriorityMail

      Very well said cm.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Fank

      If we are all children of a living God, would he not desire his family to be organized for there is no peace without order, if every body at work said " I will answer to my boss the that suites me best " how much would get done and how long would you have your job for? Even the smallest of Gods creatures are organized.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • cm

      To Michael and Fank,
      Life is "work based" learning. It is not scripted or organized. We are not talking about a task at work, following man-made laws. We as humans can distinguish between the two. Learning is life long. There will be times when we fail to do the right thing and times to atone for it. I do not believe humanity is inherently evil. I believe there are people who exercise their free will to be evil and I am not talking about the mentally ill. That being said, thank you to all that commented on my post.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Mars

      CM – Thanks for your post. I suspects it represents many people and, for me, effectively counters the above article's contention. To the author above, I would say that there probably are people who use the SBNR label as a convenience to avoid engagement, as he suggests, but he really attacks everyone who isn't a club member. Some of us aren't club joiners; we don't like the clubs and live full and rich lives without being members.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  6. Dyslexic doG

    you’ll find that most (ex-Christian) atheists don’t believe for one or more of the following reasons:

    The concept of an immortal being makes no sense to us.

    The concept of an all-powerful being makes no sense to us.

    The concept of an all-knowing being makes no sense to us.

    Throwing the three together into one being cubes its implausibility.

    We tend to have a good working knowledge of the age, size and history of the Universe. The idea that a being would create the entire thing – with 400,000,000,000 galaxies, EACH with 100, 000,000,000 starts and even more planets, then sit back and wait 13,720,000,000 years for human beings to evolve on one planet so he could “love them” and send his son to Earth to talk to a nomadic group of Jews about sheep and goats in Iron Age Palestine (while ignoring the rest of the 200 million people then alive) makes no sense to us. Did God make the Jews or did the Jews make God?

    The answers usually proffered for what we see as basic logical flaws in Christianity – “you have been blinded by your lack of faith” “God moves in mysterious ways” “God is outside the Universe” or “our minds are too small to understand the greatness of God” are never satisfying to us. We see a retreat to mysticism as the first refuge of the cornered fool.

    The common argument, “well, what caused the Big Bang?” with the implication that, because we have only theories and no iron clad explanation for the Big Bang yet, [the Christian] god must have caused it – does not make sense to us. “I don’t know” does not equal “god” to us, much less the Judeo-Christian god. We feel the answers to such a question are much more likely to be found in Einstein’s equations, quantum physics, large particle accelerators and radio telescopes than in Genesis Chapters 1 through 20. We’re crazy aren’t we?

    We do not see miracles in things like tornadoes missing a certain trailer in a trailer park, cancer going into remission or Tim Tebow winning a football game.

    We understand that Christianity is one of many, many religions in the World, and we don’t think that we were lucky enough to have been born in the one part of the World that “got it right”. Likewise, we know how all faiths evolve, morph and change over time and do not think we were lucky enough to have been born in the one generation that “got it right.”

    We tend to have a basic knowledge of history and know that there is nothing magical or special about the supposed history of the Jews, gospels, letters, apocalyptic story (Revelations) and other materials that found their way into the Bible, in that they are largely indistinguishable from the other mythology and religious writings of the pre Dark Ages Mediterranean.

    Human beings are terrified of their own deaths and we see the various religious beliefs that try to “wish it away,” such as reincarnation, living happily ever after in Heaven with Jesus, having your own Mormon planet etc. as nothing more than childish stories for the more näive, timid minds among us.

    We do not see morality as predicated upon a belief in the supernatural. We accept that one can be moral without believing in the supernatural and that doing so is no guaranty that one will conform to the norms of society that people call “morality”.

    “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” is not a convincing argument to us, or even a relevant point, as in inability to disprove something is a far cry from it being true. We cannot prove that the Hindu gods Shiva or Vishnu do not exist either, nor Santa Claus for that matter, but that is hardly a reason to believe in them, or even evidence for their existence. It is impossible to prove a negative in this context.

    When one looks at the various Christian beliefs that were once firmly believed – Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, people living to be 700 or 900 years old, the Red Sea splitting, water turning into wine, a talking snake, a man living in a whale’s belly, people rising from the dead, Jesus driving demons out of people and into pigs – but which are now acknowledged by most thinking people to be mere mythology, it is pretty hard to give a lot of credibility to what’s left.

