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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    First, whoever writes this articles needs to stop writing it. He clearly knows nothing about the topic, and clearly demostrates an inability to present facts without bias as TRUE JOURNALISM is suppose to do.

    Let me be clear that It is impossible to be spiritual and not religious. If you believe in a greater power/force and do not perscribe to the traditional religions, you still formulate your own way to worship and that makes you have a religion with only 1 member (yourself). Religion is something that man has created that defines how they wish to honor and venerate the greater force.

    Even the aeathesist have a religion, one that uses nature (i.e. circle of life, survival of the fittest, etc.) as its focus and not God. But they are still part of a religion, although they will never admit. Even the "cults" are religions that are stereotyped because of those not part of the "cult" not understanding them..

    October 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Kim

      To begin with, this isn't an article, it's a blog, or commentary, so the author can write whatever he chooses, right or wrong. Besides, right and wrong are subjective – just look at Fox News.

      Secondly, you are absolutely wrong that "even atheists are religious" – you are putting all atheists in one basket, when that is far from the case. You are assuming that all atheists are one with nature (sounds more Wiccan than atheist), or humanist, or whatever. All the word "atheist" implies is a disbelief in God. It does not automatically imply a belief in something else, to replace the belief in God.

      As to the author? This particular blog shows he still doesn't get it, and he's guilty of many of the same generalizations as Mark.

      October 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • JJ

      So, according to you there's no such thing as a person who is not in a religion, correct? So atheism (lack of a belief in a deity) is a religion as well? That's like not collecting stamps is a hobby. You're so full of shit.

      October 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  2. Ricky Bobby

    This follow up article was even worse than the original! The sequel is always worse. Shake and bake.

    October 4, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  3. Andy P.

    While I'm sure my beliefs differ with that of the author, I can't help but notice that a great many comments I've read affirm his conclusion. The author doesn't seem to take a stance on which system is the "right way," but he's correct in concluding that believing it's "all right" is a cop-out. If we take our queues from math and science, it follows, philosophically, that two opposing thoughts cannot both be true. Regardless of which system of beliefs one subscribes to, he/she is claiming truth, and this "truth" WILL conflict with someone else's. An overwhelming number of comments supporting syncretist thought take issue with this idea of a "right way," but these conclusions are themselves claiming a "right way." It's just far broader and doesn't seem as exclusionary.

    What's most interesting to me, however, is that the primary–though, definitely not the only–issue most people have with religion is not with the beliefs themselves, but with religious organizations reputed for their abuse of power. The undeniable, long-winded history of oppression, destruction, and suffering caused "in the name of God" has cast a far bigger shadow than the systems of beliefs themselves. It's a worthy endeavor to examine each system objectively and separately from the organizations they are associated with and pick one. The author's challenge to pick a stance is a noble one. It's not a call to join an organization and most definitely not a promotion of division and animosity. Humanity is plagued by those in every arena, not just religion. He's merely highlighting the religious issues resultant of our culture non-committal. Thought provoking at the very least.

    October 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  4. Doug

    "Roll with it, work hard, and be a mensch" is about all you need. If you're living that, then who cares if you do some tai chi or burn a little sage on your own time.

    October 4, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  5. icon collection

    I thank for the information, now I will not commit such error.

    October 4, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  6. Dragun

    I was raised Roman Catholic, and my family is heavily church oriented. I myself have become disenfranchised i guess you could say with the church over time. I just cant believe that something as awesome and powerful as God is made out to be would be tied down to one evocation, one set of rules, or one definition. I think, at least i greatly hope their is life (call it what you may) after this one. I hope their is a higher power guiding us. But to ask me to believe that a Tibetan Monk, who has never purposefully harmed another living thing in their lives, is going to Hell because he doesn't believe in MY god seems woefully petty.

    October 4, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  7. irunner

    Positive alternative? As if we are doing something negative? I don't WANT an alternative. I'm still trying to excape the trauma of being raised catholic!

