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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    There is only one question that is relevant before all others here :: Why do any of you or the author care about what other people choose to believe?

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

      For me, it's because tolerance of others' beliefs, or nonbeliefs, is crucial for the multi-pluralistc and multi-ethnic society of the United States that we live in. Without it, think of the race attacks, recently like that of the Singh temple, that occured. This is to me a very vital and needed discussion of our society.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • spectraprism

      Make that SIKH temple shootings.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • sybaris

      "For me, it's because tolerance of others' beliefs, or nonbeliefs, is crucial for the multi-pluralistc and multi-ethnic society of the United States that we live in"

      But when a President utilizes his military to invade another country and murder tens of thousands of innocent civilians because he believes his god told him it was the right thing to do, that's okay.

      Got it.

      Bush's example is exactly why we should be intolerant of people who take their direction from invisible sky fairy's and voices in their heads.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • spectraprism

      um, Actually i protested these wars for years- rallied, marched, vigiled, went to DC, wrote letters to the editor and congressmen- and where exactly where you? what were YOU doing Sybaris? Who do you think you are, commenting like I did nothing , when you don;t even know me!

      October 3, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • cedar rapids

      "Why do any of you or the author care about what other people choose to believe?"

      because once such people get into large enough groups they then start telling other people how they should live their lives.
      personal belief stops being personal and starts being dictatorial.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  2. anti-Stereotypes

    Miller wrote in the initial article: "Christianity has been ... seminal in Western history and culture. ... everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work."

    Yeah, and where do the greeks get credit? Olympic games, western commercial sports entertainment, sports superstars?
    Vikings anybody? They sure don't have christian roots, nor mathematics, geometry, writing, glass making, silk, accounting and many other vital things in western life. That's just the typical self-centered (hyphenated, get the joke?), selfish narrow view that proponents of christianity hold as their truth. It's self-serving too.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  3. Potion4

    People you have free will God doesnt make anyone believe in him its a choice. So choose make a choice but as the knight said in Indiana Jones "choose wisley". It is clear that man messed up and God fixed it through his son Jesus, he's provided the way so its up to you to accept. No arguments look at the facts to prove if Christianity is the way; consider this MAPS (Manuscrpits, Archaeological Digging, Prophecies and Statistics in your search. Compare this to any other religion and let us know what you get. Remember the choice is yours. Peace Love and Soulllllllll Train!!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • anti-Stereotypes

      god, Indiana Jones and how god's son fixed our problems. Oh boy, if that's not sitting in a tiny little cube. Are there any ETAs about those fixes, I mean 'estimated time of arrival' when those fixes are supposed to go into effect??
      I haven't seen any so far. People still make war, kill, torture, steal, starve, die from epidemics, hurt each other and more of the usual. Let us know when things are supposed to get better, until that god thing shows up, let's just deal with reality as it is. Amen.

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

      @potion: god fixed what by ki11ing himself to himself as payment for something an ignorant creation he made did something god wouldn't explain why not to do this?
      seriously look around the world, if god is real he doesn't care. you have children dying horrible deaths, why doesn't your caring god protect them?
      you have elderly being ra ped and robbed, mistreated in retirement homes, where is your god?
      either your god doesn't care or he condones what is happening here because he sure as hell isn't doing anything about it.
      so take your god and ride off into the sunset, because human problems should be fixed by humans, not fairytales.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Michael

      I've looked at Christianity's propaganda, and that's exactly what it is... hardly "facts." I could easily rip apart the Quran with common sense reasoning and you'd probably nod your head in agreement to every single argument I made. If, however, I used that EXACT same kind of reasoning towards the Bible, it would be, "Now WAIT just a minute...!" and the excuses would start pouring in.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Know What


      Christianity is proved by MAPS? ( MAPS (Manuscrpits, Archaeological Digging, Prophecies and Statistics)

      Manuscripts – Yes... unverified stories from the cult founders.

      Archaeological Digging – No. It only proves that there was an ancient Hebrew culture similar to what is described in the Bible. There is not a shred of evidence for divine being(s) or events in those diggings.

      Prophecies – No. Some are obvious predictions (earthquakes, floods, famine, etc.) and many have simply been massaged and manipulated into seeming like they have come true.

      Statistics – Not sure what is meant by this. If you mean that lots of people believe the legends, note that after 2,000 years of propagandizing 2/3rds of the world still does not believe them.

