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. HokieDan

    I love it. The founder of a brewery lecturing me on my belief system and why it's wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Mark Namhie

      Not only that, he bought a membership into a pseudo think tank and feels that gives him justification for espousing his half learned bigotry.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  2. N. Peterson

    Why is the belief blog always about Christianity? What happened to supporting other views on spirituality or religion? Where are the Pagan articles?

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

      Write one!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  3. Hamm

    Guys like this need to attack everyone else's beliefs least more people be tempted to look over the wall that Christian fundamentalism has erected. Poor people think that the wall is mainly meant to keep harmful elements out of the Christian community, but the reality is that it's meant to keep them from venturing too far off the reservation. Sad!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  4. Joe Labriola

    Wow, real crap, cnn. Some real crap. Thanks for assuming that your readership are all mindless drones.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  5. Betty

    Some of the most moral people I know are Atheist. They treat others with respect and fairness. Religion just screws up peoples heads and makes them hypocritical.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  6. Really

    Religion requires people to believe in the absurdities – such as the world only being 8000 years old, death to people that draw certain cartoons, Garden of Eden being in Missouri, magic underwear, woman being made from a males rib (hence their tiered status beneath males).

    I personally don't like to be told to believe something simply for religious Dogma reason.......I guess that is the real choice.....believe in something because of an underlying truth or because some religious leader told you too.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  7. tiredofthebaloney

    Honestly, now I HAVE heard it all....The last time I looked, we could choose to believe the way we wanted in this country. Very tired of some people using their religion as a sacred club to hurt others with or hide behind while they practice hatred and intolerance. The real danger today is that so many people refuse to think.....give me a break!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • J R Brown

      You can "beleive any way you want" but that doesn't mean you get to do that AND call yourself a "christian", Catholic, Baptist, etc.
      This is exactly the point the guy is making...that you don't get to make your own rules and still be "spiritual"...if you believe in God, He has rules and what you believe or don't believe is your "right" to live/act how you want is irrelevant.

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

      JR, if you are in the US, you remember we have this little thing called "freedom of speech", right? Anyone can call themselves anything they want within the law. And calling oneself a Christian, regardless of belief, is within the law.

      You're not too bright.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • J R Brown

      Speaking of "not too bright", I can call myself an African American male but that doesn't make me one.

      Just because you can excercise your "free speech" doesn't equate to what you say actually being TRUE.

      You can call yourself a "christian" if you want...that doesn't make you one.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  8. Jeremy

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."

    I think this statement stems from a profound lack of empathy. Perhaps folks have thought very hard about it and firmly decided that 'religion' is not for them. Did you ever think about that Alan? Are you under the false impression that those who choose to follow a spiritual path are any less endowed with conviction?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  9. Zieroh

    It's not a cop-out. It's a rejection of what those people plainly see as the outright corruption of organized Christianity.

    Maybe if priests stop molesting children and megachurches stop being focused entirely on money, some of those people will return to the fold. Until then, forget it. You guys have nothing to offer.

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

    To the writer of the article and those willing to seriously discuss this without throwing the entire notion out the window, I say:
    Having a relationship with God is more important than having a relationship with the church.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • krehator

      "Having a relationship with God is more important than having a relationship with the church."

      Absolutely true! No middle men!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Rain

      I agree wholeheartedly and I believe God teaches this as well! A relationship with only a church is what leads to corruption and atrocities!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Beth


      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • J R Brown

      You don't really see the irony here in your post? You can't have knowledge of "God" to have a relationship with him without the church or organized religion....from where will you draw your reference material about God without the Bible (written by the Catholic Church) or religious teachings?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  11. rebirth

    When I began to have anxiety attacks in church, I knew it was time to leave. The fixed and approved thinking no longer satisfied my spirit. However, the pure teachings were imbedded in my heart. Love, benevolence, honesty, these, I took with me. Today,
    I am a spiritual seeker exploring the wholeness.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Shirley

