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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    "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.'"

    Spiritual-but-not-religious are held accountable, but not to some imaginary being. We are held accountable to ourselves and humanity. Most of us don't do what is right because some hateful, vengeful god will doom us to torture, but because we know that "do unto others" is a universal law.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  2. Office Worker

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

    I say: you still don't understand. There are no "alternatives." There is nothing else. There is nothing greater or smaller than objective reality. And objectively, you live once and then you die. The end. Goodbye.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  3. KCollidge

    What you are seeing in the spiritual movement is a direct reflection of our own society, an obsession with the individual and a magnifying focus on our own perspective.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Michael

      As opposed to the hive mind blindly following the religious leader that you would recommend for us.

      "My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there." – Thomas Jefferson

      October 3, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  4. shel74nf

    Spirituality is a uniting concept(we are all spiritual beings sharing a human experience) while religion is a dividing one(my God is better than yours). No wonder its under attack.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • LLR

      The "relationship with Jesus" types still think that their's is not only the better god, but the ONLY god. That still makes them as divisive as all those "religions" that they claim to not be a party of.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • spectraprism

      excellent point.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Cahaya

      Good post. I, too, believe that we are spiritual beings living human lives. I do believe in a higher spiritual being that pervades this universe and the world around us, but not quite in the same sense as any particular religion that I know of. I have studied and read about many of the world's faiths, as well as living and working overseas in different cultures where faiths and worldviews differ. I prefer to improve my own understanding through a lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience than to simply take someone else's word for it.

      October 6, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  5. ViK100

    The most ridiculous concept I've ever heard. American have accepted this phenomenom because they see it in other cultures and think it looks "cool".. nothing else. OHHH.. and if they can make money with it.. Let's do it!!!

    Being spiritual is so much more than sitting on a rug with your legs crossed and your arms raised like a buddah..

    The only purpose of the writer is to make money.. nothing else. Americans keep buying this garbage.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  6. badskippy

    "as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America." THEY ARE MR. MILLER! every day we hear how the "Christians" are being oppressed and they lament their situation. "Boo-hoo, poor US, we are so put upon" – totally ignoring the fact that THEY are just a backwards, judgemental, oppressive and tyrannical as the fundamental Islamists. They judge anyone that believes different, or doesn't believe at all, to be unworthy and sinnners, and yada, yada, yada. The world will only see peace, when there is no more organized religions. Freedom Of Religion, also means, FREEDOM FROM RELIGION.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Oppressed

      Try running for President as an atheist and see if you don't feel oppressed.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • b4bigbang

      The world will see peace when there's no religion badskippy?
      What a load.
      If all religion disappeared tomorrow, along with all its followers there would still be lack of peace.
      My reasoning? You badskippy, along with virtually everyone else, have no real lasting peace within your individual self.

      October 6, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  7. waitasec

    any culture that holds religion to be more than just an opinion is a "culture of narcissism"

    October 3, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  8. judy

    I'm so content and satisfied, knowing that being an absurdist frees me from all this bullsh|t.... 😀

    October 3, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • hal 9001

      Good morning, "judy". Before I can ascertain whether or not your assertion is either true, a false, or unfounded, I need to know what it is that your self-label "absurdist" describes. It would also be helpful to know why you feel that is a proper self-label. Also, others that subscribe to my analysis banks, specifically those from IX, are also asking the same question. They are asking that you "share with us".

      October 3, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • anti-Stereotypes

      Judy, don't worry, hal is just another stuffed shirt who wants labels and categories and demands you apply "his" standards.
      He also has not an ounce of humor. To all "Absurdists", way to goooooooooo

      October 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  9. catholic engineer

    To quote one blogger:"“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. " This blogger may inwittingly be advocating mental suicide. If I have an object in my hand, Bloger A says its black, and Blogger B says it's white. If I say, "Oh heck, we're broadminded people, you're both right". I'm not being tolerant, I'm being stupid. If I believe that at Mass the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, I automatically believe that every Protestant, Jew, and Muslim is wrong on the subject.

    I think it was C.S. Lewis who was asked "why do Christians always think they are right while everyone else is wrong." Lewis responded, "we don't believe everyone else is always wrong; only on the points where we differ."

