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. incredulous

    You guys and your personal relationship with god hogwash really crack me up. How can you have a personal relationship with a make-believe cloud fairy? This being is in your head, it is not a material, living, breathing thing. It's like having a personal relationship with Santa Claus. It's silly. It's all in your mind. And that's all fine and dandy, and it is your right, until you start messing with our laws, schools and bodies. Then you cross the line. Big time.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  2. Lacey

    I completely disagree with this one-sided writer. I am "spiritual but do not identify with a specific religion" and this writer's OPINION could not be farther from the truth. Perhaps a little more research would have made him sound more intelligent! So stereotypical, hence why I choose my own beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  3. joe

    Sorry, but I don't see how the horde of "spiritual but not religious" people are any worse than the (far larger) group of "people who call themselves Christian but don't actually follow the things Jesus told them to do". Sure, the SBNR people generally don't think too hard about their beliefs, but neither does anybody who follows the prosperity gospel.

    More importantly, the SBNR people aren't constantly trying to get their beliefs encoded into law and forced onto the rest of us. They're not the ones holding us back as a society by trying to discriminate against gay people, take rights away from women, or force their mythology into science classes at public schools.

    If you're unhappy that people are rejecting religion, Mr. Miller, then take that log out of thine own eye and fix your religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Chelle

      Nice logical response. Well said

      October 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  4. tbrit

    For those that accept we are holistic beings, this article simply reflects the truism that we have a spiritual component that is neither imagined or physical. As such, the author merely rubber-stamps what we already know.

    There is no One Journey. No matter how strongly we feel we have uncovered the greatest truths, there is another who feels the same in an entirely unrelated meadow.

    'Copping-out' is to ignore the capability we have to search. We are all explorers in a strange world. Alan Miller makes the fundamentalist mistake: the assumption he knows where I have been and where I am headed. Some call this 'arrogance'.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • terry

      Freud used to call it perversion....

      September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  5. Erik D

    Religion is the cop-out, you don't need to think about it just believe what you are told.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  6. jamesnyc

    They say that organized religion rakes in over 1 trillion dollars a year. Let's tax them and give it back to "Caesar". Most of the religions offer some good philosophy, so why don't we leave it at that? Why are we slaughtering each other over the way we pronounce the name of a deity that may not even exist as we seem to know it?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Kebos

      For lack of education or the unwillingness to be educated. Simple as that. Religion is easy to learn. But the truth (evolution, etc) is a bit more difficult to understand. So people just go back to their TVs with evangelical preachers and Honey Boo Boo.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  7. bruins50

    Not having to ask questions? Well, I'm agnostic, all I do is ask questions! I don't know if there is a "god" or not. I don't claim to have all the answers that religions claim to have. I also don't entirely deny the presence of a higher being.

    The problem with religions, in my view, is that they focus on the negativity of human and not the positive. Too much time is worried about "not going to hell" or "what do I need to do to get into heaven". How about living in the here and now? How about helping others because it is the right thing to do? Why do I need an outside source telling me to do good acts?

    It's very selfish to do a good act so that you can get something back in return (reaching heaven). When I donate to charity I do so anonymously; I don't look for praise or accolades; or the prospect of going to heaven. I help others because I am in a position that I can help them and don't need others to know "hey look at me, I just gave this building to this school and now it's named after me!".

    I volunteer at various organizations and the religious "volunteers" that show up sadden me. While most of them do a decent job, you can tell they are not doing it because they truly believe in helping others, or even really care about the work they are doing. They are doing it to obtain their own selfish goals.

    Again, there may or not be a "god" out there; who am I to make that decision? But I don't live my life worrying about it. If there is a "god" great, if there isn't? Who cares? And does it even matter if there is or not? Well, it shouldn't.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  8. Luanne

    Really? This guy is just another one trying to beat down everyone that hasn't conformed to his own beliefs, "You don't do or think like I do, so therefore you're wrong!! Repent!!" HAHA "Fire & brimstone for you!" first they try to coerce with words, then when that doesn't work, anger follows then outright threats of everlasting pain in Hell or some such. You see, Alan Miller, I don't need a lot of other people agreeing with me to validate my own beliefs, I'm strong enough in mind and spirit to stand without having to be a part of a communal sing along. Good luck to you though 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  9. Barbara Young

