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. David

    It is not easy to find another article so full of false assumptions, bias, and generalization. It seems Allan lost all his critical thinking skills. First he groups together all people in the same category (spiritual, but not religious) and then projects all kinds of negative bias on them as a group. Please, get your brain checked.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  2. DJL

    I had to wait until I stopped laughing at this judgmental idiot before posting. 'How dare individuals think for themselves and not follow the rest of the sheep' is all I took away from his rant. Perhaps if more individuals would think for themselves, we wouldn't need organized religion at all - oh, no, not that!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • juliatuch

      If he were around while jesus was preaching. Mr. Miller would have told jesus to shut up and follow the rules- to not think for himself. He would have told the buddha to get a life, Mr. Miller, Maybe you need to look at your own control issues and rigid nature where you can not even deal with people having their own beliefs that are not rigid or based on the rules that you believe.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  3. lifeisgood

    Religious freedom is not in peril. What is in peril is the "Freedom to not be religious"

    Religious people want everyone to buy into their fantasy world without a shred of proof. Then they deny all the important things science tells us about our world, for which there is PLENTY of PROOF.

    Believe what you want and leave your fantasies where they belong...in church! Thank you!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  4. Joe

    It is the height or arrogance and pompsity that this author sees ft to tell other people what they should and should not believe in order to find inner piece. The author must have consulted the Vatican before writing this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Joe

      inner peace

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • DJL

      Or the RNC. 😉

      September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  5. Goose

    Alan Miller is just mad that kids are becoming wiser to the fact that organized religion can be lethal and criminal. Sorry Alan , times arent what they used to be and kids arent going to be brainwashed like you were.

    Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • DJL

      "Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings." - Thanks, I'll have to remember that!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  6. TAK

    To borrow the article's headline: "Spiritual and Religious are Both Cop-Outs"
    They both relieve you of the burdens of critical thinking and of studying mathematics and science. They both lead to a vacuous life where knowledge is replaced by the false filler of fantasy.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  7. Ron

    the educated and thinking person could no longer accept the stupidity and senselessness of ancient religions. thats why people are fulfilling their spiritual needs from alternative sources

    September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  8. dan in L.A.

    This blogger is clearly not giving the secular community any respect, and is reducing us to a bunch of drugged out hippies who worship a leaf one day, then a goat turd the next. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Because you see, I was raised Roman Catholic and even as a child I knew those men and women in the fancy garb were full of crap. So, I became curious about other religions and studied them alongside Western and Eastern Philosophy during my college years and to this day I continue to ask questions and seek answers. I've asked for answers to questions about life and humans and the universe and what it all means and I have observed that it is the Eastern Philosophies, namely Taoism and Buddhism, that are the most eloquent in terms of defining the truths of this reality, but because those belief systems do not fit into the cult criteria of sacred ceremonies, it's a "cop-out?" Look, anyone who says that they know the truth about God is regurgitating a lie that has been told to them and propagated since the earliest of histories, and is clearly not someone who seeks deeper meaning beyond the answers they were given by those who they consider "authority figures" in their lives. The truth is, there's nothing wrong with looking for your own "way" as long as that way is not detrimental to others or nature. Meanwhile, the three major religions Catholicism, Judaism and Islamism have been responsible for millions of deaths since their inception. And they torture. Still! To this day. And There's no sign of it stopping.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  9. myway

    I take it churches do not like the fact growing numbers of people are declaring themselves unaffiliated with specific religions or churches by describing themselves "Spiritual but Not Religious". In our information age the churches may become increasingly obsolete in delivering the "Good News". Anyone with internet access can educate themselves in spiritual matters like never before in human history. That is a huge change since before the invention of the printing press, when ordinary church going Christians were not allowed owning a Bible even if they could afford one. In those days the churches had a firm hold on religious teachings via a monopoly. Anything they didn't teach was simply declared heresy. Most churches are still relying on exclusivity in supplying spiritual instruction and lifestyle guidelines. If today's churches were smart they'd find a way to include "Spiritual but Not Religious" people rather than alienating them. This would have to be accomplished by adapting the churches to such people rather than trying converting them to the old ways. Perhaps this process could lead to an overall improvement of the churches.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  10. Divided

    The author would do better to further his research, gain an understanding of human thought processes, rather than espouse his ignorance with this stream of consciousness blather.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  11. aysablue

    where do you get off, alan miller, judging people in this manner? so people should attend churches that would hide abuse of children? churches that are profit centers? churches that hung people as witches? you can have them, with the rest of the sheep. some people actually use their brains instead of being BRAINWASHED. you should get yourself a cup of STHU.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  12. Bill

    I'm sorry, but it's religion that's the cop out here. Seems th only argument is "if science can't or doesn't say with 100% certainty how something happened, then my religion can explain it."