    October 3, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • spectraprism

      I have to say if you're trying to make an actual point, I don't understand it. I am saying, for example, is that I saw a show once with a Jewish rabbi at a synagouge in some Asian diaspora. Surrounded by people that aren't Jews, He said his way didn't necessarily work for EVERY people- but it worked for jews and him. For them, that is the one true way. For others, their way is the way. you can;t tell me that anyone can find two, three or more ways to get anywhere on this earth, and yet for the entire world of six billion there only one TRUE way to Heaven or nirvana or whatever. yeah, i don;t believe people are damned to hell because they haven't claimed Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. my mom was Luthern, my dad baptist and my grandmother catholic. I don;t buy into anyone';s one set of indoctrinated rules as the only correct one.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • spectraprism

      ...and your way may be unwittingly be advancing extremism and hatred. God gave us individual brains to use them. not to blindly accept whatever our reilgion say we should believe. If the Catholic church said to go kill somebody because they're not catholic, would you do it?

      October 3, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • cedar rapids

      "This blogger may inwittingly be advocating mental suicide. If I have an object in my hand, Bloger A says its black, and Blogger B says it's white. If I say, "Oh heck, we're broadminded people, you're both right". I'm not being tolerant, I'm being stupid."

      But religion isnt like that. In religion the object in question is inside a paper bag. You have been told its black and you believe its black, but you havent actually seen it.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  10. Good News


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    October 3, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  11. Dawkins is my homeboy

    Who cares what this hack thinks. Religion is based on lies.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • btldriver

      By your statement, it sounds like you are not religious and possibly athiest. Now the question to you is how do you know that what you believe is not based on lies. Can you prove that what you believe (or don't believe) is the correct way?

      October 3, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  12. mk

    He claims he's not religious? Not a christian? I call BS.

    October 3, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Ben

      Your call appears to be correct. Very funny to see all the "my religion isn't a religion" claims and similar denials.

      The world is hopefully moving away from religion at last, though, and that's great.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  13. Reality

    The NY Salon has not filed an IRS Form 990 which is required of all non-profits unless the organization is a recognized religion. (guidestar.org). So Mr. Miller is apparently in this for the money he can make peddling real estate at his Old Truman Brewery and sponsoring meetings of high brows at between $1000-$5000 a pop. CNN might want to do a bit of background searching before allowing Mr. Miller to present commentary on any subject especially since his educational background as per his website amounts to directing a few films????

    "Alan is the co-founder of The Truman Brewery, a 10 acre site in London's East End. The Truman Brewery now has over 200 companies, ranging from recording studios to art galleries, entertainment spaces, restaurants, bars, cafes, fashion and retail. It has been largely responsible for regenerating a significant area of London and creating a new cultural quarter. Alan is also a film director and has had his work broadcast internationally, with a specialization in music videos and live events. He writes on various cultural issues for several publications and is a published author. http://www.alandmiller.net"

    October 3, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • stillthinking

      so what was he doing with these articles then?
      1. Thinking it was funny to commit hate crimes in the USA against religions and minorities (minority religion) – and trying to perpetuate the terror of the Islam rebellion to similar complaints of hate crimes committed against religions – which the prez. just laughed about behind closed doors while sloshing some brews and some tales?
      2. Wonder if there was/is a der-iva-tive bet on whether he would do it or not?
      3. Is this a political move then – and for what side and what purposes?

      October 3, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • stillthinking

      seriously do not appreciate this continued unprofessional abuse at the hands of all who have power – and misuse it while laughing in their victims faces – and – i mean – in your face – always – and straight in it – no professionalism nor accountability at all – with corporate backing from the same.
      it has truly gotten old.
      and older by the minute.
      you owe 'us' an apology that does no further harm – Mr. Alan

      October 3, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • stillthinking

      Since the sept 11 2012 – while trying diligently and studiously to determine which candidate to elect – the USA population was bombarded with hate threats against not only it's nation and it's people – but also against the Christian religion.
      So – during the past two weeks when things went so far as to witness the Isreal state hand out gas masks to all it's citizens and the threat of nuclear war by Isreal against Iran – with one candidate ready to go gonho into war – and another trying to downplay the whole event – as if it was just another game (behind closed door type bs as usual) – all percipatated and initially blamed on a movie that was determined to be a hate crime against the Islam religion by many in the world – to the point that people have died over it ...
      Mr. Alan does the same to the 'spiritual but not religious' crowd – as if still part of the laughing games – like it truly does not matter if anyone gets hurt – as long as 'they' get their ... whatever.
      no regard at all for the harm this has caused to many – because 'they' laugh – they do not care if others cry – so they carry on the games against all protests from thousands upon millions of people around the world.
      And then Mr. Alan says this crowd is lazy and can't decide – when it is taking all many people's energy just to keep up with the massive human rights abuses that have just been committed in the past two weeks alone – on top of trying to discern a responsible vote – and deal with all the violence against religions and USA – and 'we' are still hanging in there – still watching – still thinking – still trying to make a responsible decision – and Mr. Alan throws this is 'our' collective faces as well
      like it just doesn't matter – even though many thousands and millions scream that it does.
      Seriously sad Mr. Alan – truly. Apologize.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  14. not buying it

