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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    Further to this piece, we held a NY Salon Battle Satellite event with The New School where panelists debated this issue. The aim of The Battle of Ideas Satellite Festival is to engage the public in debate and discussion with regard to the key issues of our time. You can see it here:


    November 27, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  2. ltecato

    I think "spiritual but not religious" arose from 12-step recovery, particularly AA. That's where I first encountered it. 12-Step advocates don't want to admit that their "program" is religious, so they claim they're pushing harmless, un-dogmatic "spirituality." Half the meetings I've been to ended with the Lord's Prayer, and yet the Steppers deny any links to the evil "organized religion." I have no use for religion or spirituality. In AA, I witnessed how "spirituality" can be as dysfunctional as any religion.

    November 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  3. Srini

    what a waste of (virtual) space and time publishing this rubbish ! First Alan Miller dishes out uninformed assertion after assertion, and then when he gets pooped on by most readers, he says " ..in fact am not religious myself..", as though it somehow validates that his nincompoop blog as unbiased.

    He now opines spiritual-not-religious "..should have something more than simply a negative". MILLER IS definining spiritual-not-religious and (what he calls as) new atheists as represented by a negative. But for me, my beliefs are nothing but positives. It is offensive that Miller passes judgement on things that he appears to know zilch about.

    November 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  4. Rob

    I'd Rather have spirituality without religion than religion without spirituality.

    November 16, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Please define spirituality. I've asked a few times but I've never really gotten an answer from anyone.

      November 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  5. Please Read with Open Mind..

    God in Quran says, (holy Islamic scripture)

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    ‘They said, "You have to be Jewish or Christian, to be guided." Say, "We follow the religion of Abraham – monotheism – he never was an idol worshiper." [2:135]

    The Messiah, son of Mary is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint. Both of them used to eat the food. Note how we explain the revelations for them, and note how they still deviate! [5:75]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    When My servants ask you about Me, I am always near. I answer their prayers when they pray to Me. The people shall respond to Me and believe in Me, in order to be guided. Quran [2:186]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  6. Lena

    Atheist actually does not mean does not bveelie in anything other than science . It just means you have no deity, ie- no God. Buddhism has no god; you do not worship anyone, or make sacrifices to anyone, or ask for anyone's salvation.It is possible to bveelie in some silly supernatural idea without actually believing in a god.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  7. Opposition

    The problem with your argument is that you are ignoring the other extreme, the one the "spiritual but not religious" folk are against – the "religious but not spiritual" mainstream. These are people who have so internalized the doctrine that it is all they deal with; their mentality makes religion a formula, not a faith. "Follow these rules, and you go to heaven." It is a process to them, steps you take to get from point A to point B, with no thought given to WHY or to the "scenery" along the path. Just plodding footsteps. There is no spirituality to these 'Jesus-bots', just rote programming. People are starting to wake up a realize that they want something more, they want to understand, ask 'why', to truly have faith. The problem is, most churches don't want you asking questions, just following blindly like good little sheep.

    This is the environment that breeds people who wish to be spiritual without the massive, domineering presence of a human-created organized religion looming over them. These religions you espouse have become fossilized, most so wedded to the letter of an ages-old doctrine as to be dehumanized and inhumane. If you think a lot of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd don't socialize with those of similar faiths, you are mistaken, but in great part they run the social groups, not some archaic set of rules. This tends to make them more humanist, which is something we need these days.

    November 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  8. Julia

    The entire point being missed is freedom. Atheists want to be free not to believe in a diety. Christians want to be free to believe in Christ. New Agers want the freedom to believe in a spirit. I believe we should ALL OF US be free to believe what we want.

    October 26, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Damocles

      I agree with you, the only problem is some people don't want to be free and some people only want those who agree with them to be free.

      October 26, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  9. rjp34652

    THE REAL PROBLEM IS GOD and the belief that humanity is not supremely autonomous in its actions. The argument about morality and cultural values has spiritual responsibility at its root.

    THE JOKE is that human nature in general and society as a whole abhors a moral vacuum. Those that deny it most vigorously, who are actually denying authority of any sort, are those that step into the black hole of history. Something greater than the individual always ascends to the highest level of authority. If that authority isn't based upon the high and noble principles of the revealed will of God, then it is the ignoble oppression of atheistism that does so.

    HOW STRANGE that atheists who cry loudest about the casualties of religious wars demonstrate a vigorous degeree of amnesia when it comes to tallying the victims of atheistic wars (approx. 100 million in WWII – more than all religious wars combined). Atheistic logic is almost funny if it weren't so bigoted and foolish – to deny morality while trying to seize the moral high ground is the ultimate act of conceit.

