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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    Such total nonsense. Alan is just an embarrassment and I am surprised CNN gave space to this absurdity. The ONLY danger in rejecting organize religion is to the organized religions – they stand to lose money and drones. That's nothing but a good thing – organized religion and their twisted, perverted dogma have done far, FAR more damage through the years than they have done good. They – organized religions – should go the way of the dinosaurs and the sooner the better. Squirm all you want, Alan. It must be a bit rough to have nearly 8000 people tell you you are full of poo...

    October 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • ME II

      But aren't you conflating religion with 'organized religion'?

      October 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • LLR

      The real question is if there actually is such a thing as "disorganized religion." Wouldn't you have to throw out the Bible, Torah and Qur'an because they are the products of organized religion and serving as the const.itutions of others? The people who claim to be religious mavericks still claim to base their beliefs in scripture, while the real inventors of new, radical beliefs tend to be called "Cult leaders." Are there any positive, really unaffiliated religious people out there?

      October 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Willyboy

      ME II – No, I am not.

      LLR – Yes. Yes there are positive, really unaffiliated religious people out here...

      October 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • sbstr

      Actually LLR, yes there is definitely "disorganized" "religion", depending on your definition of religion. At a very macro level, Hinduism is one such.

      October 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  2. sbstr

    Those who argue that atheists are just followers of another religion are positively silly. Their argument is like someone asking a foreigner as which state he was from, when told he is not an American, arguing that, then he *must* be an American who is not from an American state, but an American none the less.

    Atheists are not religious, get over it. For a vast majority of rational atheists, religion is completely irrelevant.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Miller Time

      I know...it is ridiculous

      October 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Miller Time

      GREAT! I am still on here.... FML x 9000

      October 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • LLR

      On the converse, all religious people alive today are also atheists to a degree unless they believe that every god that has ever been worshipped are all equally real. Christians use to be called "atheists" by the Roman authorities because they didn't worship the state gods. When asked there are very few who can articulate why their God is any more believable than any other god, and many will dismiss all other gods for exactly the same reasons why we dismiss all gods including theirs. We are far more alike than they would like to admit; just one small step (god) away, really.

      October 3, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  3. Miller Time

    I have wasted my day on these boards....I have so much work to do.....FML

    October 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  4. Irrational Exuberance

    "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."

    Nice straw man, if we are furious over anything it is over many religions (most prominently Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) getting a pass for past actions saying, 'well they are okay now'. I think disgusted is a better term.

    For the sake of argument let's as.sume they are. It is only because they turned away from their old activities. But at the same time they still hold fast to their dogma which they had used to justify their old actions. They haven't changed their dogma, just their ever malleable interpretation of it.

    Religion is not held up by faith in *a* being, but in a specific being, one which religion defines for the theist. Religion seeks to tell them how it thinks, and what it values. Among those religions any investigation into just what kind of being that is should disgust a person who is against rap.e, gen.ocide, or slav.ery. All of which their god has a pretty close relationship with.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  5. Irrational Exuberance

    "New atheists define themselves in negative terms, as not believing without any broader sense of a positive alternative,"

    I'm also a a-basketballer, I don't play the sport, my not playing basketball does not demand I define myself by playing a different sport. The as.sertion that being atheist means I must define myself in some other way begs the question, it implies the default is being defined by belief and adherence to a particular religion, and absent such an adherence we must replace it with something equitable. Sorry, doesn't work that way. Simply saying I don't have a belief clarifies fully. I don't have a belief in a deity, it is simply non-belief. When it comes to particular deities I often have disbelief, where I actively reject their notions as absurd.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  6. monkfish

    Miller's first article on this topic was a valid editiorial expression of a point of view. Readers were free to either agree or disagree with that point of view.

    This second article, however, is just nonsense. Miller is at once defensive and on the attack, and seems unable to accept that someone might disagree with his stance. He claims not to be religious, but he is coming across very much like a fundamentalist - unwilling or unable to accepting a point of view that doesn't align with his own.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      agreed. The response appeared very quickly – the day following the panel discussion in NYC. It is all over the map. I think this demonstrates that it was written too hastily.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • LLR

      Yet another Conservative who should have quit while they still had something left instead of doubling down on the stupid things he's said. They're so arrogant in their stance that they just can't imagine how someone could not want to just yell "AMEN!" to whatever comes out of their mouths.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  7. Christiana Gaudet

    And here's more:

    In his rebuttal to his commenters, Miller suggests it is inappropriate that atheists feel oppressed in the United States. While I am not atheist, I do feel for those who must handle money with the "God" word stamped on it, and who must endure a presidential election where the biggest issue seems to be how many times the word "God" is cited in the party platform. I feel for my fellow citizens who must follow laws passed to appease a god in which they have no belief.

