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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    'They seem to hold to the position that their belief (mostly atheism or spiritual) is correct"

    Now you are also missing the point being made, which is.....there is no reason why their viewpoint is invalid and why the organized religion's one is the absolute and correct one. The author laments against the push back against authority, which he sees as a negative thing. He seems to be advocating that the structure of the church is required to find the truth, to which people here are crying 'hogwash'.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  2. MagicPanties

    Atheists are "negative" for not believing in imaginary beings like adults are negative for no longer believing in Santa Claus.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • willard43


      October 3, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  3. Elmer

    so.. if two people chatting about their beliefs, find that they generally agree, is that a "religion"? Or is it a religion only if they write it down, or only if they designate a place to meet, or create some rules to follow... what makes a religion, a religion?
    The only thing harder to define is liberal or conservative, whatever they mean...

    October 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • pat

      Religions are such if they qualify for tax exemption,right?

      October 3, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  4. tao88

    Alright................information is taken in by each of us and is utilized to formulate our own unique belief system (sometimes a slight or not-so-slight variation of one of the numerous belief systems out there today). This is a personal process that can only take place within each of us and is a most private experience.

    I offer a challenge to everyone reading this blog: Find your favorite single sentence from whatever belief system you've chosen and write it down. From this day forward, begin living that sentence into your daily life. You may discover that the need for reading will become less and that written words become useless. There really is no need for anyone to convince anyone else to adopt their belief system. Becoming a living example of any of those great ideas will accomplish more that all of the written or spoken words ever presented.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  5. wupwo

    Atheists are not "furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves" any more than Mr. Miller is furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in the tooth fairy.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  6. Harlequinn

    One of the problems I have with this article and the one that preceded it is it seems to indicate that spirituality somehow requires less conviction than religion, when religion has the exact same roots as any other "spiritual" belief. Every religion was at one point in time one individual's "spiritual but not religious" belief that gained a following (organically or by force) and an organizational structure. A million Catholics didn't just suddenly materialize out of thin air one day. Nor did Islam, Buddhism, Shinto or Judaism. Martin Luther nailed a note of protest to a door and Lutheranism was born.

    What the author seems to therefore be suggesting is that there is more conviction involved in believing what a number of people believe than formulating one's own set of beliefs and living in accordance with them. Where does that leave those that disagree with the tenets of the religion they were raised in and choose a different path? What if someone raised Mormon finds that Evangelical Christianity resonates more with them? What if a person finds they no longer want to be associated with a religion like Catholicism that doesn't think that women should ascend to clergy, and decides to align themselves with a religion that allows their daughter equal opportunity if she wanted a career in the church? What is the difference between one person deciding that A PARTICULAR religion is wrong for them and a person who decides that ALL religions are wrong for them?

    Religions are organizational structures built on one individual's interpretation of the Energetic/Creative Force of the Universe. Even those that adhere to one interpretation (The Christian God, the Islamic Allah, etc.) have their own interpretations of that interpretation – no two individuals practice any religion the exact same way. Their individual spirituality exists within the framework of their religion. What if a person decides that they don't need an interpretation or personification of the Universal Energetic/Creative Force (A God) to relate to and understand the universe at large, and they'd rather try to come to grips with it without that layer of filtration? What if they don't need a framework of religion to practice their spirituality? According to the author, this is a byproduct of a wider disorientation in Western Culture, rather than a broadening of the search for meaning.

    While a religion may enjoy the benefit numbers as opposed to the often solitary path that individual spirituality may entail, the author's statements seem to suggest that popular validation confers more validity to religion than a single adherent's commitment does to their own "spiritual but not religious" path. History offers us many examples of how far off the mark popular beliefs, religious or otherwise, can be.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      That force is truth absolute and religion's are hinduism, corruption of truth absolute, ruler of the word. hindered,, corrupted by hindu Jew's, criminal self centered, deniers of truth absolute to hind, fool humanity.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  7. HA

    Alan must have spent hours on the comments board crying his wittle eyes out. Poor fella, he must have lost sleep over this. We must have hurt his feelings. Awwwww

