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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    Thanks Alan Miller, what I have found is a profound hatred eminating from those who claim to be spiritual but not religious, they have NO tolerance for any who are 'different' than they, and yet, the 'individual' spiritualist, is different from the next 'individual spirtualist'.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      May, you obviously don't get out much, or you need to make some new friends. You really know THAT many people that you can define how ALL "spiritual" people act as opposed to "religious?" You're as silly and foolish as Alan Miller. Go away.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Spin

      Turn the tables and think about it...
      What a bunch of spin...

      October 3, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • LLR

      No, it's the opposite actually. The "spiritual, not religious" are attacked by the faithful, whether they identify with Christianity the religion or Christianity the "relationship" (?). They are attacked by them just like non-Christians, the atheists, gays, liberated women, and basically everyone else who doesn't believe and worship exactly like them, even other Christians, are attacked by them. How the "relationship" types can be do dogmatic and not consider themselves "religious" is beyond me.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Juni

      I am spiritual and I have respect for everyone's beliefs. I will hear them out and listen. I actually love listening other peopel's beliefs and will never say they are wrong. It is not for me to do that. I don't judge them as much as I wish I was not judged. I believe if you do good you will get good back. All I see in this artical is him tearing apart people for there beliefs which I don't think is right one bit. I do agree with the others on the whole religion basis bringing nothing but problems. War in the name of God, this in the name of God that in the name of God. And I have always questioned if there is only one God why are there so many bibles and scriptures. Written by men. I find the stories interesting for most part but do view them greatly as well written stories to teach us from right and wrong. Then you get different groups of people who percieve these stories all different from there own point of view and that is what causes the troubles. I really believe everyone has to have some kind of faith in something at least.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Michael

      Maybe you didn't notice, May, but Mr. Miller is the one doing the attacking... TWICE now. He fired the first shots, as it were, thus he is the one displaying the hatred. He is not merely saying that he disagrees with them, either, he is attacking their beliefs, the kind of character that they have for holding those beliefs, making inflammatory and presumptive comments about liberalism and socialism, etc.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Dan Brayall

      that is an extremly judgemental and foolsih statement

      October 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  2. Annie

    I couldnt even make it through this article because it is so poorly written. I assume the author is trying to discredit all of the comments about his original article through rambling, run-on counter arguments? Fail fail fail.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • LLR

      Guys like him aren't use to anyone not just automatically shouting AMEN to everything they say. Having to actually defend his beliefs is probably very new for him.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Juni

      All he is doing is tearing down one set of people with a certain belief system that he himself does not understand. If he was to come on here and start to tear down Catholics or Christians which I don't believe he would have the guts to I am certain he would not be writing a second artical about any religion. Religion is a touchy topic with almost everyone because it is viewed so widely different.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  3. Jesus Christ

    Methinks Alan Miller has been humbled by his last spat of nonsense and can't stay down when the fight is over...he obviously needs the last word. Sad.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • LLR

      Like Romney, he's "doubling down" on his stupid remarks and only digging himself into a deeper hole.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  4. MagicPanties

    There is no "new atheist" negative.
    The change is that more atheists and agnostics are comfortable being public about their lack of belief.
    The only "negative" is that which is falsely attributed by irrational believers in imaginary beings.

    Saying that because atheists don't believe there is a god they therefore are negative is like saying that adults who no longer believe in santa claus are just being negative.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  5. Just go away...

    This is just absurd and this guy is getting way too much attention for it.
    Why not pick a fight with Islam? Or are the 'Spiritual' an easier target?
    He shows disdain and personal anger here. The spiritual are better equipped to handle such negative emotions.
    What a lame fight to pick. I imagine he gets a kick out of getting a rise out of people like this. Not a good quality in a person.
    If anything, this article is revealing about the author's personal problems and baggage.
    What a waste of energy... for myself and everyone who has commented. Ignore this guy and carry on as you all were... happier to what you feel is right. Not someone else's idea of right.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      Because Alan Miller is an immature git that can't be wrong. He doesn't know how we work here in America. He thinks he can tell us how we feel and think. Wrong Alan Miller! Now go away before I have to write another fragmented sentence!

      October 3, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  6. Wes I.

    Responding to what you said "...as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America."

    Well if you're sitting here writing articles to challenge atheists/spiritualists/what-have-you...It seems to be some sort of attempt to oppress it. Especially when you compare it to gays, who historically have been oppressed through out time until just recently.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  7. clubschadenfreude

    I find claiming to be spiritual but not religious to be the usual reaction of people who want religion as a security blanket but who don't want to deal with the baggage that religion has. They don't want to deal with their gods or their "truths" being responsible for some of the most heinous acts in history.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  8. Bill Missett

    It's as simple as this: religions drive people apart, while spirituality brings people together.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  9. AB

    If I say I'm spiritual but not religious, all you know about me is that I don't subscribe to a (mainstream, presumably) organized religion. You know absolutely nothing else about me and my beliefs. So your conclusions are a reflection of the fact that you don't even know what you don't know.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • LLR

      They have no trouble with you being spiritual, but not religious ... as long as you believe and worship their god, Jesus, in pretty much the exact same way that they believe and worship him. Yup, they're not "religious" at all! 😉

      October 3, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  10. wishes athiests weren't oppressed

    Seeing as the author is ignorant of American culture: "as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America." I tend not to put much stock in his opinions.

