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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Augustus


    October 3, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  2. It should be

    Live a good life.

    If you happen to believe in a god and do wrong in the world you will be saved?
    If you happen to do good in the world but not believe in god you will be damed?

    I choose to be the best person I can be here and now...shoudl I find myself being judged then I have nothing to worry about and the power that might be can explain why they were so indefferent when I was not.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • sam stone

      i agree.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  3. Shuda

    This pathetic excuse for a writer is clearly floundering in the deep end. He should have killed himself before writing such tripe.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  4. Joel

    It is strange to me that so many religious people accuse atheists of being angry, hateful, attacking God, etc. I am an atheist. I am not any more angry at anyone's God than a Christian is at Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, Zeus, or any other being whose existence that they dismiss. The atheists that I know aren't angry, hateful, or resentful of religious people. We get upset when someone attempts to legislate morality. It is irksome when people argue that this country was founded on Christian values. To the contrary, this country was founded by people fleeing persecution at the hands of Christians. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams were deists, but spoke vehemently against Christianity. I do become angry when people attempt to impose their religious views on others by way of legislation. I imagine Christians would feel the same way if Muslims attempted to impose Islamic law. People are welcome to believe whatever they want, but imposing one group's personal religious beliefs on society as a whole is wrong and interferes with the individual right to liberty.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • SkepticalOne

      Very well spoken. Thank you.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  5. KP

    since when did an article discussing comments the author received on a blog post become CNN worthy?

    October 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  6. The Hosted

    I didn't think this pompous you-know-what could get any more pompous, but man, he REALLY came through with this piece!

    Besides cherry-picking comments he could spin as verifying and validating the points he claims he was originally making (though I'd say he did so in only the most va.gue of ways and is much more clear here on what the points he was attempting to make actually were) and avoiding those comments which made legitimate counter-arguments or points of weakness in his stance, he still displays an amazing ignorance of the reasons many claim this stance or what they do or don't believe.

    I'm sorry, but this is a sad little man who only sounds that much sadder the more he talks.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  7. SBeebop


    October 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  8. suckItUp

    this article is intended for one thing. hits/site traffic

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

      by the way. my name was once whocarescnn, notice how they changed it without my say.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Jules


      October 3, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      CNN gives you the option of choosing your posting moniker for every single post. You're either lying, or you're ignorant.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • suckItUp

      it's shiznnit like this that's gonna bring this situation to a head

      October 3, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Nigel Tuffnel

      Jimmy Joe Jim Bob here, proving what an ignoramus/liar suckItUp is.

      Jimmy Joe Jim Bob – paying proud tribute to my four fathers, Jimmy, Joe, Jim and Bob.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • suckItUp

      I am not lying. I just stuck with it when it comes to this type of comment section. they changed my account from whocarescnn to suckitup. I'm not lying. your choice to be believe me or be a fool. up to you

      October 3, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Nigel Tuffnel

      LOL the fool is you, since you obviously don't have the intelligence to use the interwebz.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • You can't fix stupid

      suckItUp definitely fits the dynamic of my moniker.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • suckItUp

      "LOL"........really? ok there chief. good luck with your little world

      October 3, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  9. Tony

    I agree with your comment Mr. Miller "not wanting to be held accountable to any set of ideas or principles is a very popular position among the “spiritual but not religious." I am not trying to judge those people nor their churchs but I truely believe that the happy feel good churchs are not a good thing. Let me also point out that I do not agree 100% with everything that the established religions do either. My parents taught me right from wrong and I am doing the same as a parent.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • sam stone

      Yeah, there's gotta be something wrong about being happy and feeling good. Particularly when you can be subjected to the guilt that comes along with Christianity

      October 3, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • sam stone

      Perhaps the SNR people are doing the same, without churches

      October 3, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • SkepticalOne

      If you feel the need to be punished, I could give you the number of a good dominatrix. She probably charges less than your church too. Why in the world would you involve yourself with an organization that doesn't make you feel good?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • sam stone

      And, the idea that they may not be YOUR set of principles doesn't mean the SNR crowd doesn't have any set of principles

      October 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Tony

      Sam you might be right I do not know. As for feeling guilty I look at it like this. They say to live long you have to eat right and exercise. I agree with the exercise part but everything you eat today is bad for you. I can not eat a burger or hot dog or nachos or drink a coke without some sort of chemical trying to kill me. We can not win and I am not eating fruits and vegtables all day. So I eat what I want because I am going to die anyway some day. I also run about 9 miles 4 to 5 days a week. With regards to the principles comment you are absolutely right. There is more than one way to do anything.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  10. Davdi

    Alan needs a high five in the face with a chair.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Joel

      Hilarious. Thanks for the laugh.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  11. Fionaredux

    This guy is a major pr ick . "Lots of (his) comments bear that out." Why is he given a forum here? You could do better, CNN.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  12. suckItUp

    as long as you let me live my life I do not care. I do not need anyone to control me. I do not care what you need to live your life peacefully. people refuse to mind their own business and it is getting worse. control control control

    October 3, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  13. Sam

    Alan, You are a turd.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  14. Pppa


    October 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  15. cira22

    I'm spiritual, I'm religious. I don't care what anyone else thinks. Don't need to debate my religion with anyone. Not worth it. Period. The. End.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  16. ROn Furrgotta

    Alan...STFU already

    October 3, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  17. Fredsta

    Worse than the first (article)! Nice to know the author read the responses, though. Tip of the hat, in that regard.

