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. Good News

    There is only one real GOD and His one true RELIGION

    which is supported by an absolutely matchless, Superb and Magnificent MATHEMATICAL LANGUAGE!

    So it is time to be Spiritual, and yes, also rightfully Religious!



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

      Batman is the only true god. Someday you will find yourself in Gotham City and he will make you regret worshiping false idols.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  2. Vicarious

    I don't mind that people are doing this one bit; in fact, I'm proud that apparently there are enough of them doing so to catch the authors attention. It's about time for people to start thinking for themselves, reflecting on their own lives, and establishing a personal connection with whatever their faith might be. Religion should not be the only source of ethics and one mans opinion should not dictate how others should live.

    So I say let people say they are spiritual, because chances are they are probably closer to their "god" then those who preach.

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

      More likely, nobody is closer to god, because you can't exactly be close to something which does not exist/that you made up.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. Sean

    I'm disappointed that CNN would choose to feature something so prominently that has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with drawing attention to itself. This is coming from a big CNN fan. This 'article' presents an offensive, discriminatory position that broadly stereotypes an extremely diverse category of people. There's no evidence or research presented to back up his points either. I put myself into this category myself and I suspect I have studied more religions and dealt with more hard questions than the author.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  4. Dave

    In the beginning, God created man in HIs own image. Ever since then, man has been trying to create God in man's image.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  5. The Hosted

    "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."

    Dude does realize that the majority of those religious texts he touts to proudly are THEMSELVES built on bits and pieces of other older and contemporary sources. The Bible DID take a bit of Zoroastrianism, throw in a dash of Babylonian mythology, rearrange or expunge the parts that weren't convenient, and create new religions from parts of other ones. And now, we're supposed to stop doing that very thing while searching for spiritual truths? Whatever dude.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  6. Archimedes

    What about the dangers of religious beliefs? Religions fly us into buildings.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  7. Jimmy

    Interesting how most of the posts disagree with this man. Shows how little he actually knows about other viewpoints to actually propose a good argument. Scriptures have been corrupted and misinterpreted by man and rendered them useless. Ever try sitting at a catholic service. There is no love in that.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  8. lightandmind

    Dangerous?!?!? Spirituality!?!?! No, I'm afraid the religion is WAYYYYYYYYYYY more dangerous. By a landslide. Bad Article during an inappropriote time with so much killiing and destruction happening around the world in the name of religion right now.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  9. me

    Wow, Alan Miller, who the hell are you to judge me for being spiritual but rejecting formal religion? You're opinion is exactly why I reject formal religion... it comes down to people like you passing judgement... worry about yourself, not me. In my life, I'm comfortable with my relationship with my creator, I feel true to myself and my creator, rather than feeling as though I'm doing something simply because I'm supposed to. In my eyes, my creator gave me something that is positive... and that is life... I don't believe a creator of life is offering anything but peace and happiness... the hate that comes with life is man-made... it's really simple... live your life without hurting others, and try to things that reflect in a positive manner. If that's not good enough for you, then you're welcome to go to whatever organized religion you choose... I won't judge you!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  10. sidhenimh

    See, herein lies the issue with the author's position; he accuses the "spiritual, but not religious" movement of not investigating their various sources of inspiration deeply, but argues then for dogmatic systems that discourage serious internal questioning, or write off such questions with tautologies.

    Essentially, he has created a strawman against which to argue – shallow belief in whatever is convenient without serious investigation. The same issue can be found in all dogmatic systems – shallow belief in the dogma without serious investigation. Being part of an organized religion does not confer automatic scholarship of the faith upon an individual, as any discussion of ecclesiology or theology with the average layperson will quickly demonstrate.

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

      To SIDH. Very well put. You cut right to the heart of the issue.I read "Mere Christianity" by T S Elliot. He did evereything you said of this author. Set up straw men to cut down. His argument was to "believe" what he said. Ugh.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  11. Jason

    I was raised roman catholic but gave up the religion which told me my cousin whom I love very much is going to hell because she is gay and that my daughter is not good enough to serve as an executive in their boardroom. The rejection is not due to a lack of commitment or challenge but but of non-acceptance. I choose to accept all the many people I care about which do not conform to the religion...over the religion.

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

      Dogmatic Fairytales vs. Happy Fairytales. Stupid article either way you slice it.

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

      That was a glitch, not a reply to you..... sorry.

