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. Diogonese

    Excellent, thoughtful article.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  2. Deven

    WHAT???? A religious person pointing the finger and saying everyone else is in error? How cutting edge....

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Atheism = Religion

      They point their fingers to other religions all the time, as a matter of fact, every single day in every article, regardless if it has anything to do with religion. Ha, 3 fingers are pointing back at them, guess they are much worse then the rest.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  3. Rickynj

    Why is this the cover story? Thanks for wasting my time CNN

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  4. Iron Lion of Zion

    Holy crap. "[N]ot generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament."

    The "Karma Sutra"??? First of all: It's the Kama Sutra. Second: Do you not understand that the Kama Sutra is not even CLOSE to being the main text in Hinduism? How long would it have taken to look this up BEFORE PUBLISHING IT ON CNN.COM? Next time, refer to the Vedas or Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads. Or something that makes sense.

    Meh, who cares about HIndus, right? There are only a billion of them.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Jim

      I wouldn't blame CNN for this one, it's a blog posting. The author however, is incredibly ignorant.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  5. Jeanette Hedges

    It's hard to believe that CNN allowed such a shallow and narrow analysis of such a vast and complex subject to represent them front and center. I can understand if it was placed in an editorial section after the advent of real news.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  6. Tamila

    Thanks for writing what so many of us were thinking...both religious and atheist.
    Smugness in theism or atheism is the (annoying) exception, however once someone starts talking bout being "spiritual, not religious" you are guaranteed to be in for a truly obnoxious, undereducated excuse for a person's biases and justification for destructive behavior.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Turbo

      Wrong... I am "SBNR", but advocate NO justifications for destructive behavior. I pray, I don't lie, cheat, or steal, I am faithful, I am honest, I believe in God, I have a moral compass – I don't drink, do drugs, or otherwise over-indulge. I do what's right.... etc, etc. Some people need other people to tell them what to believe and a physical building to go hear all of it. Some people don't need that, but are not otherwise any different. This article is over-generalized, poorly written, and way off base.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Tamila

      Turbo, thanks for making my point for me by putting you smugness and simplistic understanding on display.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Turbo


      September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  7. Nat Q

    My take? The author of this article is yet one more judgmental tool making assumptions about how others should live their lives based on the choices he's made on how to live his.


    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Tamila

      my take? You are crunchy and annoying. I would giggle and point if you tried talk about your "spirituality" with me.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Turbo

      You can't have a reasonable, intelligent conversation with someone who calls people "crunchy and annoying" online. How old are you? It is regrettable that I engaged conversation with you in the first place. Peace to you anyway... Out.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Nat Q

      My take: You don't know what crunchy means and it is rude to point and laugh. Sad that you would openly admit to being such a person.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Whatcnido

      Personally, I believe in trolls. 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  8. lesterandme

    The Masters who came here to lead people back to Self/God were SPIRITUAL and not from any religion. What a silly point of view you have. Religion is MAN made. The Light knows nothing of it. Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Yogananda had NO religion. They were sent to the masses to bring them back to their home in God. "God is spirit"...Jesus.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  9. Mtnmedic

    So let's see here: when someone does something wrong and they say "God told me to do it" or "It's in God's will" or "You can't do anything to me because God has forgiven me" that's NOT a cop-out? Religion is the biggest lie known to and perpetrated by man.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  10. fapnea

    The author of this article is trolling.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Jrf

      lol, I think you have it right.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • thomas r.

      It's the old, "we've got to keep'em in line"–power, control, and of course money. That's what has always driven organized religion, I can't even understand why CNN runs such blather.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  11. xplrr13

    All religions, by defiinition, have been created by people and have subsequently been propagated and perpetuated by people. Belief in any religion is the easy way out. You simply believe what you're told to believe. Parents indoctrinate their children and those children often go on to do the same to their children. Sometimes societies benefit, sometimes they don't.

