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. cindy

    I guess I fall in this spiritual not religious category. I take issue with the idea that my beliefs don't include a body of belief or a set of principles. I am very highly educated. I have a very developed body of beliefs and I am very principled. The article mentions that people like me avoid a literal translation of the world. That's true and part of the problem. I don't believe in a literal translation. If religions want me to bring my children to them, they must prove to me they are worthy. Most of the religions around here are just full of misogyny. Why should I take my little girl to church so they can teach her she is a second class citizen? The religious organizations are losing because the population is becoming more educated and more sophisticated and the church's aren't. When the churches don't keep up, just like any service organization, they fail because they aren't doing a good job producing their service.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • WaitWhat?

      @ jim111506. Its ironic that Cindy took time to write something intelligent and you call her the monkey. How unoriginal and unintelligent can you get. I read most of your comments and you are racist trash that will be removed from the blog soon enough.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  2. conformity 101

    Organized religion will be the downfall of the civilized world. The person should be ashamed of themselves for writing this article, this is the USA, we can CHOOSE what we believe in and how we believe in it. This guy is telling us to close are minds and conform or else. Horrible and dangerous in every sense of the words

    September 30, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Michael

      but then.....how is your comment any different? I could equally say "this is America! And this conformity101 guy is telling me to close my mind and listen to what HE has to say!". The fact is....it has nothing to do with free speech....you simply just don't like his opinion. Just like I don't like yours.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Chelle

      No Michael not at all. What we "non-believers" are saying is leave us alone to believe what we will. I don't need the threat of hell to make me treat others with honour and respect. Apparently you do.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  3. raul


    September 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • rickinmo

      So, why are you still Catholic? Grow a pair and distance yourself from the religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  4. Kev

    "Don't listen to what the spiritualist are peddling, listen to what I"m peddling!"

    September 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  5. ZEBO

    Two words to live by " Be Kind "...( The Dali Lama ".

    September 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  6. midwest rail

    Trolling should never be this obvious – or boring.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  7. truth be told

    President George H W Bush has said an atheist is not a patriot and should not be a citizen of the USA. We are one nation under God. Atheists represent the WORST in America.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  8. Toast

    My Take: Your article is a good laugh.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  9. Rob

    I fail to see why we should care what this man thinks of other people's beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Toast

      He was angry enough to mash out a essay and is "special" to cnn.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  10. W2

    "When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity; when many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion."

    September 30, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  11. Up too early

    I have questions that I can't answer with science and logic.
    Why do I read CNN articles like this?
    Do these people actually get paid for this drivel?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  12. badcafe

    I consider myself spiritual not religious. What bothers me is not the opinions of the author (anyone can opine), but the fact that anyone can write an opinion piece today on a major newspaper! Why should we take theological advice from someone whose pedigree is being the founder of a salon and a brewery? I know this sounds mean, but it's not very different from a television news reader writing a paper in American Journal of Physics. The idea that someone needs to spend years researching a topic and surveying and painstakingly building a world view of expertise is lost on the newer generation, which sees more and more such 'opinions' spouted by non-experts. This article is profound in its ignorance by asserting that spiritual people do not take any strong position. A perfect counter-example is Hinduism, which by construction is more spiritual than religious – it's adherents do not have strict rules or norms, and there is incredible diversity of norms within one umbrella (some who believe in caste system, even though a large majority of urbanites study in Christian missionary schools; some who believe cows are sacred though 2/3 of Indians are actually non-vegetarian). They do take a position – it's just not the position prescribed by a religious text or an imam.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • WaitWhat?

      You realize his "salon" is not a place to get your hair done and he is not distilling spirits at the old brewery... right? The NY Salon is a place where people come together to have formal debates and the old brewery is a historic retail redevelopment project.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • badcafe

      Doesn't make him an expert nonetheless...

