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. Antonio

    Wow Allan Miller, please never write an opinion piece again because you are terrible at it.

    "A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?"

    I didn't realize that people were only limited to those two choices! /sarcasm

    Please Allan, I'm an atheist but I am definitely "spiritual." What does that mean? It means when I go for a run I try and concentrate on my body and the movements of my muscles, on the world around me, the sun, the people, and I just take it all in and reflect on the runners before me, some young man unknown to history who also ran for travel, communication, hunting, something. Under the same sun. I contemplate all that and then ideas come from there.

    OR when I'm with my family I think about the bonds that connect us and what they mean to me. When I study science I contemplate the larger picture and why my mind craves answers to life's mysteries and the idea that "meaning" may just be a human concept, completely non-sensical to objective reality.

    Whatever. That's "spiritual but not religious" and it is not some hippy "cop out" from making some arbitrary decision on "WHICH RELIGION DO I FOLLOW OMG???" which seems to be a mandatory decision in your mind. No "spiritual but not religious" means rejecting the rigidity and dogma of orgnazied religion while simultaneously not denying the spiritual nature of being a human being. But without reasonable evidence to posit any supreme being, our spiritual sides remain a human curiosity; another mystery for us to reasonable examine and understand.

    Is not reading about the science on the matter and marveling at the wonder of existence enough? MUST we do more? I'm pretty sure that will keep you busy for a lifetime. Not to mention that simple AWE at the world is the quintessence of spirituality in-and-of itself.

    It's that simple. You make the same mistake of others of your generation by demanding that people make some sort of grand display devoid meaning content. Don't overthink it and try again please.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  2. Cheeseburger

    "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." Gag me. Loser mentality left over from the 60's. Didn't work then, doesn't work now. Faith takes intelligence.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • rt

      Faith is just unearned trust. Atheism is what takes intelligence.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Bork

      "Faith takes intelligence" – I would posit that since according to scripture that "faith is the substance of things hoped for," religious faith actually takes less intelligence than actively pursuing an explanation or proof of how things really work. Faith as a whole is a positive expression of emotion, but religious faith perverts that into an active suspension of disbelief and skepticism in many; pressed with difficult questions, they fall back on the cliche of "I will find out when God tells me in Heaven," which allows them to retreat from those logical difficulties without facing them courageously.

      The "faith=intelligence" canard is even more glaringly incorrect when someone's faith leads them to disdain or dismiss someone whose own beliefs are at a contrast to their own. That is not intelligence – rather, it is an animal stupidity, a reflexive guarding of turf which is about as intelligent as a dog urinating on a patch of ground.

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

      spiritual and not religious doesnt necessarily mean (at least for me) that one cannot find good in all religions, it simply means (again for me) not conforming oneslef to any one religion and saying this is what is and the other is wrong. There are lessons in all religions one can learn and appreciate, but the problem lies in which one is the "right one" to believe in. It is an unanswerable question and should not even be asked. Being spiritual should be about having an understanding of oneself and the universe and importantly, that everything in the universe is connected in a very beautiful but sad endless way. The author here is angry and a bit ignorant, perhaps what he wants people to pick sides and sorry, the world/universe is a bit more complicated than that. So what if people don't believe in a particular religion, there are more holes, contradictions, anger, meanness, hostility and downright nastiness in organized religions and what people have interpreted and used throughout history that its not surprising more people havent shunned away. Do this author and those who are "religious," respect others beliefs and don't judge....wait didn't christ say something similar to that?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  3. Spiritual

    No kingdom has shed more blood than the kingdom of Christ. ~Charles de Montesquieu

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Cheeseburger

      And concurrently, no kingdom has done more to lift people up to the light of God in achievement, inspiration, and aspiration. Charles de Cheeseburger.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  4. Manofcolor

    I think that the man who had the best observation and opinions of religion was–>

    George Carlin......................

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Sam

      And Bill Maher us second.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  5. Bible just a theory

    In the "good old day", guys like MILLER would drag these "spiritual but not religious" people down into the BISHOP'S DUNGEON and whip them until they confessed their error and acknowledged the power and right of the church (and dropped money again into the collection plate!).

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Manofcolor

      and then disemboweled and burned them........................................................

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  6. Paris Miller

    Dear CNN, I am never coming to your web site or watching your channel again. You have given a podium to a person not unlike !

