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. Whatever

    So what's the difference? These people make up their own stories about a divine whatever instead of following the "organized" stores about a divine whatever. Are you weaker if you make up your own fairytales or weaker if you follow the leaders? All the same.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  2. zaphed

    Religion is the remote control the church uses to control the poor masses. Wake up. If there was one god that noticed us as his creation and realized we are conscious, he would have started communicating with us. The problem is that he has not realized that yet. Go Obama.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  3. Mike

    Last I checked religion seemed to persecute anyone asking "the larger questions" for hundreds of years. Perhaps this guy never heard of Galileo?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  4. WI Guy

    Organized religion is based on 'fear mongering' and 'blind faith'. Organized religion is aware that millions of people are steering away from their propaganda.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Bodywork by Jennifer

      Regardless of how religion came into being, this article is saying its purpose could be to inspire people to be something more than themselves given they follow a code of moral discipline. Not all religion is fear-mongering at all – I see many traditional Buddhists and Christians and Muslims in my city who are not scared in the least, but use religion as a motivation for social action – what those actions are depends on where you align yourself.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  5. Philosopher Joe

    Summary of this article: If you don't believe what I do and how I do, it is a cop out. I don't see the benefit of condemnations of this sort. Are you going to tell me that organized religions don't have their own problems too? In the end making sweeping generalizations about people who adopt one belief system over the exclusion of others is never a good idea.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  6. Andrew

    Using someone else's 5k year old history to do whatever the f@#% you want is a cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  7. Mona

    Organized religion are a bunch of corporations.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. JG

    Another man-made opinion on a man-made issue.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  9. Chris Gose

    Horribly written, poorly reasoned with little in the way of evidential support for his spurious and absurd claims. Oddly enough, Miller mentions Harold Bloom, whom introduced Henri Corbin's seminal work on Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn arabi. Miller may actually want to consider deeply exploring the chrestomathy and concordance in the philosophy of works he feigns some sort of competence in. Nevertheless, in reading this article it quickly becomes clear that while Miller has no problem in bumbling through his quackish, incompetent pseudo-deconstruction of the belief-system of others, he himself has little of depth or substance to say on the topics of either religion or spirituality. As a Sufi teacher in the ishraqi-malamatiyya tradition, having personally spent many years intensively studying mindfulness meditation in the Buddhist tradition, having intensively poured through tens upon thousands of pages of mystical literature, having learned multiple languages and read and studied the pre-Socratics in their native Greek, to have a second-rate hack like Miller try and tell me–or any young people who are sincere in their spirituality–that we're 'undisciplined' is simply an exercise in hyperbole typical of a histrionic-tabloid media style with nothing useful to say.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Mitsu

      Precisely. Miller's amateurish, pseudo-intellectual, lazy posturing is truly a self-parody. It's an embarrassment on every level, and shameful that CNN would publish such moronic and superficial drivel.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • BH

      Thanks, now I don't have to go back and outline the article to see if it was just me or that it really made no sense!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  10. Briolan

    The nice thing about being spiritual without being religious is you are much less likely to kill someone in defense of your "God".

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  11. sohini

    alan,typical fear ridden conditioned unspiritual person far from love and needing to open up to his own truth. i hope spirituality will one day outweigh these contaminated religions and ignorant beliefs.... spitiuality is a connection with oneself and with nature. simply love.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  12. Upset Voter

    It is probably due to our politics and the corruption of organized religion. I can not agree with the ultra religious right or the atheist left. Nor can I back either of the 2 political parties which is why I am still undecided for November.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  13. Dirk

    Here is a shocker. Just 1 more thing to argue about when it doesn't matter one way or the other. The author made the comment that you risk missing to ask the larger questions. Well, I was raised Catholic and all the priests ever seemed to do is avoid asking the larger questions. They sounded more like politicians than they did informed theologians.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  14. bertilack

    Being 'spiritual but not religious' means you have the basic sense of humanity of one who refuses to endorse the murder of those who disagree with you and you don't go around screaming that unbelievers will be cast into hell.
    That, I submit, is a good thing!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  15. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    The only thing "dangerous" about any trend that withdraws from or downright rejects organized religions is the fact that organized religions require membership, and therefore MONEY, to survive. Why does all-powerful "god" need so much MONEY?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  16. pat o'brien

    A free mind is a wonderful thing

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      A free mind is a terrible thing to lose ...

      September 30, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  17. Tom

    Hmmm. Because I do not embrace an established belief system I am copping out? Give me a break.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  18. digital-trust

    A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion. - Robert Todd Carroll

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  19. pork&beans

    I left the baptist church 30 years ago when I came to the conclusion that there was no return on my tything investment.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  20. Mike

    No one, especially religious people, should blatantly generalize an entire group of people because you certainly don't like it when others do it to you.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Monica


      September 30, 2012 at 10:38 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.