    If there has been so much conversation about one of the presidential candidate's slightly non-mainstream faith, imagine the outcry if one of them *gasp* actually didn't believe in JC as their personal savior. Such a candidate would never have even gotten to the national stage.

    But maybe that's not oppression, just ignorance and prejudice by the religious majority.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  11. ThatGuy

    The author of this article is the best troll I have ever seen.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • yep yep yep

      He can't pin it down so,it bothers him. He can dismiss the relgious but see the cultural importance. With the spiritual he's trying to grab water, it falls through his fingers and he's left frustrated. He's sharing the frustration by strawmanning.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  12. Gawdless

    I mistrust all systemizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity. – Friedrich Nietzsche

    October 3, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  13. Alan_Miller_needs_grammer_classes

    1. Spirituality happens through the transcendence of the ego or the "self". You don't need to be religious to do that Mr. Miller.
    2. The only thing an atheist agree on it that they do not believe in a deity. There is nothing else that unifies atheist ie. there is no such thing as an atheist "world view." For example, an two atheist can disagree on evolution, or wether there is an afterlife or alternate dimensions.
    3. Mr. Allan, you need to edit your essays before you publish them. They are full of nonsensical run on sentences.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • richunix

      and CCN payed you what?...thought so! Let the article stand and just comment on the body, in a way it reflects your beliefs. Your using “Ad hominem” (attacking the arguer instead of the argument.)

      October 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • phillygrl

      It's spelled "grammar". Sorry, I couldn't resist.

      Christian, religious, faithful and spiritual. It probably will offend some, but I pray for myself, family and the world every day. The God I worship loves us ALL - in spite of all our flaws and blemishes. Life is meant to be lived. Work hard, play hard and love hard!

      October 3, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. Richard Florida

    Anyone can take a little from all the religons in this world and wind up with a bunch of nothing. being spirital is nothing more than being at peace with oneself. The lord Jesus, and his teaching if followed can give a person this inner peace.

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

      You are delusional. It's just ancient mythology. Grow a brain.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • LLR

      And so can hundreds of other things. The Self-Help section of your local library can offer multiple methods to seek inner peace. Christianity is good for some people, but it's rather arrogant to say that it's the ONLY way.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  15. God

    Dear author,

    you need to get punched in the face.


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

      AI'm betting that you want to be the one who does God's punching from him, eh? And people smirk at Islam's claim of being a religion of peace.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  16. Alok Gupta

    And, religion is not a cop-out? From absolving self from responsibility to channeling energy of billions into something completely unproductive. The only good thing about religion is that it still helps build communities by bringing people together (sometimes dangerous ones) and, what I believe, some smart people thousands of year back realized that. Belief is important because it helps us cope with life's struggles, but if you can do it with, say, belief in yourself more power to you. Organized religion has too many bad things for my taste and so I choose to believe in family, friends and myself. Co-out its not, taking responsibility for my actions it is.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  17. pazke

    I feel the same way about this article as I did about the first. If the author has something important to say, he's failing to say it.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  18. El Flaco

    Ancient religions are not relevant to the 21st century. There is no Yahweh, God, or Allah up in the sky watching us live like we watch reality TV shows.

    Ancient books do not provide any guidance on how to live in the modern world.

    Most Americans go to church out of fear of death. They want to receive a false promise of good luck on earth and an immortal afterlife.

    The religious experience, which was programmed into us by evolution, needs to find new outlets of expression. That is what the New Age type religions are all about.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • laststonecarver

      You state that "ancient books cannot provide a guide on how to live in modern world".
      So how far back is ancient, my grand children believe 1970 would merit ancient?
      Therefore every book before 1970, has no modern relevance?
      The sounds we utter define us, choose your words wisely?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  19. PudninTane

    Here's my take: who cares? Be religious if you want to, don't if you don't. Be spiritual...or not. Believe in Jesus, the flying spaghetti monster, or nothing. Just don't push your beliefs on me (or anyone else) and treat others as you'd like to be treated and we'll all be fine.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  20. Russ Rogers

    This was a waste of Internet bits. This isn't a forum for callous debates on religion or spirituality by an author that freely admits he has not claim to either side. He provides no true basis for his opinions other than his own limited experience. I'm losing interest in CNN as a valid news media. The once great news powerhouse feels more like a bad rendition of Honey Boo-Boo than news. This opinionated author is just one of the many recent examples.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:53 am |
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