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. Joe

    Religious text were written by smart men who realized religion if a far better and cheaper method of controlling the masses than armed force and fear. Why would anyone with brain on their shoulder want to have a serious debate about their merits?

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

      God wrote some texts also and they are true.

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

      Just like God is writing this comment right now :P.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  2. Another Way To Think About It

    Spirituality for some people is not just about a earthly, human feeling or emotion (as God can be present even when we don't feel him), but spirituality can be truly about a belief of what God is – and is not – as juxtaposed to organized religion. God reveals himself beyond the confines and structure of organized religion perhaps to some who cannot find God in organized religion, for whatever their reasons and experiences. People who are are spiritual, not religious, may still ascribe to and practice a set of values, principles, and rituals that are taught in religious texts such as the Bible and find value and meaning in this without having to ascribe to all dogma of a religious organization that may sometimes do a good job of representing God and sometimes not. I have a hard time believing that all 'spiritual but not religious' folks can be classified as fence-riders. Some have likely arrived at this point through poignant and sometimes painful , but deliberate and ultimately enlightened decision-making, that starkly contrasts to the religious indoctrination to which they've been exposed perhaps as children or another formative point in their lives. Becoming spiritual but not religious, to some, is an achievement of enlightment, and most likely will be only one point on the lifelong path of seeking something greater than themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  3. Donald Paul Winston

    What is this guy complaining about? He doesn't understand why people chose to "liberalize" their religious views! They're "copping out"! Are you kidding me?

    Good grief, these people don't want the baggage of "organized" religion and want to believe in something that they feel is closer to reality. That's what liberals do. He should be complaining about the fact that they are still believing in something that's not "real".

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

    Who or what says I have to decide? You are exactly the reason why I don't go to church or follow an organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  5. Izoto

    So much butthurt here. He has a point.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  6. PhariseeSpotter

    So then Mr. Miller what you are saying then is that when Jesus said, "The kingdom of Heaven is within..." he really meant to say the kingdom of heaven is in a building with a cross on it? As it has always been my understanding that regardless of where one "worships" does not matter so long as one does. Who are you to say the way in which a person connects with that feeling is a cop out because the way you indoctrinated yourself? The young people out there stating this claim could have grown up in households that didn't spread the word of God (or whichever faith) but perhaps they are coming to that faith on their own. You should feel ashamed that you have just belittled their beliefs just because of your opinion. Then again..most people who are indoctrinated do that.

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

      AMEN! PhariseeSpotter!!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • yogi

      God doesn't care what religion you follow, all HE wants is that every human being finds the kingdom of God within: Cosmic consciousness, love, light. Meditation is the way. God will be found only in the the silence of the soul within.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  7. thomas

    Take "fear of death" away and religion falls like a rock

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  8. Greg

    This guy really wants people to be told what to believe.

    But in this country we are supposed to have freedom of religion. It should be like that worldwide. That would mean "FREEDOM" to believe what you feel to be true for yourself.

    I don't have a problem with that. And certainly don't need this guy telling me what I should hold true for myself.

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

      You are totally 150% correct!!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  9. Brian

    That's the most ridiculous article I have read recently. 1) That's not news its one mans opinion 2) The general term can be viewed any way someone would like. For me it means I believe its important to have a strong belief in what i believe in however I don't need a book to tell me how to live my life. The reason its so popular is because we are evolving. ; )

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  10. Sam

    Thanks CNN. This article has been overwhelmingly slammed. Maybe the organized religions of the world will take note.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  11. What?

    Taking a stand actually gets in the way of accomplishing what the author says he wants to accomplish... answering the big questions. If you take a stand without all of the proper information, then you really aren't answering a question, you are just making noise and closing your mind to the possibility of a real answer. Answering "because I have faith" is not an actual answer to one of life's questions... it is code for, "I don't want to hear what you have to say." That is no way to find answers to life's big questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  12. Matt

    The binary thinking of this author is the source of conflict and divide around the world. It's increasingly dying out because of globalization and education. As people of different origins live in closer contact, it's only a matter of time before it's realized that nice and moral people come from every race and creed.

    It is courageous to face the world without the safety net of religion and cowardly to criticize those who do.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  13. Ryan

    makes me remember of The Simpsons. Homer skips church on a cold Sunday morning, continues doing so afterwards, almost burns his house down at the end. Good episode

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  14. Sean

    Being religious is the cop-out without having to come up with your OWN answers to the important questions.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  15. Anton Dubinski

    It's articles like this that really annoy me. The idea that only a body of believers have the true faith is a lot of BS. Organized religion is nothing but a scam to make people obey and turn off their brains.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  16. jason

    well, when this 'formal instruction' is shown to be nothing more than the arbitrary interpretation of one guy (a preacher), there is no reason one can't simply interpret it for themselves. Especially when you consider the fact that organized religion has done nothing positive for humanity.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  17. Jeff

    Religion is a cop-out from reality. Get a grip and open your eyes to the real world around you.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  18. ADEL

    "...do unto to others as you would do unto them..." Mr. Miller, if yours is the antagonistic, inflammatory rhetoric that I can expect from the big box church down the street, then I believe I will continue with my morning contemplation of how thankful I am for my life and that I treat everyone that I meet that day with joy and tolerance for who they are, personalities and all. At night when I am laying in bed I thank god, my god, for blessings and forgiveness if I trespassed on anyone. I am a firm believer in god,s karma and the choices I make are mine and mine alone. The consequences of those choices are mine to enjoy or suffer equally. You say I am less of a member of society for not participating in a structured religion that hands me their doctrine to memorize and quote like a parrot. I say it's sorrowful that you sound like you do not enjoy what god has given all creatures of this planet, the simple joy of being, of knowing you have not hurt anyone and can accept love and happiness in your life.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  19. Alexander Papp

    This article is absolute nonsense!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  20. Leo

    Why cant I post?

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

      because you can?

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

      There you just did......

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

      lol, im trying to post a big response but it doesnt show, is there a character limit?

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

      if it's longer than 2 lines no one will read it.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:52 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.