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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

    "Spiritual but not religious" means that you believe on something that transcends the physical world but you do not follow any organized religion. Period. There's no more to it than that. Why would anyone waste so much time over-thinking this simple thing?

    October 3, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. jungleboo

    @Anchorite: Very well put. To maintain a centered relationship to the Universe without the "help" of organized religion is the pinnacle of enlightenment. The Buddha and The Christ, if they existed at all, simply made the clear statement to all around them that we are all "Child of The Universe, no less than the trees and the stars, we have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to (us), no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should." Max Ehrmann, author of this delightful viewpoint proclaimed in his poem DESIDERATA, was not turned into a Super-Saint or a god by his words. He was just an insurance salesman writing about his centeredness in 1925. The world was not in need of a prime mover in his time. However, the Buddha and the Christ lived in a time when a viewpoint such as this was revolutionary. So they became the fodder for a concept called organized religion, which, in and of itself, has the possibility of mind-control written all over it. Religion is highly suspect, given its history. I'll take personal meditation any day.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  3. Mary

    I used to be religious and chained to the church through rituals and tradition. I was taught that the man standing at the alter was the closest person to God and through him I would confess my sins and he would be the medeator between us. But that was all wrong with me. Because he is just a man wearing a robe and no different from myself. I never worshiped s priest of the pope or any man. I walked away from religion and did what Jesus said to do. Look within because the kingdom is within you. It is not out there in the world or under any structured building. Jesus would always pray to God in solitary. He would go to the mountain to pray to the father and we are given that as an example to follow. The gnostic teachings he gave were taken from the world and hidden because Jesus said we are to have a SOLITARY relationship with God. There were scrolls that were found in Nag Hammadi. In a cave that were hidden because the leaders of this world wanted to have power over its followers. Read the gospel of thomas. Search Nag Hammadi on your laptop and read the sacred texts which pen the beautiful and powerful words of Christ.. Look within. Becoming spiritual and finding gnosis is the way to becoming saved. Stripping oneself of the clothing of this world will open the door to God. Jesus said not to love the world or the things of this world because he is not here. The prince of this world is. Christ is within each and everyone one of us. He stands at the door and knocks. So open the door. Incredible treasure lies within. The pearl of great price is Him. Read the Nag Hammadi library and open your mind to truth.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Alan Miller co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery

      If you don't listen to me, I'll cry! Again!

      October 3, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  4. t3chsupport

    Your defensiveness didn't actually defend anything. I think the one thing we can pull out of this article is that you really don't get it at all, and even thousands of people trying to make you see it will not help you, because you don't want to see it that way. When it comes down to it, peoples' spirituality is no one's business but that individual, and just because it doesn't match up with... whatever you believe in... doesn't mean it's any worse than any other belief. What 'SbnR' has over mainstream religion tends to be a lack of judgement of others, the ability to live and let live, and acceptance of other peoples' paths, as well as those people. Also, not knowing something is OK. I find it far worse (and blasphemous in certain contexts) that someone would claim to know the will and mind of anything that supposedly created us and all we know. We can't even understand all of the creation yet, and people assume they can know the creator, and they can carry out that creator's will, because some other guy told them they should.

    Agnosticism is a very peaceful state when you aren't afraid of not knowing everything.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  5. ks

    This guy is saying the same things organized religion has been saying for forever, he is just couching it in a so-called intellectual discourse. That people who don't believe in organized religion are less than those who do, and we are in need of their guidance. Bless our hearts.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  6. Alan Miller co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery


    October 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  7. mk

    The truth about why people are no longer interested in going to church: they are becoming enlightened and evolved enough to think for themselves and are no longer interested in being bullied by fear.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  8. E

    He still doesn't get it.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  9. Dai Shugyo

    The situation does not require a lot of verbiage;
    Religion looks outwards – spirituality looks inwards.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  10. DisgustedCustomer

    Shades of Monty Python! "Just a flesh wound", is it, Alan?

    October 3, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  11. Ben

    You have committed the Heresy of Lasch, Alan. You have violated Modernity's first Article of Faith . . . that it is somehow better to define our own reality than assent to a reality described by another. Although you are simply defining your own reality, and all realities are equally real, your reality is less real than others, and we will scream incoherently at you until you concede the supremacy of our reality. The Ego has spoken – Verbum Dei.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Joshua Ludd

      Uh, given its numerous HUGE mistakes about the nature of the world, the universe, and humanity.. when has religion EVER been a reliable describer of reality? The only "reality" that religion seems to have a monopoly on is "my god exists!", which is not really provable or disprovable. Its not that I want to make up my own reality... its that there is no reason to believe the "reality" preached by your or any religion out there.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  12. Daremonai

    OP still just doesn't get it.. but great picking out of straw men to back themselves up.

    I wonder if the person has ever actually met an atheist or has just read Chick Tracs about them....

    October 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  13. Dickbutt

    Author is arguing with internet commenters, way to go champ!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  14. sybaris

    I"f you look at the definition of religious – even atheists are religious, they just strongly believe in NO God"

    Like NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.