    However, he clearly does not understand the legitimate source that underlies our rights regarding freedom of religion. We will not be boxed. If you want to be told what to think, you go right on ahead.

    There is legitimacy and function, in being the Land of the Free.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  18. Kathy

    Still, the author apparently holds to a belief that those of a spiritual rather than religious nature are taking a somewhat nihilistic view point and therefore invalid or lacking in......something. Many of those taken to the spiritual, rather than a belief in religion or a belief in God have gone through some religion as a child and as they grew in intellect, figured out that a belief in some supreme being that magically snapped the Earth into exhistance in seven days was somewhat mind boggling. It is true that atheist are often radical and would prefer everyone believe as they do, but most of those spiritual humans are quietly spiritual and generally don't go around proselytising "the Word" to everyone else. It is simply a choice and no one belife is any better than the other.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  19. Deanna

    He keeps saying that Spiritual but not religious and atheism is a negative outlook.... in what way? He also clumps the two together. This is not really true. My husband is atheist and I am spiritual not religious. He believes there is not higher power, nothing after life. We come from nothing and go back to nothing. I, however, believe that we are all part of something more. I believe in a soul and that we are energy. Energy cannot be destroyed, just changed. My mother had a life after death experience and believes with all her heart that there is something after death. My father was a fire fighter and saw many people die. He said every time, the person would look up as if they saw something when they were “leaving”, they would suddenly be at peace and many times would say something like “time for me to go” or “Oh, my!”. I believe we are all equally part of something greater. But, to say it is an old man, sitting in a chair looking down at us, and judging us, is not in my belief.

    What we, Religious not spiritual people, all have in common is that organized religion does not seem to speak to us. Over thousands of years, many religions started off as humble beliefs but then were taken over by governments as a way to control their own people with fear. Queens and Kings, Emperors, etc. were “divinely” given their power by God himself. And if you do not follow them, then God will strike you down, or you will be tortured, and/or you will go to Hell.

    Scientists suffered punishment by religious leaders over the years. Such as Galileo, who was accused heresy for saying that the bible was written by man and man makes mistakes. A man named Giordano Bruno was convicted of being a heretic for believing that the earth moved about the Sun, and that there were many planets throughout the universe where life–living creations of God–existed. Bruno was burnt to death. Of course there was the inquisition, The crusades, and many other holy wars.

    Religions morphed their beliefs and rituals over time in order to gain more subjects in different lands. They would allow some of the local beliefs and rituals in so that the locals would find it more appealing. So, it is never the same from century to century.

    Why do we need to choose a side / an organized religion? Why must we adhere to one belief system. If we do not know what is out there, why do we need to pretend that we do? How does that help us in anyway?

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

      Deanna, hold on to the belief in something more after this life. I had a VERY personal experience last October when my fiancé's grandmother passed. She had been unconscious for 6 days. All hydration and food had been withdrawn (she was 96, facing her third or fourth form of cancer and had made her wishes quite clear) and was being provided nothing more than pain medication and anti seizure medication for comfort. Every day the nurses would ask if she was hanging on for someone to come visit before she would pass. No, everyone who was expected was at her bedside. We knew she was waiting for her beloved, who had passed before by 50 years, to come for her.

      On the 6th day, in the evening, I had a sense that something had changed (the family is non-religious, non-spiritual, and in some cases avowed atheist she was on no monitors) but no one else had. I told my fiancé to go to her and as I did she began to try to mouth words, I assume to try to speak. She reached with both arms, including one she had been unable to use well for several years, as though she was reaching for someone, and then she passed...with huge smile on her face.

      Being religious, unlike the rest of the family, I must assume that her beloved did come for her. She had been completely motionless and unconscious for nearly a week. The doctors believed that she would last hours when placed on the morphine drip and no one knows where she had strength to raise her arms let alone holdon for 6 days, I believe that she was seriously tickled pink that her beloved came for her and had been waiting for that specifically.

      Those who pass DO experience something when they go. We will all just have to wait and see what it is.

      (for you neuros and science types, sure it could be the brain shutting down...but come on...you weren't in this room, this was not gas leaving the body, she was trying to talk to someone we didn't see and was reaching for that person. This was not random neurons firing. You'll have to come up with a better explanation for me from now on)

      October 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Deanna

      Elspeth, That was a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. It made me smile.
      When my mother's grandmother passed away (When my mother was a child), before they even got the phone call, my mother was sleeping in her bed and was awaked by hearing her grandmother's voice. She said to her, " I am okay, don't be sad". and then the phone rang with the news. I agree with you about the life after death experience too.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  20. Duncan

    This is just getting sadder and sadder. Miller tries to prop himself up as some sort of debate master, but hes really not particularly well informed, and spends a lot of time being led around by the nose by his generations preconceived notions about the importance of organized religion. Hopefully someday soon people like this will have died off, smothered by their own blind intolerance and bigotry.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • The Hosted

      Yeah, he gets more pathetic the more he talks. He avoids all legitimate critiques of his position and picks the ones that he can say "see, that's what I was saying!"

      October 3, 2012 at 11:38 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.