    October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Atheism is for everyone

      He is wondering why his god isn't coming to help him out. Hahaha

      October 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  8. Recovered

    This sort of 'debate' is the very reason I do not follow any particular RELIGION. I prefer to SEEM religious or spiritual to others, in my actions and decisions, but at the end of the day, I keep my beliefs to myself, as I don't need to debate everyone, every day because I profess to be Catholic or some other faith. I prefer to live my life, rather than spend it trying to prove or disprove someone else's beliefs, that, by the way cannot be 'proven' at all. What a waste of creative energy. It misses the whole point of what organized religion or even spirituality seem to be all about. Just my 2 cents, but in all honesty, I couldn't care less what you think of me, or my beliefs or opinions. This sort of discussion is the very thing that pushes people away from what is most important in this life. Cheers.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  9. MacLorry

    The Apostle Paul writes "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe."

    Salvation, the greatest treasure in the universe is hidden in plain sight where any child can find it, yet remains unfound by those wise in their own sight.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Chad


      October 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn writes " ... brainwashing children is the only way organized religion survives..."

      October 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • wupwo

      My fortune cookie the other day said "You have a deep appreciation of the arts and music".

      October 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      The whole concept of salvation is morally bankrupt. The idea of original sin and eternal damnation are two of the most vile religious concepts ever created by man.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • allah

      sorry – but your bible is a pack of lies. None of the NT was written by the authors claimed. Its historicity is dubious at best. The actual existence of jesus is highly debatable also... think not... where's the historical records of the miracles when J died? 3 hr darkness, temple curtain torn in two, massive earthquake, old dead jewish saints resurrected... huh?? Then there's Matt 10:23 – 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Jesus is a false prophet... he said he'd return before they went through the all the cities of israel. (and who believes that christian missionaries haven't already gone multiple times through all the cities of israel?) No return. So wipe yourself and get on w/ it.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Honey Badger Dont Care

      In your opinion.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • mk

      Well, if Paul said it, it must be true.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  10. MR2

    missed it completely! I never mentioned SBNR facts, I was talking about some people's religious facts, like the earth is 5-6000 years old (yo). First article was poor, this justification of it's poorness is hardly woth the bandwidth.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  11. allah

    Alan Miller – you are a complete stooge. Stop writing about things you have no clue about. Simply put – sit down and SHUT UP.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  12. suckItUp

    the worst part, there are people who actually know what happens next. people can not grasp where they been so they label it a "DMT" experience by the brain. I purposely went out of my way to try legit DMT to compare my experience, which occurred twice 10 years apart, and there is one thing I can say, words can not describe. you can believe me or not, this is not your only existence.

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

      Yeah, okay, so I'm a druggie. Sue me.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • suckItUp

      If you really want to see what I mean, try doing some LSD...lots of it.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • SuckItUP..from the future

      Wait...Don't post any more SuckItUP....There is something I gotta tell ya about the future

      October 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      I've taken dmt in all its forms along with an entire host of psychotropic compounds. The experience is completely physical and chemical.There is nothing mystical or spiritual about chemicals temporarily changing the physiology of the mind, though the experience is powerful, so it would be hard to fault a person with no understanding of modern biology for assuming they were having a mystical experience. It's quite likely that many events described in religious literature are the work of psychedelic compounds. For instance, the jews mana bread, the vedics' soma, the Word of st John.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • therealpeace2all


      So... you've tried DMT ? Really... where did you get it ? Or... did you do the trip to the Amazon to go through the experience with the shamans down there ?



      October 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • suckItUp

      I've completely embarrassed myself, haven't I?

      It's all because I was unable to admit when I was wrong and ignorant.

      I'd like to say I've learned an important lesson, but I probably have not.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • suckItUp

      By the way, I'm a republican.

      The smart people probably already knew that.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  13. suckItUp

    Why won't people believe me?!?! CNN changed my name!! I swear it's true! My name used to be whocarescnn!!!

