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. Peter

    Author of this article SHOULD BE FIRED and never again published on CNN. The article itself should be taken off the front page and replaced with CNN's apologies for offensive content.

    Meddling in other people's belief systems, insinuating they are worse (by suggesting they are undecided), suggesting that something should be done about it, has all resulted in horrible events in human history. The Crusades, the Great Inquisition, most recently 9/11. It all starts with distinction of "we" and "these people".

    I would challenge the author to a discussion if he weren't a closed minded, intolerant, eloquent ignorant, illustrating own dangerous delusions in almost every paragraph.

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

      I hope you and the other people getting angry over this article being posted, that it is under the "Opinion" section.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • tomtom

      realize*, i hope you realize it is under opinion

      September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  2. Al Freeman

    Although I was born in a communist society, where religion was stricktly forbidden, and atheism was brainwashed in my head since an early age – I have come, in my 60s, to a deep SPIRITUAL belief in the loving, caring GOD – the CREATOR of the UNIVERSE, the creator of the Laws of Nature., and a kind benefactor to all of us. There is a purpose in every person's life. There is a purpose in living morally and helping others. There is a purpose in living joyfully and treasuring each day of our lives. I pray many times throughout a day and communicate with the CREATOR, and I do not need organized religion – though I do read and consult religious books for some guidance – there is a lot of wisdom in ALL MORAL RELIGIONS. I take those things that I find profound and reject the nonsense.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • who me?

      That is called cherry picking.If you could give one moments thought to what you are actually doing,you would realize,you are communicating with yourself,not some creator.Has your creator ever communicated to you?If you were the least bit honest,you would HAVE TO say NO.How insecure does someone have to be to require this belief.To any reasonable person this behaviour is mind-boggling.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  3. Jesus

    It would appear that someone in the news room found this worthy to print. Perhaps, like religion, it's worth is in the mind of the beholder?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  4. jim

    Our propensity to believe is never ending. We are a bizarre species, to be sure.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  5. Lee

    What a waste of time reading this...obviously Alan Miller is close minded and has some personal deep issues within..."Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide." Spiritual people don't have a hard time deciding anything...we feel..we do..we act... we don't do some b.s. and then go to church on sunday to have our sins excused. I take responsibility for my own life..my own actions...my own feelings. I make decisions based on feeling the outcome. Being part of a religious insitutution or being spiritual is what's required for the spiritual, mental and emotional growth of the individual who's experiencing it. I don't need a church to tell me about God...I doon't need a church to teach me about Jesus... I want to experience God... I want to experiece the Christ, Buddah, etc consciousness.... and the only way for me to experience the truth and the way is to go within.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  6. Eric

    The various churches and such no longer present a credible Supreme Being to believe in – the God they describe is an abusive psychopath. I refuse to give my loyalty to such an aberration.

    But I believe that there IS something out there – I just believe that the major religions, so focussed on their 'control' of the masses using their hierarchical formats have it wrong. They have confused the central message with their desire to protect and advance the physical Church. So I have found my own answers and I believe those answers to be superior to that which is practised today.

    It is not the religions that have become irrelevant – it's the churches. In their determination to ensure that their flock does not 'stray', they are accelerating their own demise.

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

    Wow, I have crossed the river Styx, and my descent is upon the wrath of your words.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  8. Chris

    It's rare to find an article filled with so many unfounded assumptions, innuendo, inaccuracies, and, well, intolerance. Miller must have done his research in his own closed mind.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  9. Glen Smith

    Anyone who believes in a supernatural belief is delusional and should not be taken seriously and their motives are suspect in all kinds of nonsense, such as this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  10. Polly

    I'm way more concerned with those who scream "religious" but are clearly not spiritual. My most religious friends are the least likely to show a loving spirit to those in need (without there being constant testimony to "their" faith and how everyone else needs to conform) and most likely to judge others harshly. After all, they have God and the Holy Bible on their side, right?