    From my research, original Christ men and women entered into the Kingdom of God in a visual meditative state and into the Living, Objective, Visual, and Telepathic Awareness with the Family of God Members and Experienced Pure Love, Peace, and a Knowing They were Truly Sons and Daughters of God the Father and Mother. They Attended DivineTemples to attain Knowledge and Truth as well as their matured material memory attributes Being Transfigured into the Nature of God the Mother and Father. What is wrong with that? Seems a lot better then nothing and being lied to by evil men.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  10. Emily

    We're never going to hear the word of God from the mouth of man. Answers about God are not knowable. That's why it's called faith. To put one's spiritual faith in God rather than in another human being (or group of human beings) is not lazy; it's appropriate.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Kebos

      No, it's foolish and blind following of something that isn't there and never was. But that's not what those who take your money each week would want you to know.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Caron

      But - since god is a mystery and noone really knows the true nature of god or whether he or she exists, you first have to create your own image of god in your head and then worship that. how is that "appropriate?"

      September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  11. ELast

    "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."

    This is a logical fallacy known as a false dilemma: those aren't the only two choices. Especially when God and Scripture are presented as going together.

    How about a belief and God AND a commitment to enlightenment. The author presents it a mutually exclusive false dilemma when anyone with half a brain knows they are not.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Caron

      Ah. A student of philosphy. Well said, and spot on.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  12. Sarcastro

    Hit the nail on the head with this article, well done!

    I've found the "Spiritual but not religious" crowd to be some of the most self-absorbed, smug, pretentious and intellectually lazy people I know.

    It's the epitome of the "me me me" culture.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • rick

      as opposed to those who purport to speak for god?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • romgard182

      so whats the culture you are in? beeing the slave of the religious leaders?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Jim

      Agreed. I wish he had said this but I think he was trying to be nice.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Caron

      Projection: The psychological phenomenon of seeing in others what actually abides in ourselves. Applying this basic psychological principle to you Mr. Sarcastro, makes you a self-absorbed, smug, pretentious and intellectually lazy person. But, you said it - not me!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Sarah

      What could POSSIBLY be more lazy and less intellectual than believing exactly what they tell you without thinking even just a litte? It's people like you that turn would-be believers away.

      October 1, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  13. Charles

    When organized religion stops the hipocracy of their own religion maybe this guy can have some ground to stand on. I live near Dallas and every church is a mega-church. They spend millions on these exotic buildings and the clergy drive cars far nicer than anyone living a humble life should. I do not believe in any higher power, but I think the teachings of most religions are positive. The organizations that run them on the other hand are more corrupt than a Chicago politician.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  14. romgard182

    fortunately people in the west have moved away from people like the writer above that want control of the masses.. you wont control us anymore

    September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  15. a dose of reality

    Faith that could stand up to any form of reason is long gone. Our knowledge of the world from 2000 years ago to what we now know about the world has irrevocably changed the need for religion. We do not need God to explain things; and religion becomes obsolete as an explanation when it becomes optional or one among many different beliefs. We now see that the leap of faith is not just one leap; it is a leap repeatedly made, and a leap that becomes more difficult to take the more it is taken, reaching its pinnacle in blind allegiance and active denial and rejection of any other possibilities. At that point, the credibility of the faithful is entirely lost.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Kebos

      Well said

      September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • jk


      September 30, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Hazel Moates

      Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it:

      "God is an ever receeding pocket of scientfic ignorance that's getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on."

      September 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  16. Ty

    There are many things out there than can touch your spiritual side just as much or more than organized religion. If God doesn't talk to someone than they only have reason left, and reasoning isn't what fills the pews.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  17. Yep

    At CNN: if you don't do something about this racist whom I have reported abuse on several time, I will stop using your site, forever.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  18. Adam

    The author had better be glad he has a common name so that he's difficult to look up.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  19. Dee

    While I do go to church occasionally, I too probably identify more as more spiritual than religious. To me being spiritual is not about a desire to not be upheld to any kind of moral standard but my own. When it really comes down to it, I don't think God cares how you worship. Just that you try to worship, and that you treat others with love and respect & try to live morally. What the author is trying to imply, but doesn't come out and say, is that he resents the idea that people can find value in other beliefs outside of Christianity, and not being considered "heathens" – that the Christian God is the only true God. People like me see that how you worship has more to do with your environment than the divine. Sorry I was a bit wordy there.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  20. itoldyouso10

    It's all in the mind to begin with.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:33 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.