    It is hard not to consider Christianity as based on circular reasoning. Most Christians believe in God because the Bible says so, then turn around and say they believe the Bible because it is the word of God. To draw an analogy, “I believe Mao Zedong was a great man because The Little Red Book says so, and the reason I believe The Little Red Book is that it was written by Mao Zedong, who was a great man.” Do you even have the slightest idea of how your Bible was compiled over the centuries or who decided what to include and what to exclude and on what grounds? Can you even name one of hundred plus authors who contributed to it? One of the many people who decided what got in and what didn’t?

    To be bluntly honest, the more one comes to understand mother nature, the less reason there is to believe in a god and the more one understands human nature, the more one sees why so many of us still do.

    So, before you next proudly proclaim that you know the secrets to life, death, the origins of life on Earth and the origins of the Universe, simply because your parents or priest taught you some comforting stories from late Bronze Age Palestine as a child, you might like to reflect upon the overwhelming enormity of the claims you are about to make and the complete paucity of evidence that underwrites those claims.

    Or, put another way, stop cuddling your Bible and wallowing in your ignorance and face the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death with a bit of emotional and intellectual courage. If you want to spend your entire life groveling before and supplicating yourself to something, at least make it something that exists

    September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • rgray

      well said

      September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Felinicat

      Thank you for that. Couldn't have said it any better!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • incredulous

      Very well written response. Thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • The Analyst

      Very nice write, Dyslexic doG. If people stop believing in organized religion, how will the manipulators and the war mongers manipulate the population to do what is not in their best nature, and not in their best interest? How would the thieves that call themselves "leaders" cajole The People into giving up the fruit of their labors, their dreams and their freedoms, for a false promise of "Heavenly" paradise?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Tre" Bowers

      This is so true!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • JW

      Hitchens, is that you?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • jourie

      you nailed it. I love every single word you said. Stupid article it is.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • k8ster

      What a succint and eloquent reply. I found the article offensive and sanctimonious.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Terry

      It's a grand generalization to lump all believers in a supreme being into Bible cuddlers and ignorance wallowers, and a mistake to assert that all who are believers in a higher being also buy literal interpretations of the Bible and reject fundamental truths such as evolution, for example, or the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe. All major religious works of the world are exclusively human products (regardless of what some may hold), and so subject to human editing and human meddling.

      However, just as you note that the world has evolved scientifically over the past few millennia (to the extent that you can reason your way out of a belief in a supreme being), so too has it evolved spiritually. Last time I checked, atheists number a significant minority of the world's population (not that numbers alone make one right). The point is that the evidence points overwhelmingly to a human need to recognize a being higher than ourselves. My sense is that that overwhelming tendency points to something other than fear or a need to "wish away" the knowledge of our death; it points to something spiritual, which you fail to recognize.

      Your science is real, but limited to what you can measure. Please do not insult the rest of us by accusing us of voluntary ignorance and wishful thinking. Our faith is as real as (and in addition to) your science.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Nathan

      I applaud this article as it follows the sentiments I feel to a "T". I might throw in the absurdities of the talking snake and the dude who kills 10,000 soldiers by hitting them all in the hip with a bone (Seriously, try to picture that; its like Monty Python)

      This article was offensive enough, I will switch to BBC as my main news source. I mean, how in the heck did this show up on my main news page?

      September 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  7. Andy

    When he argues that people who are "spiritual" are less because they do not read the holy books, he misses the point. The whole reason people are shunning organized religion is because of the lengths people who follow them are willing to go in the name of these books. The new testament, for instancem was written by people who didn't know Jesus (his followers didn't know how to write) 60-150 yrs after his death and then compiled by a bunch of church leaders with an agenda 300 yrs or so after his death. This is then reinterpreted by many more "church leaders" who will cherry-pick certain lines and ignore others so as to support their agenda. It doesn't make someone lazy to not bother with these books, it makes them smart.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  8. mm

    Thank God that religion is NOT spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  9. Reggie

    Reading these comments and I notice many people have decided what to follow or what not to follow based on their experiences or something they read that convinced them one way or another. I think we would all benefit if we stopped trying to figure it out on our own and take time to ask God,His opinion....and wait for Him to respond.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • mm

      If you believe in God – he has already laid out his principles on spirituality vs. religion. It's up to you to study them.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Sara

      Please so that. You might be waiting a long time, though.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Caron

      Good grief. Another wacko who thinks god talks to him. He'll be a mass murderer as soon as "god" gets around to telling him to go kill in his name.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Seorse

      I think he is being sarcastic!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  10. LookNClick

    The real question is: how the church is going to get its money if everyone should go spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  11. Forever Judas

    Being spiritual and not religious is bad for business for such enterpises lilke cristianity, judaism and of course islam.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • saggyroy

      One less subway token in the collection plate....

