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. Redeye Dog

    He says, "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide" or maybe having thoroughly thought through religions and decided to be spiritual but not religious instead of embracing something you don't really believe in. But that would be elementary.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  2. Bibi

    What part does the writer not understand? It's simple and clean. I believe in God, I pray to God, my prayers are answered with miracles constantly – in exchange I am grateful, behave in a good and kind way and obey the rules of society. I am spiritual but not religious. I cut loose from the formalized rituals and power-trip types with their ridiculous warnings. I believe tradition is a comforter for the fearful. Also very convenient for sinners who get their slates wiped clean every Sunday, and can then sin from scratch on Mondays. I believe in consequences for bad behavior which can only be equalled out by giving back, accompanied with sincere regret. No quick 'forgive me'. Maybe the writer is scared of the masses believing that they will not be held accountable. Well, that fear is what started the whole fraud of religion in the first place. But maybe we have become more enlightened?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  3. The Reason Man

    Why would CNN give this hack a front page article?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • S

      Beats me. Really reflects poorly on their whole site.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Jon franco

      fake outrage about ridiculous things always makes the front page in sensationalized media outlets like CNN

      September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  4. Jim

    The only threat to religion that spirituality poses, is loss of revenue to the con artists, I mean churches.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  5. H Harman

    No danger in believing that worshiping a god that ordered people to slaughter millions of innocent children for their ethnicity is a good thing but big danger in meditating without believing in a talking snake. Good article. Thanks.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  6. Jon franco

    The spiritual but not religious path is even more noble than the religious because it doesn't just blindly follow what one group says is the truth. It takes the time to find out what the collective truth is. The underlying truth that is there in many relligions but ends up getting hidden or dumbed down within the constructs of power, large organizations, and peoples egos.
    True growth and transformation can only be achieved by this kind of engagement.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  7. Jeremy

    I really just don't care.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  8. JJ

    A "cop-out" huh? How about answering life's important questions by thinking an invisible, mythical and all powerful being is pulling the strings of their own puppet show from behind the curtain. That sure sounds like more of a "cop-out" to me.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  9. Ben Thare

    The author is a retard with a ridiculous spin. Ask the violated alter boys of the victims of genocide about religions vs. spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • The Wizard

      Please don't compare retarded folk with this jerk. They can't help it. However, he can, and shows off the mindset of your comments. Raping Altar boys? Check Religious genocide? Ditto. Should I keep going? The dark ages?, the Inquisition? The pope siding with the Nazis during WWII? Open hate against gays, strong women, and anyone who does not think/agree with the drivel shoved down your throat in church? Yes, it is dangerous to be spiritual: It means that you did not drink the holy kool aid. And that is a very dangerous thing for the jokers who are trying to force canon law on the U.S. Not on my watch.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  10. Robert

    "Which is it?" Miller asks at the end.

    It's all of them. Even when they seems readically different, it's all of them. Why? How?

    Because if God is truly all-powerful, then he is smart enough and strong enough to be able to relate to each individual exactly the way they need it to be presented to them in order to get it.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Jake

      Nope. One must absolutely positively seek refuge from disillusion and evils by finding a religious leader and organization to join. If your not part of the club and pay your dues, god will not be held responsible for after death applications to be included. It's your decision. Join the club, or suffer for eternity. 😀

      September 30, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Since God does not have different physical principles for different people, why should we assume that He has different spiritual principles?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  11. Ravens

    Just because I don't subscribe to an organized religion and consider myself spiritual does not mean that I "fence -sit" or fail to consider great questions. Because I do not believe in a traditional religion I explore ethics and seek truths daily, widely, and deeply. I use reason and compassion to weigh the great ideas of all philosophies and faiths to arrive at my values and ethics and then work daily to live a positive life. I teach my children to do what is right because they have used logic and compassion to truly believe it is right rather than trying to live up to an external set of rules out of fear of eternal retribution. Generalizing non-religious people as somehow indecisive or selfish is a gross stereotype and oversimplification of many people who actually embrace a complex view of the world.

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

      Ravens - Just so ! ! !

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

      Well said. I've found that most atheists are much more "moral" than many people who claim to be religious.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  12. wilson

    I was about a paragraph in when I realized this guy was full of crap. He should get his own church because he seems to be really good at spewing nonsense out of his mouth. I'm sure there are a lot of bewildered people who would be willing to toss a few bucks onto his plate every Sunday and then call themselves enlightened.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  13. Yvonne

    I don't see where those of various reglions have been such good stewards of the earth and lovers of their fellow man, or keepers of the moral code. Count me out.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  14. Rob

    So what's your point Alan? That you have to pick a side? That we must continue these millennia of religious wars, continue to kill eachother in the name of our various Gods in order to . . . do . . . what exactly?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  15. Ron

    It sounds like he is saying that unless you are under the control of some "leader" you are a cop out..... what a load of krap!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  16. AvdBerg

    The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

    There is a natural body and a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44).

    The above article by Alan Miller is misleading as he himself is spiritually blind. For a better understanding we invite you to read the article ‘The Natural Body vs the Spiritual Body listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.
    Seek, and ye shall find (Matthew 7:7).

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • mfergie889

      Again, words written by mortal men. Even if it was straight out of Christ's mouth, he was a man. In a Christian's mind what differentiates Joseph Smith from Jesus Christ? Muhammad?

      So they are all scam artists except for Christ? Open your eyes.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Bob Bales

      In Christian belief, Christ is not just a man, but God. Joseph Smith and Mohammed did not rise from the dead. You may not believe that Christ rose from the dead, either. I cannot prove absolutely that He did. But we have the historical record of how His disciples and those who did not believe acted after Christ was said to have risen. Their actions (willing to go to their deaths on one hand, converting to a belief that would guarantee them persecution on the other) make no sense unless Christ actually did come back from the dead.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  17. Jeanette Hedges

    Poor job, CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  18. solowd

    I'm neither spiritual nor religious. I think that means I win.

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

      And what kind of great questions are those that you think these people are fence sitting on, Alan?

      Existence of God?
      Origin of the universe?
      Existence of an afterlife?

      Is it a crime for people to be unsure of the true answer to those? Is it a crime to actually – I know this is going to be a shocker – but not *care* about the answer? I'm guessing you would say yes. But what impact does it have on you? Why does it matter?

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

      And that accidentally replied to you. The comments are moving so fast I doubt he'd see it anyway.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  19. Pat

    You can sure tell that this article was written by a religious intellectual lacking spiritual qualities. It's one point of view, an empty one at that.

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

    Your conclusions on this matter shows your ignorance and fear of free thinking people. People are leaving religions because so many religions require hate and punish people who dare to think for themselves or question authority. Hiding behind your god as an excuse to harm others is the cop out.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:31 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.