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. DavidInNC

    It is true that one can be spirtual but not religious. It all depends on what one deems religious. Religion is a common belief of what someone has interperted from the Bible. Therefor, there are many religions. But not being a member of one does not make you a non believer in Christ and God. The Bible tells us that a church consists of two or more people who are gathered in Christ's name. The church is very important for the fellowship between Christians. It strengthens our faith. The only teacher that we need is Jesus. One must also realilize that the Bible is a collection of writings that was put together by a group of men, not God. There were many writings that were left out of the Bible. Search for other writings so that you can fully understand the path that God wants us to follow. The only explanation I can use to explain those that mock Christianty is either they have no faith because they have never experienced or witnessed the workings of God or they are drivened by satian. I don't hate those who don't believe, I pray for them.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  2. john

    The author's thesis seems to boil down to organized religions have a greater body of knowledge and moral authority than an individual. The author wrote nothing that backs that up.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  3. sonchar

    Before taking the stick from someone else's eye remove the plank from your own!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  4. Big

    What blows my mind about any religion is that it all comes from books written thousands of years ago. If i handed someone a book today and told them that everything in it is 100% fact and it was written 2000 years ago and it is about a magical man that has powers, and billions of people today will believe in it. People would call me insane, yet that is exactly what all religions are doing right now!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Dave

      Try and read the Bible before you comment on it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  5. Chris33

    A guy who sells booze is lecturing us on spirituality.


    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Neko

      So because he sells "booze", he is not able to have spirituality in your eyes?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  6. Maiki

    Carlyle's quote – 'I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance'
    To understand reality & endorse rationality – we have to abandon & denounce hypocrisy, ignorance & false propaganda.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  7. John the Guy

    This guy could be the warm up act for Benny Hinn and be beloved of the followers; just preach to the choir, the rational are not going to buy into it.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  8. mikeinmiami

    That guy in the photo is probably praying for a better body...and it's not gonna help him.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Neko

      Your reply is rather juvenile bordering on ignorance.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  9. Miguel Caron

    This article is right about how spiritual people are cop outs who refuse to take a position on religion – they need to grow up and ridiculous ideas like god completely!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Dave

      Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  10. Sheesh


    September 30, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  11. baulisio

    The bottom line is that "spiritual" people realize that God reveals his creation every second of every minute of every day, and, yes, give more weight to their 5 senses, and believe those senses are there for a reason; a gift of God ...and honestly feel sorry for those stuck in a dogmatic religion based on an ancient, creative text with the intent of control, oppression and suppression of the masses. (i will redact all comments and prostrate myself before the true Lord as soon as I see a stick morph into a reptile)

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Guedde

      Exactly, that's the problem with religious people, they believe their dogma to be the one true way (Christians, Jewish, Muslim, whatever). Spiritual people reject the dogma of man made religions while embracing the spiritualilty of the natural and supernational.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |

    PS: the author would benefit from reading history, cultural invasions, and marketing.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  13. me

    So laughable that CNN allows this as journalism. We keep feeding the myth sellers and allowing it into our politics and into other peoples lives. John Lennon said it best "Imagine no Religion". We wouldn't spend vast amounts of time brainwashing children to feel unnatural guilt. We could have fellowship with men and women from other walks of life and get to know them as human beings. Most of all countless hours of silly ritual could be used to work, play or imagine. Sorry theists. Yes there is a lot that science can't prove, like where did the big bang come from, but the odds of it being what happened in the bible or any other silly book are a centillion to one. Cut yourself some slack, there is no hell and St. Peter rotted away years ago and is not currently manning a gate.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  14. Dave

    You are totally clueless to the fact that the vast majority of Christians can't adhere to the easily interpreted and very basic teachings that Jesus conveys in the Sermon on the Mount. This part of the bible is pretty much the code of Christian principles. What do you mean by "take a stand"? Simply say you are Christian and yet act like anything but a Christian? Maybe these people have tried religion and found that going to church every Sunday and seeing people hug and say "amen" and act generally nice to one another makes little difference when they leave the church parking lot. They still act like selfish, overly self-centered a**holes whose number one goal is to one-up their neighbor, be in front of everyone else, and money.

    It's interesting, I've been on Facebook for about 4 years now. I live deep in the Bible belt so the vast majority of my "friends" show deep religions leanings. Not a day goes by I don't see someone praising to God or some Bible verse. In those years I have only seen the book of Matthew quoted twice and I have *never* seen anything from the Sermon. Yet these same people display abject hatred in the guise of some principle or philosophy on a regular basis. As I become older, it's no surprise that the most (relatively) hateful individuals I've met are also devoutly religious. Don't get me wrong, I've also met Christians who try to live good and be kind people and on rare occasion, when they do wrong by others, ask for forgiveness from those they've wronged...instead of convincing themselves that, "God forgives me...f*** the actual person". But these people are few in the crowd. It blows my mind how people like you are totally clueless to this fact. It makes me think that you are simply one of the many people who interpret the Bible to fit your philosophy rather than the other way around.

