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. jumanji777

    A cop-out? Yes, religion acts like a cop, trying to tell you what to do, how to think, and to make all it's adherents believe the same myths. So in that sense, yes, who would want to be a robot. But cop-out as in too weak to take on a belief system? Nonsense. You have to be brave to leave organized religion and be able to explore life for yourself. The author is immature and I'm trying to be kind. CNN is a shell of it's former self and could use a soul searching escape from the religion of big brother.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  2. Richard

    "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."

    Religions explain nothing, either – they are just sets of dogma (beliefs or tenets that are to be accepted and not questioned because "bettter" minds have already fiigured this stuff out.

    And, religion is for those who would have others tell them how they should act, think, feel, and believe, That is counterfeit spirituality. True spirituality is figuring those things out for yourself.

    As long as there are those who would have others tell them how they should act, think, feel, and believe, there will be religions – and, those exploiting them for their own agendas.

    "God" is merely a power play. It is an attempt to steal the authority of an all powerful being. It matters not whether that being actually exists. What matters is that people believe He exists and that certain people speak/spoke for Him. Don't fall for it.

    As for myself, if there is such a thing as a "God" and He has anything to say to me, I have FAITH that He knows where I am and how to say it so I know it is really Him. Therefore, I ignore ALL the clowns who pretend to speak for Him – especially, if they lived and died thousands of years ago.

    God believers fail to realize that, regardless of whether "God" (whatever that is) exists, or not, "it" will ALWAYS be a construct in their imagination that they created for themselves. And, "God" doesn't have to be anything like that. So, it's just an imaginary friend.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  3. proud2bsecular

    Another oh-my-gosh-I-wonder-what-he's-going-to-say opinion piece by someone who quotes the Bible. I don't happen to believe that anyone is qualified to determine which religious path is "the real one" (but everyone has an opinion and seems to think it is an olympic event with their team bound to finish first). Because we can't see this finish line in heaven,hell or neither, maybe we could look at what helps people here on earth to treat ourselves, each other and the planet with genuine compassion. Does Christianity win that medal? Islam? If these religions were answering all people's questions and helping them become the people our times require of us, maybe there wouldn't be any other need for people to find other ways to explore their spirituality. Any really, isn't it human nature to explore these kinds of unchartable frontiers? Why so defensive Mr. Tradition? Does it threaten your fundamentalist beliefs to have people exploring their own in less rigid ways? If you really believe there is only one way to heaven....then by all means follow it, yourself.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  4. Kingof-Kings

    Those who have in any sense experienced hell knows that only spirituality is right. Every man knows in their heart what is right and what is wrong, not every man listens. When you don't understand how to follow your heart there is religion and they will each tell you to follow "their" God.. The is only one god and he resides inside of every one, your choice to listen. We live in a world enslaven by money, the ill gotten money of greed, torture, murder and destruction. The world papered, to say this is mine... when all belongs to all. Kings and Queens, dictators and tyrannts have always sought to reign over us and when it began to unravel, with the discovery of a new world..Everything changed, for a little while, then a new plan..many wars leading to the Bolshevik and then to WW1 after which the roman catholic through consolidation of debt.. crash of 29 were given rights to their own country. And then WW2, so much re-written history, after which a tiny minority of zionists took over by paper right and force a little piece of land, one which was to restore as was prophesized to the Jews in their book..Now who would live in a fairy tale world and project such a murderous scenario upon the world..her majesty??or psychopathic manic as hitler was driven to be, as was rumored of their close relations in the early days of the war...which religious group infiltrates almost every if not every government in the world..?? better questions should be asked!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  5. scott

    If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery

    /\ Believe it or ELSE!!
    I mean believe it or not?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  6. Thezel

    This all started with the reformation. Put all the Protestants in this group as well.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  7. Mythyx

    The author says "The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world."

    Horribly incorrect. Which sin? Coveting? Adultery? Honor they Father and Mother? These are NOT sins these are devices to create guilt. WHY do people need to make a decision. Religions have caused way to many problems in this world and need to be done away with. Let people find their own way.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • lbpaulina

      I think sin may refer either to the "guilt" in general. It is a very deep and sometimes very painful feeling found at the base of serious problems and disorders. Or the author might think of the original sin, the ancestral sin of the Christian theological doctrine.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  8. Due


    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  9. Forever Judas

    Before I go back to my sunday morning paper, a couple of things to chew on:

    1. There is no high surveilance camera in the sky keeping score on you for heaven or hell
    2. This supreme being has a communication problem (does not reply to phone calls, emails, text, injustice or suffering)
    3. Life eats Life to survive... was this part of the DESIGNER'S (creator) design?

    and last but not least:

    We are on our own so make the best of it and be HAPPY... life is too short to duel on nonsense as to god or not god.


