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. Samuel

    I feel like I`m on Fox News all of the sudden!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  2. Howard Kainz

    CNN deserves credit for sponsoring a discussion on a legitimate question that other main stream media would be afraid to touch. Many of the negative comments either offer no reasons, or fail to respond to the points that the author makes.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  3. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Mankind's history 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!

    If we must have churches, when will we start taxing them?
    When can we get "god" off of our money?
    When can we finally relegate "god" to mythology (or at least history) section in the library?
    When we can ditch this arbitrary, meaningless Anno Domini crap and start using a Gene Roddenberry type Star Date, which would be based on something that has an actual 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, when can we move New Year's Day to something that actually has some meaning in Nature, such as Winter Solstice?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  4. Hayden

    To all the "Spiritualists" in this comments section...
    Don't get swayed by the BS of this article. You DO take a stand and you DO have a set of ideals. Your stand is that you won't believe in LIES that some crazy cult started hundreds/thousands of years ago when they didn't know about physics let alone quantum physics. Your ideals are TRUTH. Will we ever know all of the truth? No, but as a people we keep searching for more– whereas organized religion has closed the book on the subject. And that doesn't mean you can't keep up the traditions of established religions. There's nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas, Hannukah, Ramadan, etc...so long as you have a free mind, a free will, and realize that no on has or will ever figure everything out.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Jenna

      Well said. I went to church when I was a child and immediately began questioning the bible school teacher. When I couldn't get a reasonable answer as to why dinosaurs aren't mentioned, I told my parents that I didn't want to go anymore.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Being "spiritual" is just as much a cult as any organized religion; it is just an individualized cult with no particular liturgy. It's all nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  5. jim

    Um, personal spiritualism is infantile, but i would't argue that it is more infantiel than religious doctrine. Christians, Jews, Muslims etc have to use there own morality to pick and choose what they accept from there holly texts. If they don't we get some of the stuff that goes down in the bible belt and the middle east. I think this move toward personal spirituality is a positive thing because it is one step closer to free thinkers becoming the majority. Free your mind, and your ass will follow.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • jim

      and by free thinkers I ment people who reject the ridiculous claims put forward buy religious doctrine, if you didn't catch my drift.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • GSD

      Agree !

      September 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Your mind is not free as long as you believe in "spirit." Spiritual is just another name for religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  6. Ericl777

    Would he rather they were living the typical "what's in it for me, where's my share?" lifestyle instead? At least they are looking into some form of spiritualism, that can't be a bad thing. Organized religion has had so many failures, so many false-prophets, how can you blame anyone for questioning them?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  7. Johnny Bo

    I think that you have correctly identified the weaknesses in the "spiritual but not religious movement." There is a lack of instruction, direction, inspiration and encouragement to achieve the absolute greatest possible; by definition, the spiritual but not religious cannot have any guidance, because then they would be part of an organized religion. However, I think you do not understand why people are choosing the "spiritual but not religious" path. It is not because it associates them with molesting priests or something like that, but simply because these people find fundamental flaws in each religion and do not wish to associate themselves with those beliefs. It is not that "spiritual but not religious" people do not want guidance, they do, there just isn't an organized religion that provides them with the message and guidance they are looking for, so they are forced to go out on their own, and build their own religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  8. Doug

    As you say at the end "A belief in God and Scripture" This is where you and the church are likely stuck, in just believing and not really knowing god. The authentic knowing comes from depth meditation and through the complete opening of the heart. God is an experience, & no one knows god until he has had that experience. Joel Goldsmith (Christian Mystic and author). As Joel Goldsmith points out, you can never authentically know god from a book or from your head. Numerous Christians that truly knew god always seem to be attacked by the church, WHY. here's a short list Spyros Sathi Christian mystic and healer from the Island of Cyprus, Padre Pio the Catholic Priest from Italy, Matthew Fox the American Priest was thrown out of the church by our current Pope. I am nothing special, but i had enough wisdom at age 7 to know i wanted nothing to do with the church. There's a great deal of wounding and negative programming in western culture that goes back generations and the organized religions bear much responsibility for this. As the wounding closes us off from god, it creates much work and healing to get back to a point of really knowing god and the path to get back to this authentic knowing of god isn't coming from the church or a book, i wish they were providing a authentic solution but there not so people are having to look elsewhere.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Jake

      Really? Go out and build your own religion? How dillusilnal do you have to be to make up the existence of the supernatural, and then believe in the thing YOU JUST MADE UP?

