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. Jesse

    Obviously many of you fall into the spiritual but not religious category and are ashamed at having been called out on your BS.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Helena Handbasket

      I feel no shame.

      September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  2. Joey

    I respectfully disagree. As someone who was raised in the Catholic Church, and schooled in Judaism, I respectfully disagree. I am deeply spiritual, but, long long-standing relationship with organized religion and pushed me away. I do not wish to associate with any group who is interested in ingroup/outgroup. And I do not "blindly" believe things just because I am told it is true. I am educated. I think for myself.
    I volunteer and help my fellow man whenever I can. I am in a helping profession. I live by a strong sense of morals, and I am spiritual, but not religious.
    You should get to know a few people like me before you judge.

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

      You are still delusional if you accept any form of religious or spiritual belief. It's all or nothing for us atheists.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  3. Vince

    Have you not heard of philosophy? FYI, religion has caused more DEATH in the history of mankind than any other facet of human life. Are you trying to restore Hitler to power?

    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 am |


    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  5. GAW

    The real beef that people have with the "spiritual but not religious" is that it doesn't align its adherents with a specific religious tradition such as Judaism. Christianity or Islam. (I think that the author is trying to make a case for Christianity here) But even within a specific religious tradition followers have a tendency to pick and choose their beliefs in the same way the "Spiritual but not religious" group does. But in both case someone is still embracing a belief in the supernatural.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  6. 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 11:57 am |
  7. Bobby

    In this Information Age, the best way to gain wisdom is to read from all available sources and then make your own judgement. Not get swayed by some groups threats or offers of rewards in afterlife if you believe as they say. More importantly, religion should not be a basis of dividing humanity into them and us. Believe what makes sense to you and let others believe what they like. Just make sure everyone has access to the information to make their own decisions but not force or even persuade others to take up what you believe in. My belief in God, lack of it, or the flavor of God is no one's business except mine.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • asimj

      that's why many of the eastern religions are not really religions in the true sense of the word. but tries to put forth viewpoints that you may decide helps you live your life a little better. its information passed down from generations with nothing forcing you to believe or classify yourself as belonging to some religious group.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  8. Lance

    It all boils down to people being interested in God but disalusioned with a church that is out of touch. And believe me I know, I grew up in church. Church splits, condemnation, judgement... Jesus loved the average person, but was hard on the religious leaders of His day.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  9. Name*hitch

    Spiritual not religious means you try to to the right thing, probably believe in an afterlife and or a creator. It means you reject most of the dogma associated with "religion", the judging, hell, etc.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  10. Bible just a theory

    WHEN are these religious and "spiritual but not religious" going to STOP TALKING ABOUT SPIRITS and actually produce a live one to show on TV or YouTube? Send a spirit over to my house and I'll be delighted to have a chat with him/her/it. Until you can offer some proof that MAGIC INVISIBLE SPIRITS EXIST, then why waste your time arguing about it?!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Philip Mark Edwards

      So, ah ... what's your address? They usually bring ... 'friends' ... 'n they like to stay.

      You sure?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Scott

      The term 'spirit' is used in these cases more like it is used when saying "in the spirit of sportsmanship" or "that's the spirit!"; a somewhat anthropomorphic representation of an idea. Constructions of the mind which we call ideas are real, yet one cannot be produced to stand in front of you. For instance a 'Great Spirit' might be thought of as a 'being' which has (and teaches) the qualities/ideas of goodness to others, respect for life, etc., but there is never a supposition that an actual 'being', one which could manifest in our reality, exists.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  11. Reality

    Not spiritual or religious! Why?

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    Then there is the absurdity of hell !!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  12. TopCat

    some people need drugs or alcholog to get through life. some just need blind faith.
    whatever gets you through life. just dont push it on others.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  13. Ricardo El Izquierdista

    The author is wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  14. Severinus

    It is not that spiritual-but-not-religious people have not thought about it, but rather they have thought about it and they don't like your answers. No one has done more to discredit organized religion than organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  15. revansatoda

    The author's thinking patterns are clearly Christian. He thinks those who are spiritual think "there's something out there". That may be true for some, but billions of people are spiritual and don't have to take the leap of faith over the chasm of illogic to manifest some sort of being. Buddhists to start. I see no evidence of anything "out there" yet try cultivate and get in touch with the spiritual part of my nature. No, God did not put it there. It is some form of adaptation, perhaps tied to the self-awareness necessary for any organism to survive, but peculiarly manifested in this organism that has an unusually large brain.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  16. Jesse

    He is saying that people who use "good feelings" as their guide are actually misguided. Think about it.

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

      Why do you think they are following "good feelings" and not the voice of God? Does God only talk to you with bad feelings?

      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  17. Underwhelmed

    This is the most underwhelming and poorly written article that I have ever read on a mainstream news source.

    The material is garbage, the author is condescending and offers no intelligible counterpoint. The entire article is written in some stuporous stream of consciousness that succeeds only in annihilating the author's point.

    The real travesty is that CNN's editors saw fit to publish this AND put it front and center on your website. Part of your job is to protect the professionalism of your organization. In this, you have failed utterly.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  18. JRossJohnson

    To say this post is filled with generalizations (and oft-inaccurate ones at that) is a major understatement. Fortunately, my understanding of Ultimate Things is not subject to any human's judgment...

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  19. Ryan

    It used to be common that only Roman Catholic priests were allowed to read and therefore interpret the Bible for divine inspiration. Then Martin Luther changed that and basically kicked off the Protestant movement. So I am confused why the writer of this article thinks that religious ideas cannot change or morph with time, especially with our melting pot in America. And no where in the Bible does it say that you have to attend church to be a Christian.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  20. Jim

    I would agree with the author. I think that American society has become so wrapped up in "quick fixes." If we want to have riches and success, we simply have to believe in riches and success, and the opportunities will come knocking. If we want to become truly great at something, we just have to envision it. The part about working for hours and hours, year after year is somehow left out. In this case, it seems like people simply want to "feel good," without having to do any of the moral soul searching that inevitably comes along with religion.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • sokesky

      But...that stuff is promulgated by the churches!

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

      I know no one who is serious about matters of the spirit who has such a shallow view as you indicate. Understanding the relationship between action and consequence is, after all, not a matter of speculation but observation.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
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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.