    Oh, and yes, many visual arts and works of classic music were inspired by Christianity but you present it as if without Christianity there would have been a void. That's pretty arrogant.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • MomOf3

      "Oh, and yes, many visual arts and works of classic music were inspired by Christianity but you present it as if without Christianity there would have been a void. That's pretty arrogant" ...and pretty wrong, considering that civilizations existed for thousands of years before the bible was written, and people. music and art, of a form, flourished thousands miles away from where the bible was preached...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  15. GK

    This seems like just another "If you don't go to church you're bad/wrong" opinion/article to me. Maybe if he had cited actual examples (interviews perhaps?) of people claiming they're spiritual but not religious and going on and on about how they're superior to churchgoers then the points would be better made; however, he's pretty much just putting those people down with no apparently valid reason. Someone added on FB that the spiritual-but-not-religious folks are "narcissistic," then didn't have the balls to keep the article or his comments up when people diagreed. Why does being spiritual but not religious make one narcissistic? That means they are fascinated with themselves/vain. Many people from both walks of life could be called narcissistic, but I don't see how that's a characteristic to be automatically applied to having a more private, singular approach to God. I don't like organized religion. I'm introverted so group things are not comfortable to me, and I've had more than one bad experience with organized religion. I believe in God, I pray, I treat other people with love and generosity to the best of my ability. If asked, I'd say I'm spiritual but not religious. That is a personal choice and has nothing to do with feeling superior to churchgoers, dismissing others' beliefs, or being preoccupied with myself. I couldn't care less if somebody disagrees with me, and I think the majority of "spiritual" folks feel that way (at least the ones I know). If somebody gets their spiritual needs met by attending a church then that is a great thing. My spiritual needs are not met that way and it shouldn't be a reason for others to judge me. Being judged by churchgoers gets old since Christianity teaches people that it's not their job to do that. The only time I claim to be spiritual but not religious is when somebody is questioning me about my beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  16. sonchar

    Before taking the stick from someone else's eye, remove the plank from your own.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  17. A

    "Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture."

    Only because my ancestors were converted at the point of a sword. Forgive me if I question the validity of church-made dogma and recognize the pain of war and oppression that organized religion has been able to mask and somehow justify.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Silvio Renzulli

      I couldn't agree more. This article is pure crap. The truth is organized religions are about control through fear. Christianity today is an abomination of what Christ intended. Christ was all about peace and love and tolerance. People in Christ's time followed him because of the power and sincerity of his words, not because they were forced to. Something lost among Christians today who discriminate and spread hate. Christ's words and the meaning behind them have become so corrupted by a clergy more concerned with their own agenda and how to control the masses.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Terry

      II is a warn out notion that religion causes wars. The following wars had nothing to do with religion:
      Iraq war (it was about oil) Vietnam war, Korean War. WW2 40 million dead and it was not about religion except the athiest Hitler desire to kill jews. Other wars that had nothing to do with religion: WW1, Spanish American War, Boar war, Boxer rebellion, Civil war (unless you believe that a large number of Christians thought slavery was wrong..) Indian wars which were fought to gain Indian lands not nice but not fought over religion. French and Indian War, Revolutionary war. If you want more wars that were fought for land, or economic pr political reason there are plenty to chose from. Yes, the Crusades were fought over religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • MomOf3

      Hitler wasn't an atheist, he was raised catholic and was a christian. The Hitler Youth Oath read "In the presence of this blood banner which represents our Führer, I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler. I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God." ....doesn't sound like an atheist organization to me!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  18. Darren

    Oh no!!! People are thinking for themselves!!!! DUM DUM DUM!!!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • juliatuch

      Exactly. We need to follow rules right. Jesus thought for himself and spoke up. Mr. Miller thinks we should all just be like sheep and follow along. As I have said I often enjoy the belief section but this one feels so one dimensional.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  19. juliatuch

    The author seems to be making a judgement on the "spiritual but not religious" people as if he has met them all. It would be like me writing an article about how all people who say they are christian are_____________ fill in the blank.

    His statement " 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" is laughable. What is rational in this world? Killing in the name of religion? Priests abusing young boys? Many of the "spiritual but not religious people I have met are responsible for themselves and perhaps have a greater understanding of self responsibility and responsibility they have to the world- I always enjoy the Belief section on cnn, but this essay truly is an over simplified and judgmental view on anyone who says they are spiritual. I myself was born a jew and I see myself as jewish and yet feel a connection to jesus and many of his teachings as well as buddhism. I am a compassionate person and feel a connection to God that i never felt in organized religion. I know very religious people in my life who follow rules like what dishes they need on certain days and what food to abstain from who live their lives not from their heart. They do not care about people who are ill yet sit in their place of worship and wear the right clothing. An there are people who are religious who are kind and caring. I can not say everyone is a certain way.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Andy

      Absolute BS...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  20. Ed

    What utter rubbish. I've never seen so many hackneyed cliches and stereotypes strung together into an "argument" in my entire life. This essay seems more at home in a middle school writing class. How this in some way represented the NY Salon is beyond me. As terrible as this is, I'm wondering how this passed the editing process?

    What really makes this article terrible is the ridiculous "stand for something or fall for anything" mentality. The "Shadow Agenda" of the author arises when he doesn't address his own "stand for something". We can only guess at what this may be. This makes this essay first duplicitous and second, without offering a solution, this just comes across as complaining. When I read this essay, all I hear is "I don't like the looks of those teenagers."

    What would have made this more insightful is looking more deeply at the nuances of religion and its role in human life. What does it nurture? What does it neglect? What is the structure of the psyche, how does it vary from person to person and how do different practices accommodate different people? When in history have other such movements arisen? Does everything in life fit into an either/or paradigm? What are the merits of the position. Instead of taking any of these topics seriously, the author took the "whining and complaining" route.

    Way to go, CNN, for publishing this. Maybe in the future you could try to raise your standards for what counts as an insightful argument.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:44 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.