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. TopCat

    blind faith must trample underfoot, all sense , reason and understanding. – Martin Luther

    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |


    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • akka

      Nurse... time for johnny's meds.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • dawgie222

      To say prayer is worthless is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. Get off you caps lock

      September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  3. Mythology

    One man's religion is another man's mythology.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |


      September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • akka

      Nurse... time for johnny's meds again.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  4. Shawn

    Organized religion (and organized atheists for that matter) both think those of us that refer to ourselves as agnostic, spiritual but not religious or just non-religious need to choose a side (and give them MONEY!). This article is a perfect example of that. What part of "I do not need religion in my life" do you not understand???

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  5. anchorite

    Sorry, not even going to read this, heard it all before. The cop-out is being religious but not spiritual, in fact there's even a word for it, "pharisaic." People use the church as a social network, a hierarchy to feel better than their neighbors or people from other religions, a pattern to live daily life without regard to morality, a placebo to tell themselves if they just send their kids to Sunday school they'll grow up good, anything BUT a way to really THINK and consider life's big questions. In fact it is exactly the opposite of this guy. People who are spiritual but not religious are more moral, more thoughtful, and will have better behaved kids because they actually accept some responsibility that nobody can give them all the answers in a neatly bound book with some weekly commentary without considering each life individually.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  6. bxgrrl

    I was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic elementary and high schools. Mr. Miller has no idea why I left that religion before I graduated high school. He has no idea about my thoughts and feelings about leaving that religion and he has no idea of my thoughts and feelings now that I'm "spiritual but not religious." All Mr. Miller has communicated to me is HIS belief that we all have to choose and join a religious denomination and stay there. Baloney.

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

    The person who wrote this article is way off base, a perfect example of backward thinking.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  8. Robert

    The "I'm spiritual but not religeous" position that many today take could be due to several causes:

    1. Ignorance. Some have been mislead and by those they respect and look up to. They simply don't know any better, which is why the books of Pslams and Proverbs refer to them as "the simple."

    2. Some may have had gone to a dead church and then found some people in a help-group (like AA or GA, etc) where everyone could have his own beliefs and again, it was a support group where they found friends.

    3. For many, it's a lame excuse to avoid really having to look at themselves in the mirror of God's word... because they know that they won't like what they see and they prefer to remain deluded.

    In the words of Christ, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by Me." And again Jesus says, "you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." Jesus is referred to as the truth because there is no darkness in Him and everything He says is true. That's why the disciples called Him "Master." At one point when He had just made one of his hard sayings, and He asked them, are not you going to leave too? They responded, "where else can we go? You are the one who has the words of eternal life."

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Nic

      I love when people quote the words of a man whose words were not written down until 80 years after his death. I love when people quote the words of a man whose voice was quieted by the extinguishing of supposedly counterfeit gospels in the centuries after his death. I love when people quote a man in a language that he didn't speak.

      Islam figured this weakness out.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • John the Guy

      You are proof of the dangers of brainwashing, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, you may not have noticed.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Richard Marks

      Nonsensical babble. Jesus – IF he ever even existed is long dead; and, flash for you: the dead (except in mythology) stay dead.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Uztov


      September 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • rationalist63

      The greatest man in human history arrives on earth. He cures the sick and raises dead men from their graves. He cures the blind and the lame. He is crucified and then rises from the dead! Yet outside of the bible there is virtually no historical record of the man! Seems a little hard to believe. 

      September 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Dubhly

      as you just pointed out christianity is all about control, its about giving up your control of your life and being a sheep that does whatever the shepard tells you. It is not about being good, becuase you can always ask for forgiveness, its not about doing whats right becuase you are not to question the religion. It is about control and that is the easy way out just give up your life to someone else and let them run it. No thoughts about good or bad, right or wrong, those thoughts are made for you.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  9. KDReeves

    The premise of the article is fallacious and on some level fairly narrow-minded: The notion that rejecting a previously-established system of belief as completely consistent with one's own belief is the same as failing to take a position is not logically sound. Moreover, the relativism of truth is a significant belief for many of us, and is not predicated upon lacking belief, but serious conviction. While this article will generate online ad click traffic, that's about all the worth I see in it. Doesn't stand up to even basic logical tests.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Robert

      No.... no, no no nooooo! YOU are the one who is narrow minded and YOU are a fool.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Robert

      "The relativism of truth" you say KDReeves? Do you mean as in, "there are no absolutes?" Is that absolute? I just caught you in a self-stulthifying argument. So, you're not only narrow minded and foolish, but your easy to beat intellectually because you're ignorant... very ignorant.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • indyraseigo

      Hear, hear; well said.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  10. FlexSF

    Alan Miller sounds like a condescending, dumb, hoary, twisted zealot. "The increasingly common refrain that "I'm spiritual, but not religious," represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society." No sir, you backwards fool, organized religion is the most retrogressive aspect of contemporary society. If you and your pious, intrusive weasels had your way, our right to privacy would be subjected to your utilitarian standards. It is because of hoary fools like you, great civilizations are ruined. I support every that exposes the disgusting bigotry that is at the heart of organized religion. You and your ilk are the barbarians, and deserving of ferocious scrutiny.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Robert

      I didn't think so. Rather, I think you're just a self-serving hot head who can't stand that someone has shined the light on your darkness. I have absolutely zero respect for such a prejudiced and stupid animal-like person as you FlexSF, who assaults others verbally when he doesn't like where thuth is going to take him and can't disprove it becuse your limited (very limited) knowledge has been eclipsed by someone elses good learning.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • John Gault

      Uhh, I'm with Flex....

