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. writer is not seeing

    This writer, in my opinon, has a narrow minded view point. I respect the choice to attend a church, whatever
    that demonination may be, but i think this thought that if you don't attend church then you don't know God
    is a limited view point. People think more for themselves today–this is not 1800's where we were the uneducated
    masses and were told what to think. It is a different time-if people choose to attend that is great, if not that does
    not mean they are "lost people". I disagree with this writer on many of his points. Too long to refute every one of them
    but i think many of us could refute them easily.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • kahnkeller

      ...you are correct... the author is totally ....out of touch with reality...

      November 18, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • tovahsez

      Within my faith family (house fellowship) there are many refugees from the church. We all believe in Father God and the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) and our hearts desire is to love and serve Him and each other as well as our fellow man. We obey the Bible and observe the Biblical feasts. As a fellowship we do not observe Christmas nor Easter because of their roots in paganism. However as individuals, some may engage in these holidays and we neither encourage nor condemn them for doing so. We pray for each other, our nation, Israel and pray for complete strangers we may meet as we learn of a need they have. Our calling is to be a light in the darkness of this world. We are all in different place in our faith walk and we help and encourage our members along the way. Yeshua told us to "love one another, as I have loved you" Amen!!

      November 18, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  2. Selene Cusping

    There are so many very blatant inaccuracies in this comment piece that one is forced to ask two questions: 1) Where to start? and 2) Why would CNN consider this worthy of posting?

    Still, I will say that the major inaccuracy that leapt out at me was this idea that America was founded on Christianity. True enough: Christianity was and still is the dominate religion of the United States. But at the time of its founding, there were few churches with preachers, and many of the founding fathers were, whether by lack of structural church going, individual deists who more often adopted a "spiritual but not religious" approach to their own lives and to the founding of the government.

    Separation of church and state arose because they saw no great necessity for church going to be spiritual (though they admitted to the value of community) AND (likely more importantly) because they had recently seen England torn apart through several civil wars over recent centuries around the nature of religion (all Christian, but kings dethroned, and burnings of heretics ad nauseum).

    The ill-considered put downs of "feel good" spirituality is merely once again a church-going individual ranking his own principles (principles that still cause enormous pain and suffering) above the more rational and individual approach adopted by many people who take a great deal of time and energy to develop their own beliefs. Some people are not spiritual at all, and a yoga class does them well, to create a sense of peace. Others get it by playing sports. Still others do study spiritual beliefs. I've studied Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, a little Islam and read enormous parts of the New and Old Testament. I've meditated (in both traditional Christian prayer, but also through 6 other paths of meditation and inward seeking).

    I've been to several different Christian churches over my life including United Church of Canada, Roman and Orthodox Catholic, Baptist, evangelist, and to Temple. I've stood in churches that I know are touched by something powerful in the universe, but my three most spiritual experiences are swimming in a Muskoka Lake at sunset, a nap with the dog, and having a baby fall asleep on me. Those three things connect me to the most powerful things in the universe, calm my soul and fill me with hope, and help me meet my fellow man in peace and understanding.

    I wish your church could have done as much for you, but I can see by your comments that it has failed you miserably, Mr. Miller.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  3. Biggster

    None of this stuff matters. We should be all Nihilists.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Matchless G11

      Sure, lets all go insane like Nietzsche did!

      November 18, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • tovahsez

      Nihilism makes me want to put a gun to my head and blow my brains out. What is it like to be a nihilist? I can't even
      imagine it.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  4. tom LI

    How did this article get a bump? Old news, from Sept...the author is prejudiced, has no credibility and like so many Believers wants to dictate what others believe, feel, see, taste, think...its an old story and one likely to never see an end while people hold spiritual beliefs based on pure myth. Owning God is an old problem among Believers.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Gus

      He obviously has a connection at CNN who is willing to help him promote his organization and help his get rich. Keep that crap on the "belief" blog.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  5. 88 the Alien

    The tone of this Op piece kind of disturbed me....Asking someone to put a label on their belief system defies principles of limitation....if one can even put a label on something, the capabilities of that something are limited....it's as if a label is a container...what if what one believes cannot be contained....as if outside of the box....truly out of this world......Take me for example....there are no words from the mouth that can explain what I believe, only actions that speak to what I am and believe in....These actions have caused me to be labeled at times an angel, Jesus, God, a prophet, Lucifer, a psychic, a fortune teller, a soldier, an alien......I didn't ask or tell anyone that has come into contact with me to call me these things.....My actions provoke those thoughts and feelings that lead them to put those labels on me....When they do...I show them I'm nowhere near perfect then move on to the next destination.....

