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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    I read "recovering Catholic" as an idiom but you appeared to take it literally. I'm puzzled why you seem to assume you are automatically correct. I don't know if I'm correct or not.

    My take on "recovering Catholic" is a term used by people who were raised Catholic but now believe differently to quickly convey their history to the reader or listener in 2 words. I could be wrong but can you be certain that I am and if so, how?

    October 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  2. HamsterDancer

    Now I'm even more confused as to the author's purpose for their original article and this follow-up.

    Was the original article just an intellectual experiment? Did he pose his theme of organized religion is better than "spiritual but not religious" just to get varied reactions to use for the lecture series he did the next day? Did he actually believe what he originally wrote or was it just bait on his fishing line to get what he wanted from commenters?

    Is there a God?

    Is religion better than spiritual but not religious?

    Can God make a rock so heavy he can't lift it?

    Republican or Democrat?

    Creamy or chunky peanut butter?

    Dogs or cats?

    Fries or Onion rings?

    Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Team Edward or Jacob?

    I'm so confused....Can I go home now. This has been a rough day!

    October 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "Did he pose his theme of organized religion is better than "spiritual but not religious" just to get varied reactions to use for the lecture series he did the next day?"

      I'm sure this is partly true. The two events were linked. The article was deliberately controversial.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • ron

      miller was practically saying "create new religious laws, or go back to existing ones"

      October 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  3. Patrick Doyle

    This is why I dislike formalized religion. It's sole effect is to divide. Instead of concentrating on what we have in common, like the old testament, it polarizes the world. To me "Spiritual but not religious" is much more inclusive don't you think?

    October 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  4. hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

    Karma Sutra means nothing else but path of truth absolute, 360* sign of truth absolute GOD and hindu's divide Karma sutra or known as Had, limit in Islam, divide it into many sections to identify their hindu santan's, ignorant goon man god's, such as Christians take same hindu ignorant path of hindu's, pagans and idnetify human as son of GOD and god, saints and others, based on hinduism, racism, having nothing to do with truth absolute, GOD. visit limitisthetruth.com to learn more.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  5. lroy

    To me spiritual is worshiping on YOUR terms, when you feel like it without any form of ritual, praying by yourself. Religious is actively taking part in the community of worship (temple, synagogue, church...), praying, fasting, and doing works for the benefit of humankind.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Abdul

    I am sorry, but I would just like to mention one thing after reading all of these comments. Nothing in science proves the non-existence of god. Nothing god said or did proves the non-existence of science. Some of you people are so mind-blowingly dull that you can believe in aliens, but not someone that just tweaked the big bang to make it happen. Erm. What I wanted to say is this, and I am sorry but it is the harsh truth: For all of you that say religion is something that held science back...Please do your research. Actually science was still being discovered during the dark/middle ages just not in Europe and it was already a known fact through Ibn Battouta's writings in the middle east that the earth was not the center of the universe. For all of you who say that without religion we would be so much more scientifically advanced...Let me ask you: What have you contributed to the scientific community? or are you all socialiolgy and political science majors? Before you go to the internet and pull up that there is no god. Before you watch family guy and think we would be SOOOO advanced without religion, please just pick up a history book.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Lenny

      If it is 'the harsh truth' you will not have any problems proving it...

      I am waiting.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • ron

      it wasnt religion itself that helped advance science. it was the religious wars that forced people to look for new ways to outsmart their enemy. just like the internet- a product of the cold war.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      History is full of religion trying to erase and stem the flow of information and knowledge because it conflicts with religious dogma, look up the burning of the library of Alexandrea. It is still happening today (evolution, stem cells as examples).

      October 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • brian

      Great comment, I think that a complete rejection of the idea of a supreme god stems from a complete misunderstanding of science. There is absolutely nothing in science that prevents the existence of a "super scientist" who has a complete understanding of all natural laws and used them to create. People today understand so much more than people 5,000 years ago and could even be thought of as gods by primitive man because of all they can do. The total rejection that someone has already attained all the knowledge we are striving for is the sign of a primitive mind that rejects real progress in scientific understanding.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Tim

      'What have you contributed to the scientific community? or are you all socialiolgy and political science majors?'

      I have three published articles, two more in press, and have contributed to an international study. I teach research methods to graduate students. Not really that much I know but i have only been at it for a few years. Oh...I can also spell 'sociology' correctly. And you?

      October 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • JT

      Abdul: I dont think you are of the same faith as I. That matters not. I tend to agree with your comments in the broad sense.

