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. Dorothy

    "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."
    Those people I know who are "spiritual, not religious" know a lot about many different bodies of belief and sets of principles. They just realize that all of these bodies of beliefs are focusing on the same thing. They realize there are many paths to god, so why be locked into 1 set that can become very autocratic.

    Why should they believe that a preacher or a priest is they only one who can lead you to god? Why should I attend a church that tells me how I should vote? Why would I want to attend a church who protects child molesters and wife beaters? Why would I attend a church who tells me that a mass murderer who accepts Jesus before he is executed will go to heaven, but a good, loving atheist won't?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  2. Jeanette Hedges

    Don't you vet your articles?

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

      That's my question as well! This is rubbish – not just in content but in presentation as well!

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  3. Sid Gould

    One of the author's primary objections to 'spiritual but not religious' seems to be that it is lacking in an understanding by others of what one might believe. He states: "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.
    For many of us, I suspect, weariness of seeing people of faith espouse their principles and then behave in ways that contradict their faith's doctrine have left us somewhat cynical of organized religion.
    I think, as do many, that my relationship with God is private and frankly, no one's business but mine. I would rather form opinions about a person's behavior than their religious affiliation.
    Perhaps the author, instead of criticizing others trying to lead good lives, should laud those whose actions are in accordance with his own faith's teachings.
    It's true, as he says, that organized religion has led to many advances in civilization. I dare say that it has equally led to strife, atrocities and bloodshed.
    A good person is still a good person, no matter the banner.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  4. dawgie222

    We all care to hear about life and religion from the brewery founder?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • blaqb0x

      Does he hand out free samples?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  5. Nic

    Why does my generation always get labeled the 'me' generation? We are not the ones who want full social security but also want to retire at 65. We are not the ones who voted to pursue a war. We are not the ones who lived on credit from the late 80's until a few years ago. We are not the ones continually kicking the can down the road. The baby boomers are an extremely selfish generation and I tire of hearing the young people are the self-centered ones. The baby boomers retained no characteristics of the 'great' generation. Baby boomers are like a consumption plague on this nation.

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

      i am a baby boomer and I agree with you 100%.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Nic

      Finally! Thanks Nancy. It's maddening to know my generation is going to have a much more limited opportunity to surpass the earning potential of the previous generation and deal with the consumption of prior generations. It really isn't fair to us.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Ryan

      I agree with you too and I am not a boomer. However, I will say that our generation is pretty dumb for not voting. I always ask my friends if they are going to vote and only about 1/3 of them do, to which I shake my fist at them and tell them to vote. Let's face it, the boomers are the only ones that vote so they get to bend politics to their will. It's sad if you ask me, our generation is being enslaved to the boomers debt yet we are too lazy to go vote them out of office.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • sokesky

      I agree with Nancy, and I too am a Baby Boomer.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  6. Bob Navarro

    Religions are at the core of all violence that is going on in the world. Believing in myths is not the answer. It is important that each of us perceive what is in the world, and to look at oneself to see who we really are. Besides, worshipping a Middle-Easterner (Jesus) is not very intelligent as the Arabs don't even like us. The sooner we get rid of religion, the better off humanity will be. It is time to put an end to this virus of the brain.

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

      The Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other:
      M. White, http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (required reading)

      The Muslim Conquest of India

      "The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

      Rank …..Death Toll ..Cause …..Centuries……..(Religions/Groups involved)*

      1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and "Shintoists")

      2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

      3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

      4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

      5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

      6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of Christianity)

      7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

      8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

      9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

      10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

      11. 15 million First World War 20C (Christians vs. Christians)

      12. 15 million Conquest of the Americas 15C-19C (Christians vs. Pagans)

      13. 13 million Muslim Conquest of India 11C-18C

      14. 10 million An Lushan Revolt 8C

      15. 10 million Xin Dynasty 1C

      16. 9 million Russian Civil War 20C (Christians vs Communists)

      17. 8 million Fall of Rome 5C (Pagans vs. Christians)

      18. 8 million Congo Free State 19C-20C (Christians)

      19. 7½ million Thirty Years War 17C (Christians vs Christians)

      20. 7½ million Fall of the Yuan Dynasty 14C

      *:" Is religion responsible for more violent deaths than any other cause?

