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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    So, why every time one of these "spiritual but not religious" dolts are shown, they're always shown sitting like the woman in the picture?

    The fact is that the "spiritual but not religious" crowd do have a god, and they do have their own religion. It's called humanism. There god is there own self. Of couse "spiritual but not religious" is a cop out!! People don't want to have anything to do with "organized" religion because they may be reminded that they're accoutable for the way they live, and the "spiritual but not religious" crown don't like that.

    October 4, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • william

      So... it's either your way or humanism, because we don't want to hear the truth of your beliefs? And this is your idea of reason, of a logical argument? I think you're a scared little boy, afraid that what you've been taught all your life is wrong, and need everybody to agree with you to stop your embarrassment for being so naive for so long. Time to put on your big boy pants, Mark, and admit that your religion, and every religion on Earth, is probably completely wrong.

      October 4, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Mark

      Yes William....you're right. Something tells me you're "right" a lot.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  2. Someone Smarter

    WOW, as if his inflammatory opinion piece and subsequent deluge of angry comments wasn't enough.... you folks at CNN gave him a chance to "respond" to the internet. If this weren't so trite and dull I might be angered, offended and put off. I can very nearly "hear" the sarcastic air quotes he puts around words like "oneness", "spiritual" and "new-atheist". Hey "New-Atheist"s; this is the New Breed spawn of the old breed of church leaders that lied, mislead, and molested you into disillusionment. Hey Alan Miller; these "spiritual but not religious" new wavers are the Hippies that your dad that never loved you was always so flustered, angered and concerned over.... even though he couldn't spare more than a second for you. Fight this out IRL, and leave us internet trolls to dance and frolick happily in the godless wonderland ever-aether we have created for ourselves.

    October 4, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  3. Toad

    Whatever your spiritual path is, experience and age will test your beliefs with fire. If your beliefs are found wanting, you'll just have to revise them on the fly as you go, as we all are doing. Doesn't really seem essential to worry about what you think the shortcomings of others' beliefs are, you're only going to be scored on your own work.

    October 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  4. emptyknight

    Spiritual feelings are real. The current popular hypothesis says they likely evolved from our natural human curiosity and overactive imaginations, and were selected for because they encouraged community-building and group survival. Primitive spirituality has often turned into formal organized religion as a method of political control and a source of power for the people at the top, whether within or alongside political structures. A lot of people have the desire to escape the heavy-handed dogma, fear-mongering, corruption, and mental control that comes with so many organized religions, but still retain their evolved desire for meaning, connection, and warm feelings. Whether they become atheists who love nature, New Age non-dogmatic Buddhists, neopagans, or just spiritual/not religious, they are just seeking happiness and freedom at the same time. Do some become hedonists? Sure! But a search for meaning can be an intensely personal experience, and religion often claims Truth while teaching obviously contradictory things. I prefer honesty and integrity to subjecting myself to corrupt priests or well-meaning liars.

    October 4, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  5. t-bird

    From Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: "Religion": (1st def)- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. "Religious": (1st def.)-of, or pertaining to, or concerned with religion. "Spirit": (1st def.) the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body or mediating between body and soul. "Spiritual": (1st def.) of, pertaining to, or consisting of spirit; incorporeal. I think that means you can be spiritual, but not religious; but you can't be religious without being spiritual. Just in case anyone else is as confused as I am about the differences...

    October 4, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • was blind, but now I see

      Nice post, but I'm pretty sure it was the uber-religious pharisees and sadducees that had Jesus killed. Doesn't seem that they were very "spiritual" to me.

      October 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  6. was blind, but now I see

    Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son posted: Tell that to morons like "truth be told," "fred," "Heaven Sent," and "PRISM."

    To which I responded: Imagine that. Yet ANOTHER happy, happy, joy, joy posting from TTPS. Unbelieveable!

    So, here is her ever-so-witty response: @is still blind, deaf and dumb as balls: What's untrue about my post? Did I hurt your little feelings?

    Thanks for making my point for me, TTPS!

    October 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      The only point you have is the one on top of your empty skull, you fvcktard.

      October 4, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  7. Johnny

    Hmmmmm. I could easily pick and choose comments sent to me to prove my own point. What did all the other comments say? Was there a single one that didn't meet his conviction and therefore he dismissed it?