    My actions defy and yet confirm these holy books...prove and disprove....but that's how it's supposed to be...a huge contradiction....69....finding the balance in the contradiction...whether between the OT and NT of the bible...Spirit and flesh...present and past that makes the future...the right hand and the left.....that is life

    How can you correctly define that without causing more confusion and discord.....because it is in your nature now to want to define something so much that can't be defined.......causing detrimental confusions and discords....Something beyond control of the minds and thinking of Man has to cause effects that universally clears the confusion and reconnects everyone to everything...If something other than Natural Disasters brought humanity together...something other than nature would be used to clear the confusion and stop the bickering...and need to talk so much...need to label and judge....

    My spirit is like another person to me....My feelings take my mind to places that my body always winds up....What religion is that....If I feel it, think it......it comes to me...What religion is that.....I can be formless and I can conform...What religion is that....There's not just one religion that can lead a Man born of a woman or formed in a womb to these experiences...They must be followed like maps...one to another...

    Please....for the sake of your humanity....open your containers...your minds...so that you won't continue to be deceived in the worse way by beings that can do or obtain things that seem to be beyond your means....It's the only reason your world has fame and celebrities....you call them stars.....If this trend doesn't reverse.....you put yourself at risk for beings with true STAR POWER to come out of the shadows or gray areas....to first mesmerize you then lead you to fall.....One last time....What religion is that.....they all come close to explaining this....but they all stop just short.....When you find the answer to why they all only tell you so much but speak of the same principles.....You will have found your I in I AM.....88

    November 18, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  6. Matchless G11

    The atheist can't find God for the same reason that a thief can't find a policeman.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • CapnKirk

      You think policemen don't exist?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Selene Cusping

      Simplistic and oh-so-wrong.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • tom LI

      Another old cliche. And one that is negated by many of beliefs of Xtianity. Trouble with Xtians is they cant make up their minds. God either seeks us, or we seek God, or some combo. There is no clear path to belief in the Xtian God as the myriad stories told by new- believers attest. "I wasn't looking, but then...I was minding my own business and there was this light..." Blah, blah, blah...a cornucopia (holiday nods) of journies on thousands of paths – and old Matchless G11 here wants to define how one finds this xtian God.

      Matchless G11, Maybe he should stop being so elusive? And maybe you could prove you worship the exact, right God..!!! Did you get a certificate of Right Worship..?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • kahnkeller

      ... bad analogy.... (1) the policeman exist...(2) your "god" (one of 10,000 major gods...one of many more minor gods identified by some 5,000 organized religions).... does not exist... keep your religion where it belongs...in your church
      and your life.... that would be a good thing...

      November 18, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Matchless G11

      I see you are so open minded on this forum.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  7. stephen douglas

    "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."

    That sort of makes those spriitual but not religious people a heck of a lot more honest and sincere than some bozo wearing a funny hat based on paganism, celebrating a pagan event such as Easter, conducting rituals to honor the birth of a man who most likely was a mortal man, or bowing down as part of a cult that was organized by a cut throat bandit preaching total submission.

    They allow there may well be something more, but do not attempt to chase it, study it, glorify it, or throw money at it.

    So, if they live by the teachings of some organized group without seeking more, are they not better than the wealthy sob who is busy putting people out of work to maximize profits all week and then goes o church on Sunday to seek forgiveness by tossing a few dollars into the offering plate? Or more likely just tosses a few dollars into the offering plate without seeking forgiveness because that person would not even consider he or she was doing anything to hurt anyone.

    As George Carlin said, "There is a man who lives in the clouds, who has ten things he doesn't want you to do, and if you do any one of these ten things you will spend all eternity in a pit of fire suffering pain and agony forever.

