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. mega man

    This new phenomenon I think is actually a step in the right direction. For most people the journey in spiritualism will be unique for every individual, everyone takes a different path just as in life. But the final destination is the same. The reason why so many have strayed from religion is that over the eons it has been a method of control over a group of people and fanatics to manipulate these people into a gang to do the “controllers” bidding in the name of God, whether that was to go to war with another group that didn’t see it the same, or root out heretics that wanted to be different from everyone else instead of practicing a long and well outdated concept of chanting prayers and words over and over again for the last 2000 years! If I was god I think I’d pretty bored of hearing the same verses over and over again and would long to hear it in my children’s own version differently from each every one. The most threatening thing for religion is the concept of individual beliefs. But the truth is everyone will have different beliefs, and this should not be shunned as heresy, but accepted by all, because even in the eyes of God or a higher power, everyone has the freewill to believe anything they want!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  2. sybaris

    Religion, the worship of god(s), spirituality, etc., etc. is a filthy perverted disease of the mind

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Patricksday

      If you have never had a Sacred experience, how sad for you. One day you may learn its not all about you exclusively. Just because the Republican Party has destroyed the term "Christian" does not mean everyone is GREEDY MATERIALISTIC and SELFISH.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Aaron


      September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • sybaris

      Ah yes, the typical and expected response.

      Religious Fallacy #206: If you don't follow some sort of dogma then you're self-centered and prideful.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  3. OrganicManLives_N_anOraganicUNiverSE

    hey Alan, at least I know that you don't have a clue to anything. One of the most notable thinkers of greece said ->I'm smarter than most people because I understand I know nothing. You'll find your answers by working backwards Alan ...good luck.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  4. Luke

    Weak, whinny article. You can do better CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  5. DaisyinNY

    People who are religious are religious because they prefer others to do there thinking for them. they want to show up on Sunday (or Friday, or Saturday) and have someone tell them how to live, what to eat, what to wear, who to hate, all based on texts written ages ago that have no context in the modern era.
    Spiritual people are those who are seeking answers within themselves and in the world around them. Using truths that they can see ring true in their personal lives. Spiritual people are on a journey to find the truth and like life, the journey is what it is all about.
    Anyone who tells you not to think for yourself, to trust them, is lying.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Michael


      September 30, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  6. Rosemary Peppercorn

    The author wrote: "Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices."

    Christians certainly, "pick and mix" the parts of the bible they wish to believe. Alan Miller is hypocritical.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • DaisyinNY


      September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  7. mm

    Censorship going on here big time. Watch the posts – mild posts – disappear because they don't agree with the author.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • midwest rail

      False – there are no censors here, only a word filter. Get over our paranoia

      September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • mm

      I have no words in about 4 of my posts that would trigger a filter deletion. I used the same exact words as the author did.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • delta

      True. they are doing it

      September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • midwest rail

      You are incorrect – even if you are using the same words, the word filter for responses will automatically reject a post that even has a word fragment it objects to. There are no censors here.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • mm

      Again – I have been posting here for about 10 years. I am only using mild words. About 4-5 of my posts are disappearing after they appear briefly.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  8. mochica

    If you ever go to Asheville, NC too many people there are obsessed with self-realization and working as a spiritual healer. It's almost like libertarianism if it were a religion- it is a focus on the self carried to the extreme. I find this very troubling, and also disgusting to hear someone drone on and on about their inner chi. Our country is obsessed with the individual, economically and spiritually, and the idea of community is no longer a reality. This clearly will not last.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  9. Wonderer

    Mr. Miller makes the argument that one must choose between religious dogma and rationality. Perhaps one can use an enlightenment metaphor in the apprpriate setting and a religious metaphor in another – or both simultaneously. There are two kinds of peole in this world – those who divide everything up into two categories and those who don't.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Michael

      Well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  10. ak

    Look up there in the sky,: it's an old white man sitting in the clouds wearing a white robe.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  11. FY

