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. myuntidydesk

    I agree with this article. I hate the word "spiritual" because it is so overused and has come to mean nothing. As for people who hate organized religion, would they rather have unorganized religion? I am a Christian, specifically a Methodist, but I don't know the Bible backwards and forwards. I just try and live as I think Jesus would want me to live. I love Him and many other people in both the Old AND New Testaments. Find the faith that fits you the best and then try to be the best representative of that faith that you can be!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • /lol

      so your ideology is based on a book you never read and you think you are different from the people you are rediculing?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Jim McTeigue

      So, spiritual is so overused that it has lost meaning... but you need to clarify the word Christian by adding Methodist after it?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  2. mama kindless

    I've read some stupid articles in the Belief section, but this one just make take the cake. What a one-sided bunch of nonsense. I would say it's a cop-out for cnn to fill their article quota by having someone dream up something this lame.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • mama kindless

      type correction: just may take the cake

      September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  3. John

    I think what is really concerning the author is that if people start just being spiritual with no need of being part of any organized religion and not being imprisoned into a cult then that's the beginnings of the slippery slope of thinking for themselves. We all know where this eventually leads. Yes...*gasp*...ATHEISM.

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

      Spirituality is no slippery slope nor does it lead to any religion or lack of religion....again misinformation and ignorance breeds more ignorance. If you educated yourself about spirituality then you would not have any fear. Spiritual persons don't fear other religions rather we embrace them....I didn't realize being spiritual would equal to fear sadly enough you are no different from the author take time to educate yourself you may be surprised at what you learn. Knowledge is a good thing and knowledge about other religions and spiritualities can bring understanding and acceptance and a profound awareness.
      Main stream religions have not answered profound questions or resolved conflict but still there is a need for it (just not for me) but again I accept all religions because their basis are built on the same fundamentals of spirituality...only lost through translation. I hope you seek out knowledge instead of the same ole' " i hate what I don't understand"

      September 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Jose

      Alan Miller is a tool.

      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. – so we are all too stupid to figure out our own sense of morality? Only the church can do that for us? You mean not ascribing to the details of someone's condition 1200+ years ago means that we can't understand what is good? The church is a fine place for morality, so long as the individual actually gets ENGAGED in worship and activities. But that's not what Mr. Miller wants us to think, rather, we should all become mindless drones and do exactly what the church tells us, because independent thinking is scary.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  4. RickBangkok


    September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Anita dick

      can I bang your kockkc?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  5. The Myth

    It's like other religous cults...like Islam. They take parts of the religion, proclaim it's a peaceful loving religion, and discard the parts that tell them to kill all other religions other than Islam. It's the same thing as these new wave religions here in the U.S. that believe in 8 of the ten commandements, and toss the rest. YOU either believe in ALL OF IT, or you're NOT a Christian at all. Just a liar to God and YOURSELF.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • /lol

      you do know that those commandments are only in those religions right? maybe you shold educate yourself on other religions, oh and do what jesus says and learn tolerance.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  6. SAVED1

    This is nothing new and the only danger of leaping pell mell into an experience based feeling mystical type experience is you will probably get one. There really is a devil, and if he cant keep you deceived in this world of sin and materialism he will gladly allow you to have some wild experience.Bottom line is God is real and hates religion.... and why you ask because every major religion in the world is based on you working towards God in a works based system. True Christianity is based on knowing God through Jesus Christ and this union is having eternal life and its a relationship. The word Gospel means good news and this good news is that you can be BORN AGAIN if you as for Gods forgiveness. Jesus died with the sins of the whole world laid on Him and paid for this before a Holy God....then he rose from the dead. There is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it .....its that simple. Go down to the Santa Cruz mall sometime and ask them of their religious experiences and you will here millions...and you no what most are true but about as demonic as can be.There are oinly two people at the end of the road,I went there....One had nail scars in his hands and the other other horns on his head....luckily I handed yet died and made the right choice. JESUS!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  7. Bob

    Fu ck god! He is a murderer and a child rapist. I hope he burns in hell for all eternity!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  8. JesusNotRequired

    It would seem that Mr. Miller suffers from a bad case of self-imposed inferiority complex and a badly skewed assumption about the history of the written language and of the reason for the invention of the Gutenberg press.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • The Myth

      The narrow minded need not reply.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • /lol

      myth- yes, no religious follower apply.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  9. Eric

    The comments posted here show the position most people take these days. Independance from god, free thinking and no submission to God.

