Your Take: Author who calls 'spiritual but not religious' a cop-out responds to comments
October 2nd, 2012
04:04 PM ET

Your Take: Author who calls 'spiritual but not religious' a cop-out responds to comments

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

I wrote a Belief Blog piece on Sunday called "My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out," which has received more than 8,000 comments, many taking up key points I raised.

My assessment is that the wider disorientation of Western society, the decreasing respect for many institutions and the disdain for humans alongside what Christopher Lasch has termed a "culture of narcissism" has played out both among the "spiritual but not religious" identifiers as well as among many "new atheists." Lots of the comments bear that out.

Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion. A commenter whose handle is spectraprism spoke to this view:

“The problem this author advocates is that of thinking anyone has the ONE COMPLETE TRUE WAY- and everything and everyone else therefore NOT advocating it completely must be wrong. This is dogmatic, archaic, leads to extremism and is completely incorrect. Not being challenged into blindly following whatever scripture is not showing softness of any kind - it's showing you have a brain to draw your own personal conclusions that work and make sense to YOU.”

I don't happen to believe in a religious "one true way" and in fact am not religious myself. My comments and observations are based on an increasingly common phenomenon in the past 20 years.

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It is telling, though, that this and many other comments converge on dogmatism and extremism and juxtapose them with the notion that an individual choice is immune to any of that. These comments speak to my point that not wanting to be held accountable to any set of ideas or principles is a very popular position among the “spiritual but not religious."

In recent decades, the demise of the notion that there can be universal truths and the ascendancy of relativism and the new preaching of "many truths" and the idea that "all truths are equally valid" has clearly had significant impact on that identity.

The disenchantment with belief and a commitment to some wider authority has also had an impact on the self-described new atheists, who are furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves.

The end of the big ideas of liberalism and socialism left a vacuum in society. Atheism used to be a small component of bigger movements in society. Ironically, today what defines many new atheists is a shared outlook with “spiritual but not religious” views.

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New atheists define themselves in negative terms, as not believing without any broader sense of a positive alternative, while those identifying with a "spiritual but not religious" outlook define themselves as not religious rather than according to the strong convictions that they do have.

This commenter summarized the sentiments that lots of others express on my piece:

Gina Hamilton
So I should believe in God because Bach did and it was the basis for his work? What Miller fails to understand is that most of us started out with a religious tradition in our lives, and gradually grew up and out of it. I can say clearly that I am a recovering Catholic who at the age of 16 became a humanist and freethinker, but that from the acceptance of the lack of a god proceeds a sense of the oneness of the universe and my place in it. It's not touchy-feely; it's science, and yet it is profoundly spiritual as well. Perhaps Miller, one day, will have this sort of understanding.

It is so interesting how so many people now use the therapeutic language of recovery - "recovering" from organized religion. The group American Atheists describes anguish and toil as the "first step" of "coming out," making the analogy with gays coming out the "closet," as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America.

The therapeutic outlook is of far more concern with regard to human autonomy and freedom than organized religion. The idea is that humans are all "damaged goods" and in need of constant counseling and instruction.

These comments take off on that theme:

Paul Dykstra
Now you need to do an article on ..... "The dangers of being religious, but displaying NO spiritually aware behavior at all".....

Major religions such as Christianity and Islam have proven to be nothing but damaging and vile to our world. I reject this notion that we have to "take a side" on the matter of a higher power. The basic truth about it all is that no matter how much we read or try to decipher life's mysteries we were never meant to have concrete proof of what put us into existence. What is the point in living if you know all the answers? I am spiritual but not religious because religion is a disease of manipulation and control. I can believe in a higher power while also believing that it was never meant for me to understand this higher power until AFTER I die.

honesty is paramount
As a scientist, I am neither religious nor spiritual. I definitely know right from wrong and one of the things that positively defines me: when I don't know the answer to something, I indicate "I don't know". Don't EVER call that indecisive or "wishy-washy".

