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. Science_of_Hinduism

    I agree that God is a creation of man born of our lack of understanding and ego. I don't believe in organized religious non-sense or personal Gods. Though contemporary Hinduism is associated with a myriad of God figures, I invite you to consider the Vedic philosophy and science that forms the basis of Hinduism (before all the deities came about). You will find it is more aligned with scientific fact than any other school of thought. Consider one example. The abstract concept of Brahman which represents the original creative force of the universe (now this idea makes more sense than a personal God-dude in the sky who is looking out for you) has a cyclical life that is measured in billions of years. The math gets complex but the cyclical focus of life and the universe and the scale of the epochs are aligned with actual measurement. This fact about Hinduism is also pointed out by cosmologist Carl Sagan – see it on youtube in his famous PBS series "Cosmos". Some members of popular personal God religions actually believe that the earth is 10,000 years old. There is tons of material on the science of Hinduism on Google and youtube. All the best.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  2. Reelly?

    Mr. Miller– you have lost significantly (and forever) on the outdated rhetoric of "pick a church (religious doctrine)already." If aligning with a church is your arguement then you are as confused as ...well...the myriad of churches out there. And, then, one has to ask –which one is right? They can't even decide and have created wars since the beginning of their existance to fight for their evolving beliefs. I choose not to align with any of them but to be sprirtual as the belief that doing what is right for the whole of mankind is what any CHURCH should stand for. But the churches have lost their way- frankly they may have never found it. Could it possibly be because they seek power, and not biblical power, for themselves? They have been a voice of separation, profoundly judgemental, and arrogant. And even more so- hypocritical and UNGODLY. This is the issue-I believe those that have found Spirituality are the carriers of the story that is the bible. Be fair, play nicely, treat others well, share, help those in need and look inside yourself before looking at others...and even after- keep looking inside not outside. Then and only then cand you reach a heaven.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  3. Ruth

    Jesus came to this earth not to shame the world but to save it with His life blood. Many christians have given their lives for the gospel throughout the world and still do today. We are the ones who have fed the starving, clothed the naked, and provided shelter for those in need. Without Jesus, there is no hope for this world. Read John 3:16-17 and Isiah 53.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • kamanakapu

      If everyone kept their mouths shut there would not and could not be any religion. Religion is a product of language and cannot exist without language. Only humans use language so only humans have religion. All the trillions of other living things on this planet do not use language and, thus, do not practice religion. The world would have been better off had we humans never learned to use language.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • OOPS!

      23,000 children die from poverty every day Ruth, you need to step it up.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • brad4nyc

      Get real, Please! God is imaginary and you know it is and I can prove it. Go to http://godisimaginary.com for rock solid proof.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • cmgoodchild


      You my friend are the smartest person I have ever seen post on any forum I have ever read (no sarcasm)
      Nothing else needs to be 'said' =)

      October 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Quest4truth

      Even the muslims, hindus, buddhists, jews do all these what you've mentioned in your post. Why is Christianity so different from any of these religions then? Get out of the closet Ruth. There is much to the world then hiding yourself in an erected closet and passifying yourself with the words that you hear from your pastors.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  4. valerie1766

    I agree a lot of people have moved away from organized religion. I am one of those that believe Jesus died for my sins however the churches I've attended have so much focus on money and telling me to "fear" God that I am not interested in living their interpretation of what I see as a loving and merciful God. I do fear my God, my fear is that if I walk in an non-spiritualistic manner I will disappoint Him and in doing so something in my life will reflect that. THAT is MY faith in action though not because I see a vengeful God. I don't need some one else to draw pictures of fire and brimstone based on their interpretations for me though while they ask me to fill their coffers. And I can spread His gospel by living as He did, sharing hope and faith by living it on a daily basis. He asks us to do this but doesn't demand we go to a certain place to do it. the Bible was written by hu"man" not God himself or Jesus Christ.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  5. brad4nyc

    God is imaginary.

    Most religions concern themselves with some concept of a "god" or "gods". Spirituality includes athiests who have an awe and wonder for the vast nature of the universe.

    The real truth is god is imaginary, plain and simple, and many of it's followers have comited horrible atrocites in ths mythical creatures name. Visit this website 50 Proofs that God is imaginary:


    October 9, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Imagine No Religion

      brad4nyc said: "Spirituality includes atheists who have an awe and wonder for the vast nature of the universe."
      ^^ This! ^^

      When I stand 3 feet from a Bengal Tiger staring back at me, this atheist is in awe of the power of nature. It is a "spiritual" event which has nothing to do with any religion or god. It is the realization that man IS NOT at the top of the food chain, and it is only the ultimate virus of "human intelligence" which allows us to ra pe everything on this planet for personal gain.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  6. Smitty

    "spiritual but not religious" is simply a cop-out to justify sinning against God. Believe me though – one day when you face Him – that won't fly. You have free will. Choose to life a life in the Light of Christ and your eternity will be wonderful. Choose not to have that relationship with Him – and He won't with you either. Forever.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  7. NYC

    Who the h@ll is this nitwit to determine whether an individual's religious experience is valid or not?
    Stupid ass.
    I do appreciate though, CNN's posting his drivel. Now I know to stay away from his 'byline.'

    Keep up the great work, CNN!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  8. GHA

    All one has to do is look at the world today to see that religion is "of man" and has very little to do with God.