    If God is real, then God is everywhere. God is in our hearts, in our minds, and in our homes. God is only in our churches when we allow God to be in our churches. Whether identified as God, Goddess, Spirit, Higher Power or Flying Spaghetti Monster, our ability to connect with Higher Power is enhanced when we seek Higher Power in the way that resonates in our own hearts and minds. The unity we find in that is greater than any dogma, or any one scripture. That unity is incorruptible, unlike our priests and churches.

    If God is real, then God is present where I have felt God to be present – at drum circles, tarot study groups, music festivals, Pagan rituals, kirtan, yoga class, the mountains and the beach. God is big enough to be in all those places, and more.

    It is a very small god who is available only in a church.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      perhaps you could connect your related posts using the reply feature?


      October 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      I can't speak for all atheists, but as for me, the money issue is almost a non-issue, except in principal within the constitutionality of the thing. I don't really even think about it, I'm more worried about zealots wanting to revise history, codify their religion into law while spitting on our constitution, and try to force me to obey the laws of their immoral religions.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • ME II

      I agree with HawaiiGuest for the most part, on a day to day basis, it means very little.However, I still think it is wrong for it to be there and it lends "emotional currency", without actual currency, of course, to the 'christian nation' argument. I wish I didn't have to point out how recent the addition was quite so often.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  8. Chaotician

    Religion is one of the worse things created by man, while spiritual practices provide some of the greatest benefit! If one was to plan a thing to destroy mankind...religion and its attendant ignorance, surrender of will, acceptance of priestly babble and intolerance would be the probable choice! From this evil springs the myriad horsemen of destruction of body and spirit!

    October 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  9. hinduism by Judaism self center ,secularism source of hindu filthy hinduism, racism.

    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 4:29 pm |
    • schizo

      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 4:31 pm |
  10. enderwi

    Religion was an evolutionary tool, helping ancient societies organize their people. It is outdated and is of course scientifically meaningless. Spirituality is an even more worthless nonsense of people who need create their own fantasies out of thin air and pretend that they matter. Smarter people, who don't need bogus crutches to explain the world around them, are usually neither religious nor spiritual.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  11. Christiana Gaudet

    From my blog post in response to this, in part:

    Miller suggests that since literacy, art and music were influenced so strongly by early Christianity, had there not been Christianity we would have no literacy, art or music today.

    Um, how does this make any sense at all? As humans, we are creative by nature. If not inspired by the Christian religion, I am sure we would have found something else to fan our creative fires. If I remember my history correctly, the artists, musicians and writers of the time were limited to Christian subject matter under pain of death. Perhaps we would have an even greater creative heritage had those limitations not existed.

    In those who identify as spiritual, Miller finds self-absorption and lack of commitment. I must admit I have known quite a few self-absorbed yoginis, but I have also known some self-absorbed Christians.

    Miller sees this new spirituality as a therapy to help people feel better, rather than a commitment to something greater. My question to him is this. Isn't healing something greater? Isn't the commitment to heal ourselves, heal each other and heal the planet the bottom line? Didn't Jesus send his own followers to heal the sick?

    October 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Chaotician

      LOL one supposes the poor man has not seen the art of the rest of the world... and frankly christian "inspired" works of arts are a very poor expression of the artists skills! The blood and gore, the inhumanity and the insanity of christian iconography, the twisted perverted minds of the leaders of the Church and its successors... how much better would the art be by these magnificient masters if their inspiration was for an enlightened confident, independent responsible person?

      October 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  12. SDFrankie

    Mr Miller,
    It's easy to make statements for the "new atheists". But I don't think Richard Dawkins would define himself negatively. I'm pretty sure he'd say he supports rationality, the scientific process, empiricism, logic. In fact I find it difficult to believe that you don't know that. I suggest you keep working this little strawman scam you've got going with CNN and stay away from any debates with any actual "New Atheists".

    October 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  13. Jersey Jake

    I used to mock religion and I used the same arguments already made on here about all of the cruelty in the world that has happened "In the name of" religion, but here is what I believe today. I am not religious, I wouldn't say I am spiritual either. I treat people the way I want to be treated because it is the right thing to do, not because I am afraid of the consequences or because of my spirituality. Now with that said, if being religious or spiritual makes you a better human being to others, than keep doing it, because it is working just fine for you! If it makes you more hateful and judgmental and close minded, then maybe you should try something else.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • ron

      amen, bro! well except for the little fact that hateful fundamentalists (whether christians or muslims or whatever) lose the capacity to realize that they have become that way.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  14. Lenore-

    This writer offends me. He should watch all the Joseph Campbell lectures, seminars DVDs. That's all that needs to be said.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      even following your bliss should lead *somewhere*.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  15. ron

    miller speaks of 20 years worth of observation.

    my 20 years of observation tells me:

    1. most christians are NEITHER spiritual nor religious.

