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. Wayshower

    I honestly do not see what point the author is trying to make except that he seems to be disagreeing with anyone's belief that they don't have to be in an organized religion to be disciplined spiritually. Also, I'm assuming that he is making this assumption from a Christian point of view. Personally I grew up Christian, in a Methodist church, but several years back, I had a personal spiritual "awakening" that changed my life, and my view towards organized religion. I still believe in God, and I believe in Jesus, however, I don't believe in them in the way that Christianity teaches them. I believe that Jesus used himself to be made an example to mankind of how we should all be self-sacrificing, loving, and helpful toward one-another.

    I believe that the concept of God is something that cannot be grasped by humans, yet Christianity, as well as Islam, Judaism, and other religions try to put God into a human mind-set that it is an emotional being. I believe that the concept of God is non-polarized, non-judgmental force of "Unconditional Love" that is at the core of every living creature in the universe, and through all of the beings and reality itself, creation persists.

    Bu back to this article, I have to say that this is a one-sided argument from someone whom does not believe in self-spirituality , and believes that following organized religion is the main way to walking the path. Personally I feel that organized religion limites mans thinking of spirituality, and everyday living in life. It puts too many boundaries on free-will humans, and also creates "Belief" for people through doctrine, and from the organized religions spiritual leaders.

    The path to enlightenment is found in ones own heart. One does not HAVE to be a part of organized religion to find the path to God, Spirituality, or whatever one wants to believe.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  2. narsil

    The Karma Sutra? Seriously? There is a good premise for a thoughtful article on this subject, but the author obviously has obviously spent no time whatsoever objectively exploring the subject he's writing about. Almost every paragraph made me cringe.

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

      agree completely
      Yeah, people should follow the karma sutra! One time this girl I was with obviously hadn't read the whole text.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Silent1

      He spelled Kama sutra wrong too.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • fibergirl

      me too. The article personifies why I dont trust organized religion, especally exclusive religion:
      one size fits all mentality...check
      thinly veiled hatred posing as "caring for ones' soul"...check
      unjustified sense of superiority....check
      total ignorance about other beliefs....check

      September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  3. Randy

    Most of the posters seem to be part of this movement. They want to pick little pieces from various belief systems while avoiding walking into a church building on a regular basis. I know, it's inconvenient to have to sit somewhere for an hour or so every week deprived of your little electronic babysitter. And you certainly wouldn't to have to believe in stuff that happened over 2,000 years ago; you wouldn't want to have to believe that there *is* only ONE way, that there is a timeless set of rules that define how we are to live.

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

      One should not HAVE to walk into a church of brick and mortar to discipline their spirituality. I found the true church at the center of my own heart several years back. That is where one finds the nature of their soul, and can also find the path that Jesus spoke of. Christianity, as well as a lot of organized religions have taught people that you have to do things in that religions way to find God when that just is not the case.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Randy

      "Do not forsake the assemblage of believers."

      Without the regular experience of fellowship with other believers, one is left wandering in the wilderness so to speak.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • James PDX

      Only one way? You mean the way of the violent, angry, jealous and murderous god of the Jews?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • James PDX

      Jesus himself said that your worship of god should be private. It's the church who wants it to be public because that's how they gain power and money.

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

      I can only speak for myself, but there is no way I could "afford" organized religion right now, and I think I speak for many. The Amish have no churches but worship in each others' homes - they use collective strength of faith that is Christian centered. This is not the only faith that resembles this simplicity of purpose - there are several. The writer of this article has not done his homework - not even Wikipedia. I want good people in my life, and I don't care what what they profess to "be."

