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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    like i said – you do not understand and you spread your own agenda, manipulations, and slanderous understanding to many – not caring if it harms or not.
    you owe me an apology – for all

    October 3, 2012 at 5:54 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 3, 2012 at 5:45 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 3, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  3. Michael

    He went from bashing people who aren't cultists to twisting their words if they dared criticize him.

    October 3, 2012 at 5:16 am |
  4. Chmee

    Of course he didn't mention the fact that the vast majority of people who commented on this thought he was completely wrong. I saw very few positive comments about it.

    October 3, 2012 at 5:12 am |
  5. Luis Wu

    He still doesn't get it. –

    The positive alternative is not blindly accepting the status quo. It's THINKING for yourself instead of letting a book of ancient mythology do your thinking for you. It's finding YOUR OWN path to happiness/enlightenment/morality. It has always astounded me that so many people blindly accept ancient mythology as fact. I don't pretend to know if there is some higher power in the Universe. But it doesn't really matter to me if there is or there isn't. My personal philosophy is to live my life to the best of my ability and not harm anyone else in the process. And to help those less fortunate than me when I can. To try and paint people who don't believe like the majority in a negative light is the cop out. I would say to Mr. Miller that whatever people want to believe or not believe is frankly none of his business.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:51 am |
  6. 200 TON HAMMER

    People Are Very Empty on the Inside Trying
    Too Fight The God Of Isreal Of the Messianic Kingdom.with All this other limitied useless nonsense dead works.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:50 am |
  7. NYVeteran

    I am sure that the authors of the bible were as certain about everything as you are. You analyze anything said about your article and make the critic the heavy. Perhaps your premise was just dumb? Atheists are nothing but warmed over frustrated socialists with no big tent? I see that writing as an art in a blog, or for television entertainment, no longer requires skill.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:47 am |
  8. Luis Wu

    Why are my posts being censored? Because I disagree with the author/CNN?

    October 3, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  9. Just wokeup

    well he saod in his own words he is not religious...hmm wonder if he thinks he is spiritual at all and if he is..well then what have we here..:)

    October 3, 2012 at 4:35 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      Good morning, yes that is the question. His two articles are so stupid yet CNN published them and it is.....advertising? I guess.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:39 am |
  10. Peaceful Christian

    The world would be better off without religions and Pedo Pastor Long.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      Right..so your name is a parody?

      October 3, 2012 at 4:38 am |
  11. Good News

    There is only one real GOD
    who has created His book of Universe and His book of Religion
    based on this same 19 coded, Symmetrical most Superb "Mathematical Language!"
    So all those who want to recognize this one and only real GOD now
    and thus start their own individual and spiritual relationships with Him (without having to join any organized religion)
    MUST see this, first of all:


    **If anyone knows any other god who can prove his existence and power over all Universe, galaxies, stars, planets, mountains, rivers, all living beings, atoms, elements, etc. by putting His most clear and superb "Mathematical Signatures" over all of them, as this one and only real GOD has actually done above, please, let me know!

    October 3, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • Chmee

      Are you a troll or are you really that stupid?

      October 3, 2012 at 4:53 am |
  12. HeavenSent

    My motto is "Excellence in feculence!"

    October 3, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      LMFAO, nicely done.

      October 3, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  13. .

    EVIL!!!!!!!!!!!! E V I L ! ! ! ! ! ! !

    Kill them, Jesus!

    October 3, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  14. HeavenSent

    Read the Bible dummy. It is 100 percent accurate in every facet. I knew they were mouse droppings but I didn't want to waste the food. Statistics prove that the more devout someone is, the higher IQ they have.


    October 3, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • .

      Evil filth atheist dry bones NAME STEALERS!!!!

      Okay, . isn't really a name, or even a word. But you stolened my little . thingy, and that sends you to hell! Filth!

      Better bend over and practice your wide stance, evil filth atheists, because InvisiSuperBuddyJesus is gonna prison-bop you!!!

      October 3, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  15. Atheism Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things

    I've just pissed in my pants... and nobody can do anything about it. Praise to InvisiJesus SuperBuddy!

    October 3, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • Dumb Bear

      Indian fighter?

      October 3, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • Stand with a Fist

      Ya...Ya...Yoooooo ma...ma....make the....mmmm. the wha....wha....white ma.....ma.....man ta....ta....taaaaaa Oh fuk it.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • .

      P E R V E R T alert. Another Christian ID stolen from a s a t a n i s t s.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • Christianity is not conducive to making sense

      "a s a t a n i s t s" ? Never heard of those.

      A "Christian's i.d. stolen from a s a t a n i s t s"? So the Christians steal their i.d.s from asatanists?

      October 3, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      Now it is all starting to come together....

      October 3, 2012 at 2:31 am |
    • .


      October 3, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • .

      And if the cat vomit clogs my needlepoint, the meth doesn't get in my veins right.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • .

      I'm glad you steal Christians IDs then write your nonsense using their names. You are evil and no Christian wants the filth of you with us for eternity.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:31 am |
  16. Atheism Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things

    Prayer works. Proven.

    Oh, by the way, I have hoarded myself completely into my trailer home, so could somebody drop by and toss a superbarrel of KFC "Drippy-Grease Nuggets" through the tiny gap in the piles of K-Tel Fart-O-Matic thingys and Flabdominizers. I live in the Methmouth Grove Trailerhome Park just outside of Blowjesus, Texas. Please hurry.