It is interesting how "spirituality" seems to be thought of as "clean" and unimpeded by problems.

Dustin calls religion a "disease" - once again we see the therapeutic language. Striving for an understanding of the world is an important and essential human attribute, yet so many of the comments have reiterated a generality about "spiritualism" and "my choice" that it seems to endorse the point I made that what seems so paramount is in a determination not to be "labeled" or dictated to by an authority.

So what is left? The superstition and mysticism of some "oneness" and often a therapeutic notion of being "spiritual."

Here’s a comment from someone who identifies as 51yo:

I always had a hard time with the guy in the front of the church, he's a guy... I'm a guy, what's the difference? He will one day be proven as a womanizer or worse, I will never walk that path. After another guy (Constantine) put his hands all over the Bible, I have little faith it is any more true than words my neighbor might come up with. Like you said, I search for truth and read as much as I can, but the final analysis is my own; I'm not tied to someone else's redistribution of "facts" or their interpretation of great stories. I can do that and be a good person without the trappings of a traditional place of worship, or someone telling me to do something they are incapable of.

The commenter 51y0 doesn't want to be tied to anyone else's "facts." While we all have to work out our things in life, I am interested to know what “spiritual but not religious" facts are.

It can seem that on the one hand there's a reluctance to commit to advocating anything and also that words can end up losing any meaning if one simply says something to the affect of "spiritual means it's right for me." Nick says it can mean a lot of different things to people:

Nick Heise
The author of this piece, though he admits that calling the spiritual-but-not-religious movement a movement would be incorrect, still wrote this entire piece as these people were a united group whose thoughts and beliefs could be analyzed and criticized as a group. I'm no genius, but these seems to make his entire position quite flawed.

I put myself out there as a point of reference since, as I'm talking about my own person, I don't have to rely on complete conjecture like the above article. Yes, I have used the expression "I'm spiritual, not religious." But what does that mean to me? Surely it can mean a lot to different people, just like the same scripture of the Bible can be inspiring to many Christians in countless different ways. To me, saying that I'm spiritual but not religious highlights that I'm not a person who believes in the existence of God as a fact, but neither do I believe in his nonexistence as a fact. It's my assertion of the respect and awe that I have in the face of a universe that I can't understand, which contains forces (perhaps a God) that I can never prove to exist or not exist. For me, it's not an unwillingness to think and make a decision - it's the result of years of thinking and consideration with the conclusion that I haven't yet gathered enough information to make a definitive choice.

I’ll end with this comment:

If you look at the definition of religious – even atheists are religious, they just strongly believe in NO God...this is from Webster's Online Dictionary: Definition of RELIGIOUS 1: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.

Maybe it's just that people are tired of being fanatical about church – and want to go back to a more open an honest approach to beliefs? Maybe the stigma of being a church member now has such a negative impact on how people think of you that people don't want to admit they go to church? Being spiritual means you believe in something (which I think is better than nothing) – the alternative is NOT only being an atheist....

Organized religious beliefs (even going back into ancient times) have caused more death and destruction than any other organization in the world ... and it's done in the name of (whomever your beliefs say to) – and has been since the beginning of mankind! Maybe choosing to say you're "spiritual" means you don't want to be associated with all the chaos and destruction – and maybe organized religions need to rethink their controls on individuals.

This remark will chime with many – the new atheists among them - who believe that being "spiritual" means you don't want to be associated with all the "chaos and destruction."

It strikes me that having an opt-out plan should have something more than simply a negative, whether it's a "spiritual" one or a "new atheist" negative. We live in an age where many are disillusioned with institutions and humans generally, yet not so evident is a positive alternative.