      A: No, of course not – unless you define religion so broadly as to be meaningless. Just take the four deadliest events of the 20th Century – Two World Wars, Red China and the Soviet Union – no religious motivation there, unless you consider every belief system to be a religion."

      Q: So, what you're saying is that religion has never killed anyone.

      A: Arrgh... You all-or-nothing people drive me crazy. There are many doc-umented examples where members of one religion try to exterminate the members of another religion. Causation is always complex, but if the only difference between two warring groups is religion, then that certainly sounds like a religious conflict to me. Is it the number one cause of mass homicide in human history? No. Of the 22 worst episodes of mass killing, maybe four were primarily religious. Is that a lot? Well, it's more than the number of wars fought over soccer, or s-ex (The Trojan and Sabine Wars don't even make the list.), but less than the number fought over land, money, glory or prestige.

      In my Index, I list 41 religious conflicts compared with 27 oppressions under "Communism", 24 under Colonialism, 2 under "Railroads" and 2 under "Scapegoats". Make of that what you will."

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

      also, I'm gay and love sausage

      September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Reality

      The last comment was not from the original Reality.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  7. jakewearspants

    Did your neighbor work on the Sabbath? If so, did you murder them?

    You are chastising & ridiculing a more reasonable and thoughtful version of your claimed self.

    Either way, the idea of conservative secularism is as ridiculous as any more liberal counterpart. You are a coward and a fool for having written this garbage.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  8. Jonathan

    This is the most irresponsible piece of editorialist journalism I've seen on CNN. Shame on you for publishing something like this to your home page without offering a counterpoint or semblance of other perspectives.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  9. Summer

    Probably the worst article I have read on cnn. This article should taken down. I realize it is an opinion but it really this pulls no fact from reality and generalizes a group of people based on, from what i can discern, distant observation and no true interaction with the spiritual but not religious. It is propagating a lie. Not the fodder from what I thought was a credible news source.

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

      I totally agree that this article it not giving any sort of "profound" reason to be religious and is generalizing people who are spiritual as lazy. I feel the most spiritual and connected to a high power when I'm out in nature, I have learned my values from my family and friends and I and an activist, full time working, motivate, opinionated person. Not "choosing" a religion has not made me lazy or not contempt the difficult questions in life, it has made me more open to other peoples beliefs and more solidly set on what connects me to the world and my purpose in life. You can't generalize a group of people because of a few nuts you have seen out there once. Just like I would never generalize an entire religion based on one crazy persons actions.

      Stereotyping, fear and anger are the enemies of all humans (religious or not), acceptance and love are friends to all.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  10. Tom

    Choose the one which you find the peace within you . dont follow what others say.

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

      Yes. The real "cop-out", as I see it, is relying on others (whose motivations may not always be purely "spiritual") to give you a set of rules by which they say you can have a relationship with God (or outside of which you CAN'T have a relationship with God), and swallowing down the dogma without a second thought–being afraid to color outside of the lines. 🙂 The God I understand is dynamic, passionate, compassionate, and creative–not some judgmental monolith with a "sinner/not sinner" checklist.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  11. Francisco

    God, Jesus and the Angels will come upon the earth soon and slay all critics and non-believers. REPENT NOW!

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

      LMAO – so that's your idea of a "loving, forgiving god"? Stop believing in fairy tales and be good for the sake of being good, and not so you can get into some made up private club called heaven!

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

      are you a but! pirate?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Really

      The other reason the weak minded worship gods......fear of reprisal and promises of rewards. AKA the carrot and the stick approach.....I am impressed

      September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  12. BF

    So... the writer is basically saying, "People that don't make the choices I think they should make bother me." Well... I guess that's too bad.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Try again...

      You might want to re-read the article. The author is stating his belief that "spiritual but not religious" ofttimes serves as a way to avoid any real engagement with spiritual traditions; a way to feel good without any real commitment or edification. He views this as problematic as, while it gives people warm fuzzies, it doesn't provide a structure for improvement - whether self improvement or improvement of the wider world.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  13. Jeffq1

    To each his own. Miller, your time could probably have been spent doing something a little more constructive than simply stereotyping people different from yourself. Live and let live, quit complaining. Nobody likes a whiner

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  14. hazel

    I totally disagree! Spiritual, but not religious allows one to ask the important questions without the taint of dogma.

