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. Proud to be a cop-out

    The author has this completely backwards....the real danger is being religious, but not spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  2. Mikky_H

    The author is trying to make a logical argument for practicing faith in an organized setting, but is just coming across as another religious authoritarian – a prime example for people leaving organized religion. Instead of dismissing SBNR, he should try understanding them better and giving better arguments than "It's been this way for thousands of years" (essentially) for coming back to organized religion. As for the argument that you cannot lead a selfless life without organized religion, that is a load of nonsense. How about empathy as a motivating factor for helping others?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  3. DaisyinNY

    Jesus said to pray in your closet not in the street. Jesus said where two or more are gathered in his name he is in the midst. Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. Doesn't seem like Jesus was a big fan of church/organized religion either.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  4. mm

    The author assumes that if you aren't obedient to "coerced" religious group-thing from an organized church - his words, you are "peddling" an elitist, dangerous alternative, again his words.

    So, you have to shut off your brain, that presumably God gave you, and follow what that segregated, misogynist church teaches you.

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

    Never heard or read this argument better said, but totally mis-guided. It reinforces all the reasons I, after more than 70 years, am among the Spiritual but not religious. Organized religion was created in order to control the masses. Religious conflict has been the underpinings of most of the world's wars. Followers of organized religion are by and large, hypocrites – they profess a set of beliefs, pontificate to others who differ and most of all, live according to a whole differest set of mores – ie: Catholics who practice birth control. I have much to learn about some of the worlds religions, but so far, the Native Americans come the closest to my beliefs. Its all about nature and the living world about us. Paraphrasing a Cree prophecy – 'When all the trees, rivers and fish are gone, only then will we learn the you can't eat money'.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  6. alexis

    Has anyone considered that spirituality and religion are not contradictory ?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  7. True

    Stupid Amercian's view of the world.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  8. Bill Maher

    Should they arrest me for making Religulous like they did with the guy who made the You Tube video poking fun at Islam? I mean, I was just as nasty as he was.

    So why am I not being arrested?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • jarodbee

      Chances of this will increase considerably when Romney will be elected.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  9. Steve C

    If this article criticized any other religious orientation, it would not be published on the front page of CNN.

    The danger of 'Christianity, but not Islam'
    The danger of 'Roman Catholicism, but not Protestantism'
    The danger of 'Christianity, but not Atheism'
    The danger of 'Islam, but not Christianity'

    Get it together CNN, you're obviously just looking to inflame.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Bill Maher

      Wait'll CNN finds out what Muslims do to gays.

      I can't wait!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  10. Mary

    Being spiritual and not religious is smart, not a cop out! I was in organized religion for 30+ years. I have often encountered some of the worst hypocrisy and evil in organized religion. It, along with ethnicity or color, is the basis of so many wars! It's just another reason to hate each other.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  11. Freddy

    We, spiritual people as so called don't need some book to tell us how to live or what is right or wrong. We just call that having good character and being ethical. Reason is at the root of our everyday living.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  12. G

    What a non-issue!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  13. myway

    In light of the dubious worldly track record of various churches it shouldn't surprise anyone that people are looking for other paths to deal with their spirituality. After all, most church founders were doing the same in some sense. One of the problems is that church organizations need to constantly raise money to uphold appearances. That leads to all kind of mischieve, abuse of power and preferential treatment. In a world where people are managing their own spirituality this would not be a problem. After all, according to the Gospels Jesus was essentially executed for openly rebelling against his church leaders who turned their temples into a cottage industry of fund raising. Something to think about.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  14. Matt

    Remember when they used to sacrifice virgins in order to make sure the sun would come up the next day? That was religion.
    Remember when christians killed 200,000 people just so christians could have access to the holy land? That was religion.
    People are beheaded for mocking muhammad? That is religion.
    Women are not allowed to drive. That is religion.
    They believe the earth is only 6,000 years old? That is religion.
    People teach children that if they do something bad, they will burn in a pit of fire forever? That is religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • deep blue

      Religion is no excuse for evil action. By pretending that religion controls someone, forces them to do evil, you ignore their individual responsibility for their crimes. If you believe that individuals can differentiate between right and wrong without religion, then your claim of control reeks of hypocracy.

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

      Actually, these arguments have nothing to do with religion itself. It shows that people abuse religion to accomplish their goals and ambitions. That pretty much sums up what's wrong within religious history. Current events prove not much has changed over the centuries. It also shows that if someone is part of a religious group that doesn't necessarily mean they've become better people than the rest of us. In other words people are responsible for improving themselves in ways evident in daily life. Churches often supply an aura of indemnification for their members which is the root of many evils in this world.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  15. Alex

    What a stupid piece. Just moronic. I can't believe this is "news" – come on, CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  16. satpin

    i think he's got got it exactly backwards – religion is a cop out – trying to answer those answers on your own with sincerity and openess is not

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


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

      religion is not a cop out – giving up is a cop out.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Chris

      couldn't have said it better myself !

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  17. Michael

    I believe the dogma of modern day religion has run its course for some. Perhaps we should embrace the fact that people are still choosing to believe in something, even if the colors run outside the lines. I think a total copout on thought is going to church on their holy day while not embracing the real pursuit to understand what they believe. I see too many people on the religious end of the spectrum who can quote scripture as if it were handed from above but can't explain the real meaning of "The Sermon on the Mount". Maybe the religous should just come to grips with the fact that the spirtual are on a journey without the extra weight of ritual and tradition on their backs.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • graham7720

      Nicely said.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  18. bill.x

    What I think is that the writer of this piece is not truly aware what it is to be a believer. Not do to lack of intellegince or religious instruction – it's that he is not spiritual, or best, has not figured it out yet. To be spiritual, which one must be first even before they are religious, or joins or is joined into an organization, is not a mental construct or a mind driven journey. That is his error – so his premise is wrong, unfortunately, and why he can come to make such a argument as he does, treating being spiritual vs. religious the same as debating the difference between liking Coke vs. Pepsi. I think he has more realizing to do. A personal journey to make. And stay away from topic he does not yet understand – at least until he does.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  19. Stephanie

    I truely believe this person does not really have a clue about spirituality. My guess is that, the author probably accepted the religious beliefs from his family, and never branched out to see what else is out there. It is so sad, that so many people do not do their own research to find what is right for them. They just accept what organized religion tells them.

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

    I am glad to see the majority of the readers understand the so called issue more than Mr. Miller who is really the one who doesn't get it. Well done.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:14 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.