    It has been said that the greatest danger to the unbeliever is not that he refuses to believe in God, but that he'll believe almost anything else.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    October 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  10. garden1

    religion is way of life given or offered by prophets, "son of god", sages, and self and god realized souls, spirituality is comes from vision, purity of souls, self / god realization to help to see / feel soul / portion of god within one self, which can develop into true divinity and spiritual, working independently in this material world. religion is a material religion giving ability to live in a soceity, but spirituality directs one life to divinity to be able to reach heavenly abode. spirituality controls religion and material world and not vice versa.

    October 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  11. beall

    First of all this doesn't sound like the same author.Second, he states he is not religious? This makes no sense in that his argument is it is undesirable to believe in a deity without conforming to an organised religion therefore a person who is spiritual(believes in a deity) but not religious(believes in a particular form of worship of that deity)is just reluctant to commit to the more admirable state of following a set form of worship.His whole agenda for the original article was an effort to negate those that donot conform to organised religion, which I believe makes one religious.Maybe the problem rests in definitions and differing concepts which of course is the basis of most divisions in religion to begin with.The authors' response is even more atrocious than the original article especially the "I am not religious" quote as if that would legitimize the defense of his stance-I am not religious-I am spiritual and I am an Atheist.

    October 24, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  12. Innerspace is God's Place while outerspace is for the human race.

    In with the good
    Out with the bad

    October 22, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  13. Poltergiest

    The golden rule only work when your surrounded by people who believe in some form of spirtuality or religious philosophy that agrees with the golden rule. Head out into the less civilized parts of the word and see how often "Treat others the way I want to be treated acutally get applied."

    The golden rule. "There aren't any rules silly."

    October 22, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Musu

      Hi Heron,In the month or so I have been frequenting R S I have apapecirted you way of sharing. I suspect that many who regularly frequent this forum live with depression. I suspect that excessive computer use can be a hindrance to recovery I share that from personal experience. I can sit down at the computer for 15 minutes, and get up 4 hours later. During that time I consider myself connected' but I fear that it is more of a disconnection. As to a spiritual practice simplification.- Exercise (as a number of people have mentioned) This can be a brisk walk of 45 minutes of so.- Nutrition avoid anything processed. You don't have to get fancy PB J, fruit, etc- Disconnect from media. I suspect this will be a challange for you, but it could be a powerful piece. Make a decision to turn it all off for a week.- BREATH focus on your breath. Breath in for a four count, and out for a 6 (or count. Do this whenever you think about it, sitting, walking, reading, everything. In a post from yesterday I shared a Buddist meditation ( your question about trying buddhism for a week) It is by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book the miricle of mindfulness.Love and Light

      November 8, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  14. CARMEL

    Actually, I saw no real harm in his statement: We live in a society where we exercise our "free spirit" free of any type of dependency - and of course, we want no one to tells us what to do or what to say or act. This action on our part, does not excuse any behavior that Jesus cautioned us on: be humble, and we will always have a slave – because what we follow or whom we follow will enslave us - so to the gentlemen that feels that being a physician, doctor, scientist, lawyer, or anything higher, even king - remember that the knowledge of the world is not sufficient for GOD! Now is his statement of "not taking responsibility" sounding better to some? That is the question to answer ourselves. We all have responsibilities - it just depends on where we want to apply them. As far as religion or christianity – the Bible also has an answer to that: and in the New Testament says Pay attention to your calling

    October 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  15. MarkinFL

    Since when is the golden rule not a positive alternative to all that other cr@p?

    October 18, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • jim king

      "Since when is the golden rule not a positive alternative to all that other cr@p?: there it is, there is nothing more than that simple rule. all else, is crap. religion is for fools. fodder for political control. science will prevail, but not before we continue to kill each other in the name(s) of ancient nonsense.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Poltergiest

      All wars are fought over scarce resources. Even the crusades prioritized looting rich muslim towns and trades routes over fairly worthless Jerusalem.

      All a lack of religion would do is require a more direct system of control. Perhaps some sort of device in every household that might allow a few individuals to beam images and sounds directly to people to influence their thoughts and world perspective. It would on the surface, appear to be guided by public opinion but in actuality just constantly divide and polarize people over topics and anestisize them with useless trivia and fantasies while keeping them informed on all the issues that "matter".

      Unless you have found away to change fundamental human nature that leads us to place our own self-interest over that of others, all you'll accomplish is changing the reasons for war.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  16. Tobe

    For the author of this article to pick and chose and debate around the comments he believes he has an argument for (thin thought it may be) and ignore the real issues (enormous they are) is quite astounding. He displays a complete lack of understanding about the subject matter he has chosen to write about and is simply fueling the ignorance that surrounds what it is to have a belief. This would seem like an article written by an 15 year school child with the goal of "trolling" as opposed to stimulating any real discussion.

