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. Willa45

    The reason that so many people are turning away from organized religion, is that too many clerics have lost their way. Someone once said something to the effect that there's nothing wrong with the song......It's all those bad singers!

    November 18, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  2. squidbro

    Miller provides his arrogant thoughts on a moderately important issue.

    What is the nature of the self ?
    How does the self relate to the world ?
    Deep questions, but Miller's view is not secular and not helpful about the various paths to achieving spiritual understanding.

    Why is this a special article to CNN ?
    Seems like this article represents a single individual's dissatisfaction and biases regarding the nature of humans and religious practice. This is NOT the strong basis of an article of general interest.

    Go away Mr. Miller, I do not care to hear what you have to say on this matter.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  3. Willa45

    If one has read the Bible, follows the Ten Commandments, The Golden Rule, believes in God and is otherwise a good person, yet doesn't go to Church or Temple (except for Weddings, BarMitsvahs and the like), is that not a "spiritual but not religious" person? The reason that so many people are turning away from organized religion, is that too many clerics have lost their way. Someone once said something to the effect that there's nothing wrong with the song......It's all those bad singers!

    November 18, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  4. Blasphemy

    A cop out?

    If you are not one of us you MUST be against us?

    Miller is probably right. But there is a good reason people are against you.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  5. Thomas

    Thinking there is a God that created the universe for us, made us in his image and stands over us listening to our prayers and intervening in our lives in the form of miracles, now that is "self-obsessed".

    November 18, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • gg

      You summed that up well, but NOT believing is really self-obsession.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • shirlomando


      Was God watching over the 100000 women and children who were killed in the bombing of Bagdad? Or was it a Muslim God who let them down in that instant,who did not have as much power as a Christian God.! You make me laugh!

      November 18, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  6. Tom P.

    Another bashing of those of us who refuse to subscribe to any one of a number of manmade religions, each claiming to be the sole spiritual path to...whatever.

    Do I believe in God? I certainly believe that there's something bigger and better than me out there somewhere; bigger and better than anyone on earth. That belief lends a certain humility to my behavior. Do I believe that this God "watches over me"? I don't know; but I behave as though He, She (or It) does. This, along with the "golden rule" found in many philosophical belief systems–that of treating others as you wish to be treated–helps stabilize my external behaviors.

    Morality, humility, and a sense of wonder that there exists something better than me out there somewhere; that strikes me as a spiritual belief that combines the best that religions have to offer, without the petty attempts at controlling the minds and spirits of believers demonstrated by every religion on earth. I mean, can anyone explain to me why, if I have a statue of Bhudda on my mantle, I would be condemned to hell by Christians? Or why the Jews or Hindus would consider me a sinner if I eat a bacon cheeseburger, or why the Muslims would get hysterical if I have a beer while I'm watching the game?

    All religions are manmade. Don't look at the promises and sales pitch for each religion; instead, look at what each religion prohibits, proscribes, and condemns. THAT is where you learn the truth about each of them. And the truth is that all religions are irrational. So, as Thomas Jefferson did with his "Jeffersonian Bible", I have taken the best of religions and made it my own, without subscribing to their silly apocalyptic fantasies. I try to treat everyone as I wish to be treated; I do not kill, steal, or lie (any more than I have to, anyway) and I welcome all men as my brothers. I believe that that "something bigger and better than me" out there somewhere would be pleased by my attempts to conform to these beliefs, and I believe that He, She, or It would forgive my transgressions–after all; I'm only human, and as imperfect as they come.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, the game's coming on. I need to start making my bacon cheeseburger and check to see if the beer is cold. This Bud's for you, God...

    November 18, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Common Sense

      Wow! I do mean wow! That was very well said.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  7. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    @ Alan Miller:
    You are a con man.
    Your game is becoming more widely understood daily.
    Eventually, enough thinking and self-confident human beings may have the social confidence to stop responding to your guilt making sufficiently to stop apologising for being able to understand preachers' rackets.

    November 18, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  8. sick of christian phonies

    For a seemingly intelligent guy, Miller is a real ignoramus. Every "religion" is simply mortal men trying to come to grips with the unknowable. Their puny bibles, beliefs, and theories can come no where near explaining,defining, or bringing one closer to "god". I feel spiritually connected to creation when in the woods, for instance- certainly not in church, before I gave that up-and definitely not in reading the bible with it's tales of a barbaric, jealous, vengeful, murderous god. He is just another "person of faith" that thinks he has the answers and wants everyone to join his club.

    November 18, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • BK

      Beautifully put...I couldn't have said it better myself.

      November 18, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  9. Litecar

    Once again, organized religion trying to control others, start wars, etc... Good riddance.. Last I heard this place amurica was a place where I'm free to believe what I want. Leave me the f alone, you lemmings.