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Realist

      I can't believe in today's society that these religions still exist.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  13. CatBat

    I disagree with the statement, "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling . . ." because I am "spiritual, but not religious" and I don't peddle a thing to anyone. Peddling is selling, or maybe even evangelizing, and it is something I do not do. What I believe is my own business, not anyone else's. Don't call someone a fence-sitter when you don't understand exactly what it is they do and do not believe. Don't call someone a fence-sitter when you have not been through their experiences, seen what they have seen, know what they have read, listened to what they have heard, and so forth.

    Sure, there are lots of people "peddling" spiritual-but-not-religious ideas, but to group all such people into a negatively criticized clump is doing a disservice to religious freedom. The religions that exist today have not existed since the beginning of time. Some of them continue to develop and change, new branches arise, and others seek to maintain tradition by keeping sacred traditions that haven't changed much since they were first ritualized.

    The author appears to believe that Christianity is the only answer for Western society. I must assume that the author believes to not be Christian is to be backwards. As a person who thinks much about religious issues, does not come from a Western background, yet has had thousands of years of ancestors in North America, I find Alan Miller's lecture to be sadly narrow and unimaginative.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • John Laub

      Religion is for people that want to go to heaven. Spirituality is for people who have been to hell and do no want to go back.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • John Laub

      Religion is for people that want to go to heaven. Spirituality is for people who have been to hell and do not want to go back.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  14. Mike Payne

    OK Mr. Miller, out of over 2,000 Religions on Earth – which one is the " R I G H T " one that I should belong and adhere to??

    Mr. Miller answers: "Why M I N E of course – _____________".

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  15. woodie

    I don't see a danger in being spiritual. Of course a religious person would say that. They want everyone to be like themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Rob

      right on

      September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  16. luvthecomments

    The people commenting on this article are so much more intelligent than the author!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  17. nanna

    I will think with my own brain and do not have to have an organized church to tell me who I should vote for and get upset if I tell them that I think gays should have their rights as they pay taxes, plus this is their life and people should not judge anyone on how they want to live their lives. Oh boy, don't ever speak what you think or someone will tell you to go read scripture if they disagree with what you have to say. This is why I dropped out of all churches. I don't want to join anything!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  18. Ida Cent

    Every religion of the world professes to be the "right" way and the "only" way to salvation. Religion is man-made, God – however you define it – is divine. I was raised a Catholic in a family that only practiced Catholicism on holidays and had mother who was a non-practicing Jew. I never found any comfort in a church or synagog. I've tried Born Again Christian – no feeling of "oneness" with the Lord there either.

    I'm not interested in being a sheep. I'm not interested in a man at a pulpit telling me what to think, feel and do. And I don't trust anyone's interpretation of the Bible – which, by the way, was written by men, not God.

    I have many family members who are Born Again Christians. I've had numerous religious debates with these people. I've been accused of being "closed minded" for not considering the bible as truth. On the contrary – I'm not closed minded ENOUGH to accept one set of doctrines as the one and only way to exist.

    And every religion of the world thinks they're right. So whose way is the right way? The Jews who still await their messiah? The Christians who believe the only way to the father is thru the Son? The Muslims, who are so convinced they are correct, they will blow themselves up to prove it?

    IF there is a God – there is only one... and he's not Jewish, Catholic or Muslim. He isn't Buddha or Jehovah. He just IS. There are a great many mysteries to the universe and I'm more than comfortable not knowing them. Those who follow the flock are just seeking assurance that they "know." The reality is that no one knows.

    My lack of faith in any one set of doctrines is not a cop out. Organized religion is the cop out. Blind faith in nothingness is a cop out. Wars and hatred in the name of those religions is the biggest cop out of all!

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

      very well said. i completely agree.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Mike Payne

      So Multi-theistic Religions (believing in more than one God) are wrong and meaningless – right?

      No wonder I don't believe A N Y of this stuff – E V E R Y B O D Y is all "I'M RIGHT – and NOBODY else IS".

      September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Robert McGee

      Totally on track. Couldn't agree more.

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

      God bless, or spiritual bless, whatever, you know what i mean, to everyone you reply to this misplaced diatribe. Especially to Ida Cent – well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  19. this message system hates me

    why can't this just work?

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  20. Goose

    Alan Miller has no interesting article ideas. Give his job to someone who needs it in these tough economical times.

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

      Completely agree. Why was this the top story on CNN today? Notice he owns a brewery. He was probably drunk when he wrote this.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
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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.