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. Fred

    Hodge podge lol.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  2. Stan

    The author is one of those that needs structure and authority to feel secure. He is lost without rules to follow. He is more comfortable abdicating authority to others, especially if they wear robes and a big hat. He needs the validation of a crowd.

    It's not that spiritual people don't ask the hard questions. They already have their answers or simply reject the fairy tales offered.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  3. RadioBirdman

    More people are choosing to be open minded and finding their own way instead of adhering to angry and bigoted organized religion? And this is a bad thing?? No secret who the author of this article is voting for. From what I've heard, Jesus seemed like a cool guy, so it's strange that the only thing a majority of his 'followers' are inspired to do is hate hate hate.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Scholar

      Our country was founded by those seeking to avoid someone else's big organized religion.

      Individuality in one's beliefs is a cornerstone of religious freedom and is to be cherished, not mocked.

      Mr Miller is clearly against the fundamental religious rights imbued in our First Amendment, but he is free to say what he wants to say and we are free to ignore him and tell him to go preach on street corners with his piety on public display like the hypocrite he apparently is.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  4. Jeff

    If you think about it, Religion has caused a lot of problems and Wars. A lot of people go to church to HIDE behind Religion and still do wrong to other people. All people have to do the RIGHT things for others and be FAIR to each other and GOD would approve.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  5. rs

    Religion killed Jesus .

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  6. Tricki

    The idea of "a higher power" of my own understanding is the key to AA & NA. The AA's "Big Book" was written by Bill Wilson decades ago. This author should read it (as should everyone, regardless of whether they have the disease of addiction). It is essentially Christian concepts (common teachings of many mainstream religions) packaged in a form almost anyone can use. For me, it has made me more spiritual, which has lead me back to my Christain faith.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Mo

    How dare us young people attempt to break away from established doctrine that has obviously stagnated to the point of fossilization to find something new! In the true spirit of being spiritual, one acknowledges the idea that there is a higher power, but actively questions the metaphysical. Human understanding about everything has come way to far to continue to accept writings that are over 2000 years old as established truth, but has not come far enough to explain why we "feel" like there is a higher power. Being spiritual but not religious is not a "me first' idea, or do I subscribe to that notion because it makes me feel good, for me it challenges me to read, to actively engage myself, and challenge myself to become a better person, not because I want to get into some sort of happy after life, but because I just want to do my part to make the world I live in a better place. What this means is that I have to be a critical thinker that doesn't make my decisions based on ideology, which also requires me to be patient with ideas that I might not necessarily agree with, and accepting that the truth is somewhere in the middle in regards to all of the established doctrines and faiths. If that is wrong in any ones eyes, then I don't want to be right in your eyes either.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  8. Jess

    "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling [a] notion"- you, my friend, are the peddler, those people are not trying to convince you of anything or tell you how to be spiritual.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  9. Rainer Braendlein

    Chase away the evil leaders of our current churches, and let us reform them, than people will go to church and love it.

    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 12:20 pm |
  10. Mary

    You lost me when you wrote that "Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion,." Most of the people I know who fit into this group (myself included) don't "peddle" the concept at all. They just live their lives as well as they can.
    The ones who "peddle" their beliefs are the organized mainstream religions. They use missionaries, paid advertising on TV, billboards, radio, etc. I have never encountered a spiritual but not religious person at my door on a Saturday morning, but I have encountered Baptist ("If you die today will you go to heaven?") Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • b.complex

      This is true, Mary.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  11. /lol

    Gotta love these religion nut jobs, follow my religion or die/go away.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  12. gin

    Alan, there IS no "positive exposition or understanding or explanation..." to the dreams you believe in. You should pay close attention to your quote: "truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be" as that is precisely what you and other religious sheep chose.

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

    Perhaps most of the important questions have really been answered, and we are becoming global in personal "leaps of faith." Personally, I am more concerned with the carnage that organized religion has done (and is still doing) to humankind - always in the name of religion. Churches are building parking lots and maga-church buildings (even sports clubs that are tax exempt) while people right under their noses need help. Organized religion is becoming a disgrace to basic values of many faiths that we all share - Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. "Others" are getting lost in organized religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  14. hooray

    the writer is jeaous because he doesn't have the courage to leave his cage and live as a free man. Religion is nothing but wanting to have monopoly on the truth and bullying people into being sheeps.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  15. Andres

    This is an extremely pedestrian article containing an invidious confection of pedantic and pompous views with not a soupcon of substance. I do enjoy how easy it is to decipher the authors personal contempt towards nebulous spirituality and how barbed the article becomes. Quite a baseless diatribe. For future reference, try and locate some factual points. cheers mate

    September 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  16. atroy

    "Those that[sic] identify themselves..."

    I might be more inclined to take the author seriously if he didn't speak about people as if they were inanimate objects. It's called a relative pronoun; learn how to use it.

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

      @ atroy

      "I might be more inclined to take the author seriously if he didn't speak about people as if they were inanimate objects. It's called a relative pronoun; learn how to use it."

      Seriously? This argument has a moot point for you because of a grammatical error? Or are you perhaps using this error as an excuse to "sit the fence" yourself?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  17. cw

    Having survived the new age mentality that was so prevalent especially in the 60's, I empathize with many who have commented on this article. Thankfully, the world has been forewarned through Scripture of those times that we seem to find ourselves in (Timothy 2: 4) People claim they want to be "spiritual" and not religious; but there is such a thing as religious truth, and, therefore, there is such a thing as religious error. A desire to hear the truth and learn the way of salvation is a good desire, but most choose teachers according to their own tasts or wishes who advocate the errors they hold.
    There are wicked people in all religions, but there is only one Teacher that called Himself the "Son of God" and there were hundreds who witnessed his crucifixion and death and mumerous others that witnessed his Resurrection and they, with great joy and resolve chose martrydom rather than deny the absolute Truth of what they witnessed first hand. This is none opther than the historical Jesus. As for me, I have completed my times of searching and, yes, have cast aside all those who tried to convince me that I never sinned when my life was full of selfishness and convenient truths. Fortunately, I discovered after exhausting myself with so many false ideas and "spiritual" untruths, that the God that I had forgotten, had never forgotten me and so I know that He also has never forgotten any of you. Truth is nothing less than Love and no one can ever love you as much as your Creator. You are free to search, just as I was, but do ask for God's guidance so that you are led safely over all the false trappings that exist in this present world and safely onto the straight and narrow road that alone leads to life and unbelieveable joy.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Editor

      You sir, are what we call down here at the farmers market, a fruitcake.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • James PDX

      "...but there is only one Teacher that called Himself the "Son of God"..."

      Actually, there have been hundreds. All of the others received medication or padded cells.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  18. Bob

    I made my own religion and it is better than all other religions. It has only one commandment:

    1. Don't be a dick.

    If you can follow that, God will let you die in peace.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • sokesky

      I like you.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  19. Dave

    It's sad and frustrating that a piece this pointless, this misguided, this flat out dumb made it into CNN.com. This is a major failure from a site that flirts more and more with this kind of subpar content. Disappointing.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  20. John

    As an atheist, I thoroughly enjoy how the Left is being called out as well for their piecemeal approach to religion.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • James PDX

      As an agnostic, this whole idea that you have to make an absolute choice is the kind of thinking that generally leads to a lot mistakes and suffering.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:27 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.