Thank you for the comments. The event we held last night, "I'm Not Religious – I'm Spiritual" benefited from some of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (1,789 Responses)
  1. Cora Grace

    Faith is not a con game. It is actual experiences that some people experience that others obviously don't. Religion isn't a disease, being a human is a disease. And don't give me the bit about how many people have died because of "religion." Have we forgotten the 20th century so soon? 80 million in the Soviet Union, who knows how many in China, the pol pot regime, Chouchesque (sp), WWII Germany. All of these leaders were completely Godless! And I am sick of people saying their religion ruined their childhood. As per the occult were they forced to murder their own brother or sister? I think sitting in a pew is not that bad. Our problem isn't that we are wising up by dumping God and then wanting him in death. Our problem is that we are narcissistic fools who believe anyone who says what we want to hear.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • leonid7

      You are forgetting the fact that in those totalitarian regimes you mentioned, the dictator was worshipped as a god, and the political system became the religion. So they were far from 'godless'.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Michael

      Is there ever a more disingenuous game than when the fundamentalists try to point to these political movements as "proof" of the inherent evils of atheism while blatantly (and shamelessly) ignoring things like witch trials, the horrors of the Reformation, the Inquisition, mass murders of those who refused to convert, the burning of heretics, etc.?

      Meanwhile, they ignore the fact that Hitler identified Christianity as his religion, that Nazi Germany was 94% Christian, etc. They ignore the trappings of religion found within Communism, such as how EVERYONE must carry the dictator's book around, how the portraits of said dictator are hung everywhere and are extremely reminiscent of holy icons, how millions flock to the tomb of Lenin, who is mummified like a revered saint. Indeed, Communism is a religion disguised as a political system, and they try to portray it as atheism run amok. Far from being pro-atheism however, if you were an atheist who had ANY quarrels with the philosophy of Communism, you'd meet the same fate of any other political enemy. Most Buddhists are atheists but they've still met a horrible fate in China and Tibet because Buddhism and Maoist Communism clash.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  2. earent

    Alan, why do you care so passionately about this issue? What does it mean to you? Why does it matter to you if people claim to be this way versus that way? In what way does this affect you?

    October 3, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  3. Leo

    Spiritual but not religious works when you believe there are forces outside of our understanding worth remaming open to but you don't wish to define them as religion does.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  4. Fritz

    Organized religion is on its way out the door, thank god.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  5. commentOnArticle

    I have to say, there are many ways to approach "Spiritual But Not Religious", which from my extensive experience with that crowd, I think opening up a discussion on the subject is a good idea. A lot of the way this ideology spreads, is not based on new ideas, but old fashioned bashing of others – the "But Not Religious" aspect – it's ugly.

    It's good old fashioned hate, and it's pervasive in this group. Now, that's not to say, it's limited to that. Then there is the positive they offer – you won't find that mentioned a lot, because that's not how they recruit.

    Recruitment is generally negative – stick to bashing religion, you can find agreement on that. You won't find it's very effective to recruit by starting on day one talking about time travelling or astral projection.

    But ultimately, you will get to some of those beliefs – as a debate tactic, sure, force them out of their anti-religious hate speech and into what they believe on positive terms. But as academic comment – yes they have a belief set, it isn't all anti-religion.

    In fact, their religious ideas rival those of any religious group – this is hardly a group of scientists.

    But I'm tired of this author, he can't fully engage the debate, limited as he is, by his own rigid thinking.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  6. just follow the golden rule, stupid....

    Mr Miller,

    You say you would be interested to know what "spiritual but not religious" facts are, huh?

    Well I'm not religious AT ALL but I do consider myself spiritual based entirely on my constant effort to SIMPLY PRACTICE THE GOLDEN RULE (i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Following the golden rule ensures that I remain ethical and if I'm confident that I'm an ethical individual that's all the "spirituality" I need to sleep well at night without any fear of some distopian afterlife.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • response

      "stupid" that's the golden rule, you follow? Deluded much?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • leonid7

      Whether you're spiritual, or simply believe in cause and effect as I do, the fact that humans are social creatures makes the golden rule seem like the best "positive alternative" out there.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  7. leonid7

