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. Will

    Is this really Sunday frontpage news? The halfassed *opinion* of some CNN writer on religion, of all things?

    By the way, calling these spiritualist beliefs a 'cop-out' is no more than prejudice. Nice one, Miller.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  2. Scott

    Didn't Jesus shun the temple because of the money there and, in essence, shun organized religion? Didn't he say something like church is where you choose to worship, not some building with fancy decorations? He was spiritual, not religious, so i guess the author thinks he was sitting on the fence, too.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Observer

      Not sure your grasp of those references were contextual...

      September 30, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • lms

      Scott – The story of Jesus running the merchants and money changes out of the temple is about his beleif that the temple should be for worship and and not comerce. As much Jesus was considered a radical in the organized Jewish faith, the elders were concerned about his rocking the boat and causing grief with the ruling Romans, of which there was an delicate and uneasy peace at the time. Jesus did follow the teachings of Judism, ie "The Last Supper" was a Sedar, celebrating Passover. There is a place for both Organized Religion and Spritualism. Unfortuanly the "Churchs" with the best marketing have lost track of thier mission and now seem to care more about quanity vs quality. A majority of the organized churches do care about sprituality and serving people. Unfortunatly, they are not the ones to receive the press. Be Well

      September 30, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  3. Louanne Kaye

    In my experience, the rejection of organized religion was a rejection of control through guilt and belief in a Satan. I chose to believe in a God of love and forgiveness that would accept All. A God of love and creation would not reject any creatures. The church wanted me to Judge my fellow man and take sides against some of humanity. I have found a spiritual path outside of organized religion that is more loving than inside the Church.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  4. budgiegirl

    I happen to be an agnostic who bets the atheists are right. That being said, I'm totally comfortable with the spiritual but not reigious. Actually I'm comfortable with any religious person who doesn't make every other person who doesn't agree with them feel like crap for their own beliefs. So what if people straddle the fence with "spiritual but not religious". None of us will ever know the answer until we die, of maybe we'll just never know the answer. People who are spiritual but religious are describing how they feel about life, they are not proclaiming they have the answers, and good for them. I'm not even spiritual.... and not religious.... that is how i feel. Why can't they feel differently. We have to put up with the non-spiritual but religious all the time?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  5. Matt

    So, the argument is that that way of thinking lacks external authority? What does any third-person externalize religion offer to the truly introspective? He is promoting religion of sheep, not a self-empowered and enlightened existence.
    Hahahahahahahaha. Perhaps CNN can do better than to promote someone that can't pass a critical thinking exam.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  6. elie

    Mr miller,
    If you are so cincerned about relative truths, maybe your "truth" would be more self evident. Those of us striving for spirtuality over organized practice may be simply getting back to the roots of all religion. Dencent loving humanistic behaviour.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  7. nogodatall

    People who are "spiritual but not religious" have not yet confronted the fact that they are really atheists. The probability of the existence of god is about the same as the probability of the existence of magic gnomes or flying pink unicorns.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  8. Matt

    The journey to god is more important then finding god. The journey and yearning is what leads to acceptance once you find god.

    It is a lot easier to go to church every Sunday morning and listen to the person speaking to the flock, then it is to Go on the journey to find the answer for yourself.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Matt

      Where is your god? Do you have any new evidence, something tangible that would point to a god's existence?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Scars

      The absence of proof is not proof of absence. There were plenty of things that existed yet we did not discover them until we invented the proper scientific tools to measure them. I can respect the beliefs of atheists as I certainly have my doubts myself and struggle with my faith. But I absolutely despise those atheists who are so certain that they are right that they feel the need to insult and ridicule the positions of others. Atheists can be 99.9% certain that there is no God - based on scientific evidence - but even they cannot claim to know 100% because of the limits of human intelligence.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  9. Hennen's Observer--The Week in Review

    @the author: Thanks for the sermon, dad. Funny, you rail against "non-traditional" beliefs and practices and then choose a news outlet to propagate your religious beliefs. How is that for non-traditional? You use far too many quotation marks to sarcastically call into question that which you don't agree with. That's bad writing. Also, you question whether great accomplishments would have been possible in the past without traditional religion. I'm sorry, but every generation gets to choose its own destiny, just as they chose theirs. Finally, I know what the root of your frustration is: your fear and rejection of progress. It questions your world view which, incidentally, is too flimsy and weak to accept a coexistence with any other. Have a "good" day.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  10. Marissa

