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. Hefe

    Many non-church goers are turned off by the businesses most modern churches have become. These businesses guilt their customers into attending and paying, even though the fruit of the church and use of the money does not reflect scriptural examples. The sheep are tired of being fleeced.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  2. big al

    Ah, yes, the "danger" of being spiritual but not religious. If this sentiment is so "dangerous," then why were the potential dangers omitted from the article? How the heck does this crap get put on the very top of a news website? One guy's opinion with nothing substantive to back it up.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  3. Marti Salvato

    So one can't be good without god – specifically the one that's three depending on whether or not you throw in the angels and other emissaries?

    "The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings."

    My take on that? The mega-churches aren't the spritual but not religious crowd, they appear to be much more the religious but not spiritual crowd that also want their politics in my bedroom and courtroom and doctor's offices and work. No thanks

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  4. Meridian

    Being ‘spiritual but not religious’ for 40 years now, I found the article amusing. The are so many finer points where the author is naïve, unaware, and uninformed, I actually giggled in a few places.

    As the Evangelical movement continues to expand and break up into different factions with some becoming as fundamentalist as the Talibans, one can understand why so many young people are looking at alternatives for their spiritual well being. Simply put, true spirituality is something one finds within themselves, not something one has dictated to them by others.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  5. Jeanette Bishop

    I'm definitely in the "commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action" camp!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  6. Rich Gorman

    The long debate between orthodoxy and orthopraxy lives on. Do I follow the book or do I do what is right? Maybe the right question to ask, Are those who live a good life capable of having bad beliefs?

    The author is narrow minded which is far different from old fashioned. Without taking a stand, how can one do what is right? Easy. When the time for action comes the person does what is right. They do not have to state it, preach it, evangelize it or write it. They do it.

    The boomers have always been better talkers than doers.

    And as for sin/King James Bible..... Sin and redemption are the central themes in the Judo Christian religion, but in no other. Islam centers on submission to Allah, Buddahism centers on the removal of pain, etc..... And were not the cultures of Greece, Rome, India, China, etc very productive and extremely beautiful and full formed without any need for a King James Bible?

    A little pluralism would have went a long way in making this a well thought out article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  7. delta

    Religion is about power and money.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  8. Paul Meyer

    I"m 50 years old, raised a Christian. I'm not bitter, lost, etc. To me, religion has become a dirty word. It is at the core of so many horrible actions and decisions. Nothing teaches hate more effectively than religion – so I'm not religious. I don't want to be associated with hate groups that profess "if your not with me your against me" hatred. Not associating with a religious group does not compromise my beliefs, take away from my moral framework, leave my soul empty or astray, or prevent me from serving my community and country.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Rich Gorman

      Well said

      September 30, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • mm

      One of the markers of the biggest growth in my own personal faith was the day I learned the difference between religion and spirituality.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  9. mm

    To the author: Why do you assume that spiritual people are "peddling" a dangerous alternative to a church-organized coercion of religion.....Your words there, not mine.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  10. carolstrick

    So would this person also start to rank which religion is the best one? Are atheists operating devoid of any principles merely because they are atheists?

    Are people who choose to reject religion (which involves a lot of research) just tired of others telling them what to do and think, when those others are operating on completely unprovable "facts"? Are religious people instantly ethical?

    Seems to me that a person who looks around and chooses what sounds most logical to them, what suits them best right now (instead of if they'd lived 2500 years ago), is every bit if not more reasonable than having them obediently swallow anything that's shoved down their throat—just because it's the "right" thing to do and people have been doing the same thing for at least 1000 years.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  11. justpaul

    I find it amusing that a man who subscribes to a catch-all answer to almost all of life's questions accuses others of copping out on those questions because they don't subscribe to his one word answer. When "God" is your explanation for everything, you haven't thought at all. Organized religion serves primarily to keep people away from understanding the divine; replacing a honest relationship with the driving force behind the universe with subservience to small-minded men and women who demand that you think like they do, act like they do, and believe what they do. No one ever found God through religion. To borrow a cheap line from a silly movie: faith is something you have, not something you find.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  12. manny

    Mierda article

    September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  13. POD

    As all 'Absolutists', Miller sees everything as black or white, only two options, Faith or Reason......there is NO third way in his world. I think anyone who has lived long enough knows that this is just not the case. This leads to such false mantras that you are 'either with me.....or against me' whether in the world of reason (Communism vs Capitalism) or the world of faith (Christianity vs Islam). And this differences, as history has taught us, finally lead to murder, torture, persecution and death.
    Dichotomy is a false and dangerous philosophical premise and should be delegated to the 'dust bin of critical thinking'.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • deep blue

      well said.

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

      Exactly right there. Miller has set up a false dichotomy there, ironically based in more of an us v. them. meme...What is HE peddling there?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  14. SP

    Many spiritual but not religious people DO ask the tough questions. And there are people in traditional religions that cop out and focus on the feel-good aspects - otherwise Joel Osteen, to name just one, would not be so popular. Every pitfall he talks about in the spiritual but not religious, can be found among the traditionally religious as well. This author is the one taking the easy way out, oversimplifying in a way where he can feel good about his beliefs and dismiss those who do not follow his path. This article is garbage.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  15. KRM

    A lot of words just to offer a logical fallacy...appeal to past practice. Not very appealing.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  16. Abacus

    Religion is about power and money. Nothing else. Most churches don't even practice what they preach. They push bigotry and violence. Whatever.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  17. Laurence Furr

    Totally disagree with this entire, slanted, ridiculous article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  18. manny

    hey it's Sunday: the bible says anyone working today must be put to death. So let's get busy!

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


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

      I knew I shouldn't have taken that shower.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  19. TrueStory

    40,000+ denominations of Christianity and a 'Church' that has NEVER been unified is proof alone that the author of this article has no idea what he is talking about.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  20. deep blue

    "Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"
    Why are scripture or human-based knowledge the only two options? In the post-modern philosophy school of thought, the basic idea that morality can be derived logically is challenged. I don't subscribe to this view, but I know very intelligent, extremely well read individuals that do. In fact, I would rather read an article read by one of them than you. It would be more interesting and logical. Good day.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:08 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.