      October 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Potion4

      the question is asked if God is loving why does he allow all the evil that happens. So God is to blame for the original sin and God is also to blame for man's evil intentions. I dont think so, look in the mirror and who do you see? You (thought I would help) so if you want things to change how about changing you but that can only happend when you acknowledge the fact that your a sinner seperated from God.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  4. confused

    Wait a second. Did the author just say "I don't happen to believe in a religious "one true way" and in fact am not religious myself," and then write a second article about why being "spiritual but not religious" is negative or less respectable than alternatives? ("Spiritual AND religious?" "Neither spiritual nor religious?")

    Am I being stupid? Did I miss something? (Other than, perhaps, the point?) Is he saying that it's bad to claim spirituality in the absence of religion but it's okay to not be spiritual/religious??? Cuz that sounds kinda dumb.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • anti-Stereotypes

      @confused: You are Right on when it comes to this contradiction.
      You are Wrong when it comes to being "confused"... You are Not confused.... it's Miller who is...

      Thanks bro/ sis, you made my day. I thought exactly the same. Only question is to Miller's real agenda. Money? Publishing, running high priced seminars on true spirituality/self / belief?? $$$$ , that is sooo western... $$$$

      October 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  5. David V

    Someone needs to tell Mr. Miller, when you're in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. Just let people live their lives the way the want to, is that too much to ask?

    October 3, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  6. doledart

    "spiritual but not religious" has become a label. Point mute.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  7. David Lance

    Christianity is based on a book. The best "religious education" consists of people sitting in a circle reading the book, and then doing what it says. When Christianity starts doing that again, plenty of spiritual people will join up. Until that happens, true Christians will stay away in droves. But buck up. At least they aren't driving out the money changers with a cat-o-nine tails.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  8. gregography

    All I needed to see was "as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America." to know that the writer was not someone I would ever look to for facts or thoughtful consideration of this subject. In fact, there are no studies that support this statement. Just the opposite. So he's making things up to support his position. Which is pretty much religion in a nutshell.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  9. Dev

    Who is this dude and why is he being forced upon CNN readers so much. It was enough to read his rubbish the first time but to go and read his rebuttal of selected comments is just waste of time. I thought I will waste my time and share this anguish of mine!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  10. Charles

    In Sunday school we were taught the story of Noah's ark. Thumbing through the encyclopedias my parents bought I learned about the massive number of animals on this planet. I politely raised the question to my teacher "how was it possible to get every animal on the ark". I was politely given the answer "God makes a way". So I learned very early dogma=ignorance and have been running away from religion ever since.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  11. Wag

    The original article was much better than this one. This one actually makes even less sense except for the quotes of the comments from the first article.

    Make sense?


    October 3, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. D

    The author does much to demonize "spiritual" people, but fails to really show what the benefits are of being "religious". His opinions seem very one sided and actually do little to prove the points he's trying to make. In other words, both pieces he has written are in the end, of little value. So I ask, for a solid answer, "what is the benefit of being religious over spiritual"?

    October 3, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • mk

      He can't say...he's claimed to be "not religious".

      October 3, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  13. Nick

    A positive alternative is taking in the religious teachings of various religions, using your brain to sort out what makes sense and what doesn't (as to how to live a good, fulfilling, meaningful life in the **modern** era– which requires not taking archaic texts literally), and then acting in accordance with your composite beliefs.

    Alan Miller wants to make this about facts and truths, but intellectuals have never attempted to answer metaphysical questions with facts. You don't have to believe you know the answers to anything in order to take in various religion's constructs of goodness and apply them to your own life, solely for the sake of living a meaningful life.

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

    I am an atheist and consider myself neither spiritual nor religious. It is my opinion that people have a right to believe whatever they want, so long as it does no harm to others. There is an immensely broad range of spiritual/religious beliefs, and people place themselves where they will along that continuum. Is it really worth the time to argue one point on the spectrum vs. another? I do take issue with a couple of comments the author made concerning atheists, however:

    " . . . atheists, who are furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves."

    I don't think this describes most atheists. I and the atheists I know personally do believe in something bigger than ourselves: it's called "society" and includes the collective creative and intellectual power of groups of people. And we're not all furious, either. Some are, but most of us are just a little disappointed that so many choose to discount their own abilities and responsibilities in favor of something for which there appears to be no evidence.

    " . . . as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America."