    Regardless of my personal opinion of his stance, there is a major flaw in his argument. He makes sweeping generalizations about the core beliefs of "spiritual, not religious" people to support the argument that their flaw is that they don't have core beliefs.
    On a side note, what would this guy have thought of Jesus or Martin Luther?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  11. RStephens

    Of course everyone picks and chooses what to believe. Do christians kill children who hit their parents as the bible tells them in Exodus 21:15? Do we set an entire town of fire if they don't have the same religion as us (as in Deuteronomy 13 )?
    Do we kill the chilren of criminals as in Isaiah. Chapter 14 ? Do people who take their own life really go to hell? With modern science we now know it's due to the unbalanced brain chemistry of certain hormones, not under our control at all. We all pick and choose what is moral in our current society, as it should be. When these books were written, slavery was legal, spousal abuse the norm, and conformity or be killed was the message of the day.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  12. John

    If the only thing that spirituality does is reduce the guilt that drives organized religion, it will be the greatest idea of the last two or three millenia. While organized religion can provide a comfort to many, it also provokes a sense of tribalism that IMO far outweighs the good that it can do. Spiritualism does not mean jettisoning all moral and ethical beliefs. Rather it strips the facade of ritual from the proceedings and allows an examination of the core values behind religion, which are NOT obedience to or fear of some deity and its unlimited power to punish. Organised religion stresses rules without examination of the reasoning behind the rules.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Louanne Kaye

      Great answer John

      September 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  13. midwest rail

    As soon as you typed the first sentence, you were wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  14. Steve Watson

    Spoken from the point of a true believer who may be right for himself but is unwilling and unable to understand the feelings and thinking of others. "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" Wrong – because it's not a "trouble". Spirituality makes no attempt to offer such an exposition/understanding/explanation because there is none. Get it through your head, Mr. Miller, that you can not judge the beliefs of others from your own single minder belief system's point of view. If you could, this article wouldn't exist because you wouldn't feel the need to criticize and belittle the beliefs of others. Christianity as it is practiced, currently epitomised by the politically active religious-right, is anything but loving, understanding or forgiving, except for members of its own little tribe. This article by Mr. Miller is a perfect example. Throw off your blinders, if you can, and realize that to not be Christian is not a sin. We don't need a "practice" because we have our own very strong beliefs – you just can't understand and accept.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Mark

      Well said!

      September 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Susan


      September 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  15. Mike

    The 'real position' is that there is no 'right' when it comes to spirituality. Connecting to a bit of this and a bit of that shows an openness and appreciation to all, without creating a seperatness from others based on differing beliefs. Picking and being dogmatic creates an us versus them existence that has lead us to a crusades, Holocaust, 9/11, red state/blue state mentality that keeps us in constant seperatness and conflict.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  16. BTCV

    Adults with imaginary friends are stupid anyway...

    Who cares what some hack journalist has to say?

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  17. dcobranchi

    Anything that moves people away from 2000 years old fairy tales is fine with me. And if the spiritual folk eventually choose "a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action," even better.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  18. RinzaiKensho

    This is one of the most short sighted articles I have read in quite a while. The idea that because someone identifies as spiritual yet not religious and therefore is indecisive, unable or unwilling to have or be a part of a transformative experience, and is somehow non-realist is absurd. To speak in such broad generalities about a group that defies convenient definition is silly. Many of the Founding Fathers of the US were diests and therefore inherently spiritual but not religious. Thomas Jefferson re-wrote the Bible without any of the miracles or "magical thinking." He would not fit into any modern Christian church and yet it is impossible to deny that he was quite a transformative figure, a realist, and decisive. The spiritual but not religious stream of thought is just as instrumental in the history of America as any religion precisely because of the creation of the separation of church and state. This is grounded in the understanding that religion is not needed as a transformative and decisive power in terms of government because that power is already vested in the social collective known as citizens. The separation serves a larger purpose but it has this logic deeply engrained within it. Reality has disproven the author's claims long before he claimed them and it is unfortunate that this is so widely missed within the religious communities of the West.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  19. Eric

    Millions of young Americans are apparently deciding that organized religion is so ritualized and artificial to render it personally meaningless. I guess that's not good for the income statement of "organized" religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  20. Chris

    If this is your approach in the debate quorum you will fail miserably.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
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