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. Bill

    I stopped reading when I came to 'Karma Sutra'. It's the Kama Sutra. Credibility out the window...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  2. Jill

    Mr. Miller is clearly out of his element in discussion here . . . .

    I would encourage Mr. Miller to begin by reading "The Varieties of Religious Experience", written by William James ("father" of American psychology) around the turn of the century. Spirituality, at is essence, may be described as a connection with something greater than ourself. Religion, unfortunately at times, can distance us from such an experience. Miller states:

    "But these people . . . 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."

    I disagree! Spiritual connection, connection to the larger patterns of the earth, to our sense of human frailty and humility (whether that is achieved through yoga, Zen exploration, Taosim, or energy-based concepts such as Feng Shui, etc.) could not be more central to connection and responsibility to one's self and one's fellow human beings!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  3. Keith

    I was hoping to read an intelligent argument for why selecting a specific religion was superior to drawing learnings from the collection of mankind's wisdom traditions embodied in various religions, psychology, science, et al. Unfortunately, this article is not intelligent in the least. I have to wonder if CNN is actually mocking religion here by posting this as the argument – surely you can find a better defense of religion than that?

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

      A more intelligent, well spoken argument yes. A truthful, fact based religious defense, no.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  4. tdstuff

    I appreciate it that CNN posted this article on their page as it allowed me to read all the comments to the article and see how many like minded people with a similar view point to myself there are out there. The idea of rejecting organized religion is not as the author stated "not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States". Thomas Jefferson was quite vocal on the subject and I'm 60 years old. Maybe living in the United States with freedom of religion and speech allows us to be able to express our personal beliefs where in other parts of the wold you would be stoned. I formed the belief that one of the lines in the bible was a mistranslation. " God crated man in his own image," should have been Man created God in his own image. There are many beliefs and religions in this world they preach that they are the true religion. They are all correct, they just happen to be different dependent on how they individually see God, or if not God themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  5. Angel

    I don't know what church you've been at but my church uses the money they get to help those in need. It's unfortunate that they do exist though.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  6. paula

    in my experience, having been religious before, it takes a lot more thinking and deciding to let go of organised religion than to stay with it. also, in my experience, since I became spiritual i was able to free myself of many fears that the church fed and have since become a lot more generous and ethical.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  7. jorgath

    My response is this. The basic premise of this article – that it's easy to cop-out serious religious thought by saying "spiritual but not religious" is true. But the problem is that there's a number of people who DON'T cop-out using that. Some of us, myself included, have read the Bible, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, and others...but still reject formal, organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  8. aHindu

    Karma Sutra? Aint no such thing. Maybe you are thinking of the same without the 'r'. Even then it has no place in that sentence. In general, though the whole article is so poorly researched and full of ad hominem attacks on independent beliefs, im not surprised. In a way most 'hindus' are in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp. Swami Vivekananda, a delegate to the world confernce of religions in Chicago at the turn of the century (100+ years ago) said "Son, beware of any established religion. they do more harm than good".

    September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  9. Namaste

    I'm one of those that have gone the Spiritual Route. I follow no organized religion at all. I can tell you that it is Freedom from Dogma and religious oppression. I can also tell you that it is a function of the shift in frequency the planet is going through right now. Old time religions are in for a wild ride and they either embrace and change or be left in the dust. The ones to suffer the worst fate are those that hang on fiercely to old and outdated belief systems like the moslems.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  10. jorge

    this article is clear one person opinion, freedom of speech, in our country we are proud to have this right. But CNN is a news service and should present both sides of these types of opinions, perhaps in a point/counterpoint format would have better served your readership. I personally disagree with this fellow, A spiritual moral compass is some thing that each of us has to find with in ourselves, yes church can help some of us find it, but it can equally be reach without a church. there are those in his congregation who sin during the week, but feel that going to church each sunday makes them a good person. belonging to a church does not make one a good human, spiritual practice in everyday life does.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  11. cary lacayo

    When we stand before God at His judgement seat. The only question He will have for us is "Why should I allow you into My Kingdom?" The answer you gave was based on your efforts and what we may do by our actions or deeds to be accepted by God on that day of judgement. All religions teach this idea that we must work or do good things in order to be accepted or approved by God. The word religion in the Greek language is broken up into two parts. One, "re" meaning to go back and the other is "ligio" which means to bind. So it's to be bound back and when we are wanting to reach God it's religion that holds us back. Religions are man's attempts to reach God. Granted Christianity is a religion as well, but the difference between the rest is the belief in God and the Bible which should through proper understanding drive you towards a relationship with God not a religious experience...

    Our efforts as well intended as they can be as you stated regarding love and acceptance is totally needed, but it isn't the deciding factor that gives us eternal life or the answer God will be looking for on that day of judgement that we will all face. The answer is never mentioned in this article which points out the difference between a religious person and a spiritual person who are both lost if they haven't found the true key that unlocks the door to this topic...

    The answer is a person, who God accepted as the one and only human being that would give us entry into heaven. As I said with this article never mentioning the answer probably because it would change the theme of its subject matter making it a personal issue rather than a general topic. When we speak of this person it generates a personal thought, it triggers a response or a mindset towards relationship not religion...