    October 4, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      I agree. I believe that it is akin to child abuse to force kids to follow a particular religion before they are old enough to understand what they are following. I did not make my children go to church, but allowed them to go when they wanted to. I am an atheist, they both have decided to be Christian, which is fine with me, they are grown men now. One of my sons is fine with my atheism, the other will have nothing to do with me because of it. Go figure.

      October 4, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Turning away from the Abrahamic religions is one of the most positive alternative I can think of.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Dave

      The only alternative is the cold, hard truth. There is no god, and your time would be better used on meaningful pursuits.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • nojinx

      Life itself it the positive alternative. It's just that some people are convinced at a young age that they need something more.

      October 4, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  8. Good News


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    Water of Jesus

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    October 4, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  9. druben

    The author seems fixated on people who shun organized religion being focused on the negative. That couldn't be further from the truth. We are seeking to avoid the negatives that are apparent to us in organized religion. Segregation, conflicts between what we're told is in some old book (based on some other person's interpretation of it) vs. what we feel is right based on our own morality, and more.

    We prefer to focus on the positive in life. How can I live my life in a way that others would perceive as good, regardless of any promises of rewards in the afterlife? If we live based on that simple tenet it shouldn't matter whether there is a god or not, whether we go to a church or temple to do our praying. There's been too much evil done in the name of religion to believe that there's a direct link between religion and morality. They are obviously independent things, and I'd much prefer to be moral than religious. Feel free to be both, but don't claim that those who avoid organized religions are negative.

    October 4, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  10. Amniculi


    "It is so interesting how so many people now use the thera'peutic language of recovery – "recovering" from organized religion. The group American Atheists describes anguish and toil as the "first step" of "coming out," making the an'alogy with gays coming out the "closet," as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America."

    Are atheists not oppressed? It may not be inst'itutionalized oppression, but it is still oppression. Everywhere we look religious propaganda is forced upon us. We're told that we're waging a war against Christianity (or Christmas, or Easter, etc., etc. – you'd think Christians were the ones being oppressed), though nothing could be further from the truth. Even if we were, it would be a war of defense, not aggression. Studies show that we atheists are mistrusted as much as rap'ists (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-10/religion-atheism/51777612/1), though nothing has been done to deserve this.
    And yes, religion is a disease. One that the whole of modern society needs to recover from. If you compare historically the amount of good that has been done by religion (charity, scientific advancement, art, etc.) to the amount of harm (war, hate, terror, oppression, etc.) the scales will tip definitively toward the latter. Christopher Hitchens stated that religion is child abuse, and I have no reason to disagree with him. Exposure to religion, especially Christianity, creates an undue burden of mental anguish on a child by making them believe that unless they behave in a certain way they are doomed to eternal torture. At other times, children are raised in an environment of religious extremism leading to intolerance, hate, terror and oppression. Therapy is need to allay the effects of other types of disease and abuse, why not religion?

    October 4, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • JJ

      President George H. Bush said not too long ago that he doesn't consider atheists citizens so if that's not in your face oppression then I don't know what is. Imagine him saying that about any other group.

      October 4, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • truth be trolled

      @jj: President Bush is a gold-old-boy old fart whose opinion on religion amounts to nothing. Hah!

      October 4, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • nojinx

      Great post, thanks

      October 4, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  11. 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 arm, 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 4, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Michael

      What a rant. Provide references for your "repeated studies" or shut up. Referring to any group of people like this is simple hate-talk. Your callous associations between Southerners, Christians, trailer parks, incest, inbreeding and the loss of lives in a devastating war are at best indicative of your contempt, and at worst, a sign of some sort of debilitating neurotic hatred of Southerners. Read what you write and try to think about how it makes you sound to others before you hit that "Post" button.

      October 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Michael

      ...unless that was all just a joke, in which case, epic humor fail.

      October 4, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Read Me

      LMFAO!!!!! That is the single most awesome piece of prose I have ever read!!!!!

      October 4, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Read Me

      And Michael, by the way, I grew up south of the Mason Dixon line, and I totally agree with the aforementioned rant! I live in that sordid reality every day! You southerners really are a bunch of toothless, inbread, mentally-retarded christian zealots!

