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. tmoney35

    Yep its a cop out. Its just another made up thing. Its like this "i believe in something, and whatever that is, is the truth to me" Its dumb. You believe in a higher power. Obviously thats not God, otherwise you would say. You could believe the hawk is ruler.
    Its just another way of saying "i dont want to go to church, or i believe in something, just not what you believe"
    And you never know that people are "spiritual" unless you ask or it comes up in a conversation. Eh.. Just my take.....

    October 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  2. dafuqineats

    Take a stand? OK. I believe that people can and will believe whatever the hell they want to believe. I believe you are an irresponsible and possibly dangerous hack that believes you are a reporter, and I believe you should be fired and never again hired by a news organization again – maybe you should work for Fox News, they could use another irresponsible "journalist".

    October 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  3. dave

    This is hilarious. Why is it so hard for people to understand that not everyone needs a set of rules to be a good person. Chillllll out.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  4. mjz

    HA HA HA. You make me laugh. You didn't "guilt" me back to the church. LOL.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  5. WhatIsWrongWithYou

    You, Alan Miller, are offensive and arrogant. You are making broad assumptions on a large number of people that are thinking for themselves and finding what they believe from all walks of faiths, as opposed to a single handed down "this is the truth and believe it or you will forever be punished" doctrine. This same broad assumption is something you criticize herein, therefore coming across as hypocritical as well. Shame on you for being judgemental of people exercising their right to choose.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Nii

      Where is the like button on these blogs?
      Love that!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Spiritual&NotReligious

      Thumbs up.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  6. Louis

    What an uneducated close minded relic from a dying era. Good food for thought, but only as much as my cats are food for thought when I ponder them at the close of the day. No substance, no research, and not being in touch with the modern world is highlighted throughout this piece.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  7. Jack

    I would rather a person be "spiritual" than adhere to outdated often dangerous dogmas that so many western faiths hold. Maybe if more people copped out then we would have people killing each other over outmoded ideas of God.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  8. Jeffrey Schley

    Why do people feel this need to be a part of something? I am spiritual but not religious. I loathe organized religion. Belief and faith should be left to the individual. I believe in a higher power. Whatever it is that allows me to stand upright, allows my heart to beat, allows me to breathe. I worship the Sun, for without that we would not exist. I worship nature, as without it we could not breathe. I worship science. I believe in the human soul. I believe all living things are connected. I meditate. My mind is my temple. Get off your high horse Mr. Alan Miller.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Gabriel Malakh

    What does it means to be "Spiritual?"

    October 5, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      @ majav

      Great reply, but here lies the conundrum! How does one say they do not believe in God or the spirit realm but at the same time worship in a way similar to those who believe in God the spirit realm? For example:

      Thus, in theory, Buddhism does not advocate belief in God or a Creator. However, Buddhist temples and stupas are found today in nearly every country where Buddhism is practiced, and images and relics of Buddhas and bodhisattvas have become objects of prayers, offerings, and devotion by devout buddhists. The Buddha, who never claimed to be god, has become a god in every sense of the word.

      October 5, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Finally, the right question here.

      October 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  10. Gabriel Malakh

    Can an atheist be spiritual? Please Explain.

    October 5, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Nii


      October 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      Nii, please explain, what does it mean to be spiritual?

      October 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yes Nii, do tell.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • majav

      Buddhists, at least most sects, clearly do not believe in One God. They have spiritual practices and they have spiritual beliefs stemming from a spiritual perspective in life. Buddhists deal with concepts such as suffering, equality, harmony, and compassion. However, technically, they are atheists because they don't believe in theism. Theism is the belief in God.

      Buddhists don't believe in God, they follow the teachings of Buddha, many buddhas actually. Buddha was a teacher who taught from a spiritual perspective. The goal of Buddha's teaching was to alleviate suffering through compassion.

      Buddhism was radical and revolutionary at its inception. It predates Christianity. Buddha was against the Hindu caste system among other things. Buddhism is a religion. It is the state religion of many countries in Asia.

      October 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good answer majav!

      October 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  11. twistedbyknaves

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    Or perhaps it indicates that some people are still thinking and have yet to settle comfortably into one set of prejudices or the other?

