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. jerry

    This guy is full of crap. who wants to believe old rules written by old men long ago written to control the masses and get your money. Religion is man made and useless. Religion has caused more death and wars and division than anything else in this world. I am against any form of religion, its not of God!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Geno

      Organized religion is the worst crime ever perpetrated on mankind. Just about every war fought since man could pick up a rock and throw it has religous beliefs tied to it.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • The Wizard

      Agreed. While the Creator is absolute, religion IS man made. I guess the collection plates are not getting filled too often in today's church. You need to strike a balance for your life, not old words written to control the unwashed masses of yore.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  2. jon

    I've never read such a pointless article in my life! Unbelievable that this kind of stuff keeps appearing on CNN's opinions section.

    Its no different from any other religious argument ever made: MY religious nonsense is True; YOUR religious nonsense is all made up hogwash.

    And just an FYI to the author: Christianity has never, and will never contribute anything worthwhile to mankind. Prior to "everyone" reading the bible, the Christians dumbed down their populations, burned books, killed those who brought intellectual arguments that disagreed with church doctrine, and left the world in darkness for 1000 years. You can keep your church..

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • jerry

      you r so right, my friend.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  3. chase

    Where is Christopher Hitchens when you need him?? Mr. Miller, your small little feeble mind is only going to lead you one place... to a sad and lonely place on your deathbed when you realize all the BS coming out of your mouth does not smell like roses.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  4. Hello_Dolly

    I think the most poignant point of the BLOG (blog != news) is that we, as a society, are steadily moving towards an endgame where no one wants to develop an absolute moral compass. People want everything to be relative (i.e. moral relativism). Many religions aren't relative – there are Thou Shalt Do's and Thou Shalt Not Do's.

    There's a sense of absolutes with religious structures and orders. Absolutes don't play well with today's society. Most folks want to "live and let live" regardless of the actions that maybe going on next door.

    Base point: When it comes to God, don't get the message confused with the messenger... especially if the messenger is you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Steve Kline

      The only absolute is Love: we are all one in that love with whateveryouwannacallGodthis week...She doesn't care as long as you love your neighbor as you should yourself. We MUST have a personal relationship with our god/GOD first. If we feel the need to join with others in a church/Salon/living situation then that is all sooooooooocool as long as we "do unto others..." and love ourselves as we love our "god" because we are all ONE and we are all part of that god

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  5. malcolmtbm

    Mr. Miller, you have it twisted...Religion is adherence to a set of rules of men, spirituality is a process of establishing a personal relationship with a higher authority, some would use the term God. I could easily cite negative religious examples of radical islam; mega church pastors living large on donated money; born again christians who feel its okay to imprison, torture and kill muslims, but truth needs no martyrs, note that you failed to address the cause of the movement to spirituality (try: i hear what you say but i see what you do?)...i think your time is better spent cleaning up your religious brothers and sisters...or did you forget that no-one can be coerced to come to God, or maybe you forgot that each person has a free choice...? Oh, i forgot, you are religious...bring back the Inquisition...?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  6. john

    The bottom line is spiritualism is divine.
    Religion is man made. It's all the rules and rituals that the "church" uses to control the people through guilt so that they can extort money for themselves to live like Kings in the Vatican....their own Country!

    Jesus did not teach religion. Jesus taught spiritualism. He would be appalled at what these organizations are doing in his name.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • fuscohhh


      September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • No2Atheism


      That's what I've been preaching, the very same thing you have today. God richly bless you, john!!!


      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  7. Dimitri Tanchuk

    I go to a Unitarian church. I'll be honest with you, They talk about much more interesting and real world problems that we can help fix if we all get along. I never really liked the christian Idea of fearing god.

    I believe that when you die, you will be asked 1 basic question:
    -What did you learn in this world?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • KeninTexas

      And what is the basis of your belief that you'll be asked that one question?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  8. 633music

    Sounds like preachers are worried about their paychecks...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  9. JamesBenson

    Thank you for a perfect summation of everything that is wrong with the "thinking" of those in organized religion. My way or the highway? Why am I not surprised. (Btw, see? I can use quotes to be sarcastic, too.)

