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. Clint

    Funny, religious people using the word "truth". To quote "a few good men", most of you religious folks "can't handle the truth".

    When your dying, you'll finally realize how much of your life was wasted....

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Buddy

      You sound so threatened so lonely so little so ugly

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  2. sas

    Sounds like this guy hasn't thought his own argument through. I spent most of my life asking the "tough" questions. If you as ask a buddhist what he believes, he would shun religious dogma and all mental constructs. This man is taking a western style point of view on the subject. And his view is also a judgmental and narrow view.

    He wants people to see the world in black and white, right versus wrong. These are primitive beliefs and young people realize that the world is becoming more grey. The ironic thing is, that once you realize it, you come closer to understanding objective truth.

    But what this man is looking for is a tangible subjective reality, whether he is willing to admit it or not. The pursuit of objective reality, on the other hand, is a much more difficult journey that authors like this one, are afraid to take because they have to walk in the valley of the "unknown" and be able to walk comfortably in it without fear.

    And fear is exactly where this man's concern is stemming from.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  3. Joel

    So how do us "spiritual but not religious" individuals react to this one-sided malarkey? By finding something better and more loving to focus on, and go about our lives. Maybe even go so far as to do something crazy like take a walk in the park and watch the hawks fly above.

    And how do these religious know-it-alls react to a stab at their beliefs? They bomb embassies. They crash planes into buildings. You do the math...

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  4. Jeanette Hedges

    Not to mention, that it was such a one-sided and offensive commentary based on someones apparent lack of experience and real knowledge of "spirituality."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  5. jenny


    The original writer makes the error that if one is not religious, it is replaced with a lack of something else. Just because one doesn't have a one word description of one's beliefs does not make them invalid.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  6. ww

    There are many paths to get to Jesus. Just because one isn't on your particular path doesn't mean he/she is lost.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  7. Amy Smith

    This post depressed me. I am "spritual" because I believe in God and God's love. I am not religious because I don't think that God hates gays or women or people of other faiths and it seems like every major religion out there is very much about hating gay people, oppressing women and saying that everyone who thinks differently is wrong. Alan, you are a white man. Most religions don't hate you and so I guess you can call us "spiritual" folks cop-outs. I am a woman. I see no reason to subscribe to any religion that hates and dishonors me for no reason other than my gender.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Cjs


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

      Nicely stated, Amy......I couldn't agree more.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  8. RGB

    Tho shall not judge ! Why does a person have to be organized or part of an organization?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Zachary

      If you've read the bible you know god hates all sorts of people. Most of them it appears

      September 30, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  9. OregonTom

    All I have to say is that religion was invented by man.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Name

      Man corrupts Gods truth every time he restores it. This is a pattern that is evidenced in scripture throughout history.

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

      Right on Oregon Tom!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  10. Name

    I don't blame people being frustrated with organized religion. Man corrupts truth over and over and every time God restores it to the earth, but the corrupted remnants remain to confuse people. Satan is cunning.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • elisesez

      This 'writer' is exactly the type of person who flock to organized religion and judges others for not being a member of that same club. This is the reason I opt to STAY spiritual but not religious. I do not condemn those who choose a specific religion or denomination. I respect others enough to not force my personal beliefs onto them. This 'author' seems to think his choices are being looked down upon those who are SBNR- this is far from the truth. That is your choice and I have the freedom to make my choices. You are free to say what you want (as above) and you can see from the response not everyone agrees. This is how it should be. Freedom of speech & religion. Freedom to state your opinion and it is just that. Your opinion.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  11. Bunsen Honeydew

    Referring to the headline ... there is no "danger".

    Believe, or don't believe, whatever you want.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  12. kentmichaels

    I would argue that much of what was negative in our history was due to organized religion, the notion that folks "had" to practice a certain way or they were sinners, heathens, or infidels; and that much which was good and is good perpetrated from the prevalence of spirituality–the feeling that more was involved that one's individuality. That Bach wouldn't have happened stands true simply because that is the way that it went; if we had something else, something else would have transpired instead. Had can one argue that Bach or the Beatles was better when you don't know what that something else might have been. Nah, this guy's a cop-out because he falls into the trap that is religion–you have to be defined so that you can define, and next come restrict, censor, and so forth.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  13. bob labla

    religion is man made, it is insane to believe in those fairy tales, they cause more death than any disease, just be a good person, no one knows whats going to happen after this

    September 30, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • BuffaloJon

      By your definition that makes our current President insane. No argument here.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  14. Zacharias

    The irony of this opinion is that Mr. Miller attacks spirituality as having no belief and a lack of critical thought, but the very nature of believing is that you are not using critical thought but instead are blindly following. Spirituality is critical thought at its very core, guided only by critical examination and free from the dogma of tainted influences.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  15. jayh

    Fear is all I got out of this article.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  16. Patrick

    I am spiritual and not religious, except the spirit I tap into is THE spirit, as in the ONLY spirit that replenishes, heals, comforts, loves, and redeems. I'm a follower of Christ! 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Bunsen Honeydew

      How nice for you, Patrick!

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

    You know what a cop-out is? Religious people saying "Because God said so, because the Bible says so" instead of trying to figure out why something is the way it is, and not putting in the mindpower to learn.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  18. lefty avenger

    Organized Religion is the Ultimate tool for the Corporate Aristocratic Oligarchy to control the masses for their financial benefit. Personal Meaningful Spirituality cannot be controlled and thus is greatly feared by the controlling establishment.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. God

    Religion will eventually go the way of magic and voodoo.

    Most of the evils of the world today are caused by religion.

    War, lack of money because of wars, etc.

    I do not have,a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus. I presume that my intelligent friends do not suppose that I believe such things. We do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property. They do not say that the tooth fairy made the world, and that all of us must therefore bow the knee to the Big Brother tooth fairy. They do not say that the tooth fairy will order you to kill your sister if she is seen in public with a man who is not her brother.

    Please read or listen to Sam Harris's "Letter To A Christian Nation".



    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  20. me

    pssst, hey, Alan, you just called out the "me generation" in a online blog expressing your own personal opinion. /me laughs!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:16 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.