    October 5, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • stillthinking

      it could also mean you have already decided so no need to decide further
      the guy wrote a prejudicial, discriminatory, defamatory, and inflammatory CNN corporately backed opinion piece about a subject he obviously has an issue with someone about – and more obviously knows nothing about – and thinks this is the acceptable way to make himself look better than someone else – who noone has any idea what he is talking about.
      He tried to cause harm, and succeeded – why – who knows. He will not even apologize to thousands of people whom he has upset. It is sickening to many to see this good ol' boy bullying done so blatantly without regard – cuz it is the latest fashion – committing hate crimes with the president's laughing backing – been a hell of a few past weeks on the political front. Guess Alan had to have his laughs too. I wonder how much he got paid to trash his own professional name as he did, all for a few late night laughs I'm sure.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  12. Bill

    When I see that someone classifies themselves as "spiritual by not religious" in means to me that they are an atheist, but have neither the guts to admit it nor the desire to deal with the prejudice associated with being secular.

    October 5, 2012 at 6:14 am |
    • sam stone

      good for you

      October 5, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • jacqueline mcgilvra

      i classify myself as a spirit of the universe, belonging to all groups,people,and collective experiences. i believe all things happen for great reason. i believe we are all pieces of god , like drops of water in the ocean. i say i am spiritual not religious, because i am a spirit having a human experience not the other way around. No ones KNOWS the ultimate truth and to pretend to is shows a swollen ego.religions are man made....i was born without one and i see no need to adopt one. its a spirit world not a mans world.jesus didnt even like religion, in fact he and many other great men spoke against it. religions exist to keep the poor from murdering the rich.....it is to control us. any group or person that asks you to change your beliefs to belong to them do not live in love.i think some people are just uncomfortable thinking maybe we are more than we are told.the church separates us from our creator, calls us sinners and keeps our vibration where they want it....there is no room for real pursonal growth since you are not encouraged to look inside but to the pastor or priest.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  13. Weels

    Future of Mankind http:\\truthmovement.blog.com

    October 5, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  14. Selendis

    How convenient to dismiss a large number of people under a single broad definition. As if all people that do not hold to a certain religion do not believe in sin, or self improvement. Apparently, someones religion has left them blind.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Nii

      I totally agree with you. Religious people of all religions talk as if they just got kicked in the head by a mule. spiritual people are of different religions too. some may synchretise relligions. As a whole we tolerate other peoples beliefs and as a spiritual Christian that is what Christ taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am sorry but though I have read on other religions the Bible is what I am most familiar with. Religion does not matter. If you are spiritual and walk in love with your fellow humans that is all that God requires per the Bible. Atheists may balk at the idea. However I actually sat down with an eminent neurologist and he confirmed that spirituality is the sanest position to take.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  15. shawbrooke

    What people might be looking for is safety. Our public schools make it plain that those in authority will hinder the personal lives and careers of Christians. When people grow up, many do not trust their own experience, which is that schools do not represent real life and there is no hindrance to them for being part of a church. So they rely on being spiritual to avoid the consequences that they fear. What politicians and the left have to realize that in the privacy of the ballot box, most of these people will vote differently than their public persona might suggest.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Nii

      Spirituality is not an American phenomenon. In China the government is having to suppress powerful spiritual movements from differnt religions for fear they will revolt. Spiritual people however do not care for power. That is something religious people care for. I have no problems with the GoP and Evangelicals but look closely at the Gospels. Who would Jesus vote for, honestly!
      It is sad that a Republican Judge has not overturned Roe vs Wade but why should they? They can say they are pro-life and Evangelical religious Christians will supply votes. Look at the vile propaganda that is used to garner for votes on both sides. They make the Soviets quake in their boots.
      Politics has nothing on spirituality. Do not make it political or American. If you do not understand Spirituality well then simply it is bearing the Fruit of the Spirit. Not a political position.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  16. JesusNotReligion

    Jesus (not a religion) was quoted by Matthew asking the following: Jesus asked, "Who do YOU say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15 emphasis)...