    I still don't buy that the absence of belief in a god is somehow 'faithful devotion'. That brings up a common fallacy, as the burden of proof lies with those who say there is a god, just as it would if someone said there is a Santa Claus. Faith is belief DESPITE the absence of proof. I'm an atheist BECAUSE I observed the absence of proof that there is a god, and don't yet have a reason to consider that there is one in the first place. Simply lacking faith in something is not automatically faith in something else.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Avdin

      you are also an atheist despite the absence f proof that there is no god. you chose a side, neither of which can offer proof. both of which are based on an absence of proof

      October 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • leonid7

      Not so much choosing a side as it is wondering why the argument happened in the first place due to lack of evidence. As I said, the burden of proof lies with someone who suggests an idea, not with someone who observes no reason for why it should have been suggested.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • leonid7

      BTW, I also don't believe in Santa Claus, despite the lack of evidence that there is not one of those either.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  8. truth be told

    Lemmings swarm on a story when it is posted front page.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  9. Carl

    Wow, congratulations Allan Miller for perpetuating the age-old behavior of arrogantly dismissing everyone's beliefs while imposing your own as self-evident...Just like everyone else has done for years.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  10. @GuileOfTheGods

    So people didn't like this guys first article, so he writes another article about how everyone who disagrees with him, even people he haven't met, all are wrong and all fall into the same category. GOD FORBID he just accept that people have their own thoughts and ideas that are different than his own and he just leave it at that. Or he can bad mouth them in another piece.

    And last time I checked, I'm pretty sure the RELIGIOUS people telling me I'm wrong, and I'm going to hell, and I worship Satan, and Gays are immoral, was a lot more negative than myself or anyone non religious people. But I guess this goes along with "The Crusaders were actually killing in the name of peace".

    October 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Cora Grace

      Guile nobody is making you stay.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • @GuileOfTheGods

      Well, you also think "being a human is a disease", so please forgive me for not taking your advice.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  11. NonSense

    There is no need for an 'alternative' unless you define religiosity as the default. Many of us simply never 'opted-in' to religion of any sort, and do not define ourselves in relation to religion at all. You do not have to have an alternative laid out, nor define having 'opted-out'. The language is biased toward using negative terms to define 'not religious', but that doesn't mean anyone necesarily of their own beliefs through that particular lens. You just don't think that way, and you don't need to define the way you do think simply because other people think the relgious view is the standard and lump all other views as 'the alternative'.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  12. Keith

    So, is he saying he didn't believe what he wrote the first time? He didn't refute anything in the follow up or provide more facts to substantiate his first article.

    He even claims he isn't religious !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 3, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Ting

      Correct, he is not religious, but he is spiritual.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  13. TikiGirl

    I check the "Spiritual but not religious" box because I consider myself a deist and a humanist. I do not fall into the "normal" religious categories of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. For those of us whose religious beliefs don't fall into a particular structure (or organized assessment for that matter), where else are we supposed to classify ourselves? And why does this make us lesser people or anything else negative?

    October 3, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • @GuileOfTheGods

      Because we don't support the authors views, and since we don't support the authors views, and we are wrong because we didn't pick a specific club. Because religious people like Miller don't seem to understand that WE ALL DON'T THINK LIKE THIS PERSON, AND THATS JUST GOING TO HAVE TO BE OK.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  14. Amniculi

    "It is so interesting how so many people now use the thera'peutic language of recovery – "recovering" from organized religion. The group American Atheists describes anguish and toil as the "first step" of "coming out," making the an'alogy with gays coming out the "closet," as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America."

