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. Suzanne

    One thing I will never understand is, why does this bother some people so much. Why is it my personal beliefs and others like me, irk this author so much. Why do they continue to want to tell us we are weak or copping out? and then cover it up with a bandaid and say "Oh, its just my opinion" Well, I hope you continue to find religion as a fullfilling way of life. I, on the other hand will continue on a growing spiritual path, not based on one book, on God, or no God. I will walk my path with many teachers and many readings.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  2. Connected

    Spiritual but not religious has been my belief for many years. I lost faith in organized religion when it seemed to me that a few people used their connection with God as an excuse to control the masses. It seemed to me that the leaders of the church did this by claiming their connection to God is better, stronger or existed (where the masses did not have a such a connection) more than the people they controlled. The spark of God is in all things living (and not living). When I realized that God equals "unconditional love," "truth" and "joy," it became apparent to me that we are all connected. Everyones connection with God is just as existent as everyone else. We are all one. To me, spirituality is my connection to God, to all others and to all things. I don't care to have a few people (leaders of the church) dictating to me their rules that govern my connection with God. God loves me unconditionally, therefore by definition, there are no rules to receive it. Although they may have not started that way, in my opinion, religious organizations ultimately end up being about the wealth and power of a few and this is accomplished in the name of God. I care not to pass judgement on this way of life. Many people need to "be led." I choose not to be one of them. That's my story and for now I'm sticking to it.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  3. BOb the Prairie Dog

    NO ONE knows what happens when we die and ANYONE claiming such knowledge is a LIAR who probably wants your money.

    Religion is a cop out on reality,

    November 18, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  4. Ignorance & Bigotry Disguised As Opinion

    Infotainment, but not news, is a cop out.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  5. Dave Harris

    Does anybody really need holy men to give them permission to be 'spiritual', or tell them what to believe? Who does this guy think he is, anyway? Nobody has to go to his church, or any other church, and they can call themselves whatever they want. He needs to get over himself.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  6. Vadivan Mani

    It depends on what I believe in.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. Orakl

    Spirituality pervades all religions. All religions have positives and negatives. Atheism is no exception. More often than not, the real issue is who is trying to exploit who, how and for what purpose? Religion is a convenient tool for exploiters. So is science. Neither is wrong, per se, but unscrupulous humans can find a way to torment each other using any means. If we had 7 billion people who don't believe in any religion, there would still be issues, just a different bunch. Most day to day problems are not caused by religions, although it could be an excuse or underpinning. If I were to make a list of all kinds of problems humanity faces, religion would account for hardly 25%. Point is, "God" or "Theology" isn't the root cause, it is our depraved morality. And morality needs neither "God" nor "Religion".

    November 18, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  8. Dirk

    While my society has been set with certain values based on many individual religious beliefs I don't believe religion is necessary for society to actually set those boundaries and constraints on what a person can do. I don't need religion to tell me that murder is wrong and if its committed you will be punished for it. The idea behind religion not necessarily telling you to do something is what I see in the separation of church and state. Works for me ... because not only am I not religious I am not spiritual, but I do consider myself a decent man.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  9. Orakl

    Spirituality pervades all religions. All religions have positives and negatives. Atheism is no exception. More often than not, the real issue is who is trying to exploit who, how and for what purpose? Religion is a convenient tool for exploiters. So is science. Neither is wrong, per se, but unscrupulous humans can find a way to torment each other using any means. If we had 7 billion people who don't believe in any religion, there would still be issues, just a different bunch. Most day to day problems are not caused by religions, although it could be an excuse or underpinning. If I were to make a list of all kinds of problems humanity faces, religion would account for hardly 25%. Point is, "God" or "Theology" isn't the root cause, it is our depraved morality. And morality needs neither "God" or "Religion".

    November 18, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • absoluten

      Well said Oraki – making it about religion and one needs to make a choice and defend it – is partially why we are so split in the U.S. Lets just say spirituality is a non belief in religious dogma.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  10. Andrew

    Thank you, Allan. Your pedantic take on "religion" has emboldened my "spirituality".