    1) I was born of a virgin and called Immanuel (lit. "God with us")...WHO AM I?
    2) I was born in Bethlehem; One who came from eternity...WHO AM I?
    3) I, the King of Israel, humbly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey...WHO AM I?
    4) I was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver...WHO AM I?
    5) They pierced my hands and my feet; they cast lots (gambled) for my clothing...WHO AM I?
    6) I was pierced in my side and mourned for as one mourns for an only son...WHO AM I?
    7) I was pierced for sinners; the chastisement for their peace was upon me; by the whippings I received they (who believe) are healed (lit. Forgiven); I was Sovereignly sent to be put to death but I saw the light of day (resurrected) because the grave could not hold me...WHO AM I?

    ***If you or any of you fine, loving people said the above passages (just 7 out of 300+ that could be cited) referred to "Jesus", you would all be correct! But I do have a secret for you. ALL of the above references are from the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) dating 450-1000 BC (Before Jesus was even born).

    The gospel of Jesus (Messiah) was already written down before Jesus was born, and then preached from the Old Testament for about 25 years (give or take 5 years) BEFORE IT WAS EVER WRITTEN DOWN IN THE "NEW". (caps for emphasis)...Now I'm not saying that you have to believe in what I quoted above. It's not my responsibility to make anyone believe. You can receive Jesus by "faith" or you can continue rejecting Him by "faith"...But you just heard/read the gospel, and if anyone did say those passages were speaking of Jesus, you have to live with the confession of your own mouth...

    Here are the above Old Testament PROPHETIC REFERENCES I cited, all of which were fulfilled in a real Historic PERSON...
    1) Isaiah 7:14 (700-800 BC)
    2) Micah 5:2 (700-750 BC)
    3) Zechariah 9:9 (450 BC)
    4) Zechariah 11:12 (450 BC)
    5) Psalm 22:16-18 (1,000 BC)
    6) Zechariah 12:10 (450 BC)
    7) Isaiah 53 (700-800 BC)

    Thanks for the opportunity to share JesusNotReligion

    So who do YOU say that Jesus is? Eternal life is on the, and it's in a PERSON, not a RELIGION!

    October 5, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      Eternal life is on the line, and it's in a PERSON, not a RELIGION!

      October 5, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • sam stone

      You would seriously desire eternal life?

      October 5, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      Sam...Yes...with Jesus...It's as simple, as glorious and as beautiful as that...Eternal life is not just a quant!ty of life but a QUALITY of life...

      Romans 6:23
      "For the wages of (payment for) sin is death (lit. HELL; the place where you the unsaved will eternally live knowing they are not with Jesus who is light and love) but the FRE GIFT or God is eternal life IN Jesus Christ the Lord" (emphasis added)

      If "good" and "bad" people DIE (meaning EVERY LAST ONE OF US regardless of race, religion, age or HOW), is it not reasonable to propose that true and ultimate justice & retribution is waiting on the other side of death's door? No, it doesn't make sense. It goes against everything we all intuitively know to be true...and innately hope for; i.e. Payback for evil (and some would even say that I am evil and propagating evil for which they hope I will ultimately receive retribution – but that would go against their own belief that WE ALL END UP IN THE SOME PLACE WHEN WE DIE..."DEAD"...
      And does not retribution (i.e. Judgment Day) necessitate some ULTIMATE ABSOLUTE SOURCE of OBJECTIVE TRUTH in determining ultimate "right and wrong", "good and evil" (i.e. GOD...a "Personal God, not a "force" of some sort)?...Yes it does...but many will go against what you innately know to be true and say "No it doesnt, now go to hell", which I've already heard many times...


      October 5, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • sam stone

      Then what is keeping you here? If you are so incredibly sure that you will be with Jesus, why are you keeping him waiting?

      Also, you undoubtedly know some people who are not "saved". Perhaps some of them are your parents, or siblings, or children. or friends. Are you comfortable with them being tortured forever? Are you comfortable spending eternity with the being that would sentence them to this torture?