    BUT, he loves you.

    He loves you and he needs your money.

    He's the all knowing, all wise, creator of the universe, but he cannot manage money.

    Talk about a bull sh!t story........"

    November 18, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  8. Gus

    Why is CNN running this offensive article...AGAIN? Ran out of Jill Kelley dirt to dish out? All CNN is doing is help promote this guys organization and help him get rich. Grrrrr.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  9. Think Again

    Throughout the history of civilization, there has been very little real freedom of religion. People have largely espoused the beliefs of those around them, because to do otherwise wold mean ostracism, persecution, or even death. When people have a real choice, obviously they will choose what suits them. If Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, Evangelical or Progressive, is to attract followers in today's society, they will need to offer something more than rules, restrictions, obligations, and "My way or the highway."

    November 18, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  10. Rava

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    -Henry Roberts

    November 18, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  11. hykaiaxgun

    "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." This statement shows how little the author knows about anything other than what someone taught him. Spiritual without the limitations of religion is the only way of understanding the divinity inside yourself and your connection to all around you. Learning the teachings of those who came before and understanding the history of religious mythology enhances your journey if you keep an open mind and do not rely on such external experiences to determine your path.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  12. Trajk Logik

    By saying that you are spiritual rather than religious isn't saying anything different than if you simply say you are religious. Spirituality comes from religion. You still believe all the major tenets of the religion you grew up with (existence of souls, afterlife, a just god who makes things right in the end, etc.). You are still promoting a subjective anthropomorphic viewpoint. I thought that we should have learned by now that humans are not the center of the universe. We most surely are not the reason this universe exists, and our conscious minds are simply insignificant processes like the other processes that go on within the universe. Our brains house our conscious minds. When our brains stop functioning, our "conscious being" ceases to exist. If you doubt me, then think about the organs in your body that you would be more than willing to receive a donor for if they failed. But would you be willing to receive a brain transplant?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • hykaiaxgun

      You have it backwards. Religion comes from spirituality. We've had spirits since day one. We developed religion to explain the world around us and our feelings about it. Religion is a man made concept designed to teach a code of behavior and control the masses. You don't need any of it. Just meditate every day and you'll be close to "god" .

      November 18, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • ummm ... what?

      ahhh... no wait... a brain transplant is impossible!

      November 19, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Trajk Logik

      Spirituality was derived from our self-centered need to make ourselves important or significant. This is why religion centers around us and makes us feel significant. We are inherently self-centered. It is no wonder that the preliminary explanations that we make about the world and us would make us more significant than we really are. We we think in more objective, and less subjective ways, we arrive at truths that are not self-centered or anthropomorphic. Spirituality is all about self-deception. When it comes down to it, and you are intellectually honest with yourself, you realize that you believe what you believe because YOU WANT IT TO BE TRUE. You want to be significant. You want to be important, to be meaningful and have a purpose. But the objective evidence isn't there to support your biased belief. You eventually realize that it is up to you to create your own meanings and purpose.

      November 19, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  13. us_1776

    The Sky Fairy does not exist.

    Get over it.


    November 18, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  14. DalaiLama

    I couldn't disagree more.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  15. hrpufnstuf

    With all due respect (and I don't think much is due), the author is full of tihs.

    "Spiritual" means I believe in a higher power, that I believe I'm supposed to do more good than harm, that I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel when I die, and such as that.

    "Not religious" means I'm not a Muslim (kill all nonbelievers in the name of god). I'm not a Catholic (pray to Mary to pray to Jesus to pray to God, and a guy in a dress and a beanie is the only one qualified to hear what God has to say to me), that the slightest sin will result in Fire and Brimstone (Southern Baptist), and so on and so forth. What's wrong with that?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • northern light

      "What's wrong with that?"