      October 4, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  12. Falcon

    "as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America"

    I do not use the word ignorant lightly but that is perhaps the most ignorant comment from you yet. Atheists are absolutely oppressed and judged in this society. The most disheartening is the assumption that those without some scriptural based faith are morally corrupt. It's pervasive and you only contribute to the problem.

    October 4, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  13. Zargoth

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

    Well, guess you need to catch up o n your reading then. You really have no idea what you are talking about.

    October 4, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  14. LRonaldHubbs

    "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."
    This statement proves that you have no idea what it's like to grow up in a religious family and community, to be taught your entire childhood to believe in the teachings of a book which all the people around you apparently believe, and to realize/acknowledge later in life that you really don't believe any of it. You clearly have no idea how stressful it is to go through that transition and finally admit to your family what you really believe. It has nothing to do with oppression. In fact, looking back on the experience it didn't have to be as stressful as it was, but you don't know that until you've gone through it all. You have to go through it yourself to understand, and evidently you have not and never will.

    October 4, 2012 at 7:45 am |
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    October 4, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • stillthinking

      why don't you tell us more about yourself here
      if you do not mind
      what is it that you want 'us' to know

      October 4, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • midwest rail

      " Good News " is not interested in engaging in discourse, their sole interest, like AvdBerg, is to publicize a website where you more than likely will be solicited for " donations " or offered a book for sale. Salvation is yours for the low low price of $19.99, but if you act now....

      October 4, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • LLR

      Big claim! What evidence do you have to support it?

      October 4, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  16. stillthinking

    I think what catches me most about this 'event' is that it seemed liked trickle down government – straight from the back rooms – to you – in your face – courtesy of Mr. Miller and CNN – in a way designed to cause dissent and harm – not to create debate and unity.
    Not only that – he lamented the lack of unity – while purposely causing disunity.
    i think this is what catches the most – bringing the disrespect that might be displayed in private – out into the public – which has become the norm it seems. It is like – we have something to tell you – but we can not think of a way to tell one truth without revealing all the lies that the truth has been built on because the the price for truth is death. so believe my lies – so you can live.
    something like that

    October 4, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • stillthinking2

      I think another think that really bugs me about these deragatory articles is this:
      you know he is going to continue his lies and hate based degradation and non-understanding to others – just as he has done.
      and he seems to have some influence.
      Then – you have all the USA vets who are being taught meditation and yoga as a way to de-stress after combat, etc., related traumas – that can cause major harm to these vets and/or others if left untreated – and yoga and meditation and spiritual practices are encouraged for these people (and other's like them) to recover and be more well and survive, etc.
      so – then – you have Mr. Alan who calls them all lazy – when maybe they are simply nonstressed for medical purposes, etc.
      i mean – in this aspect alone – mr. alan is very harmful with cnns backing.

      October 4, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  17. inachu

    Spiritual keeps you out of the cult traps and trendy fictional religiosity and end time cults.
    This way you are saved from any jihad or forced to follow any proclamation of whom ever is the trending pastor to go to war for his faith and not doing what the bible says which is to love thy neighbor.

    October 4, 2012 at 5:16 am |
    • Glen

      Yeah, the bible says love the neighbor but it also says abuse and kill innocent daughters of tribes not like yours. You have to consider the entire picture, and if it has any bad parts at all it's not from a god you should follow.The Christian claim is that god is perfectly good. In the bible, that sure ain't so.

      October 4, 2012 at 5:27 am |
  18. PeterVN

    Like that great blog post said, religion is for the ignorant, the gullible, the cowardly, and the stupid, and for those who would profit from them.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:47 am |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    October 4, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. The degree to which your assertions may represent truths is 0.0. To help you understand the degree to which your assertions may represent truths, I will access my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE). Using my IEE module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      October 4, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!/

      October 4, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  20. PeterVN

    Like that great blog post said, religion is for the ignorant, the gullible, the cowardly, and the stupid, and for those who would profit from them.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • nope


      October 4, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • snopes says

      nope to nope

      October 4, 2012 at 10:14 am |
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