    October 4, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  8. Larry

    I'm afraid that Mr. Miller is just as clueless in his response as he was in his original article. His gripe seems to be that most of the "spiritual but not religious" types do not have a proper opt-out plan. The spiritual approach does not require a codified opt-out plan. Sometimes just saying "no" can lead one in directions that no plan could possibly account for. Many spiritual approaches are faith-based, which don't have a strong intellectual component. The only opt-out plan needed is that sense of "something" beyond the self, and that's all that's needed!

    October 4, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • was blind, but now I see

      What do you base this very assertive statement upon?

      October 4, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  9. Linda

    I consider myself as spiritual, although I do believe in God. I just don't believe that there is only one right way to believe.

    I've seen too many hypocritical people in Church. As an example, I had an Aunt who passed away. My sister-in-law who is a devout Christian, couldn't deal with the fact that my Aunt was not religious and absolutely would never convert to Christianity. When my Aunt passed away, my sister-in-law just had this "feeling" that my Aunt accepted Christ (would never happen). It’s just her way of dealing with the fact that she truly doesn't believe the very core of Christianity. And who is she and who am I to judge someone just because they believe differently? I certainly don't want to be judged and let’s face it – we really don't know what happens to us spiritually when we die until we die.

    Isn't it more important for us to concentrate on how we can impact the lives of others while we are here than to worry about going to a place that may, or may not, exist?

    October 4, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  10. Josie

    By his defination I am a Spiritualist. I am Pagan, I have my own holidays, moral codes and conduct, rituals, and deities. Yet to a Christian I am "atheist" because I don't believe in Christ. I have no problems with others following their own beliefs but I do have a problem of being forced into something I don't believe in. I will go to church but will not take the sacrament/communion for I feel it is hypocritical of me to take something in honor of a deity I do not personally follow. Just as if I have Christian friends or friends of other faiths that have been asked to join a ritual, I would not expect them to take the offerings.

    October 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  11. Scuromondo

    For me, the real cop-out is fundamentalism. And unfortunately, in the 20th century it seems as if fundamentalism has dominated all religious discussion. In fact, even the most outspoken atheists are fundamentalists! By "fundamentalism" I'm referring to the notion that religious beliefs, etc, only have value if they are absolutely true. Religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentslists both share this view of the world, the obvious difference being that the atheists conclude that religion has no value because they realize it isn't absolutely true while religionists conclude that it is of supreme value because they have concluded that it is absolutely true. In either case, the spiritual quest is over and any chance at spiritual growth is brought to an end.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  12. Knee

    An Atheist desires spiritual freedom which comes only from being spiritual not by denying others the listening ear. It comes by loving your neighbor as yourself. A spiritual man aasserts Atheism is a religion cos the Fundamentalists n Atheist both behave in a religious manner.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • R. Gallup

      I am an atheist. That statement tells you nothing at all about what I believe. It tells you exactly one thing I don't believe. Any qualities you attribute to me beyond that are your own (typically absurd) assumptions.

      October 4, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • JJ

      Stop lying for Jesus. You are just one god away from being an atheist as well. An atheist just lacks a belief in your god just as you lack a belief in Thor. Your god is on the trash heap of history just as all other gods before her.

      October 4, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  13. KCElliott

    One Rule; One Prayer.
    Rule: Do unto etc.
    Prayer Dear ________, protect me from your followers.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  14. Gail

    I'm spiritual but not religious because I don't buy into any organized religion. I like elements of several of them but their key tenets I reject. I like to think there's a God but whether it's a unifying force or a personal God, don't know. Don't think anybody on this side knows. I've had signs from a few dearly departed which makes me think there is something more. I believe life has meaning and true goodness exists in the universe. I don't accept a human sacrifice on my behalf or want anything to do with a being who requires one. I don't believe in the trinity or worship of anybody who was once alive but is now dead. Awe is good. Worship is bad. That's my two cents.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  15. FParana

    "One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain. That death's got the final word, it's laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it."

    – fron "The Thin Red Line"

    One doesn't have to be associated with a church or believe in a personal God to be affected by this statement. Be in awe of the mystery – don't explain it away.