      I don't associate with a mainstream religion and I believe that my faith should be proven by the actions of my living and a spiritual relationship with God.

      I also think however there is a degree of truth in the authors assertion that people are looking for a "cop out". I suggest this is in order to live as they wish with no limits or boundaries to whatever choice they will make with their lives. This essentially makes the individual "god" of his own life and therefore he is only answerable to himself.

      Taking that conclusion a little further suggests the reason in the first place why society seems to be so narcissistic, shallow, violent, extreme, selfish, disrespectful.. etc. and it comes full circle insofar that many of these attributes I mention here are those of religious extremists towards others.

      Therefore people who BELIEVE, have FAITH and WANT to acknowledge their GOD should the search and read holy scriptures and if they associate with a religion / church etc be willing to argue against the religious leaders if their reading and searching reveals wrong ways and mistruths on the part of the leaders.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  7. Mary

    STOP! My gosh, who cares? We all make a path for ourselves, and if it works, we motor on. I have chosen to take the best parts of what I learned over 13 years of Catholic teaching, i.e. the teachings of Christ (if he existed) b/c such teachings present as good and kind, and help me keep a moral center. I am not afiliated with the man made rules and regulationa of any organized religion, and believe that God (or whomever )has given me a free will. So, as Budda said, "I believe nothing, no matter who said it, unless it agrees w/ my reason and common sense." Most man made religious ruels do neither.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Grant

    Wow. "Major religions such as Christianity and Islam have proven to be nothing but damaging and vile to our world." – Dustin? I could absolutely not disagree more. Having been on the receiving end of the goodness and generosity of both of those major religions I know for a fact that "damaging and vile" are very misleading words to describe those religions. Have bad things been done by both in the past? Absolutely I wouldn't contest that. But to describe them as evil is very extreme and over dramatic. Being a devote christian I am taught by my faith to be a good man, to contribute to society and look after other people to the best of my abilities. I believe you can learn those lessons else where, but how can someone ignore the obvious good that those religions do. Maybe some actual thought about what this statement means might be enlightening to the good that both Christianity and Islam have brought to the world.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  9. NotSoProud

    Very sad that CNN gives this gentleman a pulpit to preach his beliefs. Judging by the majority, most agree he's full of himself (as well as something else)

    October 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • uglytoes

      agree with you!

      October 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  10. Maria Loi

    Wrong term used that is all, no more talk, talk about that term, if the term is changed to another word, not spiritual. The religious arena want to own that word in fact talking get no where, just sound bite. We human species are limited compare to this planet earth, nature had been around longer than us, and data or physics or math are congruing with other disciplines, down the road of learning we must enjoy, with peace of mind, claiming silence where silence is due, for happiness is still a vibration!

    October 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  11. Audience

    Dear CNN,
    If we all just agree to tell this guy that he's right will you please stop shoving his off-base, ignorant articles down our throats and linking to them from the front page?

    October 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • NotSoProud

      Thank you ! I'll even go first if I can muster the sarcasm

      October 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  12. Joe

    How is this on CNN? This is so stupid.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • RockoT

      LOL, what are you implying? That CNN is left wing, and shouldn't be running this?

      This guys position has nothing to do with politics – sigh, I know, for some people politics are religion, but keep in mind, for a lot of people that is still not true – politics and religion are separate.

      They can discuss matters like – their faith tradition/religion being of importance in their life and compare and contrast that with spiiritual but not religious – and still be a left wing media outlet.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • ron

      why does cnn allow rants like these. this author hates change.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm |

    Some one should buy this guy a dictionary to he can figure out the difference

    October 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  14. Coyolxauhqui

    Often, people that claim to be 'spiritual but not religious' are expressing that they do not have a particular religious preference but want to maintain a philosophy in which they feel that they are at least attempting to be humble, caring people that believe that there is room for personal improvement and meditation. The argumentative, at times condescending tone that the other uses puts me under the impression that Alan Miller is searching for something to believe in as well.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Coyolxauhqui


      October 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  15. :)

