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. david esmay

    What's more retrogressive than believing in myths created by iron age tribesmen? Religion is poison, pure and simple.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  2. Seyedibar

    As our society grows more educated, we collectively realize that the world's religions are nothing but fiction, and our minds look for alternative, more realistic sources of wonder. Alien visitation, holographic theory, kundalini, conspiracy theories, ghosts and haunted houses. They're all just modern creations of minds trying to fill the void left open by outdated religions. Human minds are comfortable with explanations in narrative, even when those explanations are themselves preposterous. People love to have a sense of belonging and purpose in this world where we're sadly and thruthfully just a cosmic accident.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  3. Incredulous

    Wow... Absolutely astonishing, that CNN would post such a ridiculous piece. This is more than an insult to the millions of people who have seen past knee-jerk submission to fear-based dogma, and discovered the Divine through teachings other than Christian Fundamentalism. I'm all for free speech, don't get me wrong, but to elevate the rigid, fear-based mentalities like Alan Miller's "my way or the highway" is...what? Desperate? Short-sighted? Pathetic, to be sure. Unbelievable.

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

      There is no such thing as "the divine". It's a meaningless semantic term that describes your own mind's creativity to meld high concepts. To proclaim that gods or spirits or souls exist without any sort of proof is just as silly and worthy of ridicule as following any religious book. "Unbelievable" is right.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  4. Michael

    Take this intolerant lecture down CNN. Whether the editor agrees with the author or not, a news organization should not be spreading hate speech like this. Are you going to post a similar article next Sunday, written by an atheist?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • david esmay

      An atheist's view would be the only valid one, that is not based on fiction and magic sky daddies.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  5. John

    In my experience most people I meet who embrace the term "spiritual but not religious" have a much stronger active moral compass than most of the religiously faithful I've met. Spiritual people include the young, but their ranks are deep with the mature who have seen the hypocrisy of many so-called religions. Religion, practiced by the majority, is a cop out. Instead of real moral activism, compassion, responsibility, discipline, learning it is a rote practice of dogma invented by power mongers who aimed to suppress anyone with a different view.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  6. Mike

    Somehow, none of the people I know who claim to be 'spiritual' have used their beliefs to hate other people, whether those other people are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Communists, Gays or whatever. Maybe these people are leaving organized religion because they're tired of the hate and intuitively know it's not moral.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  7. Tom

    Presumptuous and uninformed.

    Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you – they have got their reward! ....Matthew 6.5; 7.21

    "You cats comin on with the organized religion like God dig a whole lot of people. Unreal! And I aint goin for it. God just dug a few cats like Moses and Jesus, you dig. Those were the only cats he ever rapped to".... Richard Pryor

    Yes, I went there.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  8. Jesus Christ

    Why not come out and say organized religion is just a way to control people. By "going rogue" organized religion is losing its grip and now it's time to condemn the non-followers. What a load of garbage.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  9. Eric C. Lopez Rosario

    I beleive that reading and studying Classical literature and Shakespeare, along with Bach, helps me anser my own deep questions. I don't need anybody shoving their religious fairytales and telling me that's the ways to go.

    Can't wait for religion to go the way of the Dodo.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Heather

      You are just as bad as the author. Why does it need to go away if it helps someone else? Why do you care what religion people believe?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  10. grist

    I am an atheist. However, I can understant how someone can believe in a god but not want to associate with a particular religion. There are so many religions out their, most of which were started a long time ago so a lot of what is written in the religious texts don't make sense anymore.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • No2Atheism

      I hear what you are saying, but if you read the bible with a carnal mind, there is no way it will make sense to an unbeliever.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  11. Penny

    I am spiritual and religious. One does not come without the other. And as it is practiced by humans, religion does have its flaws. Religion is not who you profess to be at your church, temple, synagogue, etc. for a few hours every week. It's a much harder road to do it at all times in your life. I don't think people have an issue with religion per se. Most people have an issue with religious hypocrites and lack of critical thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  12. chett

    Cnn has become a tabloid instead of a news source, I guess that's what sales but for me I'm off to that great British site that reports the news.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  13. Libby Gu

    I'm going to the church of bloody mary, where the welcome mat says come as you are. The money I was saving up for Sunday I ended up spending' at the bar. .. "Church of Bloody Mary" – Guns of Nevada

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  14. rock-a-fella

    How about an article on being religious and not spiritual next please?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  15. Ironhouse

    In the bible it says those who worship in public are doing it for the wrong reasons and might as well not have worshipped at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  16. john

    Well Christianity is a hoax anyways, and almost every other modern "religion" .... save for the few carried on from ancient times with unknown orgins....was INVENTED by humans, therefore what the hell difference does it make if someone makes up their own individual beliefs or buys into some other crack pots ideas (which for your information most of them have such strict rules due to the fact they were and are OBVIOUSLY used as a form of control over people, not to mention that MOST people ever murdered / assassinated / product of genocide....etc had at its very root, a "religious" disagreement).....This guy is an idiot.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  17. steve

    This guys missing the point entirely, the point of being agnostic (spiritual) for me is that I agree there is a grand design but I dont believe any religion has the answer. Why would there be so many religions that claim to be the right way?

    As I see it religions are for people that like things easily digested, even if it doesnt make sense. Many religions also do good work so I cant knock them too much as the people are generally good folk, but when it comes to faith without reason I say "no".

    I dont claim to have the answers either but at least I'm willing to say that.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  18. James Calihan

    I am Buddhist, I have been studying for seven yeasr. Not only did I got to a Buddhist temple but I studied under a Buddhist Monk. Saying that; there comes a time that I have to decide which way my path will go without the help of the monk. I am the lone traveler on this path that has intersections. Intersections to where I have to decide which way to go, but with the help of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha I know I will come to the right decision. Just one more point; it is up to each individual to decide their own religios/spiritual path; whatever that may be.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  19. Loggan44

    I have to argree. Stupidest article ever. Even stupider than that lady whining about her son getting handcuffed cuz he matched a perp's id partially. Each person has their own view of the Universe and how it relates to them. This man has no right to try and define if for others. CNN get some real reporting will ya?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  20. ElJay

    "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?"

    Firstly, these two choices are not mutually exclusive. There can be interpretations of God and Scripture that are compatible with reason, knowledge and action.

    Secondly, the author's order for people to "take a stand" is completely hypocritical. Aside from doctrine (what specifically to say during prayer, beliefs on current issues such as contraception, etc) which changes constantly within religions based on contemporary influences, much dogma is built so that one doesn't have to take a side (ex: God is One and Three at the same time in the Holy Trinity of Catholicism, Hinduism is simultaneously monotheistic and polytheistic). To put down people who hold seemingly contradictory beliefs is to put down most religions throughout most of history.

    Get over yourself. While there are people who use the "spiritual but not religious" excuse as a way to get out of thinking about the big questions, focusing only on those people is manipulative and oddly familiar (*cough* that's why we don't want to go to church in the first place *cough cough*). Let people believe what they want and we'll let you believe what you want. End of story.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:21 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.