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. Colin

    "Spiritual but not religious" is a positive step up from silly superst.itions. Mho say this are essentially atheists, most people who say this are essentially atheists, god bless them.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  2. wow

    this is a joke right? you asked a bartender what he thinks of organized religion and then posted it on CNN?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Countmein

      Hey now- dont go insulting bartenders 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  3. Careener

    So many people that have already pointed out that this line of reasoning is rubbish that there is little point in me doing the same. However, I feel compelled to also chime in that it is rubbish. Many people who say they are spiritual are essentially saying they are thankful for life but don't know who or what to thank. They have figured out that Christianity is a man made fabrication and they are actually being strong and responsible for resisting the pressure and temptation to belong. Christianity has done and is doing a lot of great (and some bad) things. However, it is absurd to assert that mankind would be an uncultured, lawless, more-sinful and backward species without Christianity.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  4. Enlightened

    It is religion that is a cop-out. People use religion to explain away things that the cannot understand and to avoid making decisions for themselves. We do not need any gods to be able to live as descent, civilized, human beings.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  5. DJ

    Spiritulism without Christianity is evil and useless. A santanist can be spiritual. New age worship and meditation is an example of such garbage, you cannot be your own god.

    Those that choose that course never find true peace in this life, and face damnation in the next, but its their choice.

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

      Translation: do as we say and give us some money, or our make-believe invisible friend will be mad at you after you are dead.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Bobo

      You are faithful to your god is the only thing I can take from your comment, other than the fact that you have lost your way and have been brain washed into thinking a certain way by a certain little book.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  6. Marcelo

    I have never responded to an article before, this will be my first time. I am quite disappointed at CNN for approving such a secular and intolerant view of what people define as spirituality. Although an abstract concept, it is not as intangible or as unreasonable as all the religions that have come to dominate human society. These are and have been the source of most major human conflicts and tragedies. Religion brings out the worst un human beings regardless of creed or ethnic background, it is the poison that prevents us from true personal, communital and SPIRITUAL independence. There is no bigger cop out that religion Mr. Miller. We as individuals must accept our mortality and our human plasticity with dignity and respect, rather than support century old doctrines that have become impractical outdated, and plain absurd. If someone calls themselves spiritual, in order to explain their approach to the unknown to their values and their principles, and if these are embodied by feelings of tolerance and love and pleace and harmony, well that's the best creed any intelligent person can take. My applause to them. Shame to you sir and to CNN for publishing this empty religious propaganda, I would have expected Fox News to publish this kind of rubbish.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  7. DL Zeta

    Organized religion has been a tool for centuries of those who wish to control the masses. With so many now choosing the form and nature of their own spiritual experience, it is becoming much harder to control through fear. Religion as an instutution has sought to justify untold corruption, abuse and destructive practices. Many are seeing through this and moving past it. This article is a desperate attempt to argue for going back to the old way, which is dead and dying.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  8. truth will out

    the reason chose to find truth from within and not without is rooted in Buddhism and is really a source they can trust. with all of the contradictions and limited answers about the true nature of being, from the Christian bible, after very important texts were omitted at the council of Nicene, the rage and violence promoted from Islam, and the exclusivity and prejudice of Judaism, it is not wonder that people are looking for a "more direct" experience of God's love AND peace. that combined with the hypocrisy and half heartedness found in members of these "special clubs", sometimes the only way to know is to peel away the layers of illusion in order to find the truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  9. archie bunker

    Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  10. bob gunn

    The author of this article has completely missed the point. Evolving humans are realizing more and more that each of our realities is a unique one. In fact most of our society's problems stem from a lack of questioning of the status quo. When we grow up adhering to the tenets of our political, economic, and religious systems we perpetuate stagnant beliefs that continue to go unchallenged.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  11. sara

    They just hate that they can't control the sheep. It's all bs anyways.

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

    This guy is a tool. "The only reason you, in your own mind, hold your beliefs is that you think you are better than me. You are not, because I am better than you."

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  13. Bob

    I was ready for something thoughtful and was thoroughly disappointed. How does this stuff get published? There's nothing to react to.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  14. aao

    what a load of .... I especially loved "Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses" – outright fiction, yet I am sure religious will pick it up as their next "Christian nation" fiery tail

    September 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  15. Scott Sheppard

    I don't lie. I don't cheat. I don't steal. I just don't go to a building 45 minutes a week to talk to God, so does that make me spiritual but not religious? Why can't observing those first three rules be enough?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  16. Jason

    I couldn't disagree more with this article. Spiritual but not religious doesn't mean you are against churches or a body of people. In fact it's the mentality that Jesus came to preach. If you recall, the "Organized Church" HATED Jesus, eventually killed him, because he came to break the religious system. He came to preach to BE the church of Christ, not to simply go to it. So I am proud to say that I am not "religious", but am proud of my relationship with Christ.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  17. Denise

    I reject the author's take on "spiritual but not religious" as being an unwillingness to take a firm stance on belief. I actually believe it is quite the opposite. I am agnostic and I firmly believe humanity has the power of extraordinarily great things or horrible atrocities. I believe we have many examples of the extremes of these in the past century alone; these acts occur on a daily basis. These occur by human choice alone, no God or Devil intervening. Many of us who are agnostic, atheist, or just "spiritual" actually come from very religious backgrounds. We were indoctrinated at a young age into religious thought and customs. Many of us understand that side of belief. For whatever reasons, we have each rejected that line of thinking. And speaking for myself, that was not an easy thing to do but I am very happy with the person I am today. Religion does not own morality and I hope everyone reading this understands that. To say we just don't care enough to take a firm stance is completely wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  18. al justice

    Organized religion actually does seem to still be important for non-thinkers who need that kind of structure, but not for everyone. That is just the way things have always been–nothing's really changed. A strong, moral, compassionate, non-sectarian understanding perhaps found in informed spiritual outlooks will become more important that creeds and hypocrisy in the future perhaps: yes. Getting to the heart of the matter has been the heretic's cross throughout the ages.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  19. Maty

    Mr.Miller, your article doesn't even rate a critical analysis. Is this your recruitment pitch?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  20. xmxm

    Awwww! People leaving your religion so you cannot manipulate them anymore! I feel sorry for you, NOT!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Mark in ct

      I don't think the author is talking about thought control. He is talking about guiding principles vs. cherry picking your values and about living in community with others instead of isolation. I am stunned that spiritual folks out there are taking this so personally. What makes you so uncomfortable???

      September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Max

      Mark, I agree with you. People are responding out of anger rather than giving an honest critique of the piece. I see so many strawman renditions of this blog like 'thought control'. Where did that come from? What does that have to do with anything?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Maty

      @Mark- the author's intimation that life's milestones and mysteries can only be understood in the context of an organized religion, and that doctrine or beliefs which are outside of the monotheistic designation aren't valid, in the context of our so-called Judeo-Christian society, is insulting. It attempts to invalidate and neutralize any other way if thinking about our place in the world, the universe.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
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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.