    2. most other people, believer or not, are neither spiritual nor religious.

    3. most muslims are religious but not spiritual. like praying 5x a day just because they are expected to do so.

    and then miller would complain about those very few who claim to be spiritual and not religious. cnn should cut off ties with this guy. cnn doesnt deserve his trashy opinions.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  16. Freethinker

    You can be spiritual without being religious. Connecting to God and living a spiritual life does not require a man made rule book.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • T-Max73

      It does, however, require the suspension of your critical faculties. Peace.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  17. Jokesterer

    Think like I do or you'll burn in hell.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Jokesterer

      And I think I'll have another.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  18. Jinki Mahi

    Who wrote "Religion is man-made." And that's what religion is. Being spiritual has nothing to do with religion. I am spiritual if I'm in tune with my senses and my conscience, recognizing what I believe will make me a better person.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • ME II

      Not that I agree or disagree, but how does being "in tune with my senses and my conscience," make one spiritual.
      Aren't senses and conscience (i.e. thoughts) real, demonstrable things?

      October 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  19. Stop7997

    Spiritual people work to end wars. Religious people start them.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • spectraprism

      consider this liked, since there is no chance to do it on this board.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  20. cafeteria

    The behavior is also known as pick-n-choose, a la carte, cafeteria, etc. The point is that you kinda believe, but are too lazy to actually follow the rules or practice the beliefs of the religion. It's sort of like you believe in democracy but you don't want to vote, don't want to be a juror, don't do your civic duties. It's just another form of being a slacker. Most Americans are slackers. That's why it's a popular statement: spiritual but not religious.

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


      I agree with you. This was indeed the premise of the original article. It got a lot of people's knickers in a twist.

      The truth hurts.

      I do think that people on a genuine journey of spiritual exploration will ultimately adopt a strong belief (or unbelief). To not pursue the journey to that point is the cop out.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Amniculi

      I would wager that a miniscule percentage of those claiming to be religious follow all the rules and beliefs of their religion.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " The point is that you kinda believe, but are too lazy to actually follow the rules or practice the beliefs of the religion."

      Or it means that one doesn't have all the answers, under stands this, tries not to answer the unanswerable, and lives their life in spirituality.

      " It's sort of like you believe in democracy but you don't want to vote"

      I believe in democracy but I dont vote. Why? Because our voting system is messed up. Has nothing to do with "following the rules". It has nothing to do with me being a slacker. Far from it. It means I look at things with an open mind instead of blindly following the herd.

      But you would rather live an easy life being told what to believe from a book written by a bunch of ancient men used to control people then edited by more men for power and money. I'd rather come up with my own conclusions on life, the universe and the possibility of a god or many gods.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • T-Max73

      This, of course, assumes that a person can force herself to believe a proposition for which there is no evidence, merely because she WANTS it to be true. I think this is what they call "self deception" and "wishful thinking." Peace.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Stop7997

      Like most "religious" people I've ever met, you come off as pompous, condescending, and exceptionally ignorant. I'm sure that any god you profess to believe in would want no part of you.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Subtle Distinctions

      cafeteria – dead-on. This is precisely what Miller was undoubtedly trying to say. Too bad he went too far with his assertions. His brush strokes were too broad. He criticized and mocked ALL spirituality, when in reality, he was only chastising "spirituality phonies" – the "pretense" of being 'spiritual.' You can't sweep ALL of 'Spirituality' into to the box labeled "phony spiritualism." Miller over-generalized. There are 'genuine' spiritual people out there who felt wrongly maligned. Spirituality is a legitimate approach to understanding religious insights. It is no more susceptible to delusional phony pretense than rationalism, or any other approach.

      October 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Subtle Distinctions,

      nicely put.

      October 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • pretendmorals

      A group of fishermen led by an unemployed carpenter goes on to establish a religion that produces the likes of Mother Teresa. She and thousands like her cared for and care for the unfortunate, e.g. the victims of TB, hiv, ebola, etc. Millions mourned the loss of Mother Teresa.

      On the other hand, I can be an unknown individual who nobody has heard about. I have not established myself as a known moral person. Yet I can claim that my morals are superior and that all religious or spiritual people are mindless folks who believe things that they cannot see. I believe in my morals even though I have not proven anything. People should believe me even if I have not proven anything.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:03 am |
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