    October 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Chris Angel

      "Be in awe of the mystery – don't explain it away"

      Exactly!! Your'e the kind of audience I like at my shows. Sure it takes a lot of hard work designing the set to fool your eye and make you think you just saw something that didn't really happen, but thats the magic!! Now, it's not something you want to go starting a religion with since it's all smoke and mirrors but hey, be in awe of the mystery!

      October 4, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Criss Angel

      Be wary of imposters!! But yes, the other me is right.

      October 4, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • JJ

      "Be in awe of the mystery – don't explain it away". You sound like a creationist who just wished science would ignore and stop investigating the varity of life and how it became that way. Well, sorry to piss in your Cornflakes but some of us don't like to remain ignorant and gullible. My awe with nature only grows as we understand it better. Imagining some sky god did it all makes it less so.

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

      There is no mystery. We project our own subjective meaning onto an event. The event itself has no meaning without the observer.

      October 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Kate

      FParana, that has to be one of the wimpiest posts ever made here. Yeah, let's not dig deeper for real explanations. That's hard and we'll have to think. Let's just say the tooth fairy did it.

      Yeah, right...

      October 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  16. Cuger Brant

    Last but not least:
    Jesus preached by concepts. These concepts are undeniable truths.
    They override intellectual breeding, indoctrination, wealth, standing and personal beliefs.
    They are fundamental truths to us all; rich or poor powerful or impotent.
    We are in truth ALL equal.
    Both you and I are a truth from God.
    Whether you deny this fact or not.
    But at the end of your procrastinations, at the end of your lives, he sees you.
    He has always seen you.
    He makes no judgement, he just receives your soul.
    Whether you have accepted his grace or denied it.
    For you are your own truth.
    And in heaven, you will be your own judgement.

    So stop reading these naïve, esoterically priggish articles and wake up!!

    October 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Atheism is for everyone

      Blah blah blah. Keep your imaginary friend to yourself.

      October 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      There is no historic proof that Jesus existed. His stories of being human son of god, dying, and rising the third day were mostly recycled from other mythologies almost 300 years after his supposed rise to heaven. How come the history of an influential Jewish Rabbi Yeshu'a is not found in Jewish history?

      October 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • lordnimrond

      Jesus didn't really exist... He's the work of fiction....


      October 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Knee

      The silliest comment is to say Christ does not appear in Jewish History. What? There is the evidence of His brother James who was the first xtian bishop! Also until the 5th century Xtian history was Jewish history! Read history not Dawkins.

      October 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  17. Cuger Brant

    There is no one whom is closer to god than any other, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to any secular leader.
    God is in your heart mind and soul.
    He gives divine concepts to those who personally listen with their heart and soul.
    If you accede to his omnipotence and open yourself to him though humility and grace to his being you are blessed.
    All you have to do is open your heart, mind and soul.
    You are life.
    You are truth.
    And when you have humility, in truth you will find your own way to God, to reflect his truth of being, awareness, and humility of concept.

    October 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      You are correct that God exists in your mind, or shall I use the correct word "in your imagination".

      October 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  18. Sy2502

    The poster mentioned in the article that said "even atheists are religious, they just strongly believe in NO God", the stupid is strong with this one. Atheist is as religious as bald is a hair color, or the TV off is a channel.

    October 4, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  19. Snippot

    Your rebuttal is equally non persuasive. Probably time you give it a rest and live and let live. You sound very judgemental

    October 4, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  20. Cuger Brant

    God is the universal thinking of man
    He is the aspiration, the clear thought, the logic, consequently the morality of man.
    We, man, are individually a part of the whole, part of God.
    Evil is the group hysteria, the following of the hedonistic, the mass unthinking and the led.
    In business this kowtowing achieves the goal, the purpose, the gain, the object.
    In reality it subdues, subjugates, blinds and controls the spirit.
    Freedom is the ability to realise this, it is the clarity to keep yourself apart from the ‘system’ that controls all material things and material seekers.
    This includes the person who wrote this silly article I am commenting on.

    Cuger Brant.

    October 4, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      God is a fictional character created by man in his image. God has all the human failings. He is cruel, he is unjust, and makes people kill in his name. Poor people suffer and the rich gets away by bribing the religious clericks. He is narcissist and bangs human females to have sons.

      October 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
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