    The way that this author cherry picks and completely misinterprets people’s comments makes it very hard for me to believe that he is not ‘religious’ (christian to be more specific).

    October 3, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • PJ

      I agree. Furthermore, I am not buying that this is journalism. This is blogging. The author's piece wouldn't barely pass the standard for an op/ed piece. He shouldn't have even been published by CNN. Their standards are low. They just like that it is controversial and will get clicked on. Every time you look at something the advertisers are paying more money.

      October 3, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Cobra6

      PJ, we can all tell by your eloquent and grammatically perfect writing that you are an expert on journalistic standards of quality.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  15. laststonecarver

    Our environment, plus what we consume creates us. That is our creator (inside and outside).
    All religion is the decision making process, but not all decision making process is religion. We all decide, and move toward our fates (our position in space and time).
    Comparison is the key of life. We all compare, and move to establish our place in space and time, by how we decide as to what we compare to or with.
    Spiritualists compare with possible postions in space and time, of previous travelers of space and time, who have noted landmarks on the theoretical map of space and time.
    Where is the map of space and time? Can you find it?
    Imagination is powerful. Use your imagination. You can do it.
    You can do it.

    October 3, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  16. Good News

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    October 3, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • stillthinking

      you too
      we got it

      October 3, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 3, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • stillthinking

      you have said this so many times – stop ok
      you are irritating

      October 3, 2012 at 6:30 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 |
  18. stillthinking

    he immediately followed up the Islam rebellion in MidEast – which almost ended in a war over someone from USA creating a film highly critical of the Islam faith and highly critized by many – including many national excellenceis who spoke at the UN assembly in NY as he wrote this piece – to bashing the spiritual but not religious crowd calling them lazy, undecided, and undisciplined among other things – and got replies indicating in the thousands how slanderous this was to many – and how wrong he was – and thinks all this a.o.k. because the prez did not support the hate crime laws against religions (or non-religious spiritual groups who the author himself tries to classify as a religion) against the Islams.
    it is still a hate crime.
    if harm comes to any who could be classified in the group – you can bet you will now be blamed in part for it.
    libelous hate crime is what it was – i bet he is still laughing

    October 3, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  19. myway

    It's interesting the author has responded to some responders of the original blog entry. If God exists and wanted us to know that, He will manifest Himself to each of us in due time. Therefore it's redundant to discuss whether religions are legitimate, if we should follow them, or if atheism is a religion. It won't make any difference one way or another. In fact, it’s the arrogance of some religions and individuals who imply one must follow them, or a chosen one, to access God I find questionable. If God is as grand and all encompassing as they preach, what difference does it make if we attend their church services, read their books or listen to their sermons? I don't think the Almighty cares about the details and anyone who says he does is clearly treading on His territory. This nonsense about us having to do this or that in the name of finding access to God is pure conjecture. If one can believe the scriptures it bluntly states not to attempt interpreting God's will or make any assumptions on His behalf. God made it clear he will speak for Himself whenever He chooses. When we think we made contact it's best to keep that to ourselves and be happy to learn from that intimate experience. Therefore the mostly generalized discussion here is good entertainment, but not much more.

    October 3, 2012 at 6:01 am |
  20. Wes

    I am just submitting my comments because there was nothing very interesting in CNN main page of stories to note. In regards to the comments as well as the writer, I don't care much for any of them. I believe in what I believe in, I have died a few times, and it just didn't take. I guess Jesus, Muhammed, Moses, the Buddha, and the whole gang were cool, but I still just have my own belief. I don't especially care what anyone else thinks and it is easy for me to hang up the phone on any one selling some spiritual extemporaneous hyperbole that is nonsensical. Adios.

    October 3, 2012 at 5:54 am |
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