    Asserting that atheists follow a religion gains the apologists nothing. It's just a mindless mantra regurgitated over and over.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • anti-Stereotypes

      Sybaris, that's the best one-line answer I have read about this distorted claim that "atheism is a religion".

      Thank you, I copied it down and saved it in my files for "makes your head shake (mis)beliefs".

      October 3, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Chris Beuscher

      Yeah, this is great! it's funny watching people like Alan trying to think outside their little box. They can't get their minds around the concept of non-belief.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  15. Tommy

    I believe in the scientific method. It is a method, not a conclusion. From the method, we draw only temporary conclusions, which Are refined over time through continuous reapplication of the method. You can hold me to account by offering alternative conclusions, along with scientific explanations of how you derived them.

    When I call myself "spiritual", I refer to a notion in the vernacular of the religious; a characteristic I, like them, possess, which is to say that in spite of my agnosticism, I retain qualities associated with "being spiritual" – I hope, I recognize power greater than myself, I believe in an unconscious (yet physical and natural) connection between living beings, etc.

    Your original article strikes me as a gross oversimplification, your tone is arrogant, and your points are weakened by this, in my opinion.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Chris Beuscher

      Well said Tommy. You give a guy like this a chance to rebut, and he just digs a deeper hole for himself. He should have quit while he was behind.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  16. Aggie

    Learn about the Michael Teachings. They explain a lot, including this phrase: "You are spiritual beings on a human path."

    October 3, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  17. james -

    The author says that those who claim to be spiritual without embracing a faith are "copping out."

    In this second post, he tells us: "I don't happen to believe in a religious "one true way" and in fact am not religious myself."

    So I guess the point of the entire exercise is to clearly explain that the author is copping out.......

    October 3, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  18. Chris Beuscher

    Well, Alan – the overwhelming criticism of your first article, most of it spot on, should have shown you the error of your thinking, but your response shows you have learned nothing. Among the many glaring errors of thought presented here are your views on atheists. We atheists do NOT, as you put it, "define ourselves in negative terms, as not believing without any broader sense of a positive alternative." What a load of crap. Atheism is the most positive alternative to organized religion, or any religion, that there is. We say you don't have to be weak, or labeled as a sinner, or beholden to the whims of an unseen, vindictive deity. You can be strong, self-reliant, believing in the power of humankind, not some mythical god, and therefore be a much better neighbor to your fellow humans than your religious counterparts. We also do not align ourselves with the "spiritual but not religious" movement, we simply know better than to disrespect it the way you have. I could go on with the litany of errors presented here, but I, we, have wasted too much time on you already. CNN, do us a favor and make this pompous fool disappear.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Jeb

      Well said!

      October 3, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  19. Shane

    I'm sorry, I've read both articles now, and I feel like I don't even have enough bread crumbs to find my way home. All I can say is, being spiritual vs. being religious is easily becoming more acceptable in the eyes of the world these days for many reasons. I feel like people are getting fed up with organized religions and their BS, let alone all the damage and destruction they have wrought to our world over the last X amount of centuries/millenniums.

    People don't want to label themselves as atheist, because for a lot of people, they just don't know whether there is or isn't a god. Better to stay in doubt than choose a side you aren't 100% confident about right? Being spiritual vs being religious isn't a cop-out. I think subscribing to a religious dogma that iterates compassion, love, tolerance, and understanding to its followers, yet they turn around and twist/turn all of those ideas into spewing of hate-mongering, deceit, disrespect, intolerance, the list goes on. Would anyone be tired of that after what they see their fellow church members do?

    I think the spiritual vs. religious debate is coming closer to the surface because people are finally giving up the BS these religions spit out, when few actually follow or live by the very beliefs they adamantly proclaim themselves to follow.

    Being a person who has recently been on a spiritual journey of understanding, being spiritual or being religious isn't a bad thing. Its what you do with that statement, what you do with your beliefs, with your choices in life, that ultimately give testament to you "copping-out".

    And if I'm not mistaken, the author speaks of not being religiously affiliated, so.........what point is he exactly making? Is he the spiritual but not religious type who's copping out? Because if that were the case, and if he's making the case for the non-religious folk, well.........I agree with this earlier statement.....


    Dear author,

    you need to get punched in the face.


    October 3, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Chris Beuscher

      I am also sorry I read both of these articles.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  20. Anchorite

    This is a power play, pure and simple. Miller is claiming that people do not have the right to call themselves Christians unless they think and worship according to his rules. It's not about what you believe. Incidentally he's claiming to be able to read your mind and know your morality based simply on a particular war you use to describe yourself. To him, if you don't defer to a central church authority, you cannot call yourself a Christian, cannot possibly be genuine, you are an atheist and have no moral compass. Well, I'm sorry, but I worship at the same church Jesus did, and Miller worships at some church made up hundreds of years after Jesus died. To me, that's the real New Age nonsense.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:21 am |
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