    Are atheists not oppressed? It may not be inst'itutionalized oppression, but it is still oppression. Everywhere we look religious propaganda is forced upon us. We're told that we're waging a war against Christianity (or Christmas, or Easter, etc., etc. – you'd think Christians were the ones being oppressed), though nothing could be farther from the truth. Even if we were, it would be a war of defense, not aggression. Studies show that we atheists are mistrusted as much as rap'ists (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-10/religion-atheism/51777612/1), though nothing has been done to deserve this.
    And yes, religion is a disease. One that the whole of modern society needs to recover from. If you compare historically the amount of good that has been done by religion (charity, scientific advancement, art, etc.) to the amount of harm (war, hate, terror, oppression, etc.) the scales will tip definitively toward the latter. Christopher Hitchens stated that religion is child abuse, and I have no reason to disagree with him. Exposure to religion, especially Christianity, creates an undue burden of mental anguish on a child by making them believe that unless they behave in a certain way they are doomed to eternal torture. At other times, children are raised in an environment of religious extremism leading to intolerance, hate, terror and oppression. Therapy is need to allay the effects of other types of disease and abuse, why not religion?

    October 3, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Joel

      I agree with you, completely. Also, of note, while campaigning for president, George H.W. Bush said in an interview, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." There is only ONE politician at the national congressional level who identifies himself as an atheist. There are countless instances of discrimination against atheists in jobs, the military, schools, etc. In one particular instance a man, Spc. Jose Ramirez of the U.S. Army, was murdered simply because he did not believe in god.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  15. David Ellis

    Atheism is not a religion. Not believing in something for which there is no concrete evidence does not make you religious. It isn't even a good term.
    If you don't believe in Santa coming down in a sleigh and giving good christian children toys are you anti-Santaite?
    Atheists, by whatever name, are just people searching for answers, but not defaulting those answers to magic sky being like some others do.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Keith

      Look up the word., You can do anything religiously, brush your teeth, go to bed, etc.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Huebert


      You are using a different definition of the word "religion".

      October 3, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  16. BrightGeorge

    CNN, rather than actually providing 'our' take on the issue, instead allows this one-sided argument to continue as the original author is allowed to cherry-pick his straw man arguments to further support his position. You had 8,000 other responders out there but instead chose to go with the one that we've already heard from? That's not 'our take' at all, that's just continuing the argument for the sake of page views...

    October 3, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • @GuileOfTheGods

      What this author has done is, when he realized he wrote a very negative article the first time around and people didn't like it, he decides to call them out and explain why he thinks they're wrong. Basically it's his way of throwing a temper tantrum, but this is what CNN has been serving us for the last few months. They don't get that we all don't need to think like them.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  17. Helena Handbasket

    He just said a whole lotta nothing. Again.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Daaadadadaa

      I'm really wondering what the point of these articles is other than to antagonize seemingly everyone. The author claims be not religious, is critical of those who also aren't religious but espouse some personal type of spirituality, and then goes on to criticize some cherry-picked responses to his initial article.

      Seems like trolling has gone mainstream during slow news days...

      October 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  18. @GuileOfTheGods

    AGAIN, CNN puts out an article where people who are not atheist like to tell others how atheists think. Keep bashing people who aren't religious, CNN, clearly it's working for you.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  19. Jake

    All the spirits that I have ever encountered have been found in botttles. People who think they are spiritual are probably afraid of admitting that faith is just a congame.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Amniculi

      Whoa, whoa, whoa....are you saying you found a genie?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Dennis

      Jake – I won't go the same route and lump all atheists in the same category as you have done with religious/spiritual people, but this is what drives me crazy about the ones that post like this. You complain that religion is being forced upon you and people should be able to freely believe what they will and then you turn around in your condescending tone and make light of their beliefs. It goes both ways, I respect your decision to not believe in a higher being, so why is it so difficult for you to do the same for me?

      October 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  20. Johnnie

    Alan – As a christian, I understand the importance of gathering regularly, but you we cannot deny the existence of the periods in time when the Bible (and organized religion) used (rather abused) their authority. From the Crusades to modern day hate filled messages, it seems that organized religion (Christianity in particular) preaches tolerance until someone disagrees with you. When they do, you are taught to "pray for that person, but not interact with them or worse." How is that biblical?

    October 3, 2012 at 11:03 am |
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