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. chachacha

    Nonsense. The more I read this piece the more sighs I heard from deep inside. Your beliefs are what is wrong with the world. So narrow minded. This line of 'journalism' must cease. Like smoking on a plane.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  2. Navya

    Being spiritual but not religious doesn't mean that someone is trying to avoid pain or important questions. If anything, they are rationalizing everything, breaking preconceived notions and patterns of approaching life and broadening the horizon of humanity's thought process. It is absolutely scary for certain people to leave the organized religious people and develop a new form of thinking because they think society is going to shun them if they don't conform to certain standards, which is sadly the case more often than not.
    So what are we saying here? That those who don't follow age-old patterns are living in some other realm? What if the reverse is true and by defying organized religion we can advance scientifically as a race?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  3. juan durful

    Amazing how I guess we need religion so we can kill each other over "beliefs", and not just believe in a Spirtuality that teaches love, tolerance, and helping each other without all the religion crap in the way.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  4. El Flaco

    That 'religious' or 'spiritual' feeling is a gift of mindless, goal-less, pointless evolution. Biologists speculate that it helped tribal groups work together and helped tribal leaders control tribal members, making the group more unified.

    It doesn't matter how you choose to experience that feeling of religious rightness as long as it makes you feel good. It is an archaic emotion that has no purpose in the modern world.

    So if you like viewing the future through a crystal ball or talking to great uncle Fred via a seance, then go ahead – enjoy yourself.

    The formal religions we have inherited – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, etc. – are nonsense that was authored by ancient men for purposes that no longer exist.

    So, have fun with religion, but don't take it seriously.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  5. Sane Person

    No, Atheism is the rejection of the belief in deities. They do not worship themselves as a diety. They do not require group hand holding for form thier own moral code of ethics. They think for themselves, rather than accept the word of another human as "gospel". They have the ability to think critically. They can reason. You guys are so emotionally invested in your position of magical, invisible, undead people, that you will cling to anything that "proves it" while irrationally ignoring anything that doesnt.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  6. honestatheist

    Wow you got all this from the one "spirutal but not religious" person you interviewed...wait did you even interview any "SBNR" people? I don't see any eveidence of your claims. By the way I think its hilarious that you say bing spitual but not religous is a cop out when religion is not...? Says the atheist

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  7. God

    I don't exist so cut it out. Anything but atheism is a cop-out.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  8. .

    God Bless Christians only

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Max

      Good thing Jesus disagrees with you.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  9. Bob

    Alan is another ill-informed, not very bright person. His rationale, "I can't see the SUN from my basement, there for it isn't there," speaks to a simpler point.."He is blind".

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  10. seafriend

    Spiritual but not religious has simply been the truth inside me for all of my life. I tried the Christianity thing, but deep down just didn't believe what I was trying to adhere to. Being who I am has been the purest choice for my life that I have ever embarked upon – it is not a "cop out" as this author would suggest. It is my truth.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  11. pn

    Non religious people wanted to be separated God.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  12. C.R

    ... i found the article insulting and unlearned. And i think the Author is a complete dumb-AS*. Just my personal opinion. Alan Miller is on that Dog-DoDo, cause he sure ain't on that stuff! rofl.

    ...I'm Spiritual and Alan Miller's take on "Us Spiritual Folk" is as Backwards as a Horses As* on a donkey's butt! 😉

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  13. GAW

    Like it or lump it this is the way things work here in the U.S.. We have free market system that applies to businesses, ideologies as well as religious and spiritual perspectives. Most Americans pick and choose and mix and match their Spiritual beliefs like a kid going through a cafeteria line at school. The existence free market system is why religious ideologies, churches and independent beliefs flourish here in America.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  14. Tony S

    I find that Christianity tends to pick and choose among the bible verses. The faithful mumble along with what they are guided toward. Long ago, the church started rejecting the many references to polygamy, which is a good thing, but they still treat the bible as a flawless text. That's why so many people are starting to reject the bible. It has great lessons, but it is not addressed honestly by the churches that use it.

