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. Dave

    Religion is the root of all evil...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  2. nobikiniatoll

    So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor's religion is. Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code. - Mark Twain

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  3. Matt

    The main complaint in this article is that people are not organizing reigions to make common practices. Since thier are not many temples of warship for these religions to congregate at, he must be upset that people are choosing those religions.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  4. Marco

    "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." where did he come up with that reality? Well, I am glad he has CNN to vent and release his frustrations on those really lost souls of "spiritual but not religious". What does he base his research on? Ohh, it's his personal opinion. That explains it. Oh, "Land of the Free" I love you!

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

    In terms of finding principles to guide one's life, I think it's a far bigger cop out to say "Here's a rulebook conveniently written by a deity whom no one has actually seen, but all you need to do is have faith and follow all these arcane rules and you'll be good to go", rather than say "You must find your own principles to guide your life." We want simple rules, but the truth is that life is muddy because of our biological origins. We really are just highly advanced social animals and we really are just making it all up as we go along, including religion. We do have powerful in built moral instinct built of evolutionary altruism and a sophisticated brain to reason with but that's it. If that makes you feel uncomfortable and scream "moral relativism!", too bad, complain to evolution. In the end, "life" didn't evolve to give us meaning but to propagate genetic material. I'm not saying life is meaningless but I am saying our brains are what create meaning from this genetic rat race. This can be a lot of deep meaning in deed but when you start using words like "God", "sin", etc. you've lost your way.

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

    Deciding you know what and why people do what they do, instead of actually asking them why they are doing what they are doing, creates defensiveness and division in my experience. Mr. Miller, I suggest you spend 3 days sitting – literally and without talking – and then discuss with those you seem so angry with about the art of discipline. I think you might be surprised.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  7. kbamboo

    I have never commented on news articles before, but I am compelled to do so. This is the most ridiculous artile I've ever read. so disappointed with CNN....

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

      I`m SPIRITUAL but not RELIGIOUS. and guess what? i`m grateful to all the religions of the world for the world we have today; the literature, the art, the sense of morality. life is about change and evolution and THAT is the why so many of us are spiritual! we no longer feel forced nor guilted into a set of beliefs that at our core, do not ring true. we CAN pick and choose: the beauty of Zen, the bravery of Jesus and Mohammed, the awesome Buddha, and all the glorious writings handed down thru the ages that inspire us. THANK YOU GOD that i am a Spiritual person!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • damselfly

      I am happy to commit for this author: I am spiritual. And I am delighted to read that so many others are as well.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  8. Realist

    Religions are no different than a kids tree house. They create their own fantastic stories, they love secrets and they make up their own tree house rules. Wish these religious people would grow up and learn true compassion from a civilized world.

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

      ....Unless of course that they are based on real historical people and events like the New Testament is.

      It might surprise you that most of the ancients didn't really believe in the Mythology more than most people today believe in Star Wars or LOTR. One of the reasons why so many people suddenly followed the teachings of Jesus was it actually happened.

      For instance Jesus was mentioned by no less than 7 Roman and 2 Jewish historians besides of course the New Testament gospels and letters all written by either eyewitness or interviewing those eyewitnesses.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  9. NYVeteran

    The "Cop out" is in saying that one man made, man organized religion got it right or righter than any other. If there ever was a omniscient and omnipotent being, you wouldn't be able to understand what they wanted from us if anything. Small minds like this author make big decisions for the other small minded. I understand that religion was born by old men telling stories around a fire long before TV, and that holy men were the snake oil salesmen of the day who didn't want to farm herd sheep or do honest work. Laziness and sloth, old men, fairy tales and fear do not a religion make. Trying to mediate on how we fit in to this grandiose scheme of this, aka spirituality, is the only sane approach. Its not about faith. We were given brains and reason to do other than kill one another in the name of some false god.

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

      Well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • LA Spiritualist

      Unbelievably well said. Was trying to figure out how to respond to this ridiculous article and then read your note. I am horified every day about how organized religion is ruining our world, causing wars, bringing hate to our children. It makes me sick. Being spiritual without religion is the only sane approach.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  10. Bill

    Ridiculous article. I don't even know where to begin.

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

      it's about religion and voodoo. You actually expected a grown up article on that subject?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  11. Dave

    Even tho I'm 62, and proud to be SBNR, I understand the reason SBNR is more prevalent among youngsters is they are not as stupid as the brain washed older generation that is hyper hypocritically "religious"...and not at all spiritual. Like Lloyd Blankbrain doing "God's work" and so many business claiming to be "christian" for $ is the mantra of too many...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  12. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn tells me this author is copping out.

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

      how nice,, just like the religious.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  13. Person

    Who the h e l l is this guy to tell us what we should and shouldn't believe? I'm no Supreme Court judge, but I'm pretty sure the First Amendment allows "freedom of religion". Not "Everyone shut up and listen to me because I'm right."

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

      That's right,, however we aren't protected from religion. That's the problem.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  14. Len F.

    For countless thousands of people, real spiritual experiences permanently persuade them to abandon the messy theology of Christianity in favour of simple unconditional love. People who had had an NDE, out of body experience (OBE), after death communication (ADC), and so on can look you in the eye and tell you that our lives and the choices we make are very important and that we certainly do continue after death. Their messages are powerfully consistent and sometimes, but not always, at odds with the spiritual worldview of Christianity. Where the Bible and near death experience conflict, I'll be happy to embrace the compelling data offered by the NDE every time. However, I'm also still happy to attend church since it brings me into a service relationship with others who are also striving towards unconditional love.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  15. Mike

    Religion was created so mankind could wage war.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  16. gary

    Their money god is drying up.There is a famine in the land,created by these lying religions.Answers? From religions? That's like seeking a cure for cancer from another cancer! There is only one answer.A personal relationship with your Creator.Find Him and what need of man-made gods do you have.Wahhhhh! Poor pitiful souls who have trusted in their own works for salvation.Miserable aren't you!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  17. JoshE

    So every individual has to subscribe to some kind of organized religion? The notion that people should "choose a side" when it isn't even clear that there are sides is incredibly shortsighted. What if no single human being that has ever existed has ever gotten it right? Does that mean fervently pursuing religion or non-religion is an utter waste of energy? Until human beings as a whole have answers, there will be questions. As long as there are questions, there is uncertainty. Anyone, and I mean ANYONE who peddles in certainty about uncertain issues is selling snake oil.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  18. Karren Lee

    So the fairy tales that have been around for centuries are real and meaningful, but the new beliefs that are being created today have no substance? The bible, Koran, or any other religious text is fiction not fact. I'm glad they were written and are interesting to read, but to think that we should all belong to one of the "my god is better than your god" clubs is arrogance. You way is not any better or worse than those who are spiritual and not religious or those who are atheist.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  19. JWAGS

    Besides being poorly written, the essay a muddled mess of ideas. Awful stuff, regardless of what you may or may not "believe."

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  20. Robert Ross

    Mr. Miller, it seems to me that most of the spiritual-but-not-religious people have already done the thinking and rejected what religion has to offer. For the masses religion represents the lack of thinking, letting someone else do your thinking for you. And personally, religious people have given me more grief than anything/anyone else in my life. After a Christian upbringing, my life now without religion or spirituality is far better. I can share, give, and be compassionate to others without it.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:02 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.