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. wowzers!

    This article is not worthy to be on the CNN website. The argument is barely substantiated and the author is incredibly biased. This sounds like a high school student wrote it. The argument is so non-complex. This person is confused.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Bazoing

      Sly, not confused.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  2. LoveLoveCrazyLove

    And... the problem may also lie with the author's belief in God, rather than him knowing and trusting God.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Bazoing

      He might also be a predator. There is a lot of money and a lot of power available in those places. Aside from evil people who want to be clergy, there are the more (or less) subtle ones. For instance some insurance companies suggest that their agents sell more large policies by belonging to two churches. And comments about 'young people today' are a definitely confusion. I can witness that people have been saying that for over 50 years and that it is probably as old as the language.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  3. John

    LOL, as I have said before America is progressing past the antiquated concept of religion, spiritualism is an obvious next step. And at some point in the near future, hopefully during my lifetime, we are going to see a dramatic drop in religion as a whole.

    Following this agnostics faith will become true atheism and we will finally be free of mystic silliness created by man for man.

    I know this scares the religious believers out there as this article clearly proves. Just remember it is only a matter of time and is not something you can stop – its called evolving.

    BTW any type of faith based practice is a "cop out", you and you alone are accountable for your actions and the way you live your life, duh!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  4. RZ70

    You have, in fact, fundamentally missed the point. Most of these folks are looking for a way to fit something into their lives. Far too many churches completely fail to teach how to do that in any kind of modern sense. There was a time when churches really just wanted you to be a good person. Now that is not enough. If every member isn't out there spreading the word, they're somehow failing. I wish I knew where this came from because it is just wrong. Jesus didn't call every follower to literally follow him around. The old west was not full of parishoners standing on the street corner. They were both quite happy with most people following the principles in the Bible and leading a good life. Now unless you drop to a knee and thank God after every victory, great and small, you're just not a good Christian. That's why people don't affiliate themselves with churches anymore. Too many chruches have gone overboard. Every last single sermon seems to about how you need God to do ANYTHING in your life. Apparently chruches are unwilling or unable in instructing people how to get along with each other without praying for guidance. Ridiculous.
    Being a Christian does not mean any of that. There are 10 Commandments. Half of them tell you everything you really need to know about dealing with God, and the other half are for how we should deal with each other. And they don't all end in "Let us pray that the good Lord give us the strength that we may do this".
    Fix this problem. Make sure churches understand that they need to be giving people the skills to live as Christians under their own power (the majority of the time), and maybe you'll find more people in the pew.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Everyone

      How about you fix the Ten Commandments after The Lord your god broke them all himself. Have to love the hypocrisy of 'faith based morals' get real

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  5. conniek5256

    Jesus is coming again to get His followers and i'm going with Him...are any of you ? it's not too late 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • midwest rail

      Are you predicting the end of times ?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Whatever! Jesus is said to have said that 2000 years ago. And what's more he is said to have said that he was coming RIGHT BACK! So he's a bit late wouldn't you say?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • John 12:24

      Why wait, hasten to meet him in heaven, bye bye.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Forever Judas

      Will he tweet his eta and roundup location?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Rhonda

      Yes conniek5256, I'm going to be there– no doubt. I will be there holding you up.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  6. Jack Wibbe

    The author seems to think that he has launched in invincible argument, just by filling the logical battlefield with insulting straw-man arguments: his opponents are retrogressive, young, peddling a “happiness” agenda, “feel better”, anti-discipline, anti-challenging, self-obsessed, unwilling to take a real position, fence-sitting, not-knowing, pretending they have a deeper, profound relationship, obsessed with feelings, blah blah blah. He really really doesn’t like us, therefore we must be wrong.

    Knowing subconsciously that his insults are fallacious, he buttresses his flimsy straw-men with other fallacies: we must be wrong because we haven’t explained our beliefs to others (why should we?), that we must choose between scripture and the rationality of atheism (why are those the only two choices?) and the idiotic argument that without Christianity, we wouldn’t have literacy or Bach (or twenty centuries of the oppression of women, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the torture of scientists, the acquiescence to Hitler and child molesters….).

