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. TDHawkes

    We are in a period of flux when the old ways are dissolving and the next cycle of belief has yet to materialize. We'll get there.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  2. rock-a-fella

    Dare I say, evolution of mind and spirit, to those of organized religion?!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  3. Fields

    Absolutely correct. Kudos to Mr. Miller for speaking truth to stupidity.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • jumanji777

      Writing something down does not make it truth (KJV included). Read The Goddess and the Alphabet to better understand why religions of books are involved generally in death.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  4. horrible article

    CNN: Please take this down from your website! - horrible, horrible.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • I Come in Peace

      Agree....pure nonsense~
      Religion is a cult. Do as I say, believe as I say, if you don't...look out, we will discommunicate you, behead you, stone you, never allow you to talk to your family....the list goes on. Pathetic. Religion is for control of the masses, but today's world, people are educated, not living in a suppressed dark ages, you can no longer force people to live in fear of death and the after life,
      If you study religions, "someone" either went into a cave, to a mountain top, etc and was "enlightened". A man, ....The argument is, "...but it says in the Bible" .....Really??? Who wrote that Bible??? I think you may get it now...
      And here is a good for thought bit, if you follow your Bibles teachings, then, is Jesus actually the false messiah? Think about it....perhaps he has already walked and the followers are you~
      I prefer to think there is more out there than we will ever have the privilage of knowing, that in this mass universe we are simply a spec traveling in space.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  5. Skeptic

    Who needs to go to a place where they shout at you "You are a sinner. Now, give me your money."?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  6. Robin


    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. David

    This article truly captures why people are spiritual and not religious. It's "I'm right and you're wrong" dogma is exactly what some (myself included) are moving away from.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  8. Roy

    More sniping by the same type that told on everyone at school. Shall we embrace orthodoxy and be Zionists who repress Palestinians or become radical islamists bent on killing Israelis, or tilt toward Scripture based Christianity and beat a child who acts devilish? The author can find better things to write about or perhaps follow some of the good of spiritualism.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  9. The Wizard

    I've responded to 2 poster's comments. Now it's time for my own words: What a load of c r a p !! Religion has caused wars, persecution and hate. Extremists are causing much of the turmoil in the world today, both in the middle east and here at home. You condone this???? It's religion, you said we all need it. I'll choose the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cause all she causes is heartburn!!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • s kel

      You hit it right on the nose, "religion has caused wars,persecution, and hate". Religion, not God but humans perverted concept of what they "think" God wants!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  10. Nellison Muhabiosn

    I think we must all find what matters to us on are own. We must stop trying to impose what we think is right on others, such as this article does.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  11. Emi

    CNN, shame on you! Do you have anything better to publish?
    This is 21st century
    Please take it off!!!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  12. LindaS

    Organized religion should be a community of like-minded people coming together to worship their greater power, support one another, and help each other develop in society. I left organized religion when I realized there were so many hypocritical people there, from those who proposed ostentatious displays of their religiosity to those who assumed they were holier than the priest (who, in this instance, was the most selfless and giving person I have ever met). I believe that spiritual but not religious is the quest for individual enlightenment, the most intimate experience with the divine, and should not be so crudely pushed aside.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  13. Peter

    Where's the downvote button on this garbage? I can share/retweet/thumbs up/whatever, but how can I tell CNN that top-fold editorials need a little more substance than this.

    He criticizes the fence-sitters, but we've seen so much more "dangerous" behavior from both sides. Why not give people a chance to find their own path? If they're not mentally ill, they'll usually end up better off than when they started. Most people are more concerned with Dancing with the Stars or their paycheck, though.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  14. JackDW

    Any thinking atheist would state this and more about organized religion as well.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |

    "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." I THREW UP WHEN I READ THIS............

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • snowboarder

      Except the church suppressed commoner access to the scriptures for centuries.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • It's not hate of God

      Also, the Bible was, by and large, the only book available to the masses...so it could just as easily be argued that a desire to read was pursued despite limited reading options.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  16. specialplace

    This guy has clearly gotten a lot of negative feedback from this article.... And with good right!
    It's terribly written, of poor argument and from my point of view not clear-headed. There are so many of "us spiritual-but-not-religious" people who are looking at this piece of garbage and wondering "how is it that HE gets to write and article when I could have written one SO much better defending our thought patterns?"
    What this author clearly failed to realize is that many spiritual people DO ask tough questions, and many of those tough questions can be more clearly answered than what a priest could EVER answer.

    Terrible article....CNN is just racking up the bad ones these days.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  17. It's not hate of God

    I'm sick of this form of comments... it's too hard to track the more notable ones. Nobody will read through 60 pages of endless comments. CNN: make comments easier to navigate!

    On topic: The only reason people are spiritual is because they've been brainwashed by religion to believe that has to be "something", but have learned from experience that a dogmatic organization isn't the key to anything.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Agree!! There has to be a better way to track your own comments and those you are interested in having a civilized discussion.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  18. honestatheist

    Wow you got all this from the one "spiritual but not religious" person you interviewed. Wait. Did you even interview and "SBNR" people? I don't see any evidence of this. I also find it hilarious that you think being spirtual but not relgious is a cop out when organized relgion is not....? lol

    September 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  19. Ray

    The necessity of religion sources in the need of human being to answers to principle question of life.
    Why was this world created? Who runs this universe? What am I supposed to do with my lifer? What is my destiny? ...

    All above questions are out of the scope of science, therefore may not be conclusively answered in one's lifetime. Religions fill the gap by making an attempt to respond to these questions. Round after round prophets have offered new and improved insights and every time people of the past have apposed the new ideas and taken arm to defend their thinking, with the conviction that their god-given road to guidance is in danger of removal. One has to dare to study newer religions and decide whether the struggle has been just and worthwhile.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • It's not hate of God

      Not discovered yet and unknowable are two different things.

      The idea that there is a "why" to the creation of a planet and not just a "how" is a matter of ignorance, not discovery.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Gman

      "Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." – Thomas Jefferson

      September 30, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  20. Gman

    CNN, what a great idea to feature a vastly signicant subject matter about social spiritual evolution and have it written by Alan Miller... an ignorant, blind faith based fool.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:43 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.