    Answer = Jesus Christ! When we look at what God did on our behalf by sending His one and only Son Jesus to earth as a human being just like us but without sin then it becomes personal. It brings us to a relationship with a living God who desires for us to be with Him daily and that only happens through Jesus Christ. On our own, we aren't accepted, forgiven, made right, no matter what we do in our efforts of good works here on earth. It's only by God's grace or undeserved favor that He sent His Son to be the sacrifice for our sins, to make us right before God, to give us forgiveness of our sins and to be accepted by God on that day of judgement.

    That's the answer we need to know while living in the now! That's the person we should have a relationship with daily. We are already judged, it's only when we receive and accept God's gift of His Son Jesus and choose to believe and trust in Him is when judgement goes away. That's the filter that God sees us through – His Son Jesus! Otherwise keep doing stuff, keep going through hoops here on earth hoping God recognizes your efforts. That's what religion will do and it's a slap in the face to Jesus who died on the cross for us all because we will never be able to do enough of good to be recognized by God. Jesus took care of that for us. Jesus + nothing = eternal life in heaven

    The spiritual side of this article is just as bad. It's all about feelings, love, connecting spiritually to who? If its God then one must go the Bible unless it's some other god. I agree with the writer that says the spiritual person will not engage personally or make a choice to follow something or someone, but will choose to sit on the fence with their faith. Spirituality to me is just a cover for people to say " I want to worship whomever or whatever my own way!" It's all about me, it's all about my feelings and my self guided awareness...

    It's only through understanding what God did in his Son Jesus for us all that brings us into the place of knowing what it is to be spiritual. We are all made up of body, soul and spirit. Our spirit or some say the soul is one in the same must be regenerated due to sin, If your a believer of what the Bible teaches about these things. When Jesus died and rose from the dead which by the way no one has ever done in the history of mankind. He left us the the Holy Spirit, who is the Comforter, who is the guarantee of who we are as God's children. When we realize that we can't do anything of our own to make us right before God because of our sin nature, when we understand that sin needed to be dealt with by judgement and punishment, when we accept and receive God's forgiveness of sin and when we believe and trust in Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior that's when become a spiritual person.

    I guess I am both, I am a Christian which means Christlike or trying to be like Christ. Which is also a religion, but from my reply I hope you see my interpretation. I am a spiritual person based on my relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who lives within me, who I choose to allow full control over my actions...

    I hope for someone to read my reply and fully understand what it means to be a child of God. I hope everyone knows how much God loves you, enough to send His Son to die for you. I have kids, I couldn't give my son up like that especially for me and my terrible history of sins. I hope you hear from God today 🙂

    September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Pepsi

      stop writing these long articles. BTW is god going to email me or call me on my cell??? stop your bullllsh!t spewing

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

      you sound like a hipocryte. most religious zealots are

      September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • mh

      brainwashed fool

      September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Dionysus

      Lots of gods where I come from, your jesus was a wimp. I hope you change your worship to Hercules, the guy had cojones.

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

    According to this guy Alan, we should all be thinking in a square box and listening to rules of what people made out of religion and if someone does not agree with us we should just kill them..... that is what religion is, it divides people. Is for small minded people who cannot think for themselves or to make right judgments in life, so they need to pay their portion of income to the facility of their choice that tells them how to live and behave. Who is it to say what religion is the right way to live by anyway? This is what this country is about, many religions and people living together in peace. So why is being spiritual any different? .....So let it be Alan and yes, it is Sunday, shouldn't you be in church instead of creating mischief?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  13. cola

    Bad article. People are figuring out the truth about the spirit and the media is being directed to sell religion. Sad.

    Religion needs money to survive...spirituality does not.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Pepsi

      yo yo yo

      September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  14. Reality

    I love men

    September 30, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  15. Jacob Ezekial

    Beyond a doubt one of the worst articles I've ever seen on Spirituality/Religion. A bonus is once your organization(CNN) is this mediocre, there is an unlimited ceiling for improvement. Good Luck.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • DN3

      I agree. This is a terrible article. Some of the most narrow minded and presumptive opinions I've ever read.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • mh

      totally agree

      September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Independent & not brain washed

    Spot on. Spiritual people make up characteristics of God based on what sins they want to get away with. Spirituality is cowardness. Running around not taking a stand is weak.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Darlene Buckingham

      Sounds like the Catholic Church to me. A spiritual person looks into the darkness and decides to heal – the spiritual journey is not for the faint of heart.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Pepsi

      how about raping young boys?

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

      how about the pope personally engineering te cover-up of RAPING boys?

      I guess religous people don't like to think about that

      September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  17. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of years of inbreeding.
    Oddly enough, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance and Smokey and The Bandit

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

      good one

      September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  18. Darlene Buckingham

    The path less taken is the spiritual journey. The first step is to accept responsibility for everything that happens to you and to look at your own darkness and to do whatever it takes to heal.

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


      September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • zorrosbutt

      I worship beer

      September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  19. Jupman

    I know this is an opinion piece but come on. He says it does not answer the real issues but the only issue he gets at; is saying you have to either be spiritual or believe in a god. Your not allowed to say the universe has a natural order to things.

    You can be spiritual but anything you say is external might as well be god a monotheistic concept that has only been around since Judaism started. Spirituality predates the big Three Organized religions. Come back on our side and stop looking outward to solve your problems. If everyone looked inward to change the choices the made in life we might have a better society

    September 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  20. Ponyboy

    Yeah, just think of all those wars started over spiritual-but-not-religious beliefs...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:01 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.