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. Meggie C

    Dumbest thing I ever read. Folks with a "commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" may still feel, or wish to feel, some kind of transcendent experience. People aren’t consistent; our beliefs may be rational, our longings spiritual. Why should folks who disbelieve the theological underpinnings (or loathe the cultural baggage) of the established religions have to deny that side of themselves?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  2. Gad

    To alan miller: this is you opinion. means nothing to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  3. msadr

    The effectiveness of the "spiritual but not religious" philosophy will be apparent by the success of the people who claim it. I think that for anyone to be successful, they must engage the mind, body and spirit all together in their philosophy of life. First you must think it through, precisely. Then you must act on it. The spiritual/emotional part of a person is engaged when they act on what they believe. If you have no clearly defined principles, then you have no real path to enact. That leaves your actions and emotions tossed around by the paths of others.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  4. Bob

    I'm literally baffled that articles like this make the front page of CNN. It's 2012, when will we stop believing in religious nonsense?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • John

      Well said Bob. Surely there is some "News" out there CNN, isn't there? It is a big country and an even bigger world full of actual important events.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  5. Michael Addition

    I think this author has it all wrong. Traditional religion is based on faith – not a rigorous, fact-based search for truth. Religion was originally meant to explain things that civilization didn't understand: the sun, fire, natural disasters, etc..... Over time, organized religion, and those associated with it, have now turned to sets of beliefs on how we should "act", and if we allow gay marriage, pro-choice, etc.... we are displeasing god.

    If someone is spiritual, it simply means they are setting aside time in their lives to reflect on their inner being, or soul, and keep themselves grounded. I think for many it is a way of putting modern stresses of society into perspective, and attempt to live each day in a meaningful, productive way that is not overloaded with anxiety. For whatever reason, the author wants to tell these people they are "wrong" and need to get their butts in church, sing hymns, and deal with "tough choices" about religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • msadr

      Michael you are wrong. All religions are based on a rational fact-based search for the truth. And faith only comes from acting on what you have decided is right. We have faith because we acted on our beliefs and they worked.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ msadr: you said "All religions are based on a rational fact-based search for the truth."

      Most ludicrous thing I've read on these boards in a very long while.

      Would you care to explain, and provide cogent examples, evidence, etc to support your claim?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  6. Luis

    I suppose that CNN is pro-religion. Why else would they post this nonsense. People are waking up, finally, and understand that organized religion is used to control the masses. This gives me hope.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  7. rmtaks

    "everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work."

    Oh don't flatter yourself. Christianity didn't create art and music. The Renaissance paintings would have been about something else, big deal. Also, the height of the Catholic church's power was the Dark Ages; the lowest point in European history.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  8. Luis Wu

    Alan Miller is obviously a closed-minded dimwit seeking to push his Christian agenda on everyone and feels threatened by people who think for themselves instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology as reality. Thinking for yourself is a good thing. But you SHOULD feel threatened by it Alan, it will eventually take over and replace your ancient myths and superst!tions.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  9. Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

    Miller says to "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?"

    Pretty easy choice to make. Goodbye fairy tales, brainwashing, and the concept of some malignant overlord in the sky – hello reason and logic.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  10. kelf62

    This guy is so off base it's not funny. I'm from the midwest, I've been Catholic and Protestant and the one thing that I can tell you is that religion is mans' law, imposing man's rules on others in order to have control and power. Religion is the biggest threat to our existence as a society. Religion is the reason for wars, death and distruction. Religion is a way for people to have power over others. It's not about belief or the common good. I am an extremely spiritual person, and I believe that people should not have to be pigeonholed into a religion. We should not, as people that believe in a higher power, force our beliefs on others. Religion has been forged by man in order to shackle the human-higher being connection. Imagine this... a world without war, distruction, greed, suffering. That world would be a world that is truly spiritual, with no religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  11. Gad

    what a crock of s--t

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  12. Mike

    Wow...this was a waste of time. Stop with the opinion pieces..they are crap.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  13. Steve in WI

    It seems that Alan Miller does not completely understand true spirituality. It's not without responsibility or care for fellow man. True spirituality says that we are all one. I don't look up to "heaven" and point to the sky to thank a God who is only of MY faith, rather I see the power of God within myself, my fellow human beings and everywhere else. I respect all other religions and feel that people believe what they want to, if it truly helps them find peace and refrain from judgement of others. But it is also okay, with regard to faith, to say, "I don't know". Why does our society feel the need to know? Even the most devout Christian at times,questions the depths of his or her beliefs. No one can say that with 100% certainty that things are or were the way they believe. And that's perfectly okay. I highly recommend the book What God Wants by Neale Donald Walsch.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • All hail

      I agree Steve, nothing better than staring blankly into the troubled and weary eyes of someone else, asking about the consequences of their actions, frightened and anxious about spiritual eternal damnation, and replying, 'I don't know' with a big fat goofy grin on your face 😀

      September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  14. t-ho

    I would argue that the spiritual crowd doesn't just want to experience 'nice things' and 'feel better', but wants to seek what their hearts and consciences tell them is right rather than locking into one doctrine that says, "This is truth and everything else is wrong and evil and heretical."

    Some of us wander not because it's more fun, but because it's much harder, more rewarding work.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  15. Mike

    Intellectual honesty is not fence sitting, it's just being honest that we don't know it all. One can have a profound sense of wonder at the universe to the extent that we can call life and creation sacred and have a reverence for it all for which we use the term "spiritual", and we can yet still be honest enough to keep an open mind. It is the height of human arrogance to think we know for certain about all this, sufficiently to "take a stand" ,when clearly we don't.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  16. frjgrgrh

    Well it's nice to see CNN is putting biased propaganda pieces about opening our mind to more than just the 5 senses, unless its for main religion. Its sad to see in our day and age that our MSM would ridicule those who aren't in to the big religions, but believe in another realm. But god forbid it is not one of the main religions, because then you'll be ridiculed, by people such as this ignorant bafoon who wrote this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  17. KeithInVa

    Actually I would say accepting whatever answers to the hard questions that are soonfed to you regardless of whether or not they make any sense or are morally/ethically defensibible i.e "My Daddy says that my Pastor says that the Bible says that being gay is a sin!" is a cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • william

      Regarding religion, I've always wondered about the people who lived before our latest major religions,the ones based on the figures, times, and events of the Old testament. Surely God would have had the same concerns for these humans as after all the "revelations and prophets we're familiar with.... so how did "He" then judge people and decide who went to heaven or hell, or wherever in between. It seems clear to me that whatever was revealed in times of old was seriously misconstued, or misheard, or whatnot, seeing as how we have a number of major religions based on these old tales. It may sound simple, but these inconsistencies in "the words of God" are what lead me to believe non of them are true, and that there are larger truths that these religions not only don't clarify, but truly muddyour view.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  18. Bulldogma

    Now lets get all the white people together to talk about why being black or Asian is a cop out! Or lets buy into a man's written description of what it is like to be a woman.
    Let's not!
    One can not purport to know all about something they have never experienced. Further, to pigeonhole or fashion a stereotype about something or someone else, and to perpetuate that unenlightened stereotype as if it were truth, is not, in my opinion, any form of loving thy neighbor as thyself.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  19. nathan brown


    September 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  20. Funktologist

    Organized religions are getting jumpy. Free thinkers threaten their prepackaged dogma.
    That is all............

    September 30, 2012 at 9:02 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.