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. MIchele

    Well it certainly helps avoid the issue of whether or not your parish priest/minister is abusing your kids!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  2. John Davis

    Spoken like a fundamentalist who believes there is only one way to God.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  3. Mark

    There is no such thing as god. Put him back in the fiction section with the rest of the fairy tale creatures. Balls.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  4. Frederick B. Mills

    Alan Miller sets up a straw man argument that the spiritual but not religious point of view is generally relativist, self centered, and "offers no positive exposition or understanding … of any kind". At the same time, Miller is somewhat critical of free spirits who set out to explore their “inner existential being" without the guidance of and commitment to traditional religious doctrine. But his argument, while raising important issues about authentic sprituality, misses the possible profundity and authenticity of the spiritual but not religious way of being in the world.

    First, Miller is correct that spiritual but not religious persons do not generally get their guidance from one particular organization or doctrine. But there are some notable movements throughout US history of at least some form of association among free sprits. For example, some of the transcendentalists of New England set out on an independent path to spirituality, drawing from German idealism and Christianity. Emerson gives us the concept of the oversoul which, while not an exact match for the Holy Spirit or Buddhist mindfulness or Platonic good does express the existential experience of a source of insight within us all. Many persons today still prescribe to some version of the notion of the oversoul. During the 1960’s, a number of spiritualist movements took hold drawing from a variety of traditions, East and West.

    Second, it is not that case that the spiritual but not religious person is always egocentric. Many existential thinkers, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, are spritual but not religious and they are not egocentric. Indeed, the major insight of Merleau-Ponty is that we are fundamentally interwoven with the world, that is, lived bodies, and only upon reflection do we establish a sense of self, a self still grounded nevertheless in our lived bodies. Such a view point offers an alternative to the anthropocentric tendency of some traditional religious perspectives and can support deep ecological points of view.

    Third, Miller disparages the pick and mix tendency of some spiritualists, but such experimentation and open mindedness is what led the Buddha himself to enlightenment. Yes, why not expose oneself to Zen Buddhism and Yoga, as well as the Gita, the Bible, and the Koran. And while we are being more open minded about spirituality, let us also study philosophy and the philosophy of religion. The traditonal religious point of view as well as the spiritual but not religious point of view may find food for thought in the Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, the religious thinker Martin Buber, or the theologian Teilhard de Chardin.

    Finally, the argument that the spiritual but not religious point of view is relativist (I assume Miller means moral relativist) is a false generalization. Though the absence of an acosmic categorical imperator leaves the door open to moral relativism, neither the theory nor practice of a relativist morality necessarily follows. One of the major ethical theories that grounds the notion of universal rights and obligations –the categorical imperative to obey the moral law– is found in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and his Metaphysics of Morals. Kant’s arguments establishe morality on the basis of Reason alone (though Kant himself was a believer and also wrote a book on Religion). With regard to a non-relativist notion of justice, John Rawls gives us a theory of justice without an appeal to traditional religion. Of course, the rejection of an absolute trascendent standard does open the door to relativism. and some spiritual but not religious persons are indeed relativists. But even in such cases, such person may choose cooperative and humanistic values in their practice.

    Miller’s article helps to raise very important issues about whether one approach to spirituality is better than another. I urge mutual respect, despite significant differences, between free spirit and traditional religion. Both points of view have a great deal to offer to our native search for meaning and fulfillment.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Jared


      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Jesse Davidson

      I found your response to Miller's opinion to be much more well reasoned and worded than his. . Thank you for investing the time and thought in not presenting a diatribe but rather a well written and conceived response that did not dive into bitter remarks but rather pin pointed varies ideas that are counter to Miller's.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. Rob

    Whats wrong with believing in god, but not wanting to make up reasons for his existence? I, as human dont believe I have access to god's plan. Neither does the church. SO who's looking for 'nice feelings' in he end?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  6. Bostontola

    "Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action", I'll take that one.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  7. JD

    I feel sorry for this writer. He obviously has no idea of what being spiritual means and how dangerous it can be for the soul growth to follow a religious doctrine.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  8. ronovan1

    The mythology of religion provides a comfort to those who want to think that far. I think it's wonderful for those who feel comforted by it. Not everyone who doesn't join an organized church is a selfish non-thinker. And just what is the Karma Sutra? I know what the Kama Sutra is and it hardly fits in with the holy books of any of the other faiths. I think this author's deep thinker cover is blown with that one.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  9. pourter

    This entire article has a feeling of resentment and superiority about it. Perhaps the trend is less about being lazy and selfish and more about a backlash against antiquated teachings, ideals and rituals that have little meaning and make little sense in the modern world.

