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. james

    That is a naïve and shortsighted option

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  2. Try THIS

    SHUT UP and GIVE

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Why is "god" so helpless without money?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  3. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    I'm an atheist, but my take on SBNR:

    All religions were just made up by one or more persons with no independent corroboration to prove the origin of the source (as in, allegedly "god" spoke to so and so, who then wrote it down, but no one else saw or heard "god" speaking to so and so and yet everyone believes the story). And even if anyone is said to have said they also saw or heard this alleged "god" the fact is their "god" offers no repeat performances, no testable properties to prove its existence. NADA!

    If you're christian, mor(m)on, or muslim and you are not Jewish, then you're stupid as $h|+ since all these faiths are based on Yahweh! Even if the Jewish god were real, which it isn't, it wouldn't apply to you if you're not Jewish. Why would it? Just because some ancient Jews said that the god they made up said that their faith was suddenly applicable to the entire world? What a load of $h|+! Just because some ancient Jews were arrogant enough to claim that they were the people chosen by the god they made up? HA HA HA! How hard is that story to fabricate? No other nationalities were able to independently corroborate this claim. No other nationalities were even aware that the Jews had their own "god" until they started spreading it around.

    Anyway, at least SBNR's are somewhat thinking for themselves (as opposed to religious people who don't think at all) by rejecting these ludicrous obsolete religious writings. They're kind of like agnostics in their uncertainty, but they know for sure that any group that claims their "god" supports the armies of one country or another. or condemns those who don't believe the same way, or who condones burning "witches" or slaying "infidels" is full of absolute and total BS!

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

    From the article: "...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."

    There is no need to offer an explanation for one's belief. Augustine's "Credo ut Intelligam" (I believe in order to understand) presupposes facts not in evidence and proceeds to predestined conclusions. You do too, Mr. Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. drewm1732

    Maybe you should actually speak to some of these people before putting them down and espousing your own beliefs

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  6. kin

    CNN this article is really below your standards.

    How can this not be seen as a Pro-Christianity piece when the author agrees that something like reading/writing would not have happened without the bible?

    "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 article is very insulting to the many people out there who consider themselves Agnostic.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  7. Burden of proof

    A true equivalent to the true message of this article is as follows:

    Today many Americans believe in unicorns, but refuse to follow the manual of unicorns written by man who cannot prove they've ever interacted with unicorns in the first place.

    Spiritual but not religious is not regression, religion itself is regression to loincloths and cave paintings. Regression to an era without science, where anything unexplainable received a god label. Progression is science, the future is science, society is based on science. Without it you would be living under trees and praying to the sun each morning.


    September 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Lisa

      "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

      September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  8. Richard

    "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."

    And, just imagine how the world might be different if the very first book people read didn't involve imaginary friends and enemies and a whole host of some of the most ridiculous ideas ever conceived by mankind.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  9. alexis

    And what if religion and spirituality weren't contradictory ? They don't have to be !

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. drewm1732

    I'm sorry but who says that individual spirituality is "nothing positive" and that those who reject organized religion are self-obssesed rebels who just don't want to put up with the ritual and responsibility of religion? This is a mighty reaction to something you clearly don't understand. Personally, I believe most modern religions were created by man to explain things they couldn't understand at the time. Since then, modern science and technology has provided many of these answers and organized religion seems to create more conflict than good. Therefor I chose to forgo organized religion, but that doesnt mean i dont have an appreciation for the interconnectedness of man kind or an understanding a higher HUMAN good.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  11. Wilbur in Seattle

    Call it a cop out if someone just doesn't want to talk about church everywhere they go. Today saying that you are "spiritual" just means that you don't want to talk about Jesus. If you say you're an atheist, people will suspect that you are a communist. If you say you don't believe in their religion, they are compelled to convert you. The semantics of the term adapt to the cultural current. Some.things just become etiquette.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  12. Doug

    What a pathetic article. It's pretty sad that CNN is presenting this as news and not just an opinion article. You're horribly vain if you think you're the only one honest and smart enough to have ever wondered about the meaning of life. Everyone asks those questions. The thing is, not everyone makes a show out of it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Doug

      By the way, claiming to know everything you can't possibly know is one of the reasons people laugh at religion in the first place.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Bill the Deist

      Pulled from the article "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller."

      Just saying...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  13. harrmtl

    Oh my (god). what an awful, non-sense bit of crap. The lesson Mr. Miller teaches is that you have to choose between either A)the bible and your orgaziced mega religion or B) science and human knowledge to date. Anything that lies between, or that you may discover for yourself, is a cop out. Really, I've never read such garbage in my life.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  14. dalyhaspowers

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." Meh. Too soon to answer these questions

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  15. It's okay, Alan

    Alan Miller writes, "Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better."

