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. Eric

    Humans were able to read and write long before the Bible. I love how you use religion to insult people who you think are losing sight of things.
    Religious people also take a "hodge podge approach" to understanding the universe. "I don't know how that works. God did it." This blog further destroys the credibility of CNN's objectivism.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • RPC

      Exactly. Because apparently to be objective is required that CNN agrees with you. Otherwise CNN is not objective.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  2. T

    Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking

    They are all that way. They all define truth differently. Every, single one of them.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Eric

      "Truth is whatever you feel it to be"
      Sounds like Christianity's talking snakes, virgin births, resurrections, miracles. Yeah, whatever you want it to be. Invisible friends are for children.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • codifex

      Yet, they have taken the first step. They are searching for truth.

      Scientists search for truth too but need to see concrete evidence. The spiritual person feels it and does not need to see it. They both have the same goal.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • jumanji777

      Yep, it takes a lot of courage to be your own person. If you are not going to be yourself then why be here at all? That includes figuring out life for yourself. Because no one can do that for you.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  3. Dave in Washington

    Being *Spiritual* leaves you powerless over people because they aren't following *your* religion. That's just to darn bad.

    As a child I listened to the pastors standing up on the altar telling me I was a sinner by the simple fact of me being born. Huh? Even as a child at a young age I questioned what the guys in the funny looking robes were telling me.

    If God is so powerful why does he need our money? Why can't he just provide what is needed by his faithful? Religion is about control.

    Ask the Pagans how they feel about Christianity? I guess having every man woman and child the crusaders could find being killed is a hiccup in history to you.

    Some of the worst people I have encountered in my life are religious. People that have an air of superiority about them because they believe in some invisible sky god fairy?

    The bible says that the earth is 5,000 – 6,000 years old. How do you explain humanoid remains that are millions of years old?

    Religion needs to go away. We don't need child molesters in big pointy hats telling us how to live our lives.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Irishserra

      I just thought I'd point out that I'm pretty sure the bible says no such thing regarding the age of the earth. It sounds like, from reading the article and the comments, that atheists, spiritualists and the religious really all know next to nothing about one another.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  4. Gurgyl

    Most of the religions are becoming "Just Commercial". This is the problem. If you help needy and poor, no god deny it. No religion says hold a gun and kill. I am losing faith in religion–I am not an atheist., please. GOP is acting as a cult. My take is be honest, show the allegiance the nation that feeds you, pay taxes, help needy and poor, and pass. In doing these you have self interest too–to attain good name–ok, but leads to good.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  5. asche

    I'm starting my own 'religion' called shuttheflockupaboutthisnonsensealready. Thousands of years and we're still somehow wrestling with what should be ultimate truth? If it's that hard to obtain it can't be truth and certainly is not ultimate.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  6. bob.macrae@cox.net

    The most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society are religions leaders who have zero (ZERO) influence over extremists whose unending violence proceeds unchecked under their own banners, whose churches routinely abandon their principle mandates – the poor, infirmed, jailed, the hungry – to writers who view the thirst of people without spiritual homes as "cop outs". You ought to be ashamed to criticize people who seek; what happened to you?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  7. calypsoace

    I think the issue you raised about relativist truth touches on the truth while completely overlooking it. Religious dogma stems from a time in which human rights and moral norms were far different from today. We've spent the last 2000+ years trying to square our progressive ideas on what is morally right with the unchanging dogma of the texts. Its gone from literal truth, to parable-based understanding, to take what you want and leave the rest, to ummmm...maybe this is a load of tosh, let's just keep the 10 commandments, 4 of which don't make sense, and try not to be too rude to each other. Literalism makes you a social pariah, as it should, and saying its all just stories makes it seem...untrue. When you say literalism or fundamentalism it simply means "people who believe their religious texts are true". Its when people who have said that they are religious get down to actually reading holy books that they say...whoa, wait a second..I really don't think slavery is ok. I don't think mixed fabrics are all that bad, tyvm. Spiritualism is just a natural, evolutionary intermediary between belief and unbelief, and thank goodness for that. Maybe the spiritualists will settle on being okay with the truth in the end, and then collectively we can all decide what we want our world to be like. We've managed to get women the vote in the civilized world in the last century, despite religious norms. I think we can continue to do better in the future.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  8. Susan

    ....yes, and those darned spiritual folks just REFUSE to pass the collection plate.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  9. Jerry

    This is total BS. Organized religion is worse than organized crime. Live by the Golden Rule is all you need.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Susan

      Organized religion IS organized crime.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Yep

      @ susan; love it!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Irishserra

      LOL. As in Matthew 7:12?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  10. ShingoEX

    I'm a naturalist, not religious. I believe in the symbiotic harmony of nature and the universe, but I don't buy into a deity.