    September 30, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • jumanji777

      If the gov keeps on going downhill there will be drone cameras looking down on you.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  10. 200 TON HAMMER

    spirituality and religion= dead end these two things have no foundation.Wisdom Has a Vast Foundation That Is Unlimited.there are billions of people world wide who are spiritual and religion,But They Are Very Empty on the Inside,and they still have not Found what they are Looking for.spirituality and religion makes more people sad on the inside,inside their soul,inside their hearts,there is a saying what ever you are thinking soon your feet take you there.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  11. M.Aguero

    Alan Miller,
    You said, "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."

    This is your opinion. Did one person challenge you on this? If so, then you should take it up with them. You make it seem like this has been opposed by the spiritual-but-not-religious group that you have made up. There are a lot of people who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious, but this is not an organization. It is a modern feeling that is shared and everyone has their own PERSONAL belief or relationship.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  12. Chuck Yanikoski

    Or you could say that traditional religion is the cop-out.
    Why? Because it posits definite answers (doctrine) to important questions about which we in fact know little or nothing: the ultimate nature of reality, the original source of our existence, what will happen to us (and to the rest of the universe) in the future. These answers are not based on rationality, but on a willful irrationality, a determined effort to believe what cannot be demonstrated or even made plausible. This fault is turned into a virtue, called "faith" - but you can just as accurately call it lots of other things, one of which is "cop out." In some domains, knowledge is impossible, but faith is merely difficult. This makes faith the cop-out, and acceptance of unknowability the true virtue.
    What spiritual-but-not-religious people do is less of a cop-out. What Miller criticizes them for is actually their strength - they refuse to base their lives and their spirituality on the unknowable. Instead, they base it on what they find directly knowable, which is their own sense of a spiritual reality or presence. And their explicit beliefs tend to be fuzzy because, for the most part, they know that their is much that they do not know. And unlike members of traditional religions (who mostly, I suspect, in their hearts also know that they do not know, but view their doubts as an embarrassment, or even a sin), the "merely" spiritual are more likely to accept openly what is true: both their inability to know, but also their sense that there is something worthwhile (if undefinable) there.
    This can very well be Christian, in the truest sense. Jesus was not big on doctrinal discipline: it was by their fruits, not their words, that his true followers would be known.
    Despite 2000 years of all-too-human intervention and obfuscation, this is still true.
    Even I, a devout agnostic, who believes that even the merely spiritual are probably wrong, can see that.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  13. Texas B

    It's comforting to read the comments after such an article. I feel that the people described in this article may not represent indecision so much as a gradual moving away from religion at large – at least in the Western world. As science continues to progress, and the knowledge of general people increases, along with the tremendous availability of information, the actions of religion's leaders appear more frantic and more outrageous.

    Possibly what the author describes is the growth of intelligence. The idea that religion is for everyone and should be forced upon those who are unsure, is offensive.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  14. Bill Maher

    I hope some Mullah issues a fatwa on me, too!

    I made a nasty film about Mohammed, too!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Suminda

      Bender Posted on Vaya, yo me quede9 en los Resident de la PSX, y veo que la saga ha evolucionado con buena salud. Me ecntnaareda tener me1s tiempo para jugar a estos juegos de faltima generacif3n.

      November 10, 2012 at 3:31 am |
  15. Due

    Do something nice for people. Don't tell them what to do. Don't tell them what you think unless they

    September 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  16. Rich

    Miller's assertion that we wouldn't have fine art or widespread literacy without the bible is laughable. Things would certainly be diffferent had christianity not been a major factor in our developement, but does that mean we can't grow beyond it? The "spiritual, but not religious" movement is a necessary first step toward freedom from the ignorance that has blanketed civilization for all of written history. I think it's a baby step, and spirituality of any kind is delusional, but I'm not inclined to step in and interrupt the process.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  17. Frank

    Very well written for someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  18. Marc

    The reason the populace read the Bible was because that was the first mass produced book - it was the only option initially. There simply weren't other literary works available to the "Common" man. Why is this? Because the religious leaders (the ones with the money) would support the dissemination of their own ideas.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  19. Mo

    This is another case where the author completely misses the subject. He can see religion only along the lines he has lived it, therefor, he must annalyze others through that filter. If people are not studying the doctrine he knows, then they must not be studying doctrine at all.
    If people don't get together to discuss things the way his religion demands, they must not discuss things at all.
    If people don't have his goals in mind, they must have no goals.
    In no way do I think folks who identify themselves as spiritual find their path better than the authors. Nor do they find his worse. They identify their path as their own. Period.
    Perhaps it is the apparent arrogance of religion that has turned so many off.

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

      Thank you, Mo, for calling this article as the ignorant, arrogant, xenophobic load of crap that it is.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  20. John

    What a nut job with a terrible artical void of all reason. On the upside though it is so good to see the many positive posts here and my firm 'belief' is that when we succeed in meaningful ways to replace tradition with reason we will have accomplished a very important and needed milestone in our worlds history. Thanks for speaking out!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:20 am |
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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.