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. Jeannius

    I find this article beyond insulting! it is clearly written from the perspective of one who feels that 'spiritual' but not religious people have strayed and should be roped back into a community of 'God fearing Christians' in order to keep them in line and force them to participate in creating a Godly society!

    Quite frankly, many people who are spiritual, but not religious are MORE dedicated to helping society because they see it as a personal, identifiable responsibility, not a 'My church says I should' (but I don't really feel like it) responsibility! Quite frankly, I see the spiritual, but not religious belief system to be a matured version of spirituality....These people have often struggled to rectify the incongruities between not only differing religions, but the incongruities within the Church and Bible as well!

    It's like becoming a spiritual adult after years of being 'told' what to believe and how to act by a religious authority.....As parents, we do not continue to tell our children how to think, believe and act when they are grown and on or have their own families...we can make observations, and talk to them about them, but it is up to them to make those decisions. "spiritual, but not religious' is growing up spiritually, taking the beliefs into our cores and living them, no longer needing the dogma and fear to keep one on track because it is internalized. Internalized doesn't mean not recognizing a greater power, it acknowledges that there is one, but rejects the traditional old man in robes for a bigger picture.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  2. lovethedifferentcommentsystemsCNN

    what a maroon!

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

    As someone who reads CNN daily, this is disappointing. The most horribly written article that says absolutely nothing except that people with whom he doesn't agree with are lazy and taking the easy road. No, believing what you have believed since childhood, solely because you are told to believe it, is the easy road. Let's not look at facts or science, lets blindly follow my religion and disregard anyone who wants their own path. Horrible CNN. this author is a joke.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Pamela

      Michael, that was just right:) Thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Jeannius

      Agreed~ taking the path less travelled, as in, your own path, not the church's is much more difficult than following the masses and being one of the crowd! What frightens me is how many people have joined the ranks of the 'big religious' mass voice instead of thinking for themselves, especially when it comes to politics and civil rights. I believe that future societies will look back at this time in history and wonder at the mass insanity known as the evangelical movement, and call it the "American Dark Ages", when religion tried to trump intellect, education and anyone who didn't believe as they did.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  4. Sin Breaker

    Choose God…he is going to win!!! It's never to late to be saved and hand your life over to the Lord!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • No2Atheism


      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • snowboarder

      all you hand over is your rational thought.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Bill

      Feel free to buy into ancient mythology. I choose not to believe in myths.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • ha

      odd you would think if there was a "god" the world would be in a better place seems to be more hate and war and the earth falling apart if there was a god you think with all his followers he would be making to world better to live in no one would be going hungry.. i seen this thing on tv the other night seems "god" wants me to call in and give $1000 and that would fix all my money troubles some how i dont see how thats going to help but the person saying call in and sew your $1000 seed and "god" will thank you god dont give a rats azz about our money what "god" going to do with money??

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Gman

      Sin Breaker
      "Choose God…he is going to win!!!"

      Sin Breaker, I hate to break it to you...God is a female

      September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  5. Ponchos raincoat

    "The dangers of religion and spirituality" would be more fitting.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  6. snowboarder

    education will eventually obsolete religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • VegasRage

      Agreed, religion is a often a cop out for taking personal responsibility one self in numerous ways. Instead of developing a plan for oneself, many just fall back on book.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  7. Malcom Hargrove

    Alan Miller is a man who just let the older generations greatest fear out of the bag.

    The fear of not having control.

    Its gonna be ok Alan.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  8. Endy

    The author has their point exactly backwards. Religion gives you an easy answer without having to think about it. What happens after death? Heaven of course! What should I do to make it to heaven? Worship of course!
    They are “unwilling to take a real position” because it IS a very complicated topic that is not easily answered. Maybe the answer is provided in part by each of Earth's religions. Maybe none of the religions have a component of truth to them.
    Religion is a way to get to the destination, bypassing the the post important part: the spiritual journey that gets you there.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • snapestinks

      Religion is voluntary surrender of self control and decision making.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • MLP

      exactly....complete surrender....like with Hitler

      September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • ARaine

      I appreciate the point you are making here, but I have to say that in my personal experience religion definitely made me ask the hard questions. As a child, yes...the answers are "easy". But as I grew up, I had to find out for myself if those "easy answers" really were true amidst a world full of reasonable explanations why they are not. It was an incredibly long, personal, and trying journey.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  9. spiritualbutnotreligious

    The real danger is pretending to know things we don't know. Religions help people pretend to have the answers. There's no danger in searching for the truth, exploring the boundaries of our awareness, contemplating the nature of existence, meditating, etc. It's psychologically healthy to come to terms with the limits of our knowledge. Religions lie to us, and they convince us that it's okay to lie to ourselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • snowboarder

      that is profoundly true.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • No2Atheism

      So true. I agree 100%.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  10. Samuel

    To all those so called Christians if you truly believed in the teachings of Christ you'd throw away any concept of materialism and take care of you fellow man. Christians represent hypocrisy at it's worst.

    I'm not religious but I believe a wise man once said: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

    Jesus may not have been God's son but at least his heart was in he right place. Maybe Christians could learn a thing or 2 from him.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • No2Atheism

      Wait, you are trying to lecture Christians by quoting a scripture and claim that Jesus isn't the Son of God? How can a fool teach what it doesn't even know? How can you tell anyone about the bible when you don't follow it as well?


