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. me

    I am not hypocritical enough to be religious.....

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  2. Scott

    This article teaches us that, regardless of your spiritual or religious belief, you should always portray those you disagree with as pudgy hippies practicing yoga on a beach. Because lets face it, most of them are, right?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  3. emmm

    The author, like many, seems only comfortable with conventional branding of beliefs with the traditional organizational constructs for expression of inner thought and spiritual belief of which both, in the long run, will trend more and more individual in nature.
    Long live, we hope, the individuality of human spirit and thought.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  4. Mark

    I find his generalizations as ignorant as those who rail against organized religion. I see much good in organized religion, but without doubt I cannot believe as they do. I cannot pretend to believe that which is only believed on faith. I am spiritual, there is a part of me that guides me, has a closer connection to the world around me and helps me to find peace with it, through self searching, helping others and letting outcomes go. It is not a god, and it certainly is not Jesus, Mohammad or any other prophet. Why then would I attend a religions body that makes no sense to me. The grand environments, doctrine, rituals do nothing to help me connect with my spirit. I can respect and value that others get great spirituality from it, I don't.

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

    Typical christian control freak and I have compassion for him

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  6. Peter

    this article should be taken down. it's absolutely absurd.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  7. JC

    This piece of trash article, really a blatant troll, is exactly the sort of illogical argument that causes intelligent beings to seek outside major religions for intelligent religious experiences.

    Perhaps the author has not considered it in this manner: there is no one true religion. Every faith has a little bit of wisdom to share with us, but no one has a monopoly on God, the universe, truth, or our understanding of what it means to be sentient. The Christian faith claims to be the true religion, but it took them almost a thousand years to clarify exactly what it was that they believed, and in the process, anything or anyone contradicting that codification was destroyed or eliminated. The religion then fragmented after it became clear that virtually none of those espousing piety were especially pious. Most religions seem to go through that process. What about Islam, a faith which has become so increasingly about Muhammad that they have virtually made of him a God, untouchable and remote. What was it Abu Bakar said? "And now, he who worships Muhammad (Peace be upon him) Muhammad is dead now. But he who worships Allâh, He is Ever Living and He never dies." How much is lost as a result of seeking consistency instead of truth? How much harm do we do by our blind adherence to any faith? Remember what Galileo said? "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them." Organized religion requires submission of all those assets to a system of belief, and I'll pass, thanks.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  8. bigaugie

    From the movie, Dogma:

    Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the **** that gets carried out in His name: wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

    Bethany: Having beliefs isn't good?

    Rufus: I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • DCBuck

      Wow. That's about as deep as a birdbath.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • bigaugie

      @DCBuck, idiot, if you had seen the movie you'd know it's not supposed to be "deep". Doesn't make it any less relevant though. Look at how "deep" the writings in the Bible, Koran, etc. are and the messes they've caused for thousands of years.

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

      Nice name calling. I think I'll take the depths of the Bible and other works over the tripe in some some box-office lemon, thank you.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  9. Nochtiss

    You heard the man, everyone: Shut up, quit evolving, fall into step, and go back to church. Hey Mr. Miller, if you're going to sustain such a broad attack on this supposed "cop-out", you might want to do a little research and referencing first; otherwise, you sound just like every other bonehead out there who's tried to convince me to believe in their religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Jon franco


      September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  10. profjds

    Religion is a hodge-podge of ideas that is a cop-out that avoids having to deal with important questions. Governor Perry prayed for rain several years ago as a way of dealing with the drought. How did that work out? Wouldn't it have made more sense to set up desalinization plants along the Gulf Coast?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  11. Me

    I don't need to have someone tell me how to have a relationship with my wife. I have a direct relationship. I don't need someone to tell me how to have a relationship with my kids. I have a direct relationship. I don't need to have someone tell me how to have a relationship with Deity. I have a direct relationship, and my life is much richer for it.

    The church didn't give me that. I had to leave the church to find it. Nuff said.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  12. Outraged

    I've never seen someone defend narrow-mindedness over open-mindedness so eloquently before.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  13. me

    Spirituality is for those seeking understanding;
    Religion is for those seeking reward

    September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  14. Jim Weix

    After viewing the posts of "Joe Knows", (see below) it is obvious what happens when religion blocks your thought process. It is easy to picture a goose stepping, jack booted "Joe Knows" enforcing the warped views of some religious fanatic. Want some Kool Aid Joe? How about flying a plane into a building?
    Is it any wonder that man-made religion has lost so many members?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  15. D.C. Dunne

    Intentionally disingenuous, dismissive of what he doesn't care to understand, and high-handed. There is so much that can be refuted in this piece it is hard to know where to start.

    Superficiality will always prevent a person from achieving enlightenment no matter the belief system he/she pursues.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  16. Will

    This is such a self-indulgent, horribly written piece of garbage. Seems as though the author might've contacted some of the "spiritual-not-religious" folks he derides throughout this article. Journalism, as well as religion/spirituality/whatever, is supposed to be about an exploration of life's tough questions. I think the author's failed at both here.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Jim Weix

      LOL...organized religions may have paid him to write it. The more people that find better solutions than organized religion, the smaller the collection plate take. My Catholic Church now passes the basket twice during mass. Seems once isn't enough anymore.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  17. TIM

    I can't believe CNN actually posted this. This man is extremely ignorant. The point of being spiritual instead of religious is because intelligent people know how ridiculous religion is but recognize there is something greater in this world that cannot be explained. The story does have a good aspect to it though. At least there are more and more people becoming wiser and abandoning religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  18. MichaelB

    I think Nietzsche put it best "The way is not a way."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  19. Ann

    "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."

    I disagree with this statement. I think, at least for me, that by stating "I am spiritual but not religious" is saying that I do have a belief system and set of principles, but I don't fully believe in any of the organized religions, though I may partially agree to some of their beliefs. It does acknowledge a certain awareness rather than none at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  20. Mandor

    I'm sorry but someone saying that "spiritual but not religious is a cop out" because "it doesn't face the hard questions" fully deserves this.

    Religion, in all forms, is a cop out. When you die, that's it. The universe continues on without you. All that you were, and all that you are, and all that you might have been, ENDS. There is no eternal justice. There is no eternal reward. There is no eternal punishment. Find life and beauty and meaning HERE, in this life, or not at all. It is not fair. But it's the only game in town, and for that matter, it's the only town to host a game.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
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About this blog

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.