    September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  10. jesus

    It's the realization that god is not separate from us. That god is not a jealous god. God is not knowable through doctrine or scripture. God "is". Each person has to look within him or her self to know god. There is no other way.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  11. ej

    I wonder if the author has taken a closer look at why most wars have been started. Luckily, this author is one of the last Mohicans out there, so this bassackwards philosophy will soon cease to exist as will the fundamentals of organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • pjski

      its not the root cause, just a way to gather the masses to follow "one" objective which is false. Islam, I will say it 🙂 to date is the largest example of this, christians second.... People ready to sacrifice thier lives for a man who said to do so – brilliant for allah/others but not so much for his followers. why would you create a path yet still ask/equire them to destroy – false hope

      September 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  12. Karl

    Mr. Miller should have read Alain de Botton's book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, before he wrote this piece. Even the reviews at Amazon would have given him a better sense of why some people crave some aspects of organized religion without being believers.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  13. Progress!

    At last, people are abandoning the 'my team is great, your team sucks' sports model of religion to open their minds and take things that work from many sources. Please, PLEASE: can we do this with politics?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Yes, yes, yes!!

      SO many people have bought into the Red Team/Blue Team dichotomy. If you are on one team, those on the other team are complete and utter idiots. This kind of thinking is destroying America and it is nonsense. Think for yourself–don't let anyone tell you that the other team is worthless. Life is not so black and white–issues are subtle and complex and reasonable people can disagree and compromise.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  14. pjski

    the gentleman fails to realize that his words are exactly why MANY have chosen the spiritual approach vs. set standard religion.
    Life is not black and white, it is not just one or the other – lots of gray, lots of gray to explore, experirnce and learn about with and from

    Perhaps that is what this man fears, knowledge and the idea of accepting multiplle faiths and nuggets of knowledge to gain a more diverse perpective

    some my own life lessons I have heard from others mouths in passing, or novel or song or movie.... you can learn faith, hope and morals outside of the bible my friend. It doesn't have to all in 1 book.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  15. Joanne

    I do not believe any one religion is the ultimate, true and only "way" as each religion was created by MAN to control the masses. I therefore maintain .. I am spiritual, not religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  16. Florida Lady

    I can only speak for myself. My dissatisfaction with my religion of birth – Catholicism – started in my parochial elementary school. It began with disagreement with the basic tenants of the faith, as well as the whole forced concept of acceptance without question. Learning the troubled history of Catholicism only confirmed my dissatisfaction and I refuse to allow them the moral authority to decide for me right and wrong. However, I actually did study other faiths, including various Protestant religions, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhism, Confucius, Quaker, and even Native American beliefs. That included much reading, attending services, and meeting with ministers, rabbis, etc. None provided the answers I needed. Ultimately, I find my personal relationship with my God much more satisfactory then anything I was told was The Way, The Truth. I'll take sitting on the beach at sunrise and communing with God any time!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  17. crashcarlson

    I think you hit a nerve there. At least people are thinking and talking about religion vs. spirituality. Plant the seed and see what happens.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  18. MercuryCrest

    "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent..."–Author

    I'm not peddling a damned thing. There. I just disproved your entire article and pegged your undeserved, smug sense of self satisfaction, you arrogant, soap-box mounting pr1ck.

    How does my believing other than what you think I should believe hurt you? How is it any of your business? Why should I kow-tow to your belief system?

    I want an answer directly from the author of this self-aggrandizing, piece-of-garbage article....

    I'm waiting....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  19. jim jones

    let's hope the informed world will never fall for the religion/control game again. thank god the evil of selling this life-destroying crap is on it's way junk pile of failed human governments.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  20. Luis Wu

    The danger is that small minded religious bigots like Alan Miller actually have a following.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:12 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.