    I'm a recovering alcoholic, and my journey into a true spiritual relationship with a God of MY understanding has been truly amazing. I cannot define my God, nor do i choose to try, but i can say with absolute certainty that God exists and takes a active role in my life, but i really had to take a step back from self will and start living Gods will. I just cannot put it into words how i am certain God exists, but i am absolutely certain of it. FWIW, i never had this kind of certainty during years of sitting in Church, it happened for me when i had no other alternatives left than to trust in God.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • TrueStory

      Did you do the 12-step program? Then you got brainwashed. They convinced you that you were 'powerless' and only God could help you, and you fell right into the trap. Btw, look up the founder of the 12-step program. He was an occultist. LOL

      September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • RobinNNJ

      @True Story – No one had to convince us we were powerless. much less a 12 step program. I am so sick of people who call all 12 step programs 'a cult'. We 12 steppers don't knock what works for you so how about a little common respect. It is so sad that most 'normal' people have no concept of how empowering acceptance can be.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. Mike Path

    True spiritual purification is better than blind religious belief. That is what appreciated the other rejected.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  13. moosegraphs

    Yes, I'm sensing a little self-hate here, I think you need to sit somewhere and meditate.

    Sorry, you missed the boat on this one.....

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  14. Sane Person

    Who appointed you as gods PR guy? The minding of other peoples business is why your "organized", money grubbing, hypocritical fable clubs are in freefall. Time to change your bible again to try and increase your favorables.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  15. mjw

    "Religion is for people afraid of going to hell, Spirituality is for people who have been there".
    There are some problems with some "mainstream religions". Specifically, the conservative fundamentalist types. They tend to be rule orientated to the point of straight jacketing their members. This can cause spiritual abuse. And, since every human being is imperfect, the religions that were created by said human beings are also imperfect; including the translations of their books. Yes, that would include the Bible. People are also fed up with the "do as I say, not as I do" of the religious hierarchy in mainstream religions. And the fact that the leadership of some religions are found to be incapable of leading by example. Instead of placing themselves on a pedestal. Or, being corrupted.
    So, more people are finding their own spiritual path. Either as a solitary spiritual person or in alternative, sometimes new age religions. More power to them. Why should they suffer with a mainstream religion that, in some cases harms them emotionally and spiritually?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • DaisyinNY

      great quote!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  16. ak

    trash. fables...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  17. Notreligious

    To say that those of us who are "spiritual but not religious" are self absorbed me generation and that they do not want to be responsible for themselves as humans is totally wrong. There is a lot of change going on in this world at the hands of agnostics and atheists. Also why does he single out a certain generation? There have been millions of people before this generation who did not follow traditional religion, probably due to fear of persecution by the brainwashed masses and tyrannical governments whose core principles hinged on beliefs in myths and fairy tales. Wake up Mr. Miller! You live in the 21st century where reason and evidence are more respected qualities in a human than "obeying the Sabbath".

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  18. Lee

    This is so off-base, where to start? Organized religions HAVE brought us so much evil – that needs to be recognized and should be dealt with by those organized religions, but it's not. From abuse to burning Korans to Israel... and most people I know who belong to churches, socialize and feel good about themselves, but doing so doesn't make them try to do good, more than people who do not belong. Organized religions promote wrong things about the universe and don't deal with that. Many people I know are "spiritual" not in the goofy sense the author uses, but in that they believe in the importance of living a good life, having strong morals – just dont support the models we have in our churches.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  19. w

    What is happening is the churches see their bottom line shrinking. The reduction in flock is starting to hurt their wallets. I don't recall in the bible saving souls is an occupation. Why must one receive money for saving soul when Jesus did't?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  20. TrueStory

    I grew up in a religious home and as I got older I really started praying to God for guidance, and surprisingly, I found myself led down a path that opened my eyes to the dishonesty and corruption in organized religion. I am not even spiritual now and I found happiness and peace in my life as an agnostic. No more doubts, no more mixed up feelings. I felt in my instincts this was the real answer (for ME). True believers have this belief that if you pray to God for guidance you will get THEIR answer every time. It always has to be their way or you're 'lost'. It's not true and never has been true.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • ttwp

      God never leads you down a path that takes you away from Him. He desires a relationship and draws people too Him, not away.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • TrueStory

      Thank you for proving my point.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 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.