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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    The greatest scam of all time was invented when someone whipped up the "need" to define a purpose for life.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Nothing is without a reason, purpose in universe, every thing is part of system subordinated to truth absolute, open your hindu ignorant mind to see truth of truth absolute, hindu, owl of hindu darkened cave.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  2. Lenny

    Alan Miller,

    You're still missing the point. It isn't about whether or not a universal truth exists, it is about individual understanding of truth. I suspect that you will never be able to understand the difference.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  3. nimitta

    Mr. Miller, your views are astonishingly myopic. For example, you disdain the notion that atheists are disadvantaged just as we're all in the midst of countless local and national political campaigns where no candidate anywhere stands a chance unless s/he presents some sort of religious bona fides. Furthermore, you alleged in your article that today's spiritual seekers abandon their religious upbringing beause they're "anti-discipline and anti-challenge" – apparently failing to notice that the founders of today's great religion did exactly the same thing. You try spending 40 days & nights in the desert like Jesus, Mr. Miller, or 6 years practicing yogic asceticism like the Buddha! Not every seeker today is as deeply committed as they appear to have been 2000 years ago, but that was true then as well. Today, many of us have gone far beyond the 'challenges' of Sunday or Saturday morning religiosity and logged thousands of hours in meditative practice. Put that in your collection plate...

    October 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • stillthinking

      he actually charges people 1000 to 5000 dollars to hear him preach to them – yet he is not religious.
      he does not say whether he is spiritual or not – but yet he freely mocks himself either way.
      and cnn sponsors this? As a corporate sponsored article?
      what is he trying to do?
      see if it is really ok by the 'people' to degrade a religious group even though there are laws against doing so – he even says he thinks these people have no moral code – so i suppose he thought they would not follow laws like him?
      what gives?

      October 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  4. UNK

    Spirituality is for people a little smartrer than those with religion, but still comppletely idiotic a

    October 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  5. not_religious_not_spiritual

    Actually, I was trying to come up with some way of describing it without insulting anyone. I could have said I wasn't interested in Tasmanian cooking. I was raised religiously and with a father who is interested in professional sports. I am not somehow anti-professional-sports and am not hostile to those who are interested in professional sports, or religion either. It just has no part in my life.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  6. Wrenn_NYC

    Now I kinda wish I'd headed down to that meeting last night.

    There's a two fold issue here And the main one seems to be that the author of this (and the original piece) wants to pigeonhole people as X. (insert name of organized religion here). And by people like those he seems to be complaining about 'Spritual but not religious' saying such a thing, he cannot do that. You have to actually take the time to figure out..ask.. what that individual believes in. And why.

    And defining those with an identifiable organized relgion (and those who identify with one) as 'positive' and those without (or atheist) as 'negative'... value judgement on his part. Opinion. Yes, Atheism falls around the negative statement of 'I do not believe there is a god'. But defining atheists themselves as negative... for whatever his reasoning.. I don't get it. Many people who have walked away from organized religion, whether they now be 'spritual' or 'atheist' left because they felt that the organization was negative. It was the positive, and for them, life affirming action, leaving.

    And he totally seems to side step the whole idea that people leaving organized religions, figuring out what they believe in (spiritual, not religious) are looking for something like religion. and many a religion has had it's seeds in such a step away, think about, move on set of actions. Many of the now (probably) accepted/acceptable to him religions today started that way.

    Finally this whole – as someone above stated 'why do we need to choose a side' an organized religion'? - why, – so he can pigeonhole you. That's why. For whatever reasons he wants to, for good or ill. The 'spritual but not religious' person... to know what they think and believe you have to get to know them, ask, learn their belief. But a Catholic? or a Jew? you know right off what they are. (yes, there was sarcasm involved with the last bit).

    October 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  7. Rob

    Had enough of this clown already... 99% of the comments were totally against his "views" on the subject. And now, he probably feels compelled to heal is bruised ego by saying stuff like " I'm not religious" ... yeah, right, whatever. You've wasted enough of peoples time on this blog...

    October 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      hindu Atheism, filthy self center ism, otherwise known as hindu Judaism, filthy self center ism, denial of truth absolute, essence of existence is of hindu's, ignorant s, having nothing to do with truth absolute GOD. for more visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word Choice on website to open file.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Rob

      @hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism

      You retarded or something? you're not making a shred of sense. Is that English you're trying to spit?