    How does that make my belief a cop out? This article is pure garbage.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Doug Lynn

      No, your comment is naive. How have established your worldview, your moral code? There are plenty of people in prison that have committed horrible crimes that share your worldview, they have just come to slightly different conclusions.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Tom

      Agreed. Pure garbage. This guy is just another example of the black and white mentality of religion. Here is an idea, what if there is no purpose to our exsistence other than what we assign it? The "spiritual" group may have a few cop outs, but it also contains a growing body of people that see through the facade of formal religion. Just being nice to others, is actually a pretty solid way of living and contributing to society. Perhaps the author should open his mind a bit.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Artie

      you are a naturalist (which means you believe in only things material and nothing spiritual) and you believe in the "symbiotic harmony of nature and the universe"? "symbiotic harmony of nature and the universe" sounds spiritual to me so how do you make sense of both beliefs together?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Eric

      Nature and the universe aren't separate things. And it is full of chaos and disorder. Our galaxy is on a collision course with Andromeda. How exactly is that harmonious?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • codifex

      Well, symbiosis is a reality in nature but so is predation and parasitic relationships. People tend to attach feelings of goodness onto symbionts and feelings of evil onto predators and parasites.

      In the end, we are all dead. No matter how much you learn or how much you acquire. It's all dust.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Saphyrre

      @ Doug- you might want to reexamine your reply. There are plenty of people in prison who share YOUR religious beliefs, whatever they may be. Trying to live in harmony with the universe seems fine to me. At least I would prefer Shingo to people like you, who oppressively try to force your beliefs on others.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Jack


      Get confused by the big words? Symbiosis has no inherent tie to spirituality whatsoever. It simply means a close, long term relationship between biological species.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • ssheldonblog

      Maybe they are just bitter around you.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  11. Mark C

    Not much of an argument or point made here. CNN Editorial, this is a little bit of "filler".

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  12. raul

    Germany's Catholic Church will deny worshippers the right to Holy Communion and religious burials if people do not pay a special church tax.
    A newly-enforced German bishops' decree says anyone failing to pay the tax – an extra 8% of their income tax bill – will no longer be considered a Catholic.
    All people in Germany must pay this tax if they want to worship in either Catholic or protestant churches, or Jewish synagogues

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2208520/German-Catholics-denied-Holy-Communion-religious-burial-refuse-pay-church-tax.html#ixzz27x2ROVyZ
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • codifex

      Sounds to me like it's time for another wave of Protestantism. LUTHER!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • jumanji777

      Codifex, anything born out of an opposition to something else will fail. It has no center. How about being for something instead of against it?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  13. Paul Fedorchak

    What bigfoot said, except that I still would not be one of THEM. 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  14. GenericMan

    People do crazy stuff.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  15. Cogito

    So we're supposed to take spiritual advice from a bartender/brumeister who talks about the KaRma Sutra?
    I'd write more, but I just can't stop laughing!

    September 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  16. Shannon

    Religion is for people who don't want to go to hell,
    Sirituality is for people that have already been there.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Adam

      I love your comment, but there's no like button.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • LoveLoveCrazyLove


      September 30, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Anne

      Well put!

      October 1, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Chelle


      October 1, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  17. Joe

    Good morning. Should I go to church this morning and repent,again, or head out for a hike and enjoy the fall colors, migrating birds, and the chill in the air? Tough choice.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Jerry

      Great stuff Joe, totally agree, let's go for a hike 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Artie

      i think you guys just proved his point that it's about how you feel

      September 30, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Kwaku

      I will do the latter, probably appreciate the architect better anyways.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Doug Lynn

      Who do you think invented the migrating birds, the fall colors, the chill in the air and gave us the free will to enjoy creation and/or worship the creator?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Scott

      This is the essence of our human ignorance and selfishness: no respect, no humility, and most importantly, no understanding of the love and wonder of our God. He made those trees and birds for you to enjoy. Religion is a man-made approach to seeking and pleasing God. It does not work because it is not what God intended. He desires a relationship instead – one that is active and dynamic. This brings great freedom and true joy. Find a church (or house church, if necessary) that supports the true faith and not religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Anne

      My Sunday service is a 10 mile run out in the morning sun listening to birds and enjoying the world around me... brings me really close to my Creator!