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  7. bcecil123

    there have been 2874 formally named gods, but only one mankind, in all of history. They are all invented to explain death and major problems in our lives. If you change the name of the individual deity in all religious texts, ie Koran, bible, tora etc to the word "mankind" they all still read rather well. So bottom line is that if mankind does more to help individuals, collectively, need for gods go away.

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

    I have an idea. You don't worry about us " spiritual" people and we won't worry about you "religious" folk!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • ConcernedAtheist

      Ain't that the truth. I don't even consider myself spiritual, but it is unnerving to read what this joke of a fella had to write. I was once religious, skipped the spiritual, and went on to become a highly enlightened, educated human being concerned only with making the world a better place for my children.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  9. Gary

    This is a great example of how religious people see the rest of us. They believe that their belief is the ONE and everyone else is blind, stupid, lazy or evil for not embracing it. His disdain for these people is clear. He is unable to muster even the most basic christian concept of compassion for them, but instead seeks to degrade their beliefs as inferior to his.
    If an atheist wrote a similar article religious people would scream they are being "attacked". Why would anyone buy into the christian belief system? I read the bible and understand the teachings of Christ, then I look at the people around me that claim to be his followers and I see almost none of those principles in any of them. The "spiritual but not religious" folks I meet seem to know its all a lie, all made up to control people...but they still feel attachment to some of the principles they learned from religion, like compassion, charity and love. They feel connected with humanity through those principles and are afraid of losing that if they renounce religion, god or spirituality entirely. I am proud to be free of religion, free of the lie of god....but I dont try to convert others and I certainly dont think less of one who believes, for I once believed too.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  10. rjstarr

    Spoken like a true fundamentalist: Attack what others are doing, rather than paying attention to what's on your own paper, or the plank in your own eye. "Everyone is wrong unless you believe like me, with a set of rules, beliefs, doctrines, texts, etc." My personal "spiritual but not religious" inclination is to honor your process of questioning, knowing that the only reason one has to defend is when one feels threatened. So time may be well spend asking oneself, "why do I feel threatened if I am so sure that I am right?" Peace be still.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  11. Cedar rapids

    What is this nonsense?
    Seems like he just wants people to shut up and do as they are told by big religion.

    I mean just some of the stuff he gets wrong or claims is something different....

    "and even governments aim to have a "happiness agenda," desperate to fill a gap at the heart of civic society"
    No they arent, that very article shows how they are trying to determine the 'happiness' of a society for ranking purposes, nothing to do with trying to make people happy because they are missing religion or some such nonsense.

    "It is within the context of today's anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate"
    Otherwise known as free-thinking, self-determination....and not a bad thing.

    "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."
    Funny but it was an anti-big, anti-discipline viewpoint that led to the bible being printed in English in the first place.

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
    Being religious means you dont think at all, you just do as you are told.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  12. wombwasteland

    "Take a stand, I say." On what? When someone is spiritual but not religious, I think it's clear they (we) are saying we don't believe in the Bible (or whichever book of faith you would like to note). (Though, they can offer some nice fables.) We are not Christian. We may or may not affiliate ourselves with anything. We are also not saying we're athiest. Agnostic, maybe. What I most glean from this article is that you are desperate for a confrontation, something tangible you may fight against with your Bible held high in your right hand while your left hand thumps it passionately (yes, I went there). Your problem though is you cannot even begin to understand anyone else's views while you remain locked in the belief there is an allmighty God whose word must be followed whether it "feels" good or not. This alone makes you incapable of understanding how someone else who doesn't follow such rigid rules can be spiritually fulfilled and comforted. My personal belief is that history alone cannot determine the validity of a belief system. Your point concerning its contribution to mankind is moot. For as much as mankind has flourished within Christian principles, it has also perished. How different would our world be if the longest held beliefs were kept simply due to their longevity and not their righteousness. Ultimately, there can be no fight; while you maintain that an antique book is your belief system's sole proprietor and the ultimate proof of its riteousness, it still means nothing more to me than a set of fables meant to mold and shape people into a group of individuals that best suited the social principles of the time.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  13. Tilo