      October 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  8. pat

    I am spiritual,not religious. By that I mean there is no such thing as the human soul, our consciousness ends when our brain stops working, nothing about existence was "meant to be," and good and evil, right and wrong are nothing more than human opinion and are in no way absolute. In that sense, I am spiritual, not religious.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Do you believe in "God" or a "higher power"? If not, that sounds like atheism to me.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Daniel

      So if someone harms you, or your family, whether by violence or some other infraction, they
      have done nothing wrong? If it us under the opinion of the perpetrator that he is just acting of
      what he "feels is right for him" he did nothing wrong? I bet something inside you would tell you
      something very different. So why get mad if someone steals from you, or someone murders..
      because there is no thing as right and wrong. Also, the deeds of Hitler, Stalin, Manson, etc.. did
      they not commit any type of wrong as well? See the danger in the thinking of the atheistic view?
      Or your definition of spiritual.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      People like him are defined as hindu's, criminals and their way of life is defined as hinduism, illegality defined by hindu Judaism, criminal secularism,

      October 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • pat

      Daniel – I pay my taxes and follow the laws of the land because I am a member of a species that has a high degree of social organization and as such, I am most co-operative. Harm my family and find out the consequences. Daniel – if a lion takes an antilope, is it right or wrong. Your answer to that question is nothing more than human opinion and if you call something evil, well that is just human opinion in the strongest sense.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Amniculi

      David, you are implying that morality is dependent upon religion, which is not true. Morality is defined by the society in which you live and by human relationships.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Amniculi


      October 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  9. Matt

    Let's all google "define:spiritual." The irony is beautiful.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  10. shoos

    I feel this article is just a way to justify the author's paycheck. I read it, but have lost interest in his point of view, it's self serving, moving on to other things.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  11. Daniel

    In the bottom part of the article.. justagirl_78 had it completely wrong when
    throwing out the made up fact that religion has caused more death than
    any organization in the world.. actually look at the atheist based views of
    Mao ze-dong (up to 78,000,000 dead.. maybe more.. Joseph Stalin 6,000,000 dead,
    Hitler 12,000,000 dead (nazi views stem from athiesim) Pol Pot 1,700,000 dead
    And the list can go on and on. These people had goverments and ideas based
    from athiestic views. Come on people.. and the people that have killed in the name
    of God.. Im sorry.. they may claim to be Christian by their mouths.. but not in action.
    Yes people.. religion will let you down every single time... But i promise you.. Jesus
    Christ never will.. The last thing Jesus came to do was to start a new religion. He came
    to show us life.. reality.. real raw life.. He came to bring the spirtual dead back to life.

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

      Get an education... a real one that is... not from the Flat earth society. Religion HAS caused more evil than all the other human concepts put together.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Hitler was a self-proclaimed Christian and Germany was a Christian country. In the USSR and Cambodia, as well as other communist countries, the communist ideology itself was the religion with their political leaders acting in the place of gods. If you are a god, why believe in another? Stop spreading this horrible nonsense.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • waltm

      i wholeheartedly agree. there is a certain level of arrogance that comes w/ the i'm not religious but spiritual. it still puts a person in a "i'm better than you" posture. ironic...the very thing that is designed to free a person from "religion" makes them religious. it also calls for a denial of all the evil atheism has done.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • mk

      All these you mentioned killed for the benefit of themselves, not in the name of some god or religion.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Those dictators acted to get power, and religion competed with them for power. They did not kill because they were atheist. And if religion makes a person more moral your argument should not consist of, "well they did it too".

      If Jesus did not want to start a new religion he screwed up big time. So much for him being omnipotent.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I will give you props for (at the very least) not inflating the statistics for 20th century 'death by despotism' the way some other posters here do.

      Atheism and despotism are not causally linked. Communism is a failed policy for so many reasons – not just official atheism. The good Catholic King of Belgium Leopold II, caused around 8,000,000 people to die in the Belgian Congo around the turn of the 20th century.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Mickey

      The age old argument that atheits have killed morepeople than christians is pretty lame. You cant blame communism for the death when convienant and then blame it on atheists when also convienant. Those were violent dictators that were manipulated by drugs and paranoia. Hitler was christian BTW. look at any atheist free thinkers today and they are all peaceful

      October 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      yours is an interesting observation. Any group can be accused of being smug and sanctimonious when they feel like they have cornered the market on truth.

