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. Bob Dobalina

    Just another way that organized religion is showing fear of their demise ..... people are waking up and realizing that there is no need of "Organized" religion.....no need to feel guilty about living life, or living within guidelines set out by archaic and ignorant people. If you believe in your own spirituality then there is no reason for someone to die because someone is insulted by a word or video....to each their own.....

    September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  2. Wootings

    It is a copout...it's an expression of people who have realized that all religions are a lie, but it's so ingrained in their culture (and therefore into their lives) that they can't shake the baseless teachings that were forced down their throats.

    In time, with hope and support from others who care about the welfare and well-being of others, maybe we can get these "halfway" people all the way home, and completely cure them of the disease of religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  3. pointless1

    Many people use religion as a nightlight only because they are afraid of the dark.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  4. wilt

    This is one of the most incomprehensible pieces of garbage I've ever read.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  5. brake

    We can only hope that – several generations away, of course – religion will be irrelevant. There's nothing wrong with being Atheist or "spiritual" outside of the confines of religion. Assuming one is raised properly, you should know the difference between right and wrong inherently, and that creationism is a ideology based on thousands of years of hearsay. Those that can't will end up in prison, on drugs, etc., no matter what religion they sign up for, or what commandments are prescribed in a particular religious text. I would never push my children into a religion, but I would support whatever choice they would want to make ON THEIR OWN about god and religion. I don't believe anyone should be born and forced to learn any religion seeing as most religions are the cause of centuries worth of bloody conflict, including present day. Nobody is right if everybody's wrong...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  6. Anita dick

    alaq miller sounds like a jew

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Anita dick


      September 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  7. Zangetsu

    "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."

    That paragraph alone betrayed the author's true purpose.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Quinn

      Isn't in interesting how those who are spiritual but not religious generally tend to have a non-judgmental, live-and-let-live philosophy about the spiritual and/or religious beliefs of others. Conversely, those who claim to be extremely religious are more often than not totally judgmental about all who are not of their religious persuasion as well as those who are spiritual but not religious. Classic fundamental extremism: an everyone else is wrong except for us mentality. Yet, human history is rife with the reality that extremism of any kind eventually fails and implodes under its own oppressive weight.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  8. monsterocket

    How did this make it onto the front page?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  9. Lucy

    The reason I may call myself spiritual but not religious is that no one 'knows' the answers, and most organized religions are preaching things while having no evidence to back them up. This doesn't mean I'm immoral or selfish. It simply means that I'm not going to waste my time, money, and energy listening to a bunch of nonsense about what other people think I should believe. And if I want to practice yoga and meditate and pray in my own way I'll kindly thank the author not to judge me for it.

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

    I think that most decent human beings strive for similar positive concepts whether affiliated with an organization or not. To require those who seek a spritual journey rather than a religious journey is narrow minded, For most that are pursuing a spritual jorney not affiliated with an organized religion, this journey is often not easily explained or described but is more private in nature. But aspects of this journey can often be described in the same way that organized religous beliefs often are: kindness, sacrafice, belief in a higher being, absence of self, etc. The author seems to be seeking a concrete answer that can't be found.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  11. Ryan Romney

    Religion Kills.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • The Myth

      Obama is Satan....lol.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  12. E W

    nice words - no substance
    Now lets be honest: Religion is a century old nightmare - Today it can be exposed as a scam - as a means of con-artists to make money from naive audiences.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • The Myth

      Just like politicians....say Obama.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  13. John

    The real reason that the author of this article doesn't like independent-minded spiritual people is that they don't go into a building every Sunday morning and put money into the collection plate. It's simply a matter of lost revenue.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  14. mike

    The author's ignorance aside, I do sort of want to kick that spiritual beach dude in the face.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  15. snowboarder

    what a bunch of malarky.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  16. Anand

    Karma Sutra–dont know which book that is.I think the author means Kama Sutra and which is a book on loving making ,and I believe it lies far far away from any religion.The author contradicts himself there.Not worthy of a space on CNN surely

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  17. Travis

    Thankfully, I am neither spiritual nor religious.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  18. Not impressed........


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

    ahhaha, this article about spirituality being bad brought to you by a salon and brewery ceo LOL

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  20. Philip Mark Edwards

    It takes some time to work your way through the 'mind fog' but in the end you be ... more 'receptive'. They'll have to tear down your ego somewhat ... still ready?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:09 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.