    We may not be actively oppressed, bet we are certainly ostracized, frowned upon, viewed with distrust, pitied, and do not feel safe expressing our views in many, many places. And, despite there being no official religious test for office, here in the U.S., there is certainly a practical test, and admitted atheists have little chance of being elected here.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  15. Which God?

    Wow. What an as.sinine article. This guy just doesn't get it. There is no 'spiritual', nor religious connotations involved with living your life as a decent human being. Why must there always be something 'spiritual' attached to anything? What is spiritual anyway? I actually had a Bishop in a Baptist churc tell me that he's spitual, not religious. What does this mean? Sounds nonsensical to me. Does one see spirits? My spirits of choice is Johnny Walker and Canadian Club.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  16. Prasad

    Religion has failed to transform human being, as it has become more external factor (more ritualistic) then transforming the inner being. Real religion is inate and its within. Any person from any religion can do any sinful thing there is no delimiting force with him. But when the inner religion is awakened you become a enlightened being. Buddha, Christ didn't start religion they were enlightened human being, but the folks who came after them started it a s religion, took their teaching in a downside.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  17. spectraprism

    ...If any person's religion here said it is imperative you go kill other neighbors, which are not of your particular religion, based on their doctrine, beat your spouse or kids because their leaders said to, or go harm others or jump off a cliff because the leaders said so, how many of you would do it. No? then I guess you too are not following the strictest doctrines of what they would say, without your thinking and rational brain kicking in. It's the same thing. People are starting to apply self- common sense and what they personally believe as to what they claim for their spirituality and beliefs.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  18. Pete

    I wonder how many people have ever responded to some angsty online opinion piece or one of the thousands of angry comments and said to themselves "Well! Your words have changed my outlook! Now I see things your way! Thank you sir/ma'am!"

    I bet zero.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  19. TownC

    Organized religion has not caused as many deaths as you may think. Many of these religious wars were fought for political reasons using religion as an excuse. People killing others for purely religious reasons is not the norm through the centuries. Just because someone is of a different religion and you are at war does not make it a religious war. Also, millions upon millions were killed in the 20th century during the two world wars, neither of which was fought for religion. The millions that were killed by Stalin, Pol Pot and others were not killed over religion. I would also argue that the United States since its founding has never fought a religious war. Most European wars over the centuries were not fought over religion. An honest look at the facts will enlighten you.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Seyedibar

      The Abrahamic religions have been calculated as having killed somewhere around 900 million people in religious skirmishes. Even today, it still takes place. A christian gunned down 6 sikhs at their temple just two months ago. Meanwhile two religious factions are ripping Iraq in half and leaving a trail of corpses. In Pakistan, people are being murdered for enrolling in schools that teach science. Religion is bloodthirsty and segregational. You can blame it on people misusing religion if you want, but the words that justify that behaviour are still printed there in the holy literature.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  20. BobOso

    I truly believe in God. But I also believe that humans can no more understand God than a dog can understand a refrigerator. The dog has no idea of how electricity works, or how the refrigerator keeps things cold, therefore fresh. The dog doesn't understand how you have to go to work to earn money, and then use your debit card to pay for food at the store, food which was grown elsewhere and delivered to the store. No, the dog understands none of that. But he knows the refrigerator is a source of goodness.
    Humans will never understand God, but we can use prayer and meditation to get closer to Him. The point of organized religion is that generations of people have used that same prayer and meditation to develop their believes. Yes, you can be spiritual but not religious, but you miss out on the collective wisdom of people before you. The danger is when any one religion claims to be the only truth, or that they know all the answers.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Seyedibar

      On the contrary, God is quite simple to understand. Especially considering that we humans invented him.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • sybaris

      I" truly believe in God. But I also believe that humans can no more understand God than a dog can understand a refrigerator."

      I find it fascinating that the faithful put their diety of choice beyond comprehension when there is no evidence to base their assertion.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • BobOso

      @Seyedibar – You seem to know the one truth, good for you.

      @sybaris – The alternative in believing in God is to believe that the universe somehow arose out of nothing, into a sudden explosion (beyond comprehension) and then developed randomly into it's present form. You can have faith in the later belief if you like, but I ask you, where is your proof? Aren't you too relying on things you don't understand to come to your conclusion?

      October 3, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • sybaris

      You adeptly illustrate the prejudice and intolerance behind your faith while making broad as.sumptions and still providing no evidence to support your claim.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:16 am |
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