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

      what about Catma. are you discriminating?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  15. ME

    "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.

    This is the problem and always will be that spiritualist like to stay away from. I do not need to pick anything or side so I can be in conflict with anyone. Accept that or not, that is why spiritualist or open to anything and more than not, choose not to condemn anything as well. Religion is shifting to spirituality so you are trying to create a SPIRITUALITY WAR, please.... Don fall for any of this nonsense. Do as thou wilt!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  16. krehator

    Religion is fake anyway, so what the heck is the difference? Money!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  17. Edie

    I am someone who falls into this camp, and I think you have made a sweeping generalization that makes us all sound like we're indecisive people who don't deserve to have beliefs because we don't "fit" into the ones already set up for us. Just because we do not follow a dogmatic, structured religion does not mean that we don't believe in anything worthwhile or try to make the world a better place. What if we firmly believe that no religion perfectly encompasses the way we feel? How are we supposed to believe in a whole religion when only some of its teachings resound with us? Calling our beliefs "hodge-podge" is accurate for most of us, but it is not a negative thing. When I was younger, I told people that happiness is my religion, and I still adhere to that for the most part. If happiness is my religion, I strive to do whatever is in my power to be a positive force, not only in my life, but everyone else's (which, by the way, is a pretty common theme in almost all religions). I take guidance from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and Confucius, among many others – and yes, I have read all of these texts, so your point about us not even taking the time to read anything religious is just as silly as saying most Christians have never even read the Bible.

    You say our beliefs are a cop-out because we don't want to deal with the larger questions. I do not believe in an afterlife. I do not believe in sin. I believe there is some semblance of order to the universe, and that there is no way that we, as humans, can possibly understand it, which is why I do not believe that any text was "given" to us as a script to follow. I believe in a soul, collective consciousness, and an energy that fills us, the trees, and the earth that we all get mixed into and spat out again over and over. I believe that time is cyclical. I do not believe in a being that listens to prayer, but I believe in the power of prayer because it spreads good energy and HAPPINESS to those who need it. Do I sound like I am "on the fence"?

    Maybe you should try actually asking a few people about WHY they have chosen this lifestyle before going and writing something that denounces everything that they believe in. There are now plenty of other people who have this negative impression thanks to you because they will never take the time to ask, either. You are stepping on my core belief of spreading happiness and love to the world. How do you think that makes me feel?

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

      too long a post.

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

      Wow, a bit of education might suit you better. For example, you like to employ terms that you clearly don't understand. "Religion" is Latin for "to re-connect". "Sin" is something that we do that works against ourselves, our own potential for spiritual growth. And don't get me even started with your use of "collective unconscious". The collective unconscious is a very specific analytical psychology term, which has been commandeered by the truly hodge-podge new-age movement that just takes things for the warm fuzzies.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  18. Lori Campbell

    This article isn't worth the brain cells that it takes to read it. Lighten up buddy, there's a place for everyone in this world. To dismiss all spiritual people is just as bad as saying that all catholics are child-molesters. You fool.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  19. Bud

    One can believe whatever they want as long as their path is moral and ethical, i.e. does not harm others. Peddling religion, as Miller is doing here with Christianity, is an attack on an individuals freedom to chose what path they wish to follow. Formal religion is not what is important here. Humanity, or compassion towards others is the formula to successfully living with one another.

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

      Exactly. Mr. Miller is demonstrating why so many people have turned from organized religion in general and Christianity specifically. If a belief system leads a person down a better path, brings them happiness and peace, and doesn't hurt others, what the heck business is it of yours?!? Miller says he doesn't know "What is practiced? What is believed?"... So?!? How about this, you ASK someone, maybe even with an open mind, OR you mind your own business and leave people's faith to themselves. This article is a load of self-righteous manure.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  20. ouiareborg

    Alan, thou doth protest, WAY too much. You sound like a frightened child. "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." Ghandi was right on. A persons relationship with, the Universe, God, etc., is their own. It's like DNA, and it is impossible for people to have the exact same beliefs. As John said(4:20), "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?"

    September 30, 2012 at 11:52 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.