    I know you will maybe not understand but it is ok I will tell you a few truth. I am spiritual and will never be religious. What I know now surpasses what I would ever be taught in religion. The difference between religion and is that religion you must read about God has if it's intellectual and read to learn but being spiritual is direct connection to the source of all that is God. I need not of books to understand the Universe yet I try to teach other in communities even science on what most things they still try to understand is. I understand the Universe, our purpose and I will tell you. The Universe is filled with life, civilizations of many cultures, species, intelligent in their own way and our way, superseding humanity here in earth, our purpose here is not to learn religion but to Love one another, we are part of a universe of beings many which have learn to stop war and live peacefully among planets and even star system all waiting for us in earth to finish passing the grade of learning to Love. I sit here tired of my Goverbment and all government's wars on humanity driven my greed and money, trying to blind society with its interest in economy, wrath and materials. We don't want no more wars. We are the Universe we create Universes upon Universes in frequencies that range from the physical plane to the source of pure unconditional Love. In NASA fantasy land we wait for a bacteria particle to confirm we are not alone the truth is we are filled with life. If you ask me how do I know all this I can promise you it was not the bible but I am part it. I have seen it all with my own eyes, and I have been there to say I have. I have seen life after life and have met with so many wonderful, playful even like child type beings all waiting for our planet to emerge like parents waiting for their children to graduate a torshing class. There are things out there sir that if you knew you would question all you have been taught in school all over again. Religion is a closure, we are the light of the new world but not the new world old men try to dream up in executive/oval meetings, this new world the children of the earth bring foward. You said it the "movement" of the younger, maybe the young crowed being born today are being born here for a purpose of change, global change. You believe religion, good and maybe that the Government want to helps us and I bet you voting for one of these two guys running for President because you still believe in the republican VS democrat fairy tale. It's ok to wake up and I glad I did, I hope you also awaken because you are in a deep sleep of ignorance but believe it or not you are just like us because we all are one.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  14. Brooks Bradbury, The View From here

    "Vigilant guardian of the small picture' comes to mind here...

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  15. Antoinette Sellitto

    Another self-righteous preacher of "I know what's best for everyone".

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  16. draxta

    To say this is a dumb article is an understatement.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  17. No2Atheism

    Wait, why are atheists 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 11:23 am |
    • John Gault

      Yelling won't change our minds. You are proving our point that those of faith are intolerant of others views.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      "How can you tell anyone about the bible when you don't follow it as well?"

      strange argument. Why do you need to believe the contents to talk about it? Thats such a bizarre argument.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      How's it feel to be a sheep?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Eric C. Lopez Rosario

      I , an "atheist/agnostic/someone-who doesn't care either way", will gladly get into a debate with you over what wisdom is, what defines it, and how you obtain it. I only hope that you don't bring just Bible quotes to the conversation.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Most atheists I know are much more well-versed in biblical literature than believers. Perhaps those with better reading comprehension skills more easily see through the fiction.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Gary

      I am an atheist and know more about the bible than most christians that I've met. I studied to be a pastor and it was that in depth study of scripture and history in divinity school that showed me the truth .Basically, you are a bigot. You see those different from you as inferior or incapable of what you are.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  18. spiritualbutnotreligious

    This article is and its author are opposed to diversity. Beneath the veneer of this article is an ugly dragon living in the heart of the author that demands that his beliefs are the one and only true path. People indulge that sort of thinking when they are insecure about their own beliefs.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  19. ophiolite

    Hmm...have you talked to anyone in the spiritual, but not religious camp? I think you are over-simplifying the vast diversity of feelings, experiences, and ideologies that fall under that umbrella.
    I do not simply believe life should be all pleasure and not pain, which is essentially what you are advocating.
    I believe in God, but I do not know what God is (male, female, white, black, an essence, a spirit, a set of natural laws) and I have no way of quantifying this. I believe there have been many great spiritual thinkers who have different explanations of this and that all have some merit. I believe in truth and justice, but also mercy. I believe in heaven and hell, but that they exist as a state of mind. I don't know if I believe in rebirth or resurrection.
    I could continue, but the point is that I left organized religion because I found it judgmental in much the same way this blog post is. If you don't look a certain way or act as certain way or have these life experiences you are evil. I got tired of being preached to on Sunday that Jesus expects us to love and forgive everyone, but then watching the people who preached that turn and immediately begin judging and trampling their brethren and sisters under their feet. I got tired of excuses that said "the church is true; the people are imperfect" as justification for these behaviors. So I left and decided to work out my own salvation with God outside of some mediating party that inevitably puts women on unequal footing.
    Maybe, just maybe, if you engaged with the spiritual but not religious camp, you would understand that the churches need to address the gap between what they preach and what they do and in addressing their hypocrisy, maybe they will win more souls.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  20. Salenger

    Right so in order for someone to be in touch with what they feel is something beyond the human body or mind....they must have religion.....Seriously? What kind of BS is this? someone slap this guy for being a close minded fool.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:23 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.