      September 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Keith Smith

      It is not just inconvenient it is a total waste of time, that is unless you need a baby sitter to tell you how to think once a week. All religion is a fraud.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  4. Elizabeth

    "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either." I'm a spiritualist, and I agree with this statement. As a mere human being, I feel that it is the most responsible position to take. I do "sense" that there has to be "something out there"–something larger and more infinitely complex than anyone can comprehend. In other words, I do believe in God. I don't feel myself qualified, however, to make conjectures about the nature of that God. And that's wonderful to me! I'm someone who embraces ambiguity, finding that mystery enhances and enriches my daily experience of life. I don't want concrete answers, and I don't want a rulebook governing the way I live my life. I'm a decent person. I believe that everyone–no matter who they are–should be treated with human dignity. What else do we need? Spirituality, I think, is simple enough to where anyone can find their place in it. Religion on the other hand (though it has its merits...and if it's for you, go for it!) is too strict and nuanced to encompass the complexity of all humankind. I don't want to live my life in fear of sin and judgement. If I feel guilty about something, I want that guilt to come from within myself and not from any person, society or book. Spirituality, thus, is NOT a "copping out." On the other hand, it encourages people to be introspective, to think deeply and critically (and for themselves) about life, God and humanity.

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

      I love it. Great response Elizabeth

      September 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  5. Curtis

    Some of us tend to believe in the observable world as it is. Some even think that it may have been guided or even set in motion by something higher. We are all connected, but your current religions do nothing but compartmentalize people and create hatred and disdain for others who do not believe what you believe (hence your article). We also don't believe that a loving 'God' wants to doom us to a life of burning hell for committing a 'sin'.

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

      God don't want you to sin.. Not because he don't want you to have any fun it is because it will KILL you.. This is why he hates sin...Sin brings death..

      September 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Miguel

    I would describe myself in the "spiritual but not religious camp". I feel that a self lead study and contenplation of creation, god (if such thing exists), etc is a far superior approach to these matter than the approach of beleiving what ever a body of clergy tell you to beleive. It allows the exploration to proceed with an open and critical thinking mind, and not fall victim to the duperies of clergy, which often (if not allways) will end up abetting the abridgement of liberties and freedoms to favor themselves and gain for themselves pence and power.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  7. 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 organized 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 12:16 pm |
  8. kristinaaholmes

    This is a ridiculous post, and I agree with several others here who have asked why this is the top of CNN's homepage. Come on, CNN. Really disappointing.

    While I don't thing it's fair to generalize about the 'spiritual but not religious' crowd, one thing that I think can be said is that we acknowledge we don't have all the answers. About God, about what happens when we die, the nature of the soul, etc. We have our beliefs, arrived at individually through personal experience and studying the world's wisdom traditions, but we give space to the mystery. There is so much we don't know as humans; even to ourselves we are mysteries.

    Religion wants to make things certain – package it up in a neat box. That might feel really comfortable in a changing uncertain world, but is it true? I would take the personal experience (what Miller calls "feelings") of, for example, the psychic expansion and healing of ayahuasca, any day over putting my faith and trust in a judgmental God I have never personally experienced. When one studies the world's religions, it becomes clear that they are created by man. Why would I EVER want to put my faith in a human created system based on fear, and hope against all odds that it's actually true?

    In my own system of belief, I know what I've experienced and what that would seem to suggest about the nature of life, of death, of God, but in the end I know that there is so much more I don't know than I do. Therefore I keep my beliefs in perspective and an open heart to continue learning about this great mystery of life.

    To me, that's humble and beautiful, and I believe a far healthier way to live. And yet despite this strong belief, I am not out to proselytize and force my way onto others. It's a sad fact that believers are encouraged to spread their religion. But even that I can forgive. However when it starts creeping into the main page of a major news outlet? Not acceptable.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  9. stonefur

    I think that all of us in the "me" generation have finally seen religion for the snake in the grass it is. We are realizing how full of crap these people really are and are growing beyond the need to be controlled like sheep. Religious authority is given by the believers, and they can't see that from the pews. I refuse to empower the major religions because they are lies and systems of control from a time before now, Religion is outdated. Evolve people.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Sarah

      Nope, not just the "me" generation. Many "old coots" like me figured this out a long time ago. I have had my share of tragedy, and not one time did I find that I needed "God" to get through it. But I did find out there were people who cared about me. Trust me. Pray to God all you want, but help comes from human compassion and love for each other. Pay it forward, right now - this upcoming week. Be a good person and do the best with what you have.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  10. icurhienie

    The majority of religions force a human being to "take sides" in that they aren't tolerant to the views of "outsiders" and preach that their religion is the only path to salvation and that all the others are wrong. This is inherently indicative of a false philosophy. Reminds me of the junk e-mails we get that say "immediately mail this to 10 more people and you'll become a millionaire, you'll go broke if you don't". This is fear based motivation, the polar opposite of what religion is supposed to be. It is highly divisive and is the primary cause for all of the world's problems.