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

      You are generalizing Christians. Yes, there are those who give the religion a bad name. Those who are hypocritical and, to me, not true Christians.

      However it is not fair to say that all Christians are this way. It is the same for any religion. You have your fanatics who do not represent but a small fraction of the community, yet their actions are equated to the religion as a whole. There are plenty of Christians out there that are "doing what Jesus would do," helping their communities, giving to those in need, living their lives in a humble fashion doing what they can and trying to get by, as well.

      I would ask that before you generalize any organization, belief or what have you that you think twice and realize that what you are saying is just as ignorant as you think the people are that you are referring.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  11. elmoniv

    This article is disappointing in its blatant bias and lack of so much as an interest in investigating and gaining an understanding of spiritual belief systems. Your article is so juvenile! It does one thing, however- represents beautifully the reason why so many people have chosen to disregard organized religion as a belief system. There is divide in this world because believers of organized religion are lost in symbolism that masks the underlying concept that religion was formed to carry through to people- goodness should be the motivation for all human actions. As well as love. That there are no answers to "big questions" and that it is OK to not have answers but to seek knowledge and radiate positivism even without the promise of redemption and/or heaven. Can spreading love and positivism and possessing goodness have such an altruistic motive? YES! And spirituality enables us to achieve this by understanding the need for religion but never getting lost in the symbolism that it promotes.
    You have the privilege of affecting a lot of people through your words on this platform. Please choose your words wisely. They must be soaked not in contemptuous bias but in truth-seeking knowledge.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  12. MikeB

    All those without religion are bitter towards it; look at all the hatred and doubt being spewed here. That's what happens to people without religion: they're lost without any guideposts. They can question and criticize but they lack direction and answers. I feel sorry for you; and I am so blessed to have been brought up with a religion. I have all my answers, and all those non-religious spiritual cats will claim is that I am stupid. Yup, stupid and committed and sure of myself.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Jon franco

      nice tty. We are bitter towards religion because it has caused so much harm and suffering for so many over the ages. We are bitter towards the judgement that somehow blindly following someones imaginary friend around is any more valid than searching within to find the truth.

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

      I have direction and purpose to my life. I am not filled with hate. I wake up every morning and ask myself what I am going to do today to make this Earth a better place before I lay my head back down on my pillow tonight. I am an atheist.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • md22mdrx

      People aren't bitter towards religion because they're "lost" ... in fact, quite the opposite. They're bitter towards religion because RELIGION is lost. Religion has veered into abuse, criminal activity, and worst of all ... politics!!! People now see religion for what has been for hundreds of years now ... a tool to control the minds of the masses.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • sokesky

      I'm not without beliefs; simply without a church. I work with sick people and with dog rescue; most of my life has been in service to others.

      People like you are the big problem with churches; it's your way or the highway. I'll take the highway.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  13. CarolinaG

    I would much rather see someone meditating on the beach than pass a church with 500 people singing the same hymn out of the same book. It is time to question who really wrote the hymn book and why.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • md22mdrx

      Who's closer to their god?

      A. A person meditating on the beach.
      B. A group of people mindlessly repeating words in a building

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  14. MLP

    what a judgemental one way bunch of BS

    September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  15. Kuta

    People! Let's accept what science tells us. That we're an insignificant accident and our "beings" are no more than sophisticted organic computers made by accident in a universe accidently created. Big bang? Created by accident. What created the big bang? More accidents!

    There are no universal moral laws except those created as a figment of our imagination.

    Nihilism is the new atheist heaven to accompany their dogma.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  16. Rob

    A structured religion is preformed in large halls churches mosques etc where large masses of people can be easily manipulated to believe whatever is presented. As the story goes it was when Christ ,Budda, other religious figures wonder off alone,who knows where, when they have their visions or revelations of god. So that being said how can a mass gathering be more enlightening. It may be for in lightening to your wallet but not for spiritual gain.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  17. Alan Gore

    There are a lot of people out there who feel spiritual but have not found a place of worship they like. What this means is you have an opportunity to start at least one new religion. And this time around, try not to create a horrible mess that embarrasses humanity as a species, okay?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  18. Happy to be more spiritual...

    Obviously the writer prefers judging rather than discernment and feels threatened and possibly fear that a society can reject religions the justify that war and hate are commonplace and accepted. As one person stated "religion is for people who are afraid of going to he'll. Spirituality is for people who have been there and back." If Spirituality does nothing but make our species more compassionate, then I'll take Spirituality every time. This diatribe is nothing but an attempt to put one more division among people. If you are finding spiritual balance and enlightenment within your formal religion, then continue and we all applaud you. If you are not, then seek and you shall find. Wishing you peace and love on your journey wherever that takes you.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  19. Liz Siler

    I'm religious - and working towards becoming more spiritual and less "religious" and I find this piece offensive. Nothing but a defense for "BIG RELIGION" which is a lot like "BIG OIL" - pernicious in the way it preys on consumers. What BIG RELIGION wants is your money. The "product" it purports to offer is salvation. It creates customer loyalty by appealing to various human instincts (both good and bad). This gal is on her way out of BIG RELIGION in pursuit of more spiritual connectedness to the planet, the people on it, and the universie.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • The Wizard

      You go girl!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  20. The Messenger

    Alan MILLER please don't start another "MILLERITES MOVEMENT"...but seek GOD in spirit and truth because GOD IS SPIRIT.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:13 am |
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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.