    October 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Seth

      I I have to completely agree with you there.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  17. jas

    I cant imagine why Cathlics and Christians wouldwant to fallow a religion (morman) that has been proven to be false . Why would they want to put a profet and teacher of that religion in power at the white house . Did not the proven word of Jeasus and Jahova God tell us to be ware of false profets? All this just to get a black man out of the white house. True christian brotherley love !

    October 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Pot calling the kettle black.....

      His real religion is money anyway. Mr. Etch-a-sketch will be whoever he needs to be to get elected.

      October 18, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Seth

      "II can't imagine why Catholics and Christians would want to follow a religion (Mormon) that has been proven to be false . Why would they want to put a prophet and teacher of that religion in power at the White House . Did not the proven word of Jesus and Jehovah God tell us to be wary of false prophets? All this just to get a black man out of the White House. True christian brotherly love!"

      There, I fixed it for you. That was an atrocity, really. I find it funny that you really think that Mormonism "has been proven to be false". If anything had proved Mormonism to be false it would thus prove your religion also false at the same time.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • pmclean1319

      Ugh! I hate this! The term "Christian" is an umbrella term for Catholics and Protestants (and Mormonism and any other sect out there)! It's not "Catholics and Christians." It's Catholics and Protestants! Obviously you don't understand the first thing about how Christianity branches off into different sects because that is LITERALLY the first thing!! Before you throw around accusations about how one sect of Christianity is false and a lie and awful, maybe you better, I don't know, read a book or something?

      November 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  18. Pro-Ancient

    Religion is a spiritual journey with God. Spiritualism is a walk with oneself.

    October 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Nii

      You confuse spiritualism with spirituality and religion with religiosity. Let me explain.
      1. Spiritualism- Worship by rituals to gain favour with a diety so that he/she will help you do anything you want-good or bad..

      2. Spirituality-Achieving the ability to enhance positive atti.tudes to other humans and yourself and discourage negative ones and the path to this achievement.
      3. Religion- The concept of spirituality and the rites and rituals that go with theem so as to help people achieve spirituality.
      Religiosity-Focusing on dogma and ritual as if they will help you achieve spirituality and hating those who do not follow that particular dogma

      October 17, 2012 at 5:30 am |
    • Gord B

      Religion is for people who are scared about going to hell.
      Spirituality is for those who have already been there.

      October 19, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Jan Hill

      Pro-Ancient. You spirituality may be religion with God, a god, or imaginary god, but spirituality by itself does not mean that you walk alone. Spiritual people, whether they believe in a god or not, walk with a sense of history, with those who have come before them, with their friends and neighbors who nourish them and who they also nourish, and walk with the desire to help those who come after them. A fulfilling life even without even a god.

      October 20, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  19. allfaith

    Is a puzzle complete without all of its pieces? Is a human not human because they are not part of an organized religion? If a man turns the light on in only one room of his house does it mean the rest of the house does not exist?
    God is, All that Is does not require proof of it's existence. No challenge will make it untrue.

    October 14, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  20. Gary

    What strike me most about this author in this piece and the previous one is his belief in what others think, feel and believe. I have seen this growing trend among religious people and conservative politicos. They want to tell us what "atheists" or "new atheists" or anyone else believe, or want or value.Paul Ryan told us exstensively during the debate what Iranian clerics think, what they want. I find this ridiculous.
    I studied to be a pastor, it was that in-depth study of the bible that led me to atheism. It became clear that this was a book meant to make people comply. It promoted slavery, subjigation of women, violence and intolerance. I came to my beliefs on my own through my own study in spite of indoctrination, and close guidance in theology.
    I dont understand the need to proselytize...if god is our creator why would WE have to introduce anyone to him?

    October 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Nii

      A religious man is an Atheist. You just clarified your beliefs. If you were focused on absorbing spirituality from the Bible you would have as I have done. Don't say you found what you were looking for so you became what you always were. I sought spirituality in the Bible and found it. So it is that you could have if you so desired. The ministerial course is actually intended to separate the Atheists from the Spiritual.

      October 17, 2012 at 5:35 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Nii, that almost sounded like it meant something!

      October 18, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Nii

      Sadly its true that by the time you finish a Theology course you will either be an avowed but secret Atheist or a Spiritual and devoted Christian.

      October 19, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • yogaisbetter

      if you do yoga – you will discover spirituality in a more real and healthy manner.
      there are many different forms of yoga – and all have their benefits and strengths
      this is more real than religion per se
      with yoga – even the ancient history of religions make sense for what they were and have become
      still would not believe them for anything more than what they are
      in pics of jesus – you will sometimes see he as fingers positioned kinda like peace sign – this is a yoga muntra hand symbol used for specific mind-body connection – these are things you should study – especially you nii – since you like beating people up for no fing reason sometimes – erk

      October 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
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