      The believers level this charge at atheists all the time, which is something I find highly ironic.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Jon

      Please dig a bit deeper into history.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  12. T.L.O'Connell II

    Just one problem ( of many) that I have with organised religions is , why would an all powerful being need servents? Any why would this all powerful being not have the other animals follow its rules? If all creatures did at one time follow this beings rules then why were they punished when 2 humans disobeyed these rules? Organised religions create more questions than answers. I do believe that there are universal truths that we should govern ourselves by. I do believe that we have and ever liveing spirt ( energy ) that continues after our bodies have turned back to stardust. And that is it. No mumbojumbo needed. That is why I consider myself as spiritual and not religious.

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

      If everything was controlled by an all-powerful being, no faith would be required.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  13. Jwalter

    http://thespiritscience.net/, check it out. You might be surprised.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  14. Mitch

    Means you can cut bait but can't quite fish.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  15. Art

    It's quite simple, really. The "I'm spiritual but not religious" is reflective of a culture that is more and more self absorbed.

    It represents worship of the great 'EM EE" rather than the great "I AM".

    October 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Amniculi

      I see it as a step in the right direction, i.e. the dissolution of organized religion leading to the downfall of religion as a whole.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Bleh...

      The childish interpretation that being an atheist means I only believe in myself and everything I do is motivated by personal greed is laughable at best.
      On the other hand, god is the very definition of "self absorbed". Creates universe in order to be worshipped by his creations? No thanks....

      October 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      It is quite simple. Simple minds need the crutch of higher supernatural powers to maske their fear of death. Some minds are complex enough to realize religion is hogwash, yet are night intelligent enough to escape the folly of believing in magic and fairy tales. These people stretch great lengths to create their own narratives in which the supernatural magically becomes possible: alien abduction, crystal healing, out-of-body-experiences, tai chi, acupuncture, astrology, haunted houses, etc. It's nothing more than a replacement for the vacuum left by religion and childhood indoctrination into anti-scientific beliefs.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  16. Atheism is for everyone

    Let me correct JustAGirl_78, atheists do not "strongly believe in no god." Strongly suggests that it is a personal preference or a want. I don't believe, I know that there is no evidence to support such ridiculous claims and therefore will not believe that there is a god. Should god come down and show us different or we discover evidence supporting a supernatural existence I might change my mind.

    Otherwise I can say that you are religious about your "strong belief that unicorns do not exist." See how that doesn't make sense.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Atheism, self center ism, denial of truth absolute is of animals, not of human

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

      Absolute truth? LOL what a load of horse feces!

      October 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  17. ernestb88

    You still don't get it. Good to know that you still think you're right and will defend your swiss-cheese like beliefs to the end. It fits in with your "take a side" mentality from the first article.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  18. DZoolander87

    It's clear that Alan Miller is a self-proclaimed intellectual who can't fathom that other people can accept the fact they do not know the answer to something and thus proclaim as such. On the contrary, these “spiritual but not religious” thinkers are being prudent in stating they have observed nothing in this physical world that can prove or disprove the existence or non-existence of God and therefore, wisely, they acknowledge this. Mr. Miller seems to be agitated by these proclamations of acceptance of not-knowingness. It is a shrewder person that can accept they do not understand fully the answer to a question as large as the existence of a higher power based on their experiences and observations. He claims “Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide,” when, in fact, many have thought hard their entire lives and come to accept the fact they do not have the answer. Alan Miller, unwisely, seems to be unable to accept that he doesn’t understand something. Simply saying that you believe there is something beyond this world, while at the same time accepting you don’t know exactly what that is, does not make your stance any less valid than one of the two options Mr. Miller claims you must take. So, I say let him claim your position is invalid, it makes no difference to you.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  19. Glenn

    Spirituality has benefits when you consider meditation and what not . Religion is a myth and filled with hypocrisy .

    October 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • therealpeace2all


      Meditiation... is a valuable 'practice' where one can derive many benefits, regardless of religious belief or no.


      October 3, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  20. PeterD

    Liberal Medias are Neither Religious nor Spirituals People. They are all Opportunists.and Liars.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Right to call them Jew's, self centered, secular, deniers of truth absolute, defined perfectly with word pig, meaning self centered.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • suckItUp

      With the blatant and outright lies that come from your side of the aisle, oh hypocritical imbecile, that statement is rich in irony.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Michael

      Apparently Peter thinks that it's the epitome of truth when the hacks at faux news intentionally splice together footage from new and old Tea Party rallies in order to mislead people into thinking that their numbers are more significant than they actually are.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      As are all partisan f-nuts, peter....join the crowd

      October 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      so by implication, you believe Rupert Murdoch is a holy man?


      October 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
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