    I actually became 'spiritual but not religious' BECAUSE, for many years, I thought long and hard about God and my soul and my fellow human beings. I looked at the materialistic wealth of the Vatican, the Christian zealotry of U.S. Republicans, the bombing of innocents by Muslim extremists, and so on and so on...and it turned me off from worshipping a jealous, totalitarian god. I became 'spiritual but not religious' BECAUSE I ASKED QUESTIONS, and religion had NONE of the answers that satisfied me.

    I really feel sorry for the author of this article. He seems one of those "think inside the box" and "black and white" sorta guys. It seems he cannot fathom that people reject the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of organized religions because he's been taught 'that's how things are" and so one must not question anything or anyone. HE cannot fathom stepping away from a fascist ideology. Reminds me of Nazi Germany.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Steve in WI

      So true......It seems to me that the "cop out" is the person who elects to have a recipe that directs him or her what to believe in.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Lauren


      September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Bill the Deist

      I AGREE COMPLETELY!!! I couldn't believe in the God portrayed in the scriptures... who murdered countless babies, inspires hatred of a particular people based on se-xual orientation or national origin, and even attempted to commit mass genocide. There was too much evidence for an omnipotent, intelligent designer for me not to believe in God, but too much BS in the religion business for me to label myself as a particular denomination. This is why my "spiritual" journey ultimately lead me towards deism. Deism: Belief in a God (based on reason and nature alone) who set creation/evolution in motion, then chose to step back and observe.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  16. sense 34

    What are you talking about?It appears you have no understanding of religion or spirituality.
    Let me explain:
    1. All formal religions have their origins in one person or a small group of people seeking spirituality.
    2. Formal religions may unite people of the same faith but they separate others of different faiths. Ex. The catholic church denies communion and marriage in their churches to those who have not been baptized catholic (Sound like the rules of a exclusive club to me)
    3. History has shown that Organized religion has fueled hatred and violence towards millions of people in the name of GOD.
    4. Organized religion oppresses populations and often acts contradictory to what it preaches.

    A person's faith is their own. Whether they belong to an organized religion or not does not matter. If their faith helps them deal with life's challenges, overcome obstacles, be a better person,love, tolerate and respect others, then who cares.

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

      I'm in agreement sense 34, with your comments. Although there is undoubtedly a place for emotion and touchy feelings, spirituality is the sum of my personal relationship with God and my spirituality. The Holy Spirit and faith in God, which comes from God, leads me to understand LOVE to a degree that some religious facades lack. For example, because of Romans 14:3, and my abundant faith, I BELIEVE that I should not judge others nor hinder them from their religion; however, I choose to use discernment. Regarding any extremism, including that of some self-proclaimed religious people, I respect human life and choice because God gave me the skills to do so. I steer clear of religions BECAUSE I follow God, not man. All things in moderation, sometimes it is possible to fellowship and find God in religion, but not always.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • casey

      Hummm...well ... i would say 1. Agree, but would sdd that its also often a response to an event or series of events. 2. WRONG. THE catholic church wants you to bea member of the church... and understand the true nature of these sacrements before you can participate. YOU CAN BE BAPTISED SOMEPLACE else but you need to go through 1 st communion and receive teaching in the Catholoc faith. Seems reasonable to me. 3. Unfounded generality.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • sense 34

      The following are just some of the events that have received approval by a religious organization:
      1. All of the crusades.
      2. Terrorism
      3. Slavery
      4.The inquisition
      5. The holocaust (Nazism was an organized religious faith)
      6. Salem Witch Trials
      7. The oppression and re-education of Native Americans

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  17. acheptler

    Buddy in the picture should lay off the wheat...and put some sunscreen on....oh, and not believe in stupid sith like "gods".

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  18. Bill the Deist

    I strongly disagree with this article. I do not believe that one has to be told how to believe in God. My reasons for believing, are going to be completely different and even conflict with those of someone else. Ask two different "Christians" about their interpretation of the book of Revelations. It's not WHAT you believe that matters to God, it's that you simply believe.

    The following quote from Thomas Jefferson points us in a direction free of the confusion of priest-craft and revealed religion:

    "I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces; the structure of the Earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere; animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles; insects, mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammoth; the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe, that there is in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their Preserver and Regulator, while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regeneration into new and other forms. We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power, to maintain the universe in its course and order."

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  19. Chris

    As an atheist, I do believe that most of the people this person is referring to in this essay are more than likely also atheists, but have unfortunately been conditioned by society too much to not embrace their actual beliefs, so in certain respects I agree with him.

    With that said, I can't really tell if this guy is a religios zealot or an atheist based on this blog. It just seems like a pretentious anger filled rant.

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

    Nobody cares op typing and what you think as much as they notice what you do. STOP TYPING and START GIVING

    September 30, 2012 at 9:27 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.