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. hokmah

    The author is a closed minded religious fanatic, if he could only experience what
    seasoned meditator's, mysticist, enlightened knows about the truth he will put himself
    in a box of shame.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  2. Anntonio Augusto

    I don't understand how individualism is a cop out...you big conformist. There, I said it.

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

      man you cray!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  3. Perplexified

    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."

    The author cannot understand spirituality separate from religiosity because he cannot understand the existence of something without human definition. I would posit that most people are in the same boat. However, that is exactly the entire point of spirituality, centeredness, whatever one chooses to label it – to return to a state of being (or become in touch with that part of oneself) that is not defined by human experience, but by the energy that we are without it.

    You can, perhaps, find that in a church. Places of worship can help people to quiet, meditate, and connect with their spiritual center. They can also be places to impose mores and bring up walls/feelings of judgment inside people that only serves to block any spiritual connection at all.

    I disagree that we need the confines of an organization to define our spirituality.

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

      Amen. Nice post.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    The great problem is that the mainline churches like the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are led by wolves in sheeps clothing which use religion as a smokescreen for their malice, and it is clear that a body with an ill head cannot work. People make bad experiences in the mainline churches, because there doesn't reign the Spirit of Christ but demons. Nobody will stay in a house of demons but forsake it.

    Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church have arised out of the Early Church which was according to the New Testament which is the most holy scripture of Christianity.

    Regretably the Church of Italy (today called Roman Catholic Church) separated from the true Christian Church of the Eastern Roman Empire (this was the Civilized World up to 800 after Christ) through evil papacy beginning in the 7th century. The last good pope (papa) was Gregory the Great or Gregory I, after him wolves in sheeps clothing took over rule over the Church of Italy and made her the Roman Catholic har-lot whose groom is not Christ but the devil. As the lousy, criminal popes displaced Christ as leader of the church, the Holy Spirit, the divine teacher, forsook the Roman Church, and heresies had to prevail threre up to today. The lousy pope, a ridiculous human dwarf cannot be the divine teacher of the church, and hence heresies had to spread in the Catholic Church.

    In the course of the Reformation the Anglican Church emerged, rejecting evil papacy, but meanwhile also corrupted through the evil gospel of the cheap grace (cheap grace means complete adaption of the "believer" to the sinful world implying God's forgiveness would cost nothing and be very cheap demanding completely no effort of the believer). Since I live on earth I have never met a faithful Protestant, and of course there heresy of the cheap grace allows them to behave like ordinary sinners everywhere, and you will hardly perceive them as Christians.

    Hence, what we experience today is the total destruction of the Christian Church, whose last remain was the the Confessing Church in Germany during the Third Reich which was destroyed together with good, old Pruzzia.

    We need a reformed church which goes back to the principles of the New Testament. There the Holy Spirit will reign, good doctrine will spread, and the Spirit and good doctrine together will make believers happy, and they will remain in the Church of Jesus Christ with pleasure enduring the persecution of the secular, profane world.

    By the way, the old Protestant confessional docu-ments are valid, and should be used as an introduction to the New Testament, also some scriptures of the Church Fathers, and also the decisions of the Ecu-menical Councils of the Church of the Eastern Roman Empire.

    The sacramental baptism, also the infant baptism is valid. No rebaptism!

    If someone has received infant baptism by a Catholic or Anglican priest, this baptism is valid, because the invisible baptist is always God himself. There is only a high or urgent need to connect the baptism with personal faith, and to follow Jesus in a anti-Christian world which is overcrowded with sects, cult and false churches. Of course, someone who takes serious his baptism will forsake the RCC or the Anglican Church, and associate with true believers.

    Today a believer has to face suffering and rejection by the godless world, only in the church he would find rest and a foretaste of eternal peace. Yet, the one who wants to have peace with the world here on earth right now, will never enjoy the eternal peace in heaven.

    Jesus Christ died and resurrected for us. We have died for the sin, and we are in him, if we believe that he died and resurrected for us, and if we are sacramentally baptized. Everyday we can invite Jesus to rule us, and to help us to overcome the lust of our sinful body, and to love God and our neighbour.


    September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Jody P

      You, sir, are exactly why I don't participate in an organized religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  5. Boobama

    it's Bush's fault

    September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. Nick

    What a piece of sh-t article, even if it's an opinion. The author has the audacity to claim nonorganized religion is invalid because they're "on the fence" or not rigidly on one side of the two factions splitting the nation in half? Give me a damn break, going to church and forming opinions off of what someone else tells you about the universe, based on a man written 2000 year old book is better than forming your own values and beliefs based on worldly observation and inner soul searching? You sir, Alan Miller, are exactly what is sending this country down the sh-tter.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  7. Dawn

    How did religons get started then, if it wasn't to begin with "spirituality" and Progress(?) from there to structured religon? Someone, somewhere had to come up with the idea that there is more "out there" than what can be instantly seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Sarah

      I can answer that. Anyone who studies religion will tell you all are based in keeping people in order; translation: religion is a control feature, and if you don't behavior, you will forever burn in hell, or some other such thing - far worse than Santa putting a lump of coal in your stocking. Yup, control and keeping people in line. Amazing, isn't it?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  8. pelegrim

    Beyond the universe there is nothing and within the universe the supernatural does not and cannot exist. Of all deceivers who have plagued mankind, none are so deeply ruinous to human happiness as those impostors who pretend to lead by a light above nature. Science has never killed or persecuted a single person for doubting or denying its teachings, and most of these teachings have been true; but religion has murdered millions for doubting or denying her dogmas, and most of these dogmas have been false.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Eric

    Why is this cynical, myopic snot on the front page of an international news site?

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Eric

      And why are you people dignifying it with replies?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Duh!