      September 30, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  13. Spiritual but not religious

    The whole New Age, spiritual but not religious movement came about as a result of the brutality, dishonesty, misogyny and despotism of the church. People trusted the church with their spiritual growth and they were made into slaves. Religion and its purveyors only have themselves to blame.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Doodlebug2222

      I can't believe God would want us to go into a house of worship that is corrupt and sit there among those, sharing in brother and sisterhood. All I can see is how that would be so very wrong – there is no way I learn and understand God's teachings from those that have such dark and hateful souls. They gossip, they group for power, they speak of Gods' love to the right and to the left say untrue words about each other in an attempt to wound.

      As I said above – I can't see God expecting me to find light in so much darkness. So I stand outside of that darkness – alone in body, but not in spirit. God is with me – regardless of where I stand, sit or choose to worship him. Correct – yes?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  14. Yep

    You represent the WORST of America; religious or not!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  15. HillClimber

    Religion fully embraces God, God does not embrace religion. Every prophet sent to earth has been here for the purpose of telling us how to get closer to God – not for the purpose of formulating some religion. Meditate and speak to the Voice of God, Metatron, and understand our need to be One With God. Religion, beyond the social kindness, is valueless!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Milton

      I think the downhill slide for organized religion started a very long time ago with Martin Luther if not earlier. Individuals started reading the Bible rather than letting someone else read it and telling them what it means. They quickly realized 1) that there are many interpretations of it and 2) most of it is nonsensical, inapplicable to a modern age, or downright offensive from any moral standpoint (i.e. hey slaves–submit to your masters even if they beat you). Those that have carefully read the Bible for themselves have tended to either abandon organized doctrine for their own interpretation or simply become atheists.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • jumanji777

      Religions of the book do not elevate God as much as their own writings. How can I say it? Because though they would all agree there is a God, they would not become one because of their books. If you drop the books those religions loose what they have become because they have already lost what they originally were, the experience of a person with God. That is something that will always take a back set when a book essentially IS God for those followers.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  16. erin andrews perky breasts


    September 30, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  17. bob.macrae

    are u an idiot or just an a*@hole

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  18. norm

    The only thing organized religions have against unaffiliated "spirituality" is that it doesn't generate any money for them.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Barbara Young

      Visual Spirituality is one with your own Spirit and is close to God the Father and Mother and allows them to Show you Themselves and the Perfect Love you feel from Them. By simply inwardly Walking into a Garden and Looking up at the "Sun", which the Trigger to enter into God's Light is Perfect Love and Peace and can be accompanied by Telepathy if in need. Certainly nothing wrong with that. Faith prayer has been abused by the very material minded power persons whose past lives have made the Family of God feared and killed millions in the name of God and Poor God had nothing to do with it-only evil men.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  19. Maria

    My two cents: Annoyed that I am not following YOUR idea of what is religion? Maybe you would prefer that I sit and listen to YOUR take or whom to blindly follow? NOT sorry to disapoint you but MY religion or spirituality is NONE of your business and suits me just fine, makes me a better person, more accepting of others, more kind to my fellow earthbound souls, more respectful to mankind and morther earth than all religions combined who unfortunately have over 2ooo years of evidence of horrors committed against each other ALL in the name of the religous organizations you want me to join??? I think I will stick with my smorgasborg of this and that spirituality. I SNEER at your blog! And I pity you.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • asche

      the venom in your words contradicts any idea you have of being a 'better' person. you scoff at the idea of blindly following something yet it sounds very much like you are blindly following yourself. chill out, you're no better than anyone else. that much is quite obvious.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  20. Sane Person

    Oh brother. You are upset that people find thier own spirituality instead of buying your prepackaged one? Get a life. Stop relying on other people joining your club to feel good about yourself. Stop believing that the only "proper way" to be a decent human being is through your brand of fairy tale nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Sane Person

      And : "Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking"

      Um, that is religion in a nuthsell. Each sect obsessed with its own version of "truth" based on whatever-they-feel-it-to-be without regard to evidence or fact.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Dan

      Well said. Thank you!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:18 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.