    Let it be known your choice is clear. God says that he will even vomit the lukewarm (fence sitters) from his mouth. You are either 100% for God, or you are against him. Seek the truth people, God's ways are higher than mans and your tiny thinking ability is not the truth. SEEK THE TRUTH while it may yet be found.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • The Myth

      As I tell agnostics and atheists alike "When you're dead, you'll have your answers." (TM)

      September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • snowboarder

      the religious fear the loss of control of the masses.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • /lol

      Myth – Just the fact that if anything exists after death that you want to be there saying i told you so means you are more likely to go someplace you dont want to go 🙂

      September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • TrueBlue42

      Man's ways are higher than your nonexistent "god's" and your "thinking"/posting ability is not the truth. You're just as subject to human frailty as the rest of us, Eric.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  10. ..

    "If Christ came back today, he probably would not become a christian"
    – A wit

    There is some truth to this. Catholics with their child a buse etc.. so on and so forth.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  11. Bob

    Until there is no religion there will be no peace.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • From The Top

      Wrong! Until there is no false religion there will be no peace.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • sokesky

      From the top - that's how religious wars get started. Who's going to determine what is the One True Religion? Even all the sects among any given religion can't agree.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  12. Christopher

    I Corinthians 3:2. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able.

    While there may be a place for exoteric religion in mainstream culture this dose not negate that those who seek something deeper such as a more refined Spirituality need a more solid food on which to evolve and grow in Spirit. Religion in the context of this article seems to speak of something that is coming from the outside and not a living tradition that is based on the Living Word which seems to speak of something that transcends religion altogether.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  13. baptiste

    Spiritual and religious is like fantasy role play. Go pick out a character class in Dungeons and Dragons. You can be a lawful good fighter or an evil spell caster. Bottom line is that it is still fantasy. Wake up dummies....

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  14. Mirrorcoach

    Perverse assumptions about a label people use most often to distinguish themselves from organized religion. Mr. Miller epitomizes the opinions of some religious believers of many different faiths who state unresearched conclusions that result in the kind of exclusionary, distancing, even hateful stands that separate us, keep us from truly understanding the complexity and miracle that is each of us...all of us. It's not the worst I've read but it's the doorway to way worse things that we experience now and have experienced in the world since the beginning...BTW, when was the beginning?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  15. art

    Mr. Miller does not mention the rejection of Dogma in his article. I assume you must join a religion and "toe the line" according to Miller. Mr Miller has no historical knowledge of the Christian Churches adopting the ceremonies and holidays of the pagans they sought to convert, such as Christmas and the traditions of Easter, not the mention those in Mexico and Eastern Europe. People's beliefs adapt to the time and Christianity is just not doing that!

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

    Expected better article from CNN.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  17. Rain

    I am amazed at the complete disregard for respect that this person has for our individual God granted right to believe freely as one sees fit. Jesus (who was a real person that was a Rabbi and not a deity) nor God ever said we had to collect to worship, but that we should share in the faith that God gives to everyone equally, but what we do with that is our free will. Unfortunately, the translation and interpretations over the past few centuries has muddied that message in order to organize people into a common path and ritual and make money at doing it. In all my reading of most all the major holy books (and all sited in this article) I found that the overall message is the same. Love, Faith, Hope and Charity. This writer is not a very charitable person in my opinion and needs a good schooling in his own religion's tenants. The one about judgement is a good place to start.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  18. Lar

    People are discovering on their own that there is more to one's connection to spirit than what is being taught through organized religions. In this way, they discover what resonates as truth, not according to what one is supposed to believe, but what connects naturally with where one is in their life. The large organized religions attempt to create a spirituality as a template that all are expected to fit into. People are beginning to question the authority and trustworthiness of large organized groups as a source for truth, especially when the masses are beginning to see the contortions of truth from many large organized groups in the economy, politics, and many other areas of life. The self-discovery of the individual is a natural process that most have given to organized religions in the past, but are now assuming responsibility for in themselves.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  19. leonaguila

    The author does not get it. What he sees as "sitting on the fence" is people's refusal to join the fray of beliefs that have resulted in intolerance, terrorism and bigotry. Spirituality does not necessarily espouse the presence of God either. It may be a euphemism for other non-earthly virtues such as goodness, calmness, and unity and harmony with the world without invoking god. The author wants to sell organized religion as a treatment to the ills of society when in fact it has done nothing but divide the world. It has failed humanity on so many levels and the new, younger generation has recognized and acted on that failure. We don't need demagogues like this author who treats people like he knows better and that religion should decide what is best for all of us. It's not a cop-out; it is called wisdom.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  20. Corey Kepler

    Come on, CNN! What a crap article! This people are not "fence sitters" they've just chosen to not accept the bull-crap from the world's major organized religions. I think it speaks to how–in many ways–the youth are more educated about religion. Thanks to the internet and a more "world" perspective–the lies, misdeeds, and cult-like behavior of mega churches is a turn-off. These people are free-thinkers and this isn't something to criticize. Praising people who believe in pregnant virgin women and men who walk on water seems crazy to most of these people.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
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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.