      Modern society is not religious because they recognize that religion is a man made construct
      and not divine.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Matchless G11

      You show your ignorance of Baptists and Catholics.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • larue

      My thoughts exactly. I'm not young (52) and I consider myself spritual. I know someone else about my age who is also spiritual. We all have grown tired of organized religion.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Bishu

      I fully agree, to be spiritual, no need to be religious. There is certainly spiritual power which is very much connected with our mind.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  16. SBNR

    I don't like it how the author of this article assumes a position of perceived superiority in order to prove his point. He also seems to want to control how others think and feel regarding spirituality and religion, even though he has chosen his beliefs voluntarily. Being spiritual, but not religious is a choice, just as his more traditional belief system is. Yet he makes a mistake of equating his chosen belief system with reality, and chides the ones who do not share his beliefs. Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean you need to control it.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  17. ronovan1

    Please. If you are happy with your beliefs then I am happy for you. I'm over 60, lost interest in organized belief when I was 15. I just stopped seeing the value of the Catholic church in my life. I've explored other religions in my life and found all of them suffer from similar problems.
    Now your reaction to that might have been to keep searching for an organization that I fit into. It might have been to organize personal beliefs and try to share that with the world. It was not my reaction. I'm happy to know there is something beyond what I can see. I don't need to explain it. And I don't need to call people who don't agree any kinds of names.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • brian

      Well Said!

      November 19, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  18. Spiritual

    Who says we have to choose a doctrine? The only cop-out I see regarding those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" is that many are afraid to say they are in truth, Atheists. Many Atheists are reformed Catholics or have left other religions due to the disbelief in "God" per se. However many of us still have that romanticized connection with the universe and Mother Nature and Good and the Golden Rule, which is plenty of guidance to appreciate life and our fellow man and be kind and just. All those qualities are taught by the example of our parents and other elders and by reading great works by people like Ghandi. The "Humanistic" approach is probably best suited for "spiritual but not religious" people. So, no, this article does not get to push people into a corner to formulate a new doctrine that will begin building its own churches and having its own "preachers" on TV syphoning money out of "believers". "Spiritual, but not religious" just needs to drop the "but not religious" part. It's nobody's business whether you attend some church or not. The religious Right was appalling in this past election, and probably the biggest reason more Humanists, Atheists, and Spiritualists are finally speaking out.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  19. psychicstalker

    I think if "Spiritual but not religious" is a cop-out then I think the author of this article is saying Jesus must have been a cop-out because it was Jesus who healed somebody on the Sabbath Day, it was Jesus who turned over the money tables, it was Jesus who criticized established religion, it was Jesus who pointed out that engaging in religious rituals doesn't save people, it was Jesus that sat with sinners. I think established religion has some educational and social benefits but I also think the spirit of a person can evolve to a point where organized religion is of little benefit to them or to whatever purpose they believe G_d has for their life on earth.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Martin

      Excellent, coherent articulation of your point of view. And what you wrote makes so much sense.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  20. Use Your Head, Eyes, Ears and Hearts

    I'm spiritual... I believe that "the big bang" may have been "god", "creator of heaven and earth" meaning the universe. And that “god” did not create man, but created the building blocks for life including man. This in turn would mean that Creation and/or Evolution are connected and not separate like many believe.

    I can go on and on but the fact is; there is sooo much scientific study and evidence that has proven or disproved, and those things must not be ignored even if it goes against a little piece of what you believe to be true.

    However, humanity still has sooo far to go in regards to advancements IN ALL AREAS for any one person to say with 100% certainty what is the Absolute Truth.

    I believe in what I believe and you believe in what you believe… either way no one on this earth knows everything and at this rate no one will.
    So just live your life doing good and with a smile! Respect everyone and there beliefs, because who knows… maybe… just maybe everyone is holding a little piece of what makes up the whole/real truth ( the who, why, when, how, what was, what is, and what will be) in there beliefs – and maybe… just maybe one day all those pieces will come together and become just another thing called “common knowledge”

    but I have a feeling this will take eons… far beyond our life time. So relax, respect and always strive to improve, not just yourself, but humanity too – in mind and action.

    I also believe that humans are not the only species capable of trained/adaptable thought and invention… and that only one planet in the entire vastness of the universe, including our own galaxy, is the only one capable of or possess the building blocks of life (any and all forms of life)

    “God” didn’t just create one planet, or one galaxy and so on… so why assume that he only made it possible for only one planet to possess the building blocks of life or for that matter, give the necessary time for those blocks to evolve into us and all the other species that earth has present or had in the past.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:35 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.