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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    This actually spawned a blog post on my blog:


    October 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Huebert

      No one cares about your blog.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Amniculi


      October 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  2. schizo

    I don't believe in God because I cannot see him. But I believe in luck, fate, the phrase "meant to be", and the meaning of life (even if evolution is an accident).

    October 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      You must be a hindu, insane, unable to sense truth absolute in life, THE GOD. Are you living or a hindu, dead.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  3. JFCanton

    @ hawaiiguest: 'What is deep about being taught "God wants this, so do it." To obey and not question is a hallmark of many religions, christianity being highly prominent in that regard.'

    I quoted two sources that cannot possibly give you that takeaway. Televangelists, yes. Poor interpretations of Luther, yes. *People themselves* ask for that to be the way in which religious knowledge. You're finding fault in the wrong location.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      I'm talking about the religion, not the people, which is what the person you responded to first was talking about. Spouting off names doesn't actually address the topic.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      I'm talking about religions, so spouting off random people doesn't address the topic.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • JFCanton

      They're not random people; one is the source of pretty much all present-day Catholic doctrine, and the other is a kinda-radical yet dogmatically-approved mystic. They DO matter because they are the substance, same as the self-determination that might be the atheist ideal.

      The things that you need to criticize to make your case are instances of practice... same as an atheist who might talk a great game, but because of bad execution end up with three divorces and HepC.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      And how did they justify those doctrines? Gods will. God wants this, so do it. It's still within that very thing I said. There's nothing deep about "god want this, so do it".

      October 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Actually Aquinas' primary justification-*certainly* anything as clear cut as you should do this or shouldn't do that-was through Aristotelian methods.

      Which could still be wrong... but as a body of coherent thought it's much less wrong than that of the average Richard Dawkins aficionado who has probably 10% of the education in philosophy that it took to make Bertrand Russell. If 10%, given the state of public schools...

      October 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Do you have any kind of source for his methods?

      Upon what basis do you determine Aquinas was "less wrong" than anyone else, and in what area?

      October 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • JFCanton

      A library? Wikipedia? This is practically the exact opposite of controversial...

      You set a very high bar by declaring that God's will is the foundation of a particular religious teaching. The minimum possible positive outcome (depending on how you intend to formulate success) for your argument is if 50% of Aquinas' arguments boil down to something or other being God's will. That isn't the case. Even for a pretty bad religious teacher like a televangelist, you'd probably be pushing it to get 50% (though they will try, I'm sure).

      October 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Congratulations on not answering any of my questions or addressing any of my points. Not to mention pulling more percentages out of your ass.

      October 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  4. Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)

    The word Spiritual is based on Latin word 'spiritus' Se, Sa, or, Tu, Te meaning breathing truth Absolute, not Theen Allah, foul smell of gutter, corruption of spirituality, denier of truth absolute. For more visit FakeSpiritualClaimsofTheenA.com and click on NotNavi to open file.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  5. Eric P

    "new atheists". You can almost see the scornful, mocking expression on the author's face whenever he writes those words. Congratulations on reverting to Name-calling to support your arguments. I can only assume the "new" is an inimical swipe at the ephemeral nature of people that contrast your world-view. Whatever helps you sleep at night, chief.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Actually this "new atheist" definition is abundantly unclear to me. "Atheist" I understand. What is "new"?

      New as in recent?
      New as in a new kind of atheism. (I must have missed a memo, I didn't realize there was any doctrine.)
      New as in Dawkins'/Hitchens' kind of atheism?
      New as in millenials leaving home and their parents' affilliations?

      October 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • ron

      maybe he is referring to this definition by wikipedia:

      New Atheism is the name given to the ideas promoted by a collection of 21st-century atheist writers who have advocated the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises."[1]

      The term is commonly associated with individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (together called "the Four Horsemen of New Atheism" in a 2007 debate they held on their criticisms of religion, a name that has stuck)[2] and Victor J. Stenger.[3] Several best-selling books by these authors, published between 2004 and 2007, form the basis for much of the discussion of New Atheism

      October 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      thanks. That helps. I was not familiar with the reference.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  6. EnjaySea

    This man's book details a vacuous argument. He has summarized his moot views, regarding a non-existent problem, in order to sell a book.

    Move along folks. There's nothing to see here.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      What book?

      October 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Right. I guess when I saw him referred to as an author I assumed there was a book somewhere about this. I guess he's selling his "Event". Either way, this is about money, not logic.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  7. Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)

    @hinduism by Judaism

    Theen ism, absurdity of a fat Mullah, ID thief.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  8. Ben

    Has the author ever considered that perhaps one reason that so many people are 'spiritual but not religious' is that they are taking some time to figure out how things work on their own, instead of blindly taking someone else's word for it? If people had never done that we would still be living in caves and listening to our relatives tell us how impossible it is for humans to create fire.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Rebecca

      "Has the author ever considered that perhaps one reason that so many people are 'spiritual but not religious' is that they are taking some time to figure out how things work on their own, instead of blindly taking someone else's word for it? "

      Wait a minute, that is exactly what Christianity is doing by blindly taking the writers of the bible's word for it, then judging others based on those words.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • JFCanton

      On the other hand, if we didn't accept *some* knowledge as given, we would ALSO still be living in caves.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Evidence for that?

      October 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Heard of reinventing the wheel?

