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. Glen

    Religion is organzed theft. Theft of your money, theft of your time and theft of your individualism. All they want is your money and control of you. Control to tell you who to vote for, how to think etc. Once i freed myself from the "Kool Aid" of religion, I was much happier and more open to things like gay people and pro-choice. Poeple are people and God made them that way, so who am I to deny them anything. Religion is for bigots and people who can't think on their own.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • John the Guy

      To the point and quite right. Thanks.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  2. Bob

    I stopped going to organized church because I couldn't take the hypocrisy any more. People acting pious and self righteous only when they are at the church. Book burnings (harry potter), music burnings (the eagles), and all of the other ignorant garbage. Currently I would have to say I'm agnostic, but I really do want to believe. However, church is where I "feel the spirit" the least. The church now, and through history, has been a story of ignorance, barbarism, violence, self righteousness (especially republicans this election cycle, driving even more people away), vanity, corruption, and self absorption.

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

    Wow. What a way to insult intelligent thinking people. This article was total crap. Don't tell me what to think!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Michelle

      Agreed, sounds like having an open mind to the world around us is being dispayed as a negative view. I used to be an extremely active church goer, sermons, youth group, mission trips. The hypocrisy is abundant and judgement of others is their focus.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  4. small minds

    that is only opinion. one could argue that sweeping opinion-based arguments are dangerous (and condescending,too) suggesting that one belief system is incorrect. It's like saying the song you like sucks and that is a fact based on the rules of the road of how I believe in songs. it's total crap, and it's close-minded. Imagine if people focused their time on being of service to others, not on this egocentric crap (my religion is right, yours is wrong). sad people still try to force their views on other...small minds, small minds

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  5. JBW

    The day I am forced to follow a body of religion, is the day I go out fighting. All "religions" seek to unify everyone under a set of orgainized rules and beliefs...organized Islam, Christianity, Scientology. They all must be stopped if we are to keep our freedom. Islam is winning, especially since it is now socially inexcusable to mention anything negative against Muhammad, although Christ can be hammered all day long without any negative impact. Your ability to enter Heaven, Paradise, whatever, is dependent on your personal relationship with God. Only God knows your life through and through. You could be the greatest and most revered member of a church, and still be privately harming others.

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

    Why does CNN seem to constantly pander to close-minded, bigots like this guy. They seem to be trying to promote Christianity instead of providing articles about the many other religions and philosophies in the world in their "Belief" blog. Very biased in my opinion. How about providing articles on Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, tribal religions, pantheists and other philosophical ideas? I think they need to change the name of the blog to "Christian Belief Blog". Better yet, get rid of it altogether since all they seem to do with it is promote the Christian mythology.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  7. citizen

    This is the lamest argument I have ever heard for why life would be better if we returned to some medieval social arrangement. Why does CNN keep presenting "news" like this?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  8. B21502

    Alan, Alan, Alan
    'If there was one sentence in your article that blows your opinion out of the water it is this :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. Of course your logic fails to consider that the gre

    September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  9. Ec1warc1

    A message to CNN for portraying this garbage as news: F.U.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • deep blue

      It is an opinion piece. As such, it is portrayed as commentary, not news.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  10. Spiritual but Not Religious

    Spiritual but Not Religious, AND Actively Thinking/Doing

    This article struck me as a judgmental caricature of a growing and diverse group of people the author clearly doesn't know or understand as well as he thinks he does.

    I'm sure it's true that some spiritual but not religious people use individually-focused activities to avoid wrestling with bigger questions about human life and to avoid a sense of obligation to our fellow humans. However, this is certainly not true of all or even most spiritual but not religious people.

    I used to belong to an evangelical, dogmatic church, where the majority of my "ministry" involved telling people about why they should believe what I believe (when I wasn't really even sure why I believed what I believed!), and the majority of my beliefs involved a personal relationship with God that made me "feel good". How is that any different than the aspersions the author is lobbing against spiritual but not religious people? I'm sure part of my spiritual immaturity at that time was due to the fact that I was a teenager, but it was all encouraged and praised by my "religious" community.

    Now that I'm older and consider myself spiritual but not religious, my beliefs are more lucid and complete about the nature of God, my place in the universe, and my obligation to other humans. I'm more at peace with myself and God than I ever was within the confines of organized religion, and I am as a result kinder to myself and my fellow humans now than I ever was as a member of an organized religion. I am a deeply sensitive person who has always felt strongly the pain and suffering of others, and I use that sensitivity as a motivator to get involved with pain and suffering to try to alleviate it. I volunteer in the community now in ways that actually brighten other people's lives and fill a real, human need. My former religious community would have thought the volunteering I do now admirable but incomplete without some accompanying evangelism, which is patently ridiculous and probably would have undermined any of the benefit I was bringing to others' lives.