    To the point that if you don't go to church and mumble along with the preacher, you are somehow undisciplined, I would say the opposite is true. As a deist, I think about spirituality a great deal. I don't just mumble along. I also don't reject other faiths out-of-hand.


    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  15. Seth Hill

    The author wants CONTROL over other people.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  16. Jake

    looks like any close-minded person can get an article published on cnn.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • GAW

      Freedom of Speech dude. If you want it then move to Afghanistan. Challenge us to show how smart you are and do a premise by premise analysis of the article.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  17. Frank Stanton

    Spiritualism is much truer than religion for the simple fact that religion, by definition, involves revelation of the truth by a god to the faithful, usually via a priest, rabbi, etc. Religion separates people from each other. Most religions declare that the only true way to salvation is through that religion, which excludes nonbelievers. This gives rise to religious fundamentalism in a few in the form of right wing Christians, Zionists, radical Islamists, etc. Although few in nimber, these people are responsible for killings, war, retribution. Spiritualism is a search for the truth of one's own existence. It requires the individual to be responsible first for oneself and then the rest of the world, as in Buddhism. Religion, on the other hand, is the lazy way to enlightenment. Most religious people are blissfully ignorant off all suffering in the world, but their own. That is a cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  18. martiniano

    "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling" – that phrase says all that need be known about Alan Miller's stance. First he refers to us as "Those", instantly putting the reader into an us vs them mindset. Then he says we are in a "camp", indicating we are somehow all in cahoots, sitting in our teepees plotting the downfall of organized religion.

    Finally Miller uses the word "peddling" as if we are knocking on Sunday doors and leaving pamphlets.

    Miller paints us as "enemy" when nothing could be further from truth. The heart of all religions is the foundation of civilization. Where it was required to take your neighbor's resources during the hunter-gatherer days the opposite is required to allow different people to live side by side: the Golden Rule.

    We are literate now. We don't need anyone to read for us, we can do it ourselves. We can find God in our own way and it is not a threat to you Alan Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  19. Jernau

    I'm not shocked to see someone from a organized religion pointing at everyone who's beliefs differ from his ow,n and saying their doing it wrong, but I am shocked to see it's front page, CNN.com news...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Im for spirituality

      ??? I think this article need to be revised again.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  20. newyorkjsw

    alan miller:traditional religion IS a literal form of mind control, in which the relgion be it Judaism or chirsitaisty here in america is not just a CULT but a BUSINESS!
    While they do not have to pay ANY tax, they indeed make a living off of its parishioners.
    (in some cases elaborate church's go WAY beyond the business of making good living).

    GOD DOES EXSIT, but in NO WAY do you need a building, gay men with waffers, chior music and a cup for money to find it!
    The mechanisms that run the church lets say, are like the same ones in that booth in the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of OZ. "do not look behind that curtain" cause you will see the MAN and the equipment running things but are not yet real!

    YOU SEE ALAN, THE MAJOR RELIGIONS ATTEMPT (IN A BOLD MANNER) TO CLAIM TO KNOW HOW YOU SHOULD LIVE, WHAT U SHOULD THINK, THE ANSWERS TO LIFE ECT ECT. Only one small problem.... they ALL (religions) were created by MEN be it highly enlightened or not. Thus it IS a cult and often if u read the bible it is more about early human
    laws. What is the best method to have your town, city a few thousand years ago LISTEN to the elders rules? Have the author of these rules be GOD! or a direct parner of god, the SON OF GOD or a messenger Moses.
    So while you ALAN worte this piece based on you also being SUCCESSFULLY 'CAPTURED' by- -man made structured religion– and also I bet felt many would say "Harump, Harump" (blazing saddles) in nodding yes to your observation. I say you are showing to much of your weakness and also desperation as a writer! A fox tv new writer if u will, looking for a angry captive audience full of mind numb FLOCK to say yes to YOU!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:39 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.