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. Sandy

    I wonder why CNN even posted such an article on it's main page!! To me God is one, a superpower, he/she exists in a form we are unaware of, I am not an atheist but I do not necessarily believe in a religion because I feel that no religion has the true answer. To me spirituality is the key, God has given us all something called a 'conscience' and it surely tells us what is wrong and right... I need no religion to tell me that... I have my heart connected directly with the almighty through my conscience because this was made by "Him" and religion was made by "Humans"!

    November 18, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  2. Zuddy

    I believe in the flying spaghetti monster.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  3. Kurt

    In classic typical judgmental "organized religion" form. Let me tell you what is wrong with you and what is wrong with what you think!! That's the point DUDE, we don't need, nor do we want some group/organization/individual to show us the way to our spiritual path. We have taken a stand, it's called "my own individual spiritual path" you just can't accept it, allow it, be OK with it! I'm not trying to sell you on what I believe, why can't you guys just do the same??

    November 18, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Matchless G11

      A stand for what Nothing? or Anything?
      At some point one comes to a fork in the road, physically you cant go both directions.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  4. Kate55555

    On a more practical note, saying I am spiritual but not religious expands my list of potential mates on dating sites. Why see anything more into it than that?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  5. Jay

    This dumb a$$ articular is on the front page again???

    November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  6. mary

    Spiritual means grasping the core values of what makes for a compassionate and honorable person .
    NOT being religious means rejecting the big money , big power organizations that can justify all kinds of vile behavior in the name of the dogma that enables their control of the 'flocks' and all the $$$$$$$$$ that can be extracted from them .

    If being spiritual but Not religious is a cop out – PLEASE , Count Me among these Cop Out people .


    November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  7. RWC

    Being "spiritual but not religious" is NOT a cop-out. It is not a way of avoiding the big questions of life in an attempt to just "feel good." It's an acknowledgement that NO organized religion adequately addresses the big questions. They are simply attempts for one group to control the behavior and thoughts of their own people, and often the whole society around them. While we can gain a lot of wisdom from the deep thinkers of many human religious traditions, none of them has all the truth. No human can ever have all the truth.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  8. Maisie


    November 18, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  9. Royboy

    I do not believe in forcing people to believe in the same God as I do. Not all people even believe in God. To have lawmaker put religous guide lines in the laws that force people to believe as they do is not right. Our founding fathers put something in writing that refered to separation of church and state. This is why people left the so called old country and came to this one for religious freedom. I live in Iowa where a few years ago the religious right got enough votes to get rid of three judges that was not following their beliefs. The three judges were doing their job as directed by the constution but the religious right wants their beliefs put into laws so that if someone does not believe as they do then they will be punished by the law. Myself I think that is wrong. The law should be here to protect everyone but not to punish someone if they do not believe as you do.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  10. Casandra

    I am intelligent, not religious.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  11. mark

    KAMA sutra, not "karma."

    November 18, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  12. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    Because a post was rejected by the Heavenly Computer Censor up there somewhere, I remembered that one word appropriate for the subject cannot be posted: SUPERST-
    That word is Sinful here.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  13. George Marshall

    I'm just glad that we are not living in the Middle Ages. Miller would be a Torgqumada (the Grand Inquisitor). Miller is scary, very very scary. Shun him. Shun him.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Matchless G11

      George Marshall really?
      You said
      "I'm just glad that we are not living in the Middle Ages. Miller would be a Torgqumada (the Grand Inquisitor). Miller is scary, very very scary. Shun him. Shun him."

      Too bad the 20th century has given us such wonderful people like Sanger, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin,
      They make Torgqumada (the Grand Inquisitor look like Santa Claus.,
      Seriously, study the middle ages before making commits like this.
      And before you spout Hitler was a Christian, Yes he "was" but he became a Occultist.
      Sending approximately 3 Million Christians to the death camps with their Jewish brothers.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • George Marshall

      There are Torquemadas is every age. Because we have had more than our share of tyrants and mass murderers does not mean that Miller is not scary. He is scary, very, very scary.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  14. jed

    Says that the author is an alcohol merchant. Alcohol merchants were sent by God to make the world a better place.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  15. Srini

    Alan Miller rambles on in an opinionated arrogance about spirituality and religion, and flshes ignorance by listing Kama Sutra (ain't no Karma Sutra) along side Bhagvad Gita and Bible. He calls free thinking people "fence-sitters" ... may be he is looking for black & white when it comes to religion and spirituality ! LOL

    November 18, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Rebecca

      I so agree!

      November 18, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Rebecca

      well said and agreed

      November 18, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  16. Michele

    I personally feel better off with God than with any religion... When I hit the pearly gates- I answer for what I have done- not the minions of a religion that I decided to take part in... I'm SO OK with being spiritual and not religious! Enough said!

    November 18, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  17. Blasphemy

    If you don't join US we will throw stones and call you a fake.

    Miller is a flake! One of many who have corrupted the Churches.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  18. Mercury

    Fantasmagoria: There is a choice that must be made when confronted with an envoy of the impossible. For example, the devil. The devil appears in front of us in a flash of light, we ask him where he got his costume, because he is an illusion, a part of our defined world as we have always seen it. On the other hand, we could choose to believe in the envoy. "Good God! Save me now! I know you must exist because the devil is standing right in front of me!" This choice is problematic because it entails that the impossible is a reality, just improbable. So, when we believe in the impossible, it opens up the imagination to what else could be possible. And in that realm of imagination, ANYTHING is possible. That's why I don't adhere to your religious standards.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  19. observer1776

    The writer has used a perverted form of the word "spiritual" to make his case.
    The Spirit of God exists. It is real. It surrounds us and is within us Jesus left us with the Spirit of the counselor. If the writer could read the Bible, he would see that Baptism by the Holy Spirit does very real and powerful things. Being Spiritual but not religious means to primarily follow the leadership of God's Spirit, rather than the dogma of a man-made religion. God created all things. As non-biased science advances though God's Spiritual gifts, the knowledge contained in the Word reveals itself more and more. If the man sitting on the beach is communicating with the Spirit of God, he is being Spiritual.. If he is worshiping some new age god, he is being pagan. The Spirit of God is very real. The Spiritual realm is very real. This is typical propaganda from an atheistic humanist source.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

      BS, and more appropriate in 1776 than as an observation from a sighted person in 2012.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  20. Stephen

    Miller is desperately holding on the archaic old school religion. Wake up and smell the coffee, Mr. Miller. Those days are long gone.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:20 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.