    The author shouldn't fear too much though, there are still throngs of people willing to lap up teachings that condemn science, alternative lifestyles, basic human rights, health, and common sense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  10. Coolb

    Hello author, is there anything else in my life you want to tell me is a cop out? Any other presumptuous comments you want to make? What the hell is wrong with you? People want to live a good life but feel they can do it without the presence of some omnipotent god directing their thoughts and you say this is bad. Moronic!! What an insulting article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  11. Alan

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller."

    Pretty much says it all.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  12. J

    This article tries to bully people into accepting dogmatic instiutions as the only antidote to a 'cop-out'. Being spiritual but not religious could mean many, many different things to different people. I suspect that often people who give that explanation to the author are simply trying to avoid insulting his beliefs, which they find irrational. I don't think christianity is synonmous with morality, and that is a mistake that is often made in our current culture. Politicians especially feel the need to proclaim their devout christianity so that voters will feel they are good and trustworthy people. Many people cannot fathom that an atheist might be an incredibly good and moral person. It is sad that in a country that was founded on freedom someone who rejects the mythology of christianity is not seen as an independent thinker who cannot align the realities of life with the teachings of the churches but a bad person with no morals or a 'cop out'. You can't force people to believe what does not feel true. Someone else's devout belief in God does not make me any more likely to believe than if they believed in fairies and were trying to convince me of that. Nor would I try to shake someone else's faith. Finally, the author has clearly never been to the American south if he says there is an 'implosion of beliefs'.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  13. Gilbert

    Sounds to me like Allen Miller has a narrow and limited understanding of "spiritual". Maybe he has only been paying attention to the quasi outspoken few who might also have a shallow understanding of "Taoism, Kabbalah, Sufism, Feing Shui and The Bhagavad Gita". Then what sincere person would accept his biased and narrow view on "spirituality".

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  14. TSB8C

    This is fulfillment of biblical prophecy – people would reject God and simply follow the dictates of their own hearts; or in other words, just do whatever feels right to them. It is a cop-out. In this way you don;t have to address any of the issues or areas of your life where you may be falling short of what is expected by a God that has given commandments and instructions to live by.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • The Wizard

      Huh? How can you claim to know what The Creator wants? You can only know what some person (man) wrote claiming to be "the word of God". If you can't get past the tired text on tattered pages printed in dog eared books, I feel sorry for you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  15. mm

    The author mentions how spiritual people are "peddling" a dangerous alternative to religion.....through a peddled "us vs. them" meme...

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  16. Allen

    Cue the snarky, aggressive atheist pile on. Be sure to mention intolerant we religious folk are supposed to be.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • mm

      You are separating people here into an us vs. them 'religious vs. atheist' type of argument....really..........

      Was this sarcasm or do you still not know the difference between religion and spirituality?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Jonline

      Not all. There is an extreme faction like Pat Robertson that are as dangerous as the Taliban.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  17. Outside The Vatican

    What a challenge: Separate the nonsense of a lot of hide-bound organized religions, yet not simply waste years reinventing the wheel when the same truths have already been vetted. For example, I bristle at the term, "cafeteria Catholics," used by orthodox Catholics who despise those who question the system. But, at the same time, to start from scratch is prone to big mistakes, cults, phonies and much more.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  18. anwaw

    If this young man thinks that the the goal of a spiritual but not religious life is to experience "nice things", he is ignorant. That may have been my goal, but the deeper I went the more intense and brutal the journey to awakening became.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • mom2222

      So agree. And in that journey to self-discovery, the questions of all religions come up to be analyzed. It is amazing how alike all religions are in their beliefs, just different in their outer customs. Those customs are intertwined with the culture of origin. It is those outer customs that have been rejected, not the underlying spirit. Spiritual but not religious does require an analysis of all religions, taking what is common among them and asking hard questions. It is a difficult road.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  19. bbstarterblog

    Full of superficial and unscientific assumptions and accusations, as to what "spiritual but not religious" people think and do. Avoids the question of why he assumes that people without religious connections are able to develop comprehensive theologies and address the deepest questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  20. Winston5

    so just because you don't give your money (read: MONEY) to Rome or your local temple, that makes it a "cop out." Well, sir, society is "copping out" in droves. Thank you, Catholic Church. signed, a recovering catholic.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:58 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.