    As those pesky youngsters would say…epic fail.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Jberg

      Very well said. No one needs to explain why, what or who they believe in. Justifying your beliefs just goes to show you may have more doubts about them then others who just walk the walk.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Hope

      Your response is awesome! First one I saw, but very well composed and open minded unlike the blog's author. 🙂

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

      You are absolutely right! He has no understanding of those of us who choose to find our own path to a more spiritual life. I find his article supercilious, trite and demeaning. It takes courage to forge your own path and to question authority and traditional dogma. It takes courage to seek your own truth and not just take the well worn path. And it takes courage to say "I don't know what the answer is, but I am going to be open to all possibilities".

      September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  7. Fernando

    Alan Miller has convinced me that I should align myself with a church-oriented organization. After reading this article, I would be particularly interested in joining an organization set on removing the tax exempt status for all religious organizations, and regulating them as political action committees.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Frank

      if that is what your looking for then you might want to look at the Mormon faith as they already pay all their taxes – LOL

      September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  8. rt

    No one can tell anyone else how to believe. Those who think they 'know', don't. Those who 'know they know', know the least of all. This tripe is just more propaganda to keep you sheep in line and following the old order, which is, and has been failing for a while now.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Bazoing

      It is not just for a while. There have always been loads of people everywhere who saw religion as something to put up with. The reality is that everyone has their own theology.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  9. Ted Mfune

    What utter nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Everyone


      September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  10. John the Guy

    London"s Barbican may want to cancel his speaking gig after reading this tripe.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  11. Chris

    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.

    ...OH, I see, because "God wanted it that way." or "God must be testing me" or "God works in mysterious ways" aren't cop-outs???? Please. Anyone in the 21st century who still believes a supernatural deity has a destiny for them is living a cop-out life.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  12. mr. poopypants

    Uh-oh. Looks like the theists are starting to squirm now that rational, sane people are starting to seek truth outside of their authority. About darn time that the corrupt, misogynistic (Exodus 21:7), repressive, ignorant, slave-owning, child molesting, Inquisition and Jihad starting, anti-scientific, anti-freedom, anti-reason, anti-logic, blind faith, TAX EXEMPT theists start disappearing from the world stage back into the Bronze Age darkness from which they slithered...

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  13. Rev Foistus Uponyou

    The collection plate must be empty.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  14. Kris Jois

    Is Alan Miller, Special to CNN, paranoid that Hinduism is taking over to other Western Religion? No wonder!! Look into Hinduism it offer more than Western Religions. This satisfy most Western youth, so what is wrong with that? My brother in 2050 there will be only Hinduism in Western world think about that.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  15. Snake

    What a load of hooey.

    Essentially, that the author is saying that unless a person links their spiritual belief with a religious organizational construct, the belief is invalid.

    This author's Christian bias is SCREAMING through this article. His dissertation on the King James Bible (which is NOT accurate to the Hebrew texts) and his statement

    "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."

    shows that he only has a singular viewpoint on the matter.

    There are SEVERAL religions in the world that tell the person to see out individual answers, individual meaning and individual spirituality, but they are completely discounted by the overtly Westernized and singularly Judeo-Christian ideological viewpoint of this author. He discounts anyone not abiding by some interpretation of the Bible.

    "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?"

    And then goes on to preach the virtues of the King James Bible.

    Please. There is a reason this is an opinion piece – please keep your Judeo-Christian worldview to yourself, thank you. I'm Atheist and can read through your bias like an open book. 'Unless you follow a religion, preferably MY religion, you are simply kidding yourself' is the distilled point of this 'article'.

    Just another self-important religious individual preaching [his] own singular view of the world.

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

    Good thing that mainstream religion answers all the questions that spirituality does not. You know, stuff like where god came from, why an omnipotent deity wants to be worshipped, why a supposedly good being could consign a soul to eternal torment...oh wait, it doesn't do any of that.

    Protip: neither spirituality nor religion answer ANY questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  17. Rev Foistus Uponyou

    Garbage in, garbage out.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  18. KewlJoJo

    Organized religion in this country has come down to Pat Robertson grubbing money on TV. Flash that 800 number at the bottom of the screen and we accept all major Credit Cards! The world is coming to an end, so send me your money!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  19. Are you

    going to do anything for anyone today? Or are you going sit on the internet and think about yourself all day?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • KewlJoJo

      This is your business because?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  20. Andrew

    There is a grain of truth to this in the sense that some people say they are spiritual even though they walk no path. Beyond that point I feel the author simply doesn't get it. Jesus taught inward reflection and spiritual practice, not doctrine and rules. The spirituality movement in the west is largely a recognition that the greatest connection with God is found within, development is individual and personal, and that truth may be found in many sources rather than a subscription to one.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:33 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.