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

    I, like many others in these posts, just can't agree with this author. In fact I think he is the one with the harmful position. I am a babyboomer, not a young person, and have been uninterested in organized religion pretty much my entire life. Not being raised with a specific organized religion but experiencing several different ones left me a bit more open minded. The years have just reinforced my beliefs. As I sit here and try to express why I feel this way I can't get the thoughts totally organized because there are so many reasons. Many years ago my brother came to visit me. He was raised the same as me until my parents moved to the southern US. I had already moved out. When he visited a few years later he had become very religious. He talked about other, Christian religions, as if the followers were animals. When I asked him where he got these ideas and why he believed them he told me his minister preached this (in another Christian church). The discussion, turning into an argument, continued when he blurted out, "How do you know how to treat other people?" I was dumbfounded. I responded that I know how I would want to be treated and try to treat people the same way. The golden rule. He had decided that he needs someone else to tell him how to think and behave. He is that way to this day. He is intolerant of others and has a very closed mind. It is incredibly sad. My other two siblings have similar beliefs to me. That is just one tiny little reason why I refuse to participate in organized religion. Organized religion divides us, not unites us.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  12. CNNReally?

    So now we have only 2 choices-his version of Christianity or I suppose the fence sitting highway to hell? We SBNR folks are not only looking to feel good or seeking to avoid hard lessons of life contrary to the ignorant, illogical drivel presented here. I can't the literal truths that Christianity demands and choose not to be a hypocrite. My moral compass, and yes I do have one, says that is wrong.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  13. The Myth

    Here comes the closet cased liberal moon walkers here on CNN ......their brains lack the gravity to think clearly....as usual. HA!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  14. krussell

    the articlr states:
    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.

    The truth is the Dark Ages came about because of this book. I know, American Public education claims scientigic advancement stopped in Europe for 500 years until the printinf press saved us all from ignorance. The truth is any scientist who contradictede this grerat work was put in jail or executed.
    Religion is now thrying to stop the teaching of evolution because it is not what this book says. Give them a chance and the bible will once again stop advancement and impose the values of a bunch of power hungry bigots on us all.

    Religion has done far more to hold us back than it has to advance us.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  15. higgs boson

    "those that can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities"...voltaire...all religious belief is absurd and we can see the terrible results of absurd belief throughout history

    September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Gravity


      September 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  16. Commenter

    Really? This dribble made it on to CNN? Really a poorly written piece with no real thought or direction. Please curate your postings a little...

    September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  17. whatisthis

    I am of the opinion that God would much rather us making the world a better place than spending our time choosing whether to be religious or not. There is always a gray area and this person clearly does not accept this. I say stop wasting your time judging other people's views and start helping others in your community. I'm sure God would appreciate this much more.

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

    There is only one religion – the religion of love. Love in thought, word and action is spirituality or morality. With this, I think we can be both spiritual and religious in the true sense.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  19. Bob

    My organized religion tells me to stone women if they leave the house when it is that time of the month. Since it is written down, it must be what God really wants. I'd be a sinner to disobey.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Fak

      also, it's Sunday, so we must kill anyone who is working today. Let's get busy

      September 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • joao

      Sounds like you can use your God-given free will, and leave that religion.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  20. R Burns

    Of course, this doesn't explain the mushrooming sales and download apps for the Bible! Many people don't belong to any one religious organization because of the increase in our knowledge base, which has exposed many religions to be more cult than Christian. To realize the message Jesus had for us and how it does and should affect our lives, it is necessary to read the scriptures upon which Christianity and some other religions rely. We are smart enough to understand it for ourselves now, without the interpretation of leaders indoctrinated in rites and rules that have nothing to do with the core message. Drawing away from church membership is partly the fault of some ministers themselves, ironically! I attended a Methodist church for over a year recently and asked about membership. The minister replied that her congregation was more about friends of the church than members, since so many had opted to attend without joining. I was ready, she wasn't.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:15 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.