    November 18, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  10. ken

    I guess Mr. Miller is intentionally setting up humanists/spiritualists as straw men in the Anglo debating tradition. The unyielding dogma of church doctrine is what drove people away from the church. By investigating other religious faiths a significant number of people began to be eclectic in their ideas about truth and faith.

    November 18, 2012 at 6:35 am |
  11. Leif

    It isn't a cop-out. Organized religion is the cop-out. There are many people who are seekers, but they don't feel comfortable with the rigid dogma of organized religion. They don't want to be put into a box defined by orthodoxy.

    November 18, 2012 at 2:40 am |
  12. Ran

    Spiritual but not religious is a cop out. Its something you say that is acceptable in social situations. It allows you to believe in God without any commitment whatsoever, and it gives you a position from which you can bash organized religion if that's what the other party is into. In reality it's just something people say. It's very superficial, and ultimately doesn't mean a thing.

    November 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • BK

      Religion ultimately doesn't mean a thing.

      November 18, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • Brian

      It means quite a bit, if you actually take time to understand what people mean by it. And it is not often acceptable in social situations – you are seen as strange by your atheist friends and by your friends who follow an organized religion. What it means to me is that I experience the same "oneness" when I pray/meditate that I did when I prayed intensely a staunch Catholic, which was explained as "receiving the Holy Spirit". When you experience this, you don't need a written set of rules to tell you what's right and what's wrong – it becomes plain when you experience that love and peace. Most "religious" people I know don't ever pray deeply enough to experience this. I find organized religion to be audacious; every society has a number of ancient oral traditions that were eventually written down, so who believes they are so God-like as to say that there is a specific one that is exactly correct? Nonetheless, I find all religions–as they are part of creation–to be beautiful, so I don't speak condescendingly about the various rituals performed (i.e. the Eucharist) or the myths discussed (saying they are myths does not mean they are not true) by "religious" folk. If something provides someone the avenue to experience the love and peace I gain through deep prayer I am happy for them. I only worry that often people don't experience that and instead advance the opposite ideals due to their misunderstanding of their religion – those of hate, intolerance, and violence. Those are the people I pray for, whether or not they believe one of the hundreds of thousands of oral traditions is the only correct one.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  13. alloy555

    I am so sick of the new age (anything goes) movement. Just stop it already. An earlier article slamming Billy Grahm, YES!, Billy Grahm by a person who has no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A LIVING GOD, HELLO, it is a relationship, people, and that relationship will only be values such as Mr. Grahms. Therefore, Christianity is not even a religion, but we do worship the true and living God. Look at the huge movement in the contemporary church getting back to the old Hymns with meat and theology, only to upbeat music, instead of the new stuff that repeats itself and says nothing.

    November 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  14. Dr Eric

    Not to "MIx Religion and Politics", but, there is a difference as big as "up or down"...like our copyrighted-proofs on expression, some time ago,that people may rightly think as they choose and express such thoughts, without the "wrongdoing" of saying something "is" merely because they think it iis......being "spiritual" (done right) is believig and acting within Unification Science's parameters (the new reprovable righteousness, as Dr. Einstein and Dr. Newton, before him, and Christ before them, created)...as opposed to acting within the tradtonal parameters of righteousness of any of these "generally-self-proclaimed followings"...as the book with the "9+ Unificaton Science Upgrdes that the Deficit/WW3 Cannot be Eliminated Without In the Appendix" details at http://www.RecoveryEvents.R8.Org RCCFM: Always(c: Dr. Eric USRecoery@Gmail.com

    November 15, 2012 at 1:02 am |
  15. jgda


    November 14, 2012 at 5:00 am |
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    November 13, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  17. jj

    By no means is it a copout. Spirituality is about attaining a direct transcendental experience with the Other Side, whatever that may be. Religion acts as a go-between and ritual replaces ecstasy.

    November 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • annie713

      Exactly! 🙂

      November 13, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  18. a


    November 11, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  19. Risal

    God has a wonderful suapitril organization and all of them love one another and are united in worship and peace. The very best way I have found to overcome depression is to surround myself with them and associate with them on a regular basis, to keep busy in teaching and preaching about God's kingdom government that will restore the earth to it's original paradise-like conditions and drawing close to God by reading and meditating on the Bible as God's letter to all of us which is full of suapitril treasures.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  20. Academic, Intellectual, Reader of books

    Poorly written, no grounding for any of your claims and obviously you know nothing of what you are talking about. This sounds more like some elementary student trying to sound like he knows something about quantum physics.

    November 5, 2012 at 4:14 am |
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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.