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. mfergie889

    The author is misguided. You can be "spiritual" and avoid religion while still having strong opinions about how we came to be, as well as how one should act in ethical terms.
    I think a good chunk of people who call themselves spiritual are more in touch with reality then many who blindly follow a god. Maybe there are many who say they are spiritual when asked about their religion because it is still taboo to claim you are an atheist. ** All I can say to Mr. Miller is perhaps it is none of your business.**

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • James PDX

      His other argument seems to be that since training wheels were once helpful, we should never abandon them even when they've long outlived their usefulness.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  2. James PDX

    Thank you for providing us with the most mind numbingly stupid example of reason in human history. There is so much idiocy and faulty logic that I can't even decide where to begin ripping it to shreds. Sadly, or maybe subconsciously, your argument does a much better job of supporting spirituality than it does organized religion. Perhaps you need to convert.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  3. Rusing

    “Religion is a technology, it’s just a primitive technology, a cultural technology.”
    Jason Silva

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  4. badlobbyist

    I guess I just got up and am barely awake, but wow, content asside, what an annoying writing style.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  5. us_1776

    There is no god !!

    Get over it.


    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  6. Bill Sommers

    " He says "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 Shu..." How about a bit of Judaism here, a Greek idea there, a quote from Gnosticism, a bit of eastern mystery religions, etc. and what do you get Christianity! All religions are syncretic.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  7. Mike

    A person like this displays everything wrong with religion. Millions of people are religious WITHOUT being spiritual. A blind following with no understanding on their part. Evangelical Muslims are the Taliban. Evangelical Christians are the American Taliban!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  8. gene

    Religions are only in business to self perpetuate themselves .Do you realize that there are over 1000 recognized 'religions' and each has different beliefs? If you birth had no idea of your parents religion and they did not influence you then there would be less than one in one thousand chance that you would follow their 'religion'?
    Start to be responsible for yourselves.If there is a God (and I hope that there is) then God is within you and not in some building.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  9. Bgv

    The author says: "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."

    The fact of the matter is that if principles and morality are driven from religion, they go away easily because, religions are full of lies, non-factual stories, and incorrect image of world. Therefore, the expectation that religion should be used as the basis of morality is wrong and dangerous, because, you don't want the moment that a person gives up following a religion, they forget all their moral principles.

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

    All of these "smart" people too intelligent to believe in God! Somehow, they have turned it around an made it like believers are the ignorant ones. That's a fool's deception.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Asimj

      Blind believers of fairy tales are definitely ignorant, no 2 ways about it

      September 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      Sorry cheese but we arent the ones claiming to believe in magic.

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

      We are too smart to blindly follow some jokers dressed up in fancy garb telling us what to think. Just because we aren't religious doesn't say we don't believe in some sort of higher power – wether its the higher power in ourselves or some sort of God

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • mfergie889

      The "smart" people have simply come to the intelligent conclusion that if you were born to Muslim parents, you would be Muslim. If you were brought up Catholic, you would be Catholic. All people are asking is that you think critically about the reality of religion and the geographical basis of your belief. That warm fuzzy feeling you get when you pray to your God is shared by millions around the world...yet they call their God something different. That feeling is not proof that your God exists and their God does not.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Asimj: For your statement to be true, you would need an objective way to show who is blind and what is a fairy tale. Just your opinion won't show anything.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Ceder rapids: When you or I do something, is it magic? No. Neither is it magic when God, If He exists, does something. Therefore, believers in God do not claim to believe in magic. Rather, you claim that they believe in magic - based on your belief, not theirs.

      September 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  11. kosh

    An interesting read and I must say, I agree with Mr. Miller. Spiritual but not religious is a fence sitters cop-out, they are trying to get the best of both worlds by bridging to very distinct and differing schools of thought, Atheism and Theism. I am a confirmed Atheist that was raised in a Christian household, so I can understand both sides of the coin quite well. That being said, one must choose one school of thought or the other. Believing in a higher power is believing in a higher power whether one goes to church or not. Believing in the power of the human will is believing in the power of the human will, it's that simple. I respect everyone's beliefs, save for those very obnoxious Christians who fail to respect mine, but, when asked about mine, proudly state my point of view and there in lies the basis for the spiritual but not religious trend. People are afraid to say what they think and believe, everyone wants to be politically correct and not offend anyone, so they say "I believe in God, I just don't believe in organized religion." Everyone should realize that you can't avoid offending someone in one way or another so just say what you think and feel, in the long run you'll be a better person for it.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  12. Deb

    Drivel like this makes me want to remove CNN.com from my daily reading routine. This is awful–just all rambling and pointless.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  13. Tim

    What a load of crap.

    The "cop out" comes from the Christians. They run away every time yo ask them a question that proves how stupid their fairy tale is.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  14. bob

    How is everything wrong that don't cost money! this writer was probably paid by the church to get people back to fill up their money baskets. and people dont think organized religion is about control bah humbug

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  15. davegoldsmith

    Religion served a positive (as well as a negative) purpose in the development of human civilization over the millennia. Today religion continues to promote good and evil ideas and actions in individuals. On the whole I'd say the movement (if it really is a trend) from religious to spiritual is a natural and health part of ongoing human evolution and is analogous to the development of a person from dependent, ignorant infancy to independent, responsible adulthood.

    Or, to put it another way:

    "The opposite of religious questioning is not deep belief but arrested development."
    -Garry Wills

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  16. Mike

    Luckily all religion is a cop out to avoid answering the big questions...so there's that.,

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  17. KeithBK

    This article is missing a HUGE point, that is, the severe dissatisfaction with the organizational leadership that exists within religious bodies. In an ideal world, everyone can understand the need for rules, doctrine, etc. Of course, even companies and other organizations have mission and vision statements, bylaws, etc.

    However, when the rules and doctrine of religious bodies become abusive and unequally applied to some and not others (somebodies and nobodies), when decisions are made by leadership that are in opposition to the principals of that Faith, and when behavioral expectations are conveniently not applied to those in leadership positions, then I think we can all understand why someone would not want to associate themselves with organizational aspect of their Faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  18. Roz

    Do you believe that those of us who choose this path cannot be fired up to stop a bunch of extremists who are intent on destroying all life?? I can and am that fired up. I watch the extremists all the time and RELIGION, especially organizes religion is always at the center of it, even if its a created state religion like under Hitler. Cop Out??? Go shame and call names elsewhere.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  19. Gabe

    Now that Baby Boomers are studying for their finals, they continue to dominant the national conversation about their epiphany about God. Where were their piteous conversations during their 60's "Make Love Not War" movement?

    These visceral conversations are at the heart of other movements that continue the perpetuate the downward spiral of this great nation. Conversations like the teaching of Creationism in schools, over Evolution are what will influence future generations of Americans. This influence no longer challenges Americans to dream or over come Scientific frontiers, but rather they instill fear that paralyzes America's future; a future in which China is only too happy to seize.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  20. Alex

    My relationship with God is PRIVATE. Nothing a religion has ever said came from the words of the God I believe in, period. All words from religions were written by men, some great thinkers, some not so great thinkers. Either way, they were written by MEN and passed off as the word of God. That's an issue I'll never be able to get over. Keep holding on to your religion though, it's very entertaining watching the slow motion car wreck that it is.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:29 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.