      Amen to that!!!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  12. Joel

    Hahahahahahaha "serious religious study" that's funny. Religions are not serious to begin with, they don't rely on evidence, are contrary to reality, and are based on pure fantasy. The people claiming spirituality are no less serious, only they don't prop their beliefs on an ancient text written by people with very little understanding of reality. Sure ancient texts have cultural relevance but that ads zero reason to actually adopt the ludicrous beliefs in them. Religions are relics of humanity clinging to relevance in a world where their content is obsolete. I say to the "spiritual" people, ditch the loony evidence free idea of spirits, karma and higher powers and accept that we are a big brained ape on a dust spec in a universe that doesn't care about us. Does this mean life has no meaning?? Hell no it means your life is more rare, more worth living than ever before because you existing is an event so improbable it won't happen again in the whole lifetime of the universe. You are the product of a process that took nearly 14 billion years, for only 0.000000642857143% of that 14 billion, you exist.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  13. existentialfilms

    this is not a cop out Alan, it is a real solution to the dogmas and the closed-mindedness of "cults". Cults are any group, when you fore-go group identification you free yourself from being herded in to a forced religious mentality. I have studied all the religions and have decided none are for me. I believe in God, I work hard, am compassionate and loving and well educated. I embrace the Buddhist philosophy (not a religion) and am one of the nicest people you would ever meet. I do not need a religion to define me.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  14. jimzcarz

    So freedom of speech, Religion Ect.. And this a77hole is going to rate my godliness..It's people like you that drove us away from the church to begin with, you pompous ass.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  15. John Gault

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide". Are you kidding me? Religion is intellectual surrender so one doesn't have to think too hard about how the comsos works. Where would we be if we still accepted the world was flat and the earh was the center of the universe? The religious should know all about "not thinking too hard".

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

      amen brother...religion does not give you room to "think"....AT ALL

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

      Sounds like a little brain washing. Sorry 🙁

      September 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  16. Reality checked

    This article is very poorly written and it iis obvious the author didn't do much research on this subject. I grew up in the Christian Church (in the Bible Belt -Texas) and as I've gotten older, I've separated myself from the organized church. Why? Because the church is now a business and politically driven, plus there is way too much mis-information and mis-guidance in the Christian church today. Seeing all of these megachurches and what not, I think the churches all the biggest abusers of the non-profit tax laws. The rich are hiding their money in churches. Being in my late 20s, I'm seeing a lot of my peers coming up with the same views of the church. Honestly, getting awat fro, the influences of the organized church have helped me to be a better person as I apply the Bible and history as intended and not based on what a misguided "religious leader" told me. If you want to see another example of how commercialized the church is these days, go into a religious book store and see how many different types of Bibles and Bible Studies are available. It's a profitable business and people eat that stuff up. The Christian church in America is more misguided and lost than it has ever been. It's sad to see, but if they want to blame anyone for the state of Christianity in our country, they need to start with themselves. Won't happen though. The organized Chrisitan Church is too good at making themselves the victim and being narrow minded. The most hypocritical group in our country these days. Might help explain why there are over 41k Christian denominations.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • granny75

      100% my thinking also

      September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  17. navarachi

    "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."

    This statement shows how little you know regarding spirituality. When you start looking inside yourself, that is the teacher, that is spirituality. Start looking inside your self for answers, that is the work.

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

      This piece lost my respect when it referenced and incorrectly spelled the Kama Sutra...No where near front page material

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  18. RichardSRussell

    "Spirituality" is the modern, politically correct term for "superst¡tion".
    Stilll, it's SOOOO much better than religion that I favor its spread as a stepping stone on the way to universal atheism and rationality.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  19. Wes I.

    "Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
    Let me fix that for you.
    "Being religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide."
    Examples? "Oh, maybe this is just what God had in store for me." – a cop out I've heard from many rundown religious folks.
    When people stray away from God(s) they give themselves a sort of self-strength they don't have with a higher power to worship. Some use God(s) as a crutch in life to rely on for all of their excuses. But hey, what is arguing about it on CNN going to do?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  20. longshot

    this topic and article had so much potential – but he falls into the same trap of those he is accusing...all fluff and feeling, but no doctrine or substance behind it

    September 30, 2012 at 11:50 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.