    As regards humanity when taken as a whole, however, religion is and always will be intensively devisive. Spriituality, on the other hand, forces the individual to think and decide for him or herself; something infinitely more valid given that God surely dealt out brains for a reason.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Max

      I entered college as an agnostic, became an atheist, rejected spiritualism and its logically incoherent mantras (or sound-bytes if you prefer), and later became a Christian. I was quite content, as an atheist, to accept reality as it is. Yet does my conversion make me a slave to 'Church mentality", the collective? The problem of religion, which is an accidental property, is that 'familiarity' numbs the mind to accept things for emotional, rather than principled, reasons. But as children we cannot help but to learn this way; everything from politics, religion, food habits, behavior, etc. It takes a reflective mind, the knowledge and essence of truth, and the courage to commit and reject worldviews to adequately stake your beliefs on something. I recommend Plato's allegory of the cave, for it describes every single one of us.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Neko

      If you knew anything about religion, or anything else for that matter, you would understand that religion was not created by human beings.
      Now, I do not believe in any religion myself, but "God" created religion because we mere humans did not have any spirituality and needed the direction.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  12. MikeInNM

    "The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an,...The Old or New Testament."
    Some believe humans have been here over 250,000 years. It would appear that 98% of human history predated such literature, and it is arguable that the most recent 2% of human history is any better off as a function of such literature.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  13. bosefasaurus

    Maybe instead of being religious OR spiritual, people should just admit they don't know the answers to these so called 'important questions' and just be atheists. It's the much more honest, natural way to live. We are all born atheists. It is only when we buy into someone else's explanation for how the universe works according to their beliefs that we become part of some religious or spiritual group.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  14. Lexagon

    ...seriously? You believe in a magic sky fairy and you're criticizing other peoples belief systems??

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • MLP

      Magic sky fairy....loving that

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  15. Jen

    This article really gave me pause. I always categorize myself as "Spiritual but not religious" not because I'm non-committal but because nothing seems to fit me. I was raised by my mother and her girlfriend 13 of my 18 underage years. How can I adhere to doctrine that wants me to honor my mother but label her sinner for being a lesbian. My mother was a catholic and had us read the bible for knowledge purposes. She always insisted that we have respect for all religions. I'll never follow a religion that condemns my loving nurturing upbringing. I can't be an atheiest because I believe that god exists and plays some unknown role in my life.... that is very spiritual but has nothing to do with religion. Walk a mile in someone elses shoes before labeling my spiritual life as a cope out.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  16. Ashley

    Don't you see how religion is the cop out? Religion gives you the answers to the tough questions without any basis.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Neko

      What are YOUR QUESTIONS?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  17. stephen l. walkinshaw

    I don't believe in god or gods. But maybe the Spiritual but not Religious have come to a point in their lives where they no longer believe what was teached and preached at them when they were children and now as adults are looking at the facts.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  18. Billy

    Logical fallacies (where reasonig was explicitly given) and blanket logic.
    The changing tides of culture beg us to redefine many areas of life - including religious practices. Society is witnessing a precipitous fall from organized religion. So what?
    Its only evolution of humanity. Religion has nothing to teach us. And we will reach into ourselves once again for intuitive truth from a new human perspective and form something else, a religion, way of life, something, to replace the old.
    Were all on the verge of big change. In all of humanity's history, we've never changed, evolved, or learned as much as we have since the industrial era.
    So don't respond to change with fear and 'you'd better run back!'. Spend time, instead, helping to direct a better future. 😀

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Neko

      The commonly used expression, "Those who ignore history are bound (or doomed) to repeat it" is actually a mis-quotation of the original text written by George Santayana, who, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Rooted in the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many others to follow, his biography (1863-1952) and more contemporary intepretations and observations about man and life can be found at Wikipedia by searching for George Santayana. Stanford University online also provides an outstanding and much more detailed background on this important and profound philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.

      Santayana's quotation, in turn, was a slight modification of an Edmund Burke (1729-1797) statement, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Burke was a British Statesman and Philosopher who is generally viewed as the philosophical founder of modern political conservatism.

      Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Who_said_Those_who_ignore_history_are_bound_to_repeat_it#ixzz27xxheWKH

      September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  19. fin

    the truth can be found in many places," religion", is mixed with too many untruths. why would i want to be a part of something that is littered with condemnation and falsehoods?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  20. Daniela

    "Karma Sutra?" Really??

    September 30, 2012 at 11:07 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.