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

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  9. Refusing My Religion

    Excellent post on an important and relevant debate. Semantics are very important in this discussion. Whether we like it or not, the word "spiritual" connotes for most something of the other-worldly, the supernatural, a connectedness to something greater than one's self. While these terms are not inherently objectionable, the proliferation of such language can occasionally hinder a more "realistic" approach to or understanding of the nature of reality and our universe. If people want to be "spiritual", that's their prerogative. But where the danger lies is in allowing this time of thinking to affect public policy and legislation. And it seems that a lot of people in America have a difficult time separating their personal feelings from what ought to be the secular affairs of government.

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  10. marieLola

    Why is it a cop out? I'm spiritual because i believe that there is a creator of this universe and us and the animals and other lifeforms... I believe in the soul that needs tolearn an nourish itself by living and learning on this planet.
    I will never stop believing in that. Its a middleground to the extremist atheists and religious people.
    It's probaby the only right way.

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  13. Idgi

    Personally I think it’s due to the ever increasing politicization of modern religions. I think it indicates more a rejection of the extreme negativity, hypocrisy & greed. I know many that are not abandoning the bible, just the oh so self righteous, but cafeteria style selectivity of the modern christian. It’s my personal belief that many of today’s religious leaders have abandoned their posts to pursue their own personal agendas. It’s become trendy to spout religious beliefs in a very public manner, yet these same people rarely walk the talk. Even with the long fight in progress, the catholic church is still trying to hide, protect & make excuses for their pedophiles. They wave their ‘belief’ in God to promote their businesses. They pick isolated passages to wield as weapons while promoting judgment & hatred of others. They seem more intent on raking in money, then tending to the body, mind & soul of their flock. So am I religious? No! In my opinion many of today’s christian’s are among the worst sinners & frankly disgust me. I guess I’ll just have to try harder to love the sinner & hate the sin!

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  16. moontouched

    "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either"

    For me, the whole point in truly being one that is "spiritually open-minded" is to be open to learning and discovering one's own way of understanding and believing in God. It's not wanting just others or a book to tell it for you because to me that is "not-trying-ness", that is not improving, that is not evolving, that is not moving forward. I have made a choice, taken a stand, I choose to think for myself and not have others tell me what I should believe. If one believes that following a particular set of scripture is for them, then by all means do so. ((There is also a difference between a religious God and just the belief in there being a Creator (God).))

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  17. Changing Our Thoughts/Feelingsw

    We as human beings are in a state of change and moving away from organized religion is a reflection of our willingness to grow and develop what is our natural state of being. Most religions use FEAR to keep people under their control. We must accept self-responsiblity in every aspect of our lives and not expect someone, anyone to do it for us. Consiousness or the totality of All That Is giving us the opporunity to create a better world to live in. War does not bring PEACE. Greed does not bring Prosperity etc.

    January 21, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Damie305

      You are on point! I my bid to accept the oneness/fundamentals behind the religious divides, I am a Christian born who attended the Islamic high school available to me. I practice non-attachment as espoused in the Gita, Meditation as taught by Budha, and still love Christ as a spiritual figure. On my journey I have realized there are pieces of wisdom tucked into several of this paths that help be a better person, I embrace that which unifies and dump the divides. When I say I am spiritual but not religious, that is what I mean. Belong to none but partaking of all.

      January 27, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  18. Darren Mart

    When I first read this article in September I resisted the urge to respond with a knee-jerk reaction. So, I've taken my time to compose a full, constructive response. I hope Alan Miller has the time and courage to read it:


    January 12, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • Damie305

      Your statement "The irony: even though I've distanced myself completely from organized religion these days, I'm a much better person now than I was then." That is my same experience, indeed like you said a book or a sermon isn't always needed to unveil those concepts that makes one a better person. Amazing blog! Thanks For sharing.

      January 27, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  19. HM

    "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."

    I have a body of belief and a rigid set of principles. I just don't adhere to a set of principles that allow people to hate and kill in the name of that religion. I don't adhere to a set of principles that allow the representatives of that religion to abuse children and then allows these pedophiles to be protected. I don't adhere to a set of principles that no longer represent the values on which the religion was founded. Belief in a higher deity is a spiritual experience not a material one.

    January 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  20. californiarestinpeace

    You're right, spiritual but not religious is open-ended, open-minded and non-platform. And that's what's good about it. There are no answers, only more questions when it comes to the why of human existence. Religion is just a delusion made up of nonsense and it needs to catch up with science and reality. If it did that, its value would shine through and be more attractive to modern man.

    January 9, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Damie305

      Exactly! The positive exposition it offers is that there is an incomprehensible oneness behind it all. For those who need rigid/tangible set of principles/doctrines by all means hang on to whatever religion provides you that. But there is an ever growing community of those who have moved to a more " open-ended, open-minded and non-platform" as you so kindly put it and have found great peace, happiness, and liberty. To those of us who have moved this point indeed we are spiritual because we are guided by the spirit of it all but not religious for we do not need the rigid doctrines to experience God.

      January 27, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
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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.