    October 3, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • HeavenSense

      Hi fake Prayerbot.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • .

      What else but sinking low to steal another Christians handle to write your nonsense. Watch out that you don't choke on a wing this time only your arrogance.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Towelie

      Hi "." do you wanna get high? I don't even know what's going on.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Jesus told us he would give you reprobate minds. Satan's lies causes confusion. My 12 year old daughter switched to Marlboro, but her kids still like Kools. After their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.


      October 3, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • just sayin

      dry bones lake of fire burning atheist fat drippings . . . fat drippings . . . fat drippings . . . I'm suddenly hungry. KFC sounds pretty good, but I just went to Taco Bell for Eighteenth Meal, so Maybe just two or three buckets for me.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • HeavenSent

      @just sayin

      You are a liar against His truth. Prideful atheists refuse to abide in the truth of Jesus. My camel-toe applied for social security benefits. Stay on the wrong side of the gulf until you are blotted out for eternity.


      October 3, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • .

      P E R V E R T E D satanists.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • .


      October 3, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • .

      Steal all the IDs you want. CNN's blog is the biggest p e r v e r t e d blog on the planet. Take a bow atheists p e r v e r t s.

      October 3, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      cnn giving out free bows? What color the bows?

      October 3, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      filthy dope smoking ism towels giving out free bj's for crack ism 180 absurd fibers.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • .

      The average age of the atheist on this site is probably 15. The average spiritual maturity is maybe 5. Make that 2.

      Good average you got going there losers.

      October 3, 2012 at 3:34 am |
  17. Cnn Faceplants

    So why is "My Take" written by Alan the Dingbat and "Your Take" also written by Alan the Dingbat? It really should have be "Moron's Take" both times.

    October 3, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  18. Best News

    There is only one real GOD
    who has created His book of Universe and His book of Religion
    based on this same 19 coded, Symmetrical most Superb "Mathematical Language!"
    So all those who want to recognize this one and only real GOD now
    and thus start their own individual and personal relations with Him (without having to join any organized religion)
    MUST see this, first of all:


    If anyone knows any other god who can prove his existence and power over all Universe, galaxies, stars, planets, mountains, rivers, all living beings, atoms, elements, etc. by putting His most clear and superb "Mathematical Signatures" over all of them, as this one and only real GOD has actually done above, please, let them bring their own mathematical evidences, in the first place.

    October 3, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • Towelie

      Are you holding Best News? You wanna get high?

      October 3, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • .

      Heads up atheists since you have figured this out yet. Christians know you are enemies towards God. When a Christian posts it's to another Christian and not to a moronic atheist. Therefore, why bother posting your nonsense. I forgot. So you can utter your stupidity.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • Wally

      Hey dotty! Ever heard of grammar? Proper punctuation? Making sense?

      No? I guess they don't teach that stuff at the Fred Phelps School Of Hiding From Reality

      October 3, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      @ "."

      You are an amazing communicator. When I read your post, I thought to myself, wow, this "dot" person really knows how to cut through the bull and get right to the heart of the matter. It's true. We atheists are enemies against that which does not and cannot exist. It is such an easy battle, we keep forgetting to fight it. I will remind the others, and you keep those Christians fired up, k?

      October 3, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Hey Dot, I wonder if you've ever bothered to read anything atributed to your Jesus guy? I mean, am I missing something all those years I was forced to go to sunday school, or did Jesus kind of teach love and kindness, and turning the other cheek. I wonder when you go to heaven and have to speak for your own life, if this will come up, how much you hate us atheists, and the nasty way you talk to people. Just curious.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:59 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      @24... dang it, you caused me to pee myself.... seriously.. well, not really, but that was some funny shat...

      October 3, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center


      October 3, 2012 at 2:04 am |
  19. Mirror Mirror

    So a guy who declares he is not religious but hates atheists thinks it's a cop out for people to not be one or other of the extremes?

    He's not only a dingbat; he's a hypocritical dingbat.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • .

      Anyone who declares themselves to be spiritual and does not read and adhere to what Jesus has written in the bible is as bad or worse than an infidel. Just to explain to atheists, an infidel is what you are.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center


      Wait, what? Jesus wrote in the bible? But how? Huh?

      October 3, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      @Dot, Jesus wrote something? Really, because I was under the impression that we have a grand total of zero writings from Jesus... but what do we expect from a man who is nothing more than a myth.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • just sayin

      He used his zombie typewriter. Get a clue, moran! Duh!

      October 3, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  20. 24 Hour Crisis Center

    Is the lady meditating in the photo supposed to be one of the "new atheists"? She just looks like grandma to me.

    October 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • .

      She's from the atheist camp.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center


      Grammy always was a smart cookie.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Towelie

      Me and Grammy like to get high and then pig out on yogurt and oatmeal.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • y22nxdf2

      She may not look it, but she´s DANGEROUS!! She'll make you faint with clouds of incense and perform unspeakable acts of Karma Sutra (sic) on you! She's not as dangerous as that serial granola eater sitting on the beach on the first article photo, though. Now, there's an evil force for ya. Prrrrrrrraise da Lord!!!!!!

      October 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
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