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

      You my friend are a liar or have been lied to. The Catholic church actually has programs to help the gays within it's community to share their spirituality. No one is kicked out of the church for being gay, for having abortions,....etc..etc

      September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  12. Tool46&2

    Religion is a total fraud and I am sick of it in the legislation of our political arena.Separation of chruch and state please.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  13. RSG

    I've heard it implied (as it is here), that younger generations are less religious. Perhaps younger generations are tired of the intolerance that 'Religion' breeds.. just as it does here. As I live from day to day, I treat others as spiritually equals.. I don't care what their religion is. History shows that 'Religion' has been responsible, either directly or indirectly, for more death and destruction than anything else on earth. It is responsible for all the terrorism today.

    If religion were to be taught and learned from a historical perspective, that would indeed be powerful. If we learned to respect each other as individuals, and accept each other regardless of religious affiliation, if we were all 'spiritual' but not specifically associated with any specific 'Religion', what a wonderful place we would live in.

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

      But we atheists have no tolerance for religion, spirituality or any nonsense like that. We are better and and smarter than religious people because we haven't fallen for the delusions and fairy tales.

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

      Or if we disregarded all nonsense and taught science.......

      September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  14. Monica Benderman

    Whether organized religion or independent spirituality, there are principles attached to the truth of how we believe and how we come to believe. There is as much illusion and fakery in organized religion as there is from those who practice spirituality as a way to avoid facing difficult question. All are capable of producing justification for avoidance of blame and responsibility.

    We have the tools – if we could get past the discussion of who gave them to us and move on toward the action of picking those tools up and using them, it would no longer be a question of spirituality or religion, and we could avoid further discussions of idiocy such as this article.

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

      Nice Monica.. totally agree.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  15. RJP

    Spirituality (spiritual practice) is impossible, if it is not preceded by a religious way of life. Religion (tradition, rituals, morals, ethics, devotion, prayer, etc.) is incomplete if it is not followed by spirituality.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Bible just a theory

      No reputable scientifically valid experiment has ever succeeded in seeing, feeling, measuring, or detecting one of these MAGIC INVISIBLE SPIRITS. When we do, then your admonition might have some relevance.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  16. Tom

    I agree with other posters that this may be one of the worst articles I have ever read. The author, far from trying to understand the nature of spirituality, simply falls back on the hackneyed cliches religionists have been using for centuries.

    I believe in God–or a superior being whom I choose to call God for simplicity's sake. The simple fact that I believe that there is someone bigger and better than me "out there" somewhere is comforting. While I do not seek nor expect intecession in my daily life by this being, knowing that He is out there serves to make me adhere to my moral compass. When I die, I don't know whether I'm going anywhere–except that I know that I'm not going to hell. Hell was a creation of religions to keep the fearful in line.

    The author is also wrong to suggest that spiritual people eschew traditional religion just because we wish to be happy. No. Speaking only for myself, my spirituality doesn't always make my happy, but it always provides me comfort. I can also admire others' spirituality, from Native American spirit-centered beliefs, to Wiccan's love of the earth, to the animistic religions of Africa. If God exists, would He be so picayune as to reject any form of worship but one?

    We, the people of the world don't speak one language; we don't share one set of customs; why must we be forced into one or two forms of spirituality? Most of us who claim to be spiritual but not religious have left formal religions because they invariably are vehicles of power and control, allowing a few men to dictate the behaviors of many. I don't think God would appreciate His creations being forced into such rigid cults of personalty, rather than celbrating His, our, and the universe's existence.

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

      There is more to "church" than church law. It can also be a gathering for spiritual people to share an unspoken energy. It can be one avenue among various others as a vehicle to enrich spirituality. There are so many facets to "church" ...why look at one facet and judge the entire diamond

      September 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  17. brian

    I kind of agree with Miller except that you can't generalize about a movement that has not dogma and no guiding principles. "Spiritual-by-not-religious" may be a cop out for the spiritually lazy in many cases. But some people in this category have good & solid principles as well as deep spiritual lives.

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

    The real problem 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 11:59 am |
  19. Kyle

    Hands down the biggest bullish#@ article ever written. I am also against spiritual but not religious folks ideal, but only because they are afraid to accept the facts that religion is made up. This author however, expressing his ideology like a 1950's wife beating Baptist has made clear that humanity is not only comfortable regressing back into dumbness, but working hard to see that it happens. BOO CNN!!! Front page article?! FRONT PAGE?! This article isn't even good enough for Reddit.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  20. Fionaredux

    Since my comment appears to have been rejected, I'll attempt another. It has been said by more than one religious leader than the major religions of the world are like fingers on the hand: trace them to the root (the palm) and you reach the same values. Envision that concept as a Venn diagram, if that helps you. What is at that root? Acceptance, love, respect of others, and of yourself. The rubbish speech above is the work of a non-religious man.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:58 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.