      September 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  12. saggyroy

    I am very spiritual without god. Studying science and nature has given me more empathy towards people and the planet than being born and raised catholic ever did. I feel connected and I am at peace.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  13. JSkeptic

    I would expect CNN to post a better article on this subject. This is a poor article that is badly argued and weak in its self-support. The author appeals to common emotion and not fact while misrepresenting a valid system of belief that has been in existence alongside organized religion since the advent of the written record of human culture we call history. He needs to read his biblical texts more completely as even Abram left Ur based on the voice of an "other" neither his own father or the organized religions of the time knew. Thank you for once again posting a poor article of low quality pandering to the emotional and ill-reasoned in our society CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • saggyroy

      "The author appeals to common emotion and not fact..." = religion in a nutshell.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  14. Seeker

    I don't need a middleman to tell me how to communicate with my creator/god. There are many paths back to our creator.....

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  15. Yep, I Said It

    I grew up and was baptized in a Baptist church, attended catholic university, worked for years at a Methodist seminary. I raised my kids in church and attended for most of my adult life.My brother is a minister, my mother and sister are officers in the church. My belief in God is steadfast, unchanging and guides my behavior and decisions in my life.I do volunteer work, treat people kindly and give to the poor. I am an educated, happily married professional. I know I'm blessed. However, I find frustration in organized religion based on my personal experiences. The writer of this article scares me with his intolerance. Why do so many religions have to be "my way or the highway?" If there is a hereafter, I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when they learn that the meaning of "go ye therefore into all the world and teach the gospel to all creation" did not mean to be intolerant of those not like oneself. I don't hate organized religion, it is just no longer for me.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • saggyroy

      I think god will let the atheists in commending them on using what he gave them wisely, and the religious will be sent to the other place for wasting god's time....

      September 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  16. Dyslexic doG

    "The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by H.Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the sacharrine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not recieve this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history."

    Robert Heinlein

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  17. Pattielaine

    How would he know if one "hasn't" read and practiced spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  18. Jason

    The author is resorting to either/or logic of fundamentalist, reactionary thinking to explain the inevitable issues of relativism as they arise in modern pluralistic societies (he has a point there). But these "choices" lie outside simple binary oppositions; a more mature logic is needed. The subtle issues related to profound questions of spirituality require nuance and sophistication of a more holistic and integral (both/and logic) sense when engaging the modern syncretism, critique and distillation seen in the popular phrase "spiritual but not religious"; this is not a cop-out its a popular expression of profound emergence of a protean spirituality in globalizing world, and one the religious zealots and atheists the world over could learn from. Mr. Miller needs to do some reading, some practice, and some interviews within the scholarly and practicing communities before he weighs in on arguable the most important issue for man in the wake of the profound changes of modernity. I certainly commend him for opening this discussion, however. We all need more literacy in religious and spiritual discourse. Next time Mr. Miller, just make sure you do some homework.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  19. Matt

    sarda: Thanks. I have gotten a lot from Indian ideas on this subject.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Tridentine

      Trying to say you are spiritual,but dont believe in religion.Is kind of like saying I am a medical doctor,but I never attended medical school,or saying I am a lawyer I justt dont have a degree.Like a plant you can not grow on your own.You need discipline and nurturing.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  20. Mikek

    Mr. Miller evidentally believes that we already know everything there is to know about God, and that our understanding and knowledge of the divine was complete and should be frozen at medieval levels.

    Perhaps he also feels that modern day "scientists" who reject the previously scientifically "proven" concepts of geocentrism, and racial superiority, and female mental inferiority are copping out. After all, if they believe in "science" then they have to believe and adopt everything anyone ever argued in the name of "science", right? To reject primitive and erroreous expressions of "scientific knowledge" is to reject science itself, right?

    The core problem with Mr. Miller's argument is that there is no distinction is his mind between moral relativism and the evolution of our understanding of the divine.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
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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.