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. tdz123

    Thanks, now I can't stand organized religion even more.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  2. nottolate

    Hey author,

    See the guy in the picture? That ain't spiritual. Ya might wanna actually know what spiritual is before you attempt to write about it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  3. kathy

    There is no god. period.

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

      "There is no God. Period."
      "Jesus is God. Period."
      "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet. Period."

      Fundamentalist atheists make me laugh.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  4. Jessica

    Is it really fence sitting when you've made it clear that being part of organized religion is not for you? And all this crap about somehow it's obvious of our generation's selfishness that we don't do the organized religion thing... please, every religion I've been a part of has expected you to not only have a close relationship with the church, but a "personal" relationship with a god or whatever. For the record, i am atheist, and I'm glad to see churches losing attendance. Maybe then they'll get their noses out of government.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • MomOf3

      I totally agree! I've never been to a church where my 'personal relationship' with their god didn't take a back seat to the church's 'personal relationship' with my wallet!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  5. FreyaV

    CNN should be utterly ashamed for having printed this drivel, and the author, if not fired, should be given a clue.

    A happily questioning agnostic Unitarian Universalist with Buddhist, Jewish and "pagan" leanings and an abhorrence of fear-based, sin-based, and/or fundamentalist doctrines, as well as of narrow minds

    September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  6. JosephDC

    Don't let Mr. Miller fool you! His final phrase in the first paragraph: "...struck at the heart of Western society." Is another feeble attempt to use fear to control the masses. Sounds like religion...
    Thinking of it as "Western" views is isolationist and that is destructive. We are "humans". Not "Americans". Not "Western". Let's figure out what it means to be one people.

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

      Religion, just one more label that can used to divide us as a species.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  7. DJP

    While I do agree with the basic point he is trying to make I also must agree with other comments here that the article does not seem very well organized to prove the point. However one statement in particular stuck out to me.
    "The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings."
    Interesting and likely accurate point associating the megachurches with "spiritual but not religious" based on the points of networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.
    Religion was not intended to be a social club as it's primary point of being.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  8. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Pretty obvious this is just a step in the process of separating ourselves from our parents indoctrination. First you break away from insttutional indoctrination as a step towards the realization we do not have Gods watching over us. Breaking generational indoctrination is difficult, sometimes it takes small steps.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  9. Jamie Dawson-Osborne

    Congratulations. You have just negated the millions of people in recovery/12 step programs. I know more people who have been clean from drugs and alcohol with more than 10, 15, 20 years clean who are "spiritual, not religious". Many of them are atheists and they act more "christian" than you, sir. They do not live their lives in a church. They live their lives 24/7 being loving, caring, growing human beings. Your opinions are the very reason why many of us do not go to a church. We have our own community. I certainly wouldn't want yours.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  10. John

    What's the fear, that these rigid cults are losing members? Is that the author's real concern?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  11. Kevin Barbieux

    Being Spiritual but not religious reminds of of those people who say "I'll pray for you," but never actually lend a hand. It's all cop out. Actually, all religion is a cop out, a way of avoiding life's unpleasant and difficult aspects. As for 'spirituality it self – it is no more real than the power of Dumbo's little black feather.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • atimoth

      I hope people still recognize that there is a shift in fundamental religious beliefs. I agree with your post about the interpretation and what seems the author's obliviousness to the shift, but hopefully when you look around you'll see or notice people readily admitting no particular religios ties, but readily searching.

      I've actually been quite impressed to even read the well spoken responses to this article considering how shallow the thesis was. Gives me hope that the more educated we become, the freer we also become from traditional, easy-way-out trains of thought that is spiritual beliefs based on times where readily admit where times of less knowledge and inability to reason.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  12. rt

    People look around the U.S. and say, 'oh there are so many 'religious people' here today, especially compared to Europe.

    I look around here and say, ' jeez, I've never seen more self righteous, santimonious hypocrites in one place in my entire life.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  13. religiously spiritual

    I think Mr. Miller has gotten his shorts in a knot over something that to most people wouldn't even register on the meter. My first and only exposure to that phrase was when I was single and tried several on-line dating sites. That term was used, I think, to help describe yourself in the profile section as someone who believed in a "higher power" but did not attend religious services regularly or at all. Just my opinion but I think he is trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  14. atimoth

    Author missed the point. By not accepting something at face value, is exactly why people are trending away from religions. Look at all the wars and conflicts. Religion is at thre root of most of it.

    Religions are also beginning and some have represented corporate structure and objectives for quite some time. That is the opposite of what spiritual introspection and research is about. Settling for stays quo is also keeping us from reaching new heights.

    Is it me, or did the author's closing statement makes it sound like a bad thing to admit that we may not know the truth about the meaning of life; and therein lies the problem. We live in a world where saying, "I don't know the meaning," is perceived as a weakness. When, in reality and in regard to human purpose and possibilities, that should be an acceptable answer. Yet, people are judged and made to feel like they don't belong when provided with that response.

    Side note, spirituality without action or thought has just as much risk associated with it. One day, humanity will win out and we will break through. Conservative egotistical religious beliefs across the globe is exactly what's holding the world back. Change is coming.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  15. JF

    This is so ridiculous. CNN, we have worthy issues on our plate today which have NOTHING to do with "religion". Get with the program before the program gets rid of you.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  16. Bazoing

    When I was young I spent 11 years in college taking many subjects and eventually 4 degrees. I definitely conclude that it is not unscientific or unrealistic to believe in a God, and following Jesus also makes sense. However, places of worship are magnets for narcissists and predators. Almost any organized religion focuses on dominating women, and one's offspring. And, yes most public behavior like in the beach picture is a sign of already emerging mental illness. Often these people have literally been driven from their childhood churches, and also driven a little mad.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  17. elmo

    The article was written by "Alan Miller, Special to CNN". Alan based on this article there is nothing special about you.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  18. Steve

    Alan Miller simply doesn't get it. He's pulling the same tricks organized religion have used for thousands of years: 'Man up, it's time to choose sides. And here are your various fairy tale choices...' This type of thinking is the very reason why civilizations are in a constant state of war. Mr. Miller and his cohorts look at it like a big game. You have to choose your team, and then move on to convert everyone else in order to honor your God. There are no organized religions that seem to be content with their own beliefs without having to convert everyone else. And then it always ends with hatred towards anyone who has chosen another set of beliefs, and then (surprise, surprise) ultimately war. Sorry Mr. Miller, I don't buy it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  19. Rhonda

    Hmmm... Mr. Miller - all due respect. You haven't scared me into thinking that I need to make a choice- as to ' which is it'. I was raised in a Catholic home and I visited many many churches of other religions/faith all through my life and I'm 60 now. I observed and listened when I visited those other churches. I found one common denominator in all of those places: Hypocrisy, Corruption , money-focus and self-servance. I think you and the brick and mortar goers are the ones that need to make a choice as to ' which' is it '... Again– you as a religious person and apparently not a ' spiritual ' person- think that if its not your way its the highway or is it hellway. Your article just proves our point that you're judgemental of anyone different from you. I lived a good life.. I pray/meditate... I've helped my family and fellow man. I'm good with being spiritual. I know that the Lord will not forsake me because I don't congregate. I believe you have enough things to work on inside of your brick and mortar congregation to keep you busy... You don't have to worry about us ' Spiritual ' people out here... We're already there. Don't be so scared ok? In the end each one of us will meet our maker- one at a time - not as a group.

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

    The Pope paid Alan a million bucks to do this. Their coffers are getting empty with each passing year.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 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.