      September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Dubhly

      yep robert im with flex too.... you are the other side

      September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  11. JOhn

    This is the most ignorant, poorly argued idea I have ever read on CNN.com... The author is a complete imbecile.. Non-religious spirituality is the best hope for a planet DEVASTATED by organized religion for thousands of years.. Alan.. do yourself a favor and redact this pile of hot garbage.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  12. westclaims

    Spiritual but not religious people do not pass around a plate to collect $ from you, that you had to pay tax on and they don't.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  13. Glen

    There has been more hatred and killing than anything else.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  14. A street hobo

    The author argument is in a point of view. Hopefully I read this article wrong, but this is my take on his point of view: He has a problem with the say "Spiritual but not religious" people because they are not following a way of practice or a template as per how to be in tune with your spiritualism. He is approaching it as a RELIGIOUS person, which is exactly the reason why these people are stepping away from church, or temples, or whatever you want to call it. The point is, that you cant force someone to believe that your way is the best way, because we are human and imperfection is what defines us!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  15. Philip Mark Edwards

    Beyond the love and fluffiness, it's really about control, exploitation, and deception .... and let's not forget arrogance. There are very useful lessons in religion and cinema and literature and some of the 'inspired' prognostications should not be ignored. We must be cultivated to a higher MUTUAL understanding.

    Nevertheless, beyond the ripples and surface currents, something more visceral is at work in organized religion.

    IMO the 'tree of knowledge of good and evil' IS religion (and it's subsequent branches). Therein lives the fork-tongued doubletalking double-speaking serpent.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  16. Sintine

    This article is rubbish. CNN please read the comments, your readers are far more enlightened than this. Abandon Belief for Direct Experience. Science and Humanity will pave the advancement of society. Join us in embracing Knowledge, not taught thought.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  17. George in Iowa

    'Spiritual but not Religious'individuals are continuously growing and seeking. We do not "Know'. That is why we are seeking. We do not limit ourselves to 'This is how it is'. We are never limited to one source of knowledge. Yes, I refer to the Bible in my life at times. There is great guidance there. But there are other sources of knowledge. Spirituality is a life long journey. I will never stop journeying or seeking. If on my journeys, an Angel of the Lord should appear and give me sign. I will stop my seeking. If Jesus should come to my door and knock, I will invite him in to Sup with me and we can have a great conversation, or should I say, He can speak and I will listen. And I will stop my seeking.But until then, I will seek. I will be still at times as the young man in the picture, and I will listen and sense with my entire being for that Higher Power, what ever It may be. This I will say to anyone that may read this. The SEEKER that writes this does believe that there are forces of Light and Dark at work in the world and I do believe that we have to make a choice as to follow one or the other.However, that is not for me to cram down anyones throat. I have had desparate times in my life where I cried out to the God of my youth. And got no answer. When considered from the perspective of God and Religion, I was ready to drop out and become a bitter menace. But when considered from the perspective where nothing or no one (God) was in control or responsible for the out come, it was like a parting of clouds and the sun came back out, and it changed my life. This is just the ramblings of one Seeker.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  18. Alyssa

    This article is EXACTLY why we left our 'rule ridden' church and found a church that takes us as we are. What an idiot this writer is- to say that we can't grow our change without a rule riddled church. LOOK AROUND at many of the churches lately- nothing but lies and coverups!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  19. Mercedes

    I have felt this way for many years. The fun of the New Age movement is that you get to play spiritual and sound profound to your unthinking friends, but you get to ignore sin. New Agers are remarkably vitriolic and un-harmonious toward anyone who points this out.

    No wonder there is so much hatred spewing at the writer in this comment section.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • JOhn

      Imbecile, New Agers are "remarkably vitriolic and un-harmonious toward" the FACT that organized religion has brought misery and injustry to the ENITRE planet for THOUSANDS of years! It is the #1 problem facing our species and has been since about 6000 BC.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Sintine

      This is not a "New Age Movement". This is evolution of thought. Not doing something because you are afraid of the consequences is entrapment. We are vessels for experience. Sin is a very archaic thought. Racism is not a recognized sin according to the Bible, but morally it is wrong. It is far more destructive than letting my body love what it loves.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  20. Scott

    This author is an idiot.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:44 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.