      Same reason you are?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  10. Diablo

    It is a copout to be nonreligious but spiritual. You should ask the hard questions! And then you will realize that there is really no god, or life force or anything spiritual at all.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Me

      That's just as bad as those who (also without proof) claim there is absolutely a God.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  11. Randall "texrat" Arnold

    What a crock from a modern-day Pharisee. Spirituality > religion any day.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  12. Frank

    correct. it is true that blacks are responsible for 98% of the crime worldwide.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  13. Agnostic

    Since Alan Miller is just learning about them, apparently all Agnostics shall instead be referred to as those who are "spiritual but not religious". Well, maybe Miller at least came up with a new argument against being an Agnostic? Nope, same old "fence-sitting, not-knowingess" claim. Gee, you're right Miller, it's a good thing the bible was historically integral to our society's ability to read and write. Otherwise, I wouldn't get to laugh at an opinion piece on CNN in which the word knowingess was used. Well, at least Miller eventually got around to explaining how truly dangerous these people are to society: those that decide not to adopt a specific religious view are lazy thinkers (unlike the rest of society that has taken plenty of time to think carefully over all of their religious options before arriving at their respective religion). Well, at least CNN has the collective intelligence not to put this content on their website. The last thing they would do is make it the featured opinion piece on their front page.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  14. Clark1355

    This guy doesn't understand what spiritual means. Note to all religious people who think you can only be spiritual through religion: You are WRONG. Anyone who says they are "spiritual' is thinking about the meaning of life and what it takes to be a good person. How is this a cop-out? Humans do not need religion to tell us how to live and what to do. We are an intelligent animal and we can figure it out for ourselves. If you dont believe me look into our history. We used to burn witches BECAUSE of religion and now we don't. We learned that not from religion but through thought. In a way I feel sorry for people like Allen Miller because they feel threatened by a world that is becoming less and less religious. The good news is that this change is better for our species and the plant.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  15. DN3

    I've always maintained that the end goal in life is to be a good person and happiness follows from that. If you manage to be this kind and happy person, then I don't care if you are religious, spiritual, atheist, etc. I happen to believe in a higher power but I don't think He cares that much about how you come to emulate His ways, the important thing is you emulate them. I once met a preceptor of mine who was the kindest and most generous man I had met to date and I discovered he was an athiest. So who cares? He was just as nice or nicer than many believers I've met.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  16. Bob

    The author will be happy to know that I am in an organized religion. I am a devil worshiper. My doctrine wishes evil on the world and damnation for all. Happy holidays from Satan 🙂

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

    Superficial, misinformed, misguided.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  18. jamesbrummel

    First, whats with the picture of the shirtless unshaven bum looking man praying? Is this supposed to be a "spiritual but no religious" (SBNR)man? He looks like a bum on the beach. Certainly not what ANYONE SBNR looks like.

    Second, Miller is ignorant of his own dogma. It was Jesus who said that God was not the exclusive domain of the elders or the powerful, God belonged to all of us. In other words there was no middleman, no interpreter, no preacher or vatican to issue rulings or edicts.

    Third, Miller is just a plain old bigot. He lists a bunch of religious texts, then adds "let alone the old and new testmenet". In other words, SBNR's ignore all these faiths, let alone THE REAL ONE. Gotcha.

    Fourth, butt out. Faith is a private matter.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  19. cocteautwin

    The truth is the story had never been real all along, just like a bad dream, it’s an illusion. It has never been real, except as a thought form. It doesn’t exist anywhere except as a concept in the mind. If the story isn’t real, then what about the protagonist ? How can ‘I’ survive without the stories that define ‘me’ ? Is the ‘self’ that is participating in the stories real ? Or is it just another thought, like the stories themselves ? Perfect liberation is only brought by a simple recognition. It is so subtle, simple yet incredibly profound. There is no ‘self’. There is no ‘you’. Life is real, experience is real, but ‘you’ are not. The ‘self’ is not real. The story is not ‘real’ no matter how marvelous it seems to be. The ‘self’ that I so dearly fought for does not exist in reality. All along there had only been the thought of ‘me’, an illusion, a thought that reduced the vastness of life to concepts. ‘I’ was just a concept made up by thought. The ‘self’ is not a life form, but it’s a thought that claims to be the owner of experience and life. This thought is pervasive and entangled behind every other thought and experience : ‘I’ see. ‘I’ think. ‘I’ act. ‘I’ sleep. ‘I’ breathe. ‘I’ make decisions. There is no ‘you’. There is no ‘self’. There is only seeing, thinking, acting, sleeping, breathing and making decisions. ‘You’ or the ‘self’ is just a thought. This realization is perfect liberation. All you have to do is look deeply at the truth. Look and see if it’s true. The beauty of it, is that you don’t have to believe that it’s true. You don’t have to accept it or agree with it. Don’t get hung up on the concepts. All you have to do is delve deep and see if it’s true. There is no ‘you’. The story of ‘you’ is not real, because ‘you’ doesn’t exist. There’s no need for self-help, because there is no ‘self’ to help. There’s no need for self-love, because there is no ‘self’ to love. There’s no need for self-actualization, because there is no ‘self’ to actualize. There’s no need for self-improvement, because there is no ‘self’ to improve. There’s no need for self-seeking, because there is no ‘self’ to seek. There’s no need for healing the ‘self’, because there is no ‘self’ to heal. There are no problems with the ‘self’, because there is no ‘self’ to have problems. Look and see, there is no ‘you’. Everything in existence just is. There is life and there is experience.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Bob Dobalina

      Me myself and I????

      September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  20. Mark S

    No, it is not the "'me' generation of self-obsessed." It is peoples' disgust with organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:12 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.