      And to say there is a lack of instruction and direction of personel spirituality that needs to be addressed, is just solidifying the scientific fact that humans are social pack animals, who follow a hierarchy, including leading someone at the top. Nothing to do with religion except how absurd it is that a superior being made himself so difficult and hard to follow, that we need a leader to get us there. That we cannot do it on our own. That only those with a religious degree can bridge the gap. What nonsense.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  9. Tim

    It's more of a "spiritual, but still a critical thinker" sort of thing, but hey, gold stars and participation ribbons for everyone!

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  10. Shannon

    I have no idea how anyone alive can absolutely know what to believe so much that they dive into a religious practice and discount every other religious practice. I think that for the first time people are exploring and are breaking away from their lemming status that most religions afford. If you've been dead and came back having talked to God yourself then maybe I'll listen. Until that happens please understand that you know nothing just like the rest of us.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Anon

      Nicely stated . . . those are my sentiments as well.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  11. jeff

    This article is a perfect example of a Gandhi quote:
    "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
    -Mahatma Gandhi

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Ghandi didn't even know who Christ was as he denied his deity. If you don't like Christians, what is your excuse for not being like Christ?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • RN326

      Awesome!!! I agree. The biggest problem with the religion is the people practicing it!

      September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • chanmoss

      hear hear! i was raised catholic, was even alterboy for the pope once and i never found the depth that i find now. i got so sick of the guilt that was taught and all the contradiction that was enforced. christ's teachings are great, so are the other masters of enlightenment. god is infinite, we are infinite earthlings, one with him. there is great responsibility with that including creating our own personal alignments with god. throw the rules out the window, pay attention to and unravel the tools that seem right to you to find god within. it is a very personal journey and can lead to great presence and peace.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • jeff

      @ No2Atheism, let me see i i follow you here...... Gandhi didn't know who Christ is, but you do? And, it's not that I don't like Christians.....I just find that, usually, what they use Christianity FOR, has little or nothing to do with Christ.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  12. bobbo3027

    This article makes way too many assumptions with very little fact. I find the idea preposterous that one must choose between an organized religion or science to get out of being labeled a "fence sitter". This is especially true where the article basically states that people following there own beliefs are only interested in happy thoughts and not anything vastly profound or society giving. I know many people for which that is NOT the case.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Adam

      It is a profoundly bad article. Obviously chosen my cnn to go on the front page to generate interest.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  13. Pug Mom

    Wow this is one of the stupidest articles I have ever read.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  14. Adam

    This badly written article doesn't prove the point made it makes in its headline. About 3/4 of the way down there is a subheading that says, 'so what you may ask', and then what follows still doesn't prove his point. Instead the author uses his conclusion to deliver vile insults directed at people who don't want to be part of his club. I have noticed that a lot of articles written by religious people tend to be like this. If you aren't part of their club you are bad is basically the idea. Please rewrite article so it contains at least one proper argument and resubmit. thanks.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  15. TJF

    Its called being Syncretic, look it up.

    By the way Jesus wasn't Christian, Buddha wasn't a buddhist, and so on.

    This article should be categorized as hate speech and I am highly offended.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  16. doubleh

    Frankly, the point of this article/opinion piece escapes me. I took a look at the purpose of the New York Salon, where the author is the Director. It seems that he could direct his intellectual energies into something with a little more meat on it. If people who embrace their spiritual nature–their essence–choosing not to embrace organized religion, however one might choose to define that, and by doing so are brought closer to our God-ness and goodness, to the Divine, to indeed our individual and collective divinity, what's to criticize about such life-affirming behavior?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  17. Chris

    Interesting that the "open" minded, "forward" thinkers posting in response are so judgmental. And may have missed the point of the article. If a person is constantly moving and changing their position based on what personally feels good, it is easy to find yourself miles from where you wanted to be. Being part of something larger, more organized, and more centered may very well provide a path that gets a person to where they ultimately want to be without having to take the side streets and back alleys.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Adam

      Could you please rewrite this article then, because I don't get that at all. This seems like hate speech to me.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  18. TSuisei

    There is only one population set that does not have to "think too hard" - namely those who fork over their reasoning ability for faith and blindly tow boxed-religion-x, -y or -z's party line. Following and participating in the advancement of human knowledge through science and philosophy will always lead to the question, "In what is the universe itself contained?" Hence a natural spirituality. Moral action is not dependent on the threat of hell but on one's own character refinement and sense of honor - neither of which require saying 3 hail marys or bouncing your head off the floor while facing east.

    What's the matter? Coffers drying up? Is that why you feel threatened by humans who are actually evolving?

    September 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  19. snowboarder

    Morality is an evolving function of society. Religious absolutism is merely for control.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  20. FatSean

    What a pathetic man. Religion is a cop-out. No need to think for yourself. Mr. Miller does indeed seem to be a troll. But most religious people tend to be....

    September 30, 2012 at 10:51 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.