      October 1, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  18. bigfoot

    I want you to stuff adickupyourass and dance for me.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  19. Pokydoke

    Society evolves constantly, organized religion used to be the center of knowledge and learning but is now the center of hate and bigotry. Christianity and Islam being the worst offenders of this hate and bigotry is it any wonder that people are looking for options?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • nope


      September 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Doodlebug2222

      They are looking for a way to celebrate the pureness of their spirit – w/o tainting it with the hate, disdain, gossip and other ill-intention behavior that churches of organized religion has.

      Long ago I tired of the behavior I saw in churches and I went from church to church – quietly. Different religions, different beliefs – and I have to wonder if God wants me to learn from those that only teach – what it is I saw. I think no. So I do my best to not – taint – my spirit, and do what I can to keep it as it should be. I am afraid if I attend churches – that eventualy and slowly the ills I see around me – I will come to accept as normal behavior – but I know how they are, how they act – is poison and I will not be part of those teachings. So if you find my beliefs wrong – then atleast know I am doing my best to keep distance from those that feel they are religious and devout – but their behavior, words and action > speak different.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • rickinmo

      You wrote religion, " is now the center of hate and bigotry." CORRECTION: RELIGION HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CENTER OF HATE AND BIGOTRY. Have you forgotten the 1st. – 20th. centuries?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  20. JHC

    Just another way for people to rationalize not feeling like going to church or committing to a religion. Lazy.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • midwest rail


      September 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Doodlebug2222

      And you and the person that wrote this article are doing it from a slanted point of view.

      Religion to me is joining a group of persons that believe as I do. An we celebrate the word of God. But I believe if I go into these churches as I once did – and remain there, I will be helping them to celebrate their hatred, support their gossip and beliefs that they are some how better then others as they spend their time tearing others down > to build themselves up.

      I cannot fathom finding light in an obvious circle of darkness. So I say I am spiritual, because I live as I should. A good person, who follows their heart. No gossip, no ill-intent, and I do my best to keep my spirit guarded from the poison of the world and others. If you ask me if I am religious > I say no. I will not be associated with religion because of those that represent religion – and have corrupted all that it stood or stands for. If you ask me if I am a good person and follow the moral laws God has set forth – I say, as best I can. I believe – I have faith and I repent when needed and do everything I can – to be a humble and deserving child. There .. is less wrong with this then believing going to a specific place once a week to indulge in the nonense I see – the lies – gossip and all that organized religion – has become.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • WaitWhat?

      Going to church makes you not a saint, but perhaps a lemming.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • FulvicAcid

      Explain to me how going to a church is better than sitting at home and reading the bible? How is needing someone who was taught how to interpret the bible by someone who steeped in religioin better for me than me learning to interpret the bible on my own. Taking from it the lessons and meanings that come to me, rather than from someone else? The notion that to be truly one with God you MUST go to God's house, and you MUST listen to God's mouthpiece espouse God's intent unto all of us. Where the spirituals devine to seek our faith directly from the world around us, the religious seek to force it on us, and when you ask them why their way is better, they reply with what amounts to one word usually: Because.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Dee

      Doodlebug your words spoke close to my heart. And yours is the only one I commented on, on this subject. That is so close to the way I have been feeling. Yes I am spiritual and religious, but refuse to belong to any religious name. Do I believe in a power bigger than myself yes. I am searching for my inner self. But will no longer be dictated to by a religious house. I have found very little love there. I am looking for the spiritual religion of God which is love. I read it best by someone here that said there is very little super in natural because nature is pretty super in its self...what a great saying. I pray often to have love for my fellow man and all that is around me, and I don't need a person with his own agenda or slant on things telling me how to profess that love. I feel my learning of the right way for ME is between my spirit and God, not someone else's view.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
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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.