    The author just like everyone are putting labels on their own ideas and believing it to be correct. Yes it can be dangerous to be "spiritual but not religious" not because the ideas are flawed or have sincere intentions but being religious can be even more dangerous because people have been using religion to years and have manipulated it for their own personal means. In every religious text being taught i see personal influences of religious teachers and their ideologies creeping into religious teachings. Some influences might be positive but almost all become negative as soon as someone challenges the authority of his ideology. Like Susan B Anthony said "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." Being "spiritual not religious" remind us to take religious teachings with a pinch of salt so we can come to conclusions own our own. I consider myself a Buddhist but i am more spiritual than religious not because I believe there are flaws in Buddhist teachings but in our interpretations of teachings. I think religion has failed us in the sense it is suppose to be a moral compass to lead us to be better people. Being spiritual but not religious might look flaky from the outside but have you considered what it means to be spiritual. I am a Buddhist who questions the existence of the Buddha or a enlighten being because what makes a Buddha, who decides if someone is a Buddha or enlighten when enough people accept it we tend to go with the flow. I consider myself Buddhist because i feel a deep connection to the teachings as it questions my moral judgement makes me want to be better. If one considers oneself morally superior to another then not matter religious or spiritual we have failed. PS this is what i believe and feel free to disagree and have a great day 🙂

    October 3, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Ali P

      I like your response. I particularly identified with Susan B. Anthony's quote. I have found in the church that I attend that this is a very relevant idea. We are encouraged to pray about the truthfulness of the doctrine of the religion before we are baptized (we believe that we can receive revelation from God on this subject through feelings of the spirit) and after we have received that confirmation, we then work to undergo a change in our lives and hearts according to the doctrine of that religion. Oftentimes, the doctrines, and associated changes, are not easy because they are contrary to my natural desires. However, because I have received a revelation regarding the truthfulness of that doctrine I work to change my desires in favor of gaining knowledge of an individual who knows more than I do (namely God). My point is, that some of the spiritualism that I see some people exhibit does not require change because there are no set values. They don't seem to recognize that there is truth and just because they don't feel good about it, doesn't mean that it is isn't true. We are here to change and it appears that many forms of spiritualism don't promote that. This is the opinion of someone from the outside and I don't mean this offensively. Just a point of view that I would like some feedback on.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  16. tony

    No god has showed itself in the last 13 Billion or so years. So who cares what this idiot thinks.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  17. Nightowl

    Miller is an idiot. He lost me when he inserted "Karma Sutra" in between The Bhagavad Gita – the ancient Indian spiritual text that is followed by a huge number of poeple and The Qur'an – the one that is followed by about another billion odd folks.
    1) There is no "Karma Sutra" and 2) If he meant "Kama sutra" – the definitive book of physical intimacy, he may be surprised to find Aethists and other 'wishywashy folks' who actually agree with its 'teachings'... 🙂

    October 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • UsedLogic

      Miller once again makes sweeping generalizations about the make-up of the "spiritual but not religious" population. Here's an idea – most Catholics believe in the same basic scripters/rituals/etc. Most Muslims blelieve in the same. People who are not tied to any organized religion may range from Atheism to a full belief in a Christian God. There isa huge spectrum of beliefs and trying to generalize is just makes you look like a joke. Again.

      And you say you are not religious – then how would describe yourself?

      October 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  18. Abdullo

    she has unusually long spiritual hands. I am feeling little jealous of her. They need to put a religious and spiritual picture of me, a construction worker with hardhat.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Snoop Lion

      LOL - good observation...she looks like Dhalsim from Street Fighter

      October 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  19. naturechaplain

    Interesting to me how the author continues to dance right passed some realities. What I find disturbing is that he claims to not be religious while showing some ignorance about what a freethinker or even atheist really is. Yes, there are angry and constipated atheists, just as there are in believing circles. But the point is that there is another alternative to religious or spiritual, and the author doesn't really seem to take that viable, positive, reasonable alternative seriously.
    The author cannot seem to acknowledge that there are honest (and yes, positive) people who have simply chosen to let go of the super-natural in favor of the natural cosmos. When he quotes the comment on the "faith" and the "devotion" of non-believers, he simply plays into the hand of those who want to make everything about faith. As a freethinker who used to be a Christian Minister, it seems most reasonable to accept that some believe and some do not. Now, what do we do about it? How do we build communities and do what needs to be done? I may be a non-believer but that doesn't mean I am "anti" reasonable collaboration.

    October 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  20. MrMumbles

    Why is this even on the front page of CNN? Like the last one?

    October 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      because it generates controversy. 1,000 posts and counting since last night!

      Mo' controversy, mo' key clicks. Mo' key clicks, mo' money.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Hugo

      Because CNN, like most "newspapers" isn't really in the news business. They are in the advertising business.

      Google isn't in the technology business. Google is in the advertising business.
      Facebook isn't in the social media business. Facebook is in the advertising business.

      See a theme?

      October 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
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