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. Upset Voter

    How does a guy who read a few verses in the bible and declares he is a minister know any more about god than I do? Organized religion is a financial scam.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Regina

      Try not to judge what works for one might work differently for another.....church and spiritual things can be one and the same and then we are always thinking for ourselves...community is ok.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  2. Jake

    Alan demands you believe in HIS spiritualism

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  3. No2Atheism

    Atheism = Religion

    You do know that most atheists are MILITANT atheists who once were religious clowns and have become worse as Christ said it would happen. What makes you think that their kids will remain committed to what a blind fool teaches them?

    What are you going to do keep them from believing in Christ when he/she is grown and you LOSE all the AUTHORITY you once had over them? How are you going to stop them? You can't.

    My friend's father was raised a Catholic and renounced it and became an atheist. He raised his children in atheism, until his wife became a born again Christian (NON CATHOLIC) and her children followed her teachings. The father was very angry and would mock them all the time, like you fools do on the internet. After many years of having bible studies in their home, he gave his life to the LORD and is now leading bible study in HIS HOUSE!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • JayJ7

      You don't have the brains to waste a logical reply on. Invisible sky fairies are probably the best way for you to go.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  4. Cameron

    First of all, all religions are nothing more than unproven theories. To put blindly put your faith in one is foolish. You would have everyone be blind fools and prevent people from seeking a spiritual experience unfettered by regligious dogma. You demand that everone must ascribe to your beliefs without question because you think your "religion" is the right one. Your position only inhibits the opportunity to find spirtual truth, if it even exists.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  5. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    I can't wait until the human race progresses enough to finally reject all religious crutches. Imagine the day when we can start getting "GOD" off of our MONEY! Imagine when we can ditch this Anno Domini crap and start using a Gene Roddenberry type Star Date, which would be based on something that has a basis in reality, such as perhaps our sun's age (even if it is estimated, that makes much more sense than basing it on some religious figure!). While we're at it we might as well move New Year's Day to something that actually has some meaning in Nature, such as Winter Solstice. Mankind sure is riddled with stupidity. Just step back and look at the mess we're in with an open mind for once. Religion is poison!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  6. Neil McGrew

    Who is this guy to judge everyone else's beliefs? And for CNN to put it on their website...horrible.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  7. Anon

    If one declares themselves a Christian, then a further declaration of allegiance to either the Catholic or Protestant traditions will also be required. The profound differences between the two are often glossed over. In Pope John Paul II's declaration "Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church," issued in 2000, he stated, "With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity (cf. Acts 17:30-31). This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism “characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another'”. If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation." Those other religions outside the Church (i.e., Roman Catholic Church) include not only followers of non-Christian religions, but also members of the over 30,000 Protestant denominations and sects as well, all standing in a "gravely deficient situation" regarding their salvation.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  8. Texas

    If your beliefs aren't written down in a book, then you have none. Lol. What a tool.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      But it's written down! It MUST be true! HA HA HA!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  9. newyorkjsw

    RELIGION 'IS' indeed the Opiate of the Masses!! In that it is addictive, you will somtimes kill for it, you usually have to pay for it or into it, thier are always higher tiers you can take your high and the sellers dont know care about your well being or how high you may get. JUST BELIEVE IN OUR BRAND OF LIFE AND YOUR WILL HAVE A GREAT LIFE NOW AND IN THE BEYOND!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  10. snowboarder

    What a bunch of malarky. Spiritualism, religious or not, is a human invention attempting to answer questions that need no answers.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  11. John

    It is said that Man is a human being on a spiritual journey but a wise man corrected that to "Man is a spiritual being on a human journey".
    You don't need religion for that journey you just need to look 180% the other way to see the spiritual Being who is on the human journey. When you remember what you really are the fun really begins....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  12. WaryTraveler


    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  13. Susan Satterfield

    Some people including myself, do not want to belong to an all inclusive,damn everything,full speed ahead religious group. I think of myself as a kinder, more tolerant person then those in groups that condemn anyone who doesn't believe like they do. In a land of free thinkers and intelligent people, it is not so very hard to believe that some of us do not like to be roped into things that we think are morally bad or even condemning those who do not see eye to eye with a church. A dogma written way before any of the things that exist in this time. If we want to believe in a more all inclusive religion, what harm does it do to anyone. None. Find a better subject then persecuting a group of people who are not ready to not believe in God, but refuse to believe in your version of God

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  14. Everyone

    Preaching religion as a cover to collect tax free money is a cop out

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  15. nonyabidnes2

    Unfortunately "most churches preach law and condemination. They feel that if one is ashamed, they will (DO) more in the way of giving. They preach, "you must do this or that", which iis called performance. I believe that is where the beginniing of disconnect starts at. I know because I spent alot of years in those churches. In one church they actualy vote you in for membership, amazing huh? I don't blame this author. I blame those who (by earthly standards) taught him. As myself being spiritual I speak from love and Grace, like Jesus does. Sin was defeated at the cross. God doesn't want a doctrinational relationship, He wants a loving relationship with us...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  16. Too Bad

    I find this article and some of the backhanded atheist compliments that people are making on this board hilarious. I can certainly understand your devotion to Christianity and that is great that you have a set of beliefs that brings selffullfilment and happiness to your lives.

    At the same time, you are the same people who argue that the government is trying whitewash Christianity and claim the media is intolerant of your beliefs, yet you dump a bunch of intolerance back on to the spiritual but not religious crowd. Hypocrites.

    And let's completely ignore that the author makes no mention of other religions in this article...

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  17. K

    This article is very arrogant and closed minded. It seems that the writer doesn't know much about the topoic and is just judging from a negative standpoint. Such a shame that this article is on the front page of the CNN website

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  18. Johnny Cage

    I love how someone who is religious doesn't understand individual spirituality because it doesn't contain a mass marketed / mainstream set of rules to follow. Individual beliefs are a much more in tune way of practicing crazy beliefs while keeping the desire to perform good actions and avoid bad actions. That's the basic principle of organized religions, or at least thats what organized religions want you to think its all about, even though organized religion is actually about community brainwashing.

    Who wants to be forced to believe in things that don't make sense? Who wants to be told they are not getting an afterlife if they aren't good. Do this or be punished! It makes more sense to believe what one wants and feels is right as long as that person is inspired to avoid bad deeds. The end result is the same for the individual only without the fear of god that comes with orgnized religion. The end.

    PS this article so so short sighted.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  19. Bessie Conklin

    Many spiritual people have solid ideals and a discipline of thought and behavior which they practice to guide them closer to these. They practice things like self-examination, honesty, tolerance, humility, and service to their community. They are, by and large, people who seek to better themselves and their world. Maybe it is the author who is lame?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  20. Andy Straw

    The idea of accusing someone without strong beliefs in organized religion of not having thought about "big questions" is ludicrous. This is just the same as when non-religious people spout terrible generalizations about believers being illogical. In fact, I would argue that I pondered big questions more than half the religious people I know and participated in actual religious practice more. Have you have read consistently Wednesday vespers at an Orthodox Church or had meeting with an Orthodox archbishop once a week for a years?? It was the inability of organized religion to satisfy big questions that made me question it, not because I avoid such intellectual exercises.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:41 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.