      October 5, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • sam stone

      Ah, JNR.....Pascal's Wager rears it's head again. So, to you it is either no god, or the one of the bible? Seems pretty myopic to me. What if god is one that you had not envisioned? Would you not being the same situation that you claim atheists will be if your god turns out to be the correct one? You speak of not making a decision based on emotion, but that is the entire tenor of your post. What makes you think there will be a judgement day? Please do not vomit up scripture to respond to my question. Scripture proves nothing

      October 5, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • JesusNotReligion

      Sam...I purposefully laid down two separate arguments. One was from Scripture, set up in an interactive, objective way...the other was from human logic regarding our own innate desire for justice to be metered out in some ultimate way as we witnessincredible injustice and atrocities in this world.

      What Jesus (not me) proposes is MERCY and FORGIVENESS paurchased by Him but requiring individual reception, so please stop accusing me (or Pascal) for Jesus'"narrow road" that grates you and so many others...

      I stated everything above in response to your 2 most recent posts. And know this, I am not an "emotional" fool. I have a balance between an intelligent and Spirit led faith...And yes, after many years of studying and challenging the claims of the Bible, my conscience is bound to it's Supernatural & Transcendent Authority, much to your disgust.

      October 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  17. random

    This author embodies perfectly the idiocy and cognitive dissonance that is inherent in all religion.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  18. stillthinking

    I would seriously like for you to apologize in a nonharmful manner due to your lack of respect and defamation of a group of people who you epitomize by people who do yoga. It is not ok for you to put these people down as you have done, as many people with PTSD are taught to learn to do yoga, meditation, breathing and relaxation as an excellent way to deal with this deadly illness. You have no moral right to not apologize in a meaningful and non-harmful manner for this one reason alone – if nothing else. Please do so immediately – you could help people who have to bare their skin just to get you guys to pay attention to the fact that these people's family members are committing suicide as a result of PTSD – and this would be better if you actually did it in a way that did not include more degradation, distain, and non-healthy ignorance. It is not bliss – it is hell – and you are contributing to it – or not.

    October 5, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  19. moi

    I'm sorry, who are you to judge what another human being decides works for them? Just because rules and regs work for you doesn't mean they should naturally apply to everyone. Please look into the history of your own religion's origins, then go further... You'll find out that what now seems like a solid body of doctrine started out as bits of paganism, bits of egyptian religion, and so on... At this particular time in the history of man's time here on earth, there are a dozen or so top, well-known highly recognized religions. 2000 or 3000, years ago, things would have looked very different, not to mention all the different gods, deities, or idols since the dawn of man. Get some perspective and step outside of your extremely self-centered ego centric view. Everyone knows that man created god and religion. If someone wants to meditate to find peace or a better state of mind.... leave them alone, after all, any meditative state regardless of the existence of god has been shown in scientific studies to improve health and mood. These spiritual people look less ridiculous than you do, if you ask me. You put yourself out there like a fool. I guess that's the only way you could get published....

    October 4, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Joshua

      No matter which side of the aisle you stand on this issue, your response to this article is as arrogant, presumptuous and egotistical as you claim the article's opinions to be. If you disagree, then educate yourself more about the position before you attack it. You are only attacking it because it appears alien to you.

      October 5, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • thoughts

      it was just that the comments by Mr. Miller were made the same way – as putting this guy who is meditating on the beach out there like an alien – and then equating his negative views of this fella – onto a whole group of people – who also may use meditation as a form of being for better health (it has been scientifically proven). so therefore, the ignorance shown by Mr. Miller as an unwarranted attack on this group of people – has netted him similar responses in kind. knee jerk reactions perhaps – but it is a defense to trolling and bullies. many have pondered the questions that are posed as to the misunderstandings in religious vs. spiritual or the practice of the same. but most point out that it is all the same – and how there is always and forever room for improvement in understanding and thought – and always and forever that which just is beyond understanding and thought – and always finite and infinite ... or infinite and finite ... because that is the way it is.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  20. pbernasc

    only an extremely judgmental and selfish individual calls other who do not believe what he believes inferior to him.
    You sir are not a real Christian

    October 4, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Ray Dobson

      On the contrary he strikes me as a pretty typical christian.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:58 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.