    November 18, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  11. Chaz

    Oh boy... and people wonder why young educated people don't flock to religions.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  12. Disliker-Of-Idiots

    Wow, this article is back? A god may have created the universe and all the galaxies within it, but it had nothing to do with a mythological god created by stupid little carbon based creates on on tiny little planet out of the trillions of trillions of planets. So no, being dumb enough to believe in mythological religion is a cop out from reality.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  13. G

    Finally, some random internet blogger who understands my personal life experience so well that he can justifiably dismiss whatever views and beliefs I may hold.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Tracy


      November 18, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  14. e

    I was assimilated in my religion of birth. I have since become observant and I was criticized and looked down upon by my relatives and old friends. I can totally relate and understand the value of this article, and I give credit for putting these words into a website for all to see. Very very important.
    a quote I once saw "whats right is not always popular, and whats popular is not always right". thankyou for this article, it is for everyone, it speaks about so many ills of our society !!!!

    November 18, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  15. davejjj

    Yes, this does prove that people like Alan Miller are delusional idiots. Not only can't they defend their own beliefs but they go as far as to claim that others who are not such irrational fools are merely "copping out."

    November 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  16. matt houston

    The greatest "cop out" is when a person abandons his/her reasoning faculties and relies mainly on an ancient mythological text as a map to life. Because of this, they lose touch with reality...so much so that they begin to call people who say, "snakes don't talk/ a billion animals can't fit inside one boat." - they will call these people foolish.

    Meanwhile, in their world..a talking snake, a talking burning bush, a man in the sky made the world in six days...plants on the 3rd day and sunlight on the 4th btw (?)... oceans and water existed before the sun? the entire planet would have been frozen like a popsicle. Did the warmth of God melt the ice? Did God finalize the laws of thermodynamics after he created EVERYTHING? Was there a time when chemical and physical laws did not exist? If so, why wasn't it mentioned...in a chapter whose purpose was to explain creation?

    Their insanity is exquisite.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • i2hellfire

      i was about to post a response, but it seems you've already put to words everything i would've written.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  17. gary

    myths and folklore ... religion is nothing more

    November 18, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  18. FedUpwithLA

    It's just another American selfish endeavor. I see it time and time again by people who think they know "the answer." And then they look upon other people who do go to church as "freaks." It has to do with community, idiots, not just praying by your lonesome on the beach . . .

    November 18, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • matt houston

      @FedUpwithLA - really? So "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

      One of your apostles had it wrong I guess...

      November 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • JOE

      My community doesn't need church to be a community.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • writer is not seeing

      this family used to attend church, bible groups, all kinds of things. And then we got "overchurched"
      –we were there too much and while i won't speak for all of us some in the family got for lack
      of a better way to explain it–sick and tired of the hypocrysy and judgmentalism that was so
      prevalent there. Other viewpoints, however slight they waivered, were not tolerated. In the end
      of a very long time of being "church people" we had it. I don't advocate not going to others but
      I can certainly understand the drop out syndrome that occurs. We still practice many things that we used
      to–but because we want to. Your response with all due respect in in part what repels people from going.
      Like you are in some exclusive little club–we've been there and believe me i will borrow a phrase from
      the election "it's not working." Good Luck excluding so many–to borrow from the election again–i think
      it's clear that this group is fast becoming the minority and this article and responses like this one are one
      reason why.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  19. James

    Another article put out by the corporate media with a conformist message. Life is the only experience that teaches you about the meaning of life or gives you some idea what to expect after it. Organized groups tend towards corruption and deceit and individuals tend towards bias, delusion and greed; so no, there is no user manual you can walk into barnes and noble and buy for life. People that would tell you otherwise, like the writer of this article have they own agenda that is not in your interest. Good Luck

    November 18, 2012 at 9:16 am |

    THE GREATEST ISSUES in assessing Christian religion vs. spirituality are those that impact the Protestant Church Betrayal of its principles, morality, vision, message to the world, its own communicants, society in general and The Word of God itself.

    The word hypocrisy comes to mind. Those who hold to the faith most deeply are often those most sensitive to its effect. As a consequence of their disillusionment they leave the fellowship. The result is the greatest surge of apostacy in the history of Christendom. It has been said quite accurately that protestantism is in self-destruct mode and every single poll on the books underlines the assertion as more than dark reflection.

    The gathering of the faithful in form of ceremony is a religious act. Spirituality is the foundation upon which one chooses to build one's life. If the two don't mingle, then leadership is to blame. Charles Finney said this:
    "If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discernment, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in Christianity, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that their very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it."
    – Charles Finney

    Bottom line is that if there's a gap between the practice of Christianity and the inner life of the spirit, the fault rests firmly on the shoulders of the leadership.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

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

      Problem is we see too much of the "Leadership" taking the perp walk after committing a crime, usually regarding children or money. Makes it hard to believe that that they are as close to a god as they like to think.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:43 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.