    I'll take spirituality over organized religion every day.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  9. hacham14

    The author's main argument is that this movement has no validity due to a lack of structure. However, he introduces this movement as one that seeks to remove itself from the structure of traditional religions. In a sense, the author is simply affirming the beliefs of and legitimizing the "spiritual and not religious" movement.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  10. Traze

    My Mom mentioned to me the other day that she believes women came from the rib of Adam..and I just about pooped my pants.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  11. I don't really care

    "spiritual but not religious"? Isn't there an app for that?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  12. Truth

    There's an interesting Radio Broadcast covering the same concept of Spirituality Vs. Religion Here:

    There's a part 1 and 2. I found it really informative.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  13. Peikovi

    "Spiritual but not Religious" means that every mystic has his/her own cult of one. It is the Dark Ages under anarchy.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Robert

      You are exactly correct! Right on!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  14. Paul

    "Spiritual but not religious"...may be acceptable for some outside Judeo-Christian beliefs but Christianity and Judaism are religions. If you are not religious, you belone to neither. I believe it's a cop out for people that want to claim a relationship with God but not obey him.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • T-Max73

      Well, considering there isn't one iota of evidence (besides anecdotal) that there is any deity out there, I'd say the rules are that there are no rules. As long as everyone is simply making up his/her own reality (including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, etc–to say nothing of Native American's religious ideas) why not just make up your own spirituality and religion while you're at it? To the rational, it's all the same–nonsense and childish fears manifested in forced belief in ideas that even a child can see through. Peace.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Frances

      Not true. I was raided Catholic and have a strong relationship with God. I do what I know to be right. I do not practice organized religion anymore by choice. I would rather help those in need than give to a church that serves it's own need before it serves the people. It is my stance that religion is a way to control people with rules written by man for man. If you have a REAL relationship with God, built on the foundation He gave us, then you know what is right.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  15. Dave

    Seems like the author can't differentiate between agnostism (freely admitting one does not know whether there is a god or not) and being "spiritual but not religious." Furthermore, he seems to equate spirituality with religion as if one cannot exist without the other. What about Buddhist monks who seek to reach self enlightenment through meditation? They engage in spirituality without the constraints of religious dogma.

    And finally, this "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be" thinking, he refers to in a derogatory manner...isn't that just another way of defining "faith?" It just seems that the author cannot distinguish spirituality from religion and therefore his argument becomes a self fulfilling prophecy in his black and white world.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • hacham14

      I completely agree.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Kenneth Pitchford

      Dave, I agree with you. The writer's contempt for anything other than a dogmatic fix on religion is exactly what so many spiritually inclined people reject. There is nothing wrong with feeling one's way through a world rife with complication, charima, and contradiction. There is also nothing wrong with a strictly scientific way of determining what facts are. The universe is a terrifying place; look at an exploding nova for a start. But also a literally awesome place of staggering beauty. No one knows what is happening in the rest of the universe; no one has ever been there. So we remain ignorant but awed by the little we see. Let us live humbly in light of that, helping others instead of killing each other over some set of unprovable beliefs.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  16. hacked

    If one is actually looking and using any critical thought then they are not likely to to swallow any prepackaged, "take everything or get lost" Cult. Even those who choose the religion of their childhood but look at all conversations on the subject will find relevance beyond that religion. The bigoted tarring of all who claim "spiritual but not religious" as the same agnostic shoppers for permissions is silly as there is probably not a larger spread of a demographic, and there are many fundamentalist religions that forgive any crime as long as they claim to buy into that religion.

    All religions contain deep insights as well as gaming by psychopaths who want power and a free ride, It is hardly surprising that folks might pick out the grains of truth among the horse biscuits.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  17. Carol

    The trick is to be a good and caring person without a system of organized beliefs, simply because your morals
    demand you to act decently.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  18. Alienbrother

    Despite the annoying eloquence with which this article is written, the object of it is antediluvian, and quite frankly the biggest piece of cr@p I've had the misfortune to read in a long time. 'God' forbid we use the minds we were created with to think for ourselves; religion has been inherited through the ages in the same way a surname is, or what team you'll support. Choose one? Hah! That's like asking a mouse to choose its preferred rat poison.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Jim


      October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Jack Roesberry

      Amen. Another preacher of conventional christian beliefs who (like some muslims) want to limit the thought of god to their point of view. Shame on the author who has nothing to offer except hate and intolerance.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  19. mbrantle

    I am an atheist, however I can relate to people who are 'spiritual'. The difference between someone like Mr. Miller and myself is that I am willing to admit that I might be wrong. My beliefs are my own because I have thought them through; no one handed them to me. Before I was atheist, I would have described myself as 'spiritual but not religous'. I didn't sit around and do nothing- I thought it through until I came to my own conclusion. I suspect that people who go their own way offend Mr.Miller because that means that there are less people to back him up on his own beliefs. And that makes it more likely that someday he will have to admit that HE is wrong.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  20. Jon

    This opinion is ridiculous. You can believe in God and nothing else period. Somehow I am able to do that. You cannot and will never know the mind of God. To think so is very egocentric. Unknowing is Ok. That's life. Deal with it.

    It's obvious, the conventional "Believers", love this article. They feel threatened.

    Call spiritualism a copout and I call your faith a fairy tale. How about everyone just respect what other people choose to believe and that's it. There is nothing more to say.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Ashley

      I couldn't agree more!

      October 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Kevin

      Very well said. I actually believe that being "spiritual and not religious" is a very natural progression for mankind. As we become more educated and free from societal constraints, the rigid doctrine of organized religion just does not make much sense.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • WoobieTuesday

      simply put, and well said.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:10 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.