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

      am I replying to myself or am I not?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • suckItUp

      I guess I am...more fool me.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  14. illustriouz

    " I don't happen to believe in a religious "one true way" and in fact am not religious myself." So your the pot calling the kettle black!

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

      Alan Miller – is a complete stooge.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  15. not_religious_not_spiritual

    I don't know if Mr Miller would categorize me as a "new atheist", but all I can say is that I am not religious and I am not spiritual. The lack of religion in my life does not leave me feeling that I need to replace it with something else. It's a non-issue for me, just as not being interested in professional sports is a non-issue. I don't feel a need to somehow replace the lack of professional sports in my life with something else.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I feel the same but maybe I just need some sort of shock therapy to 'cure' me.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • pat

      I was raised without religion and without sports. Think about it – sports fans,short for fanatic, and followers of religion,religious fanatics. They all think they are backing a winner.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  16. pat

    When anyone tells me that even atheism is still a belief system, or that I am spiritual, if not religious, I tell them I don't worship.Never have, never will. Then they say,"so you worship the devil." And only then, I tell them ,"I guess your right."

    October 3, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  17. suckItUp

    I am pathetic. I blame CNN for changing my name, yet I was able to change it myself, all along.

    I am the poster boy for imbeciles.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  18. JustTheFacts

    Everything you say, think, feel and do has nothing to do with anything or anyone but you. This concept is powerful. We are respionsible for how we show up in the world...not a priest, guru, rabbi or any other religious/spiritial teacher. Our relationship with God is personal and unique. Science is showing us that God does exsist and is everything:conservative, and liberal, religious and spiritial, Iranian and Isrealy, a Yankee and a Red Sox, etc...Once we realize this as a race peace will be everyones. We are all connected and our perspectives are valid. Namasta

    October 3, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Science cannot and has never shown that gods exist. Imaginary beings are an untestable concept. But in hundreds of years of scientific experiments, nothing has ever proven the existence of anything even slightly magical or supernatural, so there's no good reason to go assuming such beliefs just because ancient people believed in such.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  19. JohnC

    I can relate well to what Nick Heise quoted in the article says. Many may lack any specific religious beliefs not because they reject them as such but because there's no firm way to know which beliefs are correct. The goal of all that believe in something religious is to find truth. Truth isn't what you'd like it to be but what it really is. Just because something feels right doesn't make it so as most of us in areas outside of religion may have thought something true then later found otherwise. Without hard facts the best you can do is say that some religious thoughts seem to have a better chance of being correct but you don't know for sure. Perhaps a few lucky souls had God communicate with them in a very unambiguous way (not just a feeling which we know can be wrong) but the rest of us just don't know for sure.

    As to the comment by one saying that atheism is itself a belief I think that only true for some. Most 'atheists' are on a continuum between being agnostic (not sure) and being an atheist (sure). After all it's just as hard to prove no god as to prove there is a god but supporting evidence we see gives hints to what 'might' be correct.

    I take offense at any suggestion that being unsure is a sign that I haven't opened my mind or heart. If you're blessed to be 100% sure of your beliefs then be happy but understand others are very eager to find the truth and don't want others to push them into one direction that may in fact not be the truth. Do you all believe in alien abductions just because many have reported them and even told similar stories and it certainly seems possible - I suspect not, you want more proof.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Milton Platt

      Of course athiesm is a belief.....it just isn't a religion. It is based on what we understand about the natural world and the universe around us, rather than blind faith. That is what makes it not a religion. These beliefs are always subject to change if subsequent observation and testing prove any of them wrong.....so this constantly improves the accuracy and relative correctness of them. If that knowledge lead one to believe in one of the many gods postulated by religion, then there would be no athiests. So far, it does not.

      The problem with basing one's belief system solely on faith is that ALL religions require the exact same faith. The only thing that changes is the diety.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  20. MagicPanties

    Your so-called "new atheists" do not define themselves in negative terms.
    YOU define them that way and it is in no way justified.

    Saying I do not believe in imaginary beings does not define me as being negative, no more than saying I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I grew up would somehow make me a "negative" person.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:50 am |
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