    Ridiculous article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  11. mkplatypus

    Spiritual but not religious is a joke...and the joke is on those who claim to practice it. They are setting themselves up as the demi-gods of their own little worlds; where they decide what is right and what is wrong. They will be tossed from one mistaken belief to another like a ship on the waves because they have nothing to guide them and no one to hold them accountable.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • DavidInNC

      You are under the impression that being spritual and religious are the same, but you are wrong. The first organized religion taught people that they could buy salvation.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  12. nick from charlotte

    can't believe he wasted his time writing this article. all i see religion doing is hating on other religions and telling people that their particular religion is best of all and the true way. god made all of us, how about we take out the middle man broker aka religion who steals from both of us and build a direct relationship to the power that created us.

    i was not brought into this world, and told i must follow some organized religion to work with my higher power. then tax me 10%. no, im going to ask him what i can do to follow his will, and not mine, work on doing the next right thing and go from there.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  13. Chris33

    The 3 great evils in the world are Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Republican Party.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Dave

      Biggest evil in the world is Obama! Hands down.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Neko

      Dave and Chris – both of you should grow up.
      When you take a stand, you should present examples to back your statements eitherwise you are just blowing hot air.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Rodney

      Cat ("Neko"),

      If religious people aren't required to provide empirical evidence for their beliefs, then neither are these guys.

      Although Dave really should take his pills.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Neko

      Rodney – I never said anything about being religious myself.
      I said that some religions offer those in need direction on being spiritual. The full content of what each religion expects you to believe is perhaps not viable but the proper direction is there.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  14. Rob

    Like the worst of organized religion's adherents throughout history, the author wants to bully us into following his beliefs through insults and bigotry. The subject of the picture is a young white man who has dreads and appears to be slightly overweight, so we we are expected to buy that all people who are spiritual are "losers" - since having dreads or being overweight will make you a "loser" in the minds of those who believe making an insult is equivalent to making an argument.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Dave

      What a loser!

      September 30, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  15. Marc Perkel

    One's personal belief on God(s) is no different than that od the Bible in that both are fiction. Who is to say that Superman is better than Spiderman, or Mormons are better than Catholics. The only real religious beliefs are actually different is reality vs. belief. And if you want reality based religion you have to go to the Church of Reality for that. (Yes, there is one!)

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  16. Jake

    The only plausible explanation for CNN's publishing of this article is to stir the pot and have those of us who this article attacks speak out and express our more rational and reasoned views, which ultimately CNN agrees with. With the number of well articulated replies to this ridiculous piece, it appears they've succeeded.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  17. Chris33

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion fies you into buildings.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Neko

      No, not all religions.
      Read something about Christianity, Buddhism...

      September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Dave

      Let see that 1000 and 1 times some dik has made that nonsense post.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Neko

      well, when are you going to educate yourself dingbat?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • DavidInNC

      You are under the impression that one can not believe in science and God also. What nonsense!!!

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

      Who am I to state that you are not allowed to believe in God and Science?
      As long as your personal code of ethics does not promote death, abuse, lies as islam then I do not care how you live day by day.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  18. Dana

    Keeping your head in the sand and believing in religious nonsense is the dangerous thing.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Neko

      If going through each of the tenets of religion helps some people be spiritual, I understand.
      What I have serious problems with is the followers of islam and their adherence to a holy book (Qu'ran) that demands the death, torture, abuse, subjugation of non-believers-that is not spirituallity.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  19. Jonathan Scott

    "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."

    To say nothing of the scientific dark ages that halted rational progress for nearly 1500 years? This piece, while correctly labelled as "opinion" still has no place on a national news site like CNN's. The author is clearly expressing his disdain for those who fail to sign on with an organized religion while ignoring the perils of doing so. It is a dangerous and irresponsible article.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Aaron

      There were no Dark Ages. That's pure mythology. Non-religious folk are not exempt of buying into commonly perpetuated myths such as this.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  20. freetime1

    " highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society." No it is just that people all over the world are waking up and begining to think. If you think you have the ability to call BS on stuff, that needs to be called out for what it is. Some just are not ready to go all the way and need baby steps before they can come to grips with the idea that there is no higher powers or gods.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:47 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.