    I agree that some spiritual people could do more to really think through their beliefs and the implications of those beliefs for their own and others' lives. But so could a lot of religious people. To cast these aspersions only on the spiritual but not religious is silly and ill-considered. Maybe the author should give the same thought to his writings on this topic that he thinks the spiritual but not religious should give to the really "important" questions in this world, like um...how to think about and treat your fellow humans (???). Total hypocrisy, ironic and hilarious.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  11. xavier

    The writer of this article is making generalities about something he has no clue whatsoever. I'm spiritual and I will never follow an organized religion. I don't believe in them. My common sense tells me dictates my opinions and in my lone and humble opinion I feel as though we human beings are searching for the truth in our origins and we aren't even close. Science and religion can provide insight but we're arrogant to think that we know how we got here.
    I believe in evolution. Despite how creationists and the religious try to twist and turn science to misinform their flock because they can't accept the hard and calcuable truth that science brings to the tabl., They can't deny it. And to the Atheists it doesn't make any logical sense in my eyes that all of these organized systems of life, the working of various cycles of our planet, the way the universe is governed by complex rules can come about from nothing.
    A machine can't put itself together with complex workings by itself. Something has to create and guide it. Evolution seems to have a purpose and guidance and it seems to me that there is an intelligence behind it. But I can't bring myself to follow any of the major religions.
    The reason why I stopped following Christianity is because of the Bible itself. How could I with a straight face believe the Book of Genesis? Our sin and suffering throughtout the ages was caused by a talking snake (not Satan but an actual talking snake) coercing the supposedly first woman into eating a magical fruit that gave her a consciousness and got her and her mate kicked out of a garden that they lived in with cows, lion, dinosaurs and sabretoothed cats? If you read the story it sounds nothing more than a creation myth.
    In the Bible God wanted animal sacrifices, slavery was condoned and I'm supposed to accept all of this and live my life in fear of this book or any other religious book like the Torah or the Koran and harshly judge people because they don't live up to it's expectations? Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other religion are not the worldwide religions. They never has been and I doubt never will be and I resent people like this author telling me I'm wrong because I choose to listen to what my heart and brain says to find what I think is the truth. The truth I believe is that no one has it right and the ones that call themselves sprtiual are the ones that realize that, at least in my case. And I'm smart enough to know that I could be totally wrong and anyone of the religions could be totally right because who truly knows how all of this came about? However my commense sense and me looking at things logically tell me that while I don't know everything that what I believe makes more senseto me than religions do. I don't push my views on others and I accept theirs so why can't this author do the same?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • jarodbee

      You cannot 'believe' in evolution. Evolution is a fact. It might 'seem' to you that there is an intelligence behind it, but you have no evidence. So my advice is: don't bet your life on it.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  12. karma sutra is the new spiritual
    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Richard Harris

      Nope, it is a animalistic ritual!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  13. JGex

    What a pithy, smarmy, pretentious, condescending tripe of Biblical proportions. Just because some of us don't warm a pew with our behinds on Sunday, doesn't mean we're indecisive... or that we haven't read the Bible.... or that we don't donate time and money to charity or helping others or that we're just sitting around waiting for the next 'feel good moment.' This crap sounds like something written during the Inquisition. Christians like to blather on about how loving they are, but in truth, they'd wipe out anyone who didn't agree with them in a New York minute if they could get away with it legally. Blow it out your collection plate, Alan Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  14. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Simply a natural generational progression away from indoctrination to Atheism.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • FloydZepp

      The problem you face is that you cannot prove that there is no God.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  15. bharatbasi

    some religions have emphasis on spirituality, the knowledge given by god and /or his representatives or great souls prophets or (great souls), who imparts knowledge of religions to less religious and spiritual people. this way spirituality of the religion stays intact and people stay religious with spiritual knowledge. hindu religion is a very good example for this. other religions lack strong spiritual knowledge, that is they become political, money making and thrive for power and end result becomes irreligious and without spiritual foundation..

    September 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  16. Mark

    Spiritual but not religious people do not attack those who do not believe as them. That is a cop out I can live with.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  17. spiritual

    The authors inability to see beyond black or white choices is myopic to say the least. It coveys a lack of intelligence and inability to see the other "truths". People who follow organized religion fall in the bottom of the Human intelligence pyramid. 1. The pursuit of truth is always individual. 2. It has to be experienced. For eg if you read about swimming you cannot experience it. 3. Spiritual but not religious is a very clear stance that the person does not belong to organized religion and connects with ones oneself.
    One does not need a "body of work". Reading the Bible or Quran, Gita is for people for low IQ and no courage who seek
    ready made "solutions" to their problems. I pity religious people. We don't need a pimp i.e a priest to connect with God.

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

      There is no evidence of a god. No god.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  18. gager

    Man is not born spiritual nor has a need for anything spiritual including religion. The installation of spiritual needs is religious propaganda. It is all nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  19. happyfrenchman

    This guy makes no sense... his fallacy is safe but these other people's fallacy is somehow a cop out..?. what is worse... ignorance, arrogance, the combination of the two combined with self righteousness and know it all ishness...?(I made that one up).

    There is no argument here for a thinking person... it is an appeal in the name of dogma. Wrapped in a bologna sandwich.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  20. jonat

    Former liberal hippies are the reason this country is so screwed up...don't need another generation of them

    September 30, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bill Maher

      Yesterday's liberal hippies are today's conservatives.

      Because if you're young and you're not a liberal, you have no heart.

      But if you're old and you're still a liberal, you have no brain.

      - Winston Churchill.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • midwest rail

      What a scintillating "observation" .

      September 30, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • FloydZepp

      Bush was a liberal Hippie?

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

      ... yet "conservatives" picked the liberal RomneyCare from a clown car of candidates. Talk about no brain.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:23 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.