      October 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  9. JL

    I think the ideas of spiritual and religious are two different paths determined by what questions you are seeking answers to (who am I? who is God? what is life? where am I? what happens when I die?). If answers are really being sought to these questions, as opposed to just association and feeling good, I think one naturally then manifests the other, and will hopefully lead to the irresistible but highly difficult outcome of selflessness. The selfless person, who is both the real spiritual person and the real religious person, and who is also neither, would not pass judgment much less be concerned with what is spiritual and what is religious.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      nicely stated

      October 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  10. Good News


    Blood of Jesus
    Water of Jesus

    Your choice – 2oz and 4oz decorative gold bottles
    (good through 10/31/2012)


    October 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • .

      All hail Mithra!

      October 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Authenticated by hindu Chief of hindu Mithra ism, savior ism called Christianity.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Good News

    There is only one real GOD
    who has created His book of Universe and His book of Religion
    in a perfectly parallel manner
    based on this same 19 coded, Symmetrical most Superb "Mathematical Language!"

    So all those who want to recognize this one and only real GOD above
    and thus start their own individual and spiritual relationships with Him (without having to join any organized religion)
    MUST see this here:



    October 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Tom

      All hail Zeus! The one GOD.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Amniculi

      What about the rest of the Olympic pantheon?

      October 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Huebert


      They didn't make it past the qualifying rounds.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Jose

      All praise Juno and Jupiter our heavenly mother and father.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Amniculi

      That's too bad. I was really rooting for Dionysis.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Huebert


      He failed the drug test.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I was always keen on Athena.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  12. Self Help Religion

    Like the Catholic Church, Miller prefers that people cultivate a 'dependence' – a 'need' for his expertise, as an indispensable intermediary, if you want salvation. The invention of the Gutenberg Press and the Internet have been traumatically unsettling for the Catholic Church and ant-self-help control freaks like Miller. Suddenly they find they are not the center of the Solar System, the World does not revolve around them, and their significance on the planet is reduced to the size of any other being of ordinary significance. That's like plummeting from the top of the Empire State Building without a parachute. A colossal Ego dump.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  13. injundesi


    October 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  14. 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 3:23 pm |
    • Henry

      "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."

      You've been watching too much tv, why don't you try turning it off and actually become an active member of your community, then you'd find out how wrong you are.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • JT

      Henry: You apparently don't understand my point – thats OK. By the way I HAVE NOT GOT A TV anyway.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  15. Self Help Religion

    Will this site publish a comment with more than 2 words?

    October 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Self Help Religion

      apparently not

      October 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  16. ron

    miller, what made you think that people who maintain religious affiliations are better people than those who gave them up?

    October 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Henry

      Based on his articles, it would appear he believes that if people don't chose an organized religion society will collapse into anarchy due to people having independent thoughts...and also the zombie apocalypse will start.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  17. palintwit

    Repeated studies have shown that there is a greater incidence of child molestation and incest among southern white evangelical christians than in any other group that participated in the study. Living in cramped quarters (such as trailer parks) is one of the main causes of perverted behavior among christians. Those requiring further proof need only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The abundance of toothless christian cretins you will see are a direct result of generations of inbreeding. Historians have long theorized that the south lost the civil war because of the many mentally challenged soldiers in the Confederate army, also a result of this inbreeding.
    Oddly enough, many of these christian misfits make their way north or west where they can be found working in gas stations and car washes. And yes, some do end up in Congress on the republican side of the aisle. And some end up in mainstream cinema, appearing in such classics as Deliverance, Smokey and The Bandit and the Dukes of Hazzard.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  18. Person of Interest

    I think the issue here is people are automatically pigeon-holing people in one category or another (atheist or believer). I'm agnostic. I was born into a Catholic family and I did in fact "grow out of it." My adolescent years I learned about science and my life experience at that point showed me the many hypocrisies involved in Catholism made me decide that what they teach isn't something I believe. I still believed in God at that point.

    By the time I was 24 I realized that all of the Christian religions (and pretty much all organized religions in general) preach similar things. From what I know of science there is no way to prove or disprove God. Everyone has faith in something: God, Themselves, the Human Spirit, etc. in that way I think we are all spiritual but not necessarily religious. So I've grown out of my religion by I have faith in the human spirit/will can accomplish great things. I don't know if anything happens after we die, I don't know if there is a God or not. But I can respect spiritual nature of people and of beliefs but completely not respect the overarching organization behind it.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  19. Just Saying

    I used to cop out behind spirituality. I can now look back and say with shame that it was because I didn't want to conform my speck of the world to the image of God's Son, Jesus Christ. For all of those who still say they are spiritual, where do you think your spirit comes from? I believe my spirit was given to me by God. And for that, I believe I owe him my life. I guess that makes me "religious" within this argument. But I feel that "religious" has terrible meaning in our society because of fanatics who do insane things under the name of religion. Being religious about God and using religion to promote your own agenda are two radically different concepts.

    October 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

      Truth absolute has no son, daughter or etc, calling other wise is hinduism, absurdity of hindu Jew's, criminal self centered.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)

      @hinduism by Judaism

      Theen Allah ism, absurdity of a fat Mullah, ID thief, ignorant goon.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Audience

      I used to cop out behind Christianity until I realized I was wasting my life and giving myself an excuse to put off living real life in hopes of a better after- one, as well as not taking enough responsibility for my own life and actions–or lack thereof.

      October 3, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  20. Self Help Religion

    Not really

    October 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
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