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Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion.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

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Just Rockwell

    The truth is No One Knows what will happen after we die. If you believe or dont believe is all 50/50. I was raised as Baptist, but as I have gotten older and learned more about religion, I have chosen to just be the best person I can be, help others when I can. I dont need a church for this. People want you to choose something, but why cant we all just be human and try to live our lives as best we can? Religious people speak bad about people who don't choose to be like them and that is wrong to me. I like the old saying.... We are not Human Beings having a spiritual experience, we are Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience. I want to live my life to the fullest and be happy, no one, including myself knows what will happen to us when we die. Because I believe in this, is not a cop out, it's just being a spiritual person with common sense.

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

      We know very well what happens after one dies. The heart stops beating. Blood stops flowing. Cells begin to expire, including those in our brains responsible for our personality and memories. Within moments, there is no longer any brain activity. Later the bacteria in your body will begin to consume you, their ecrement causing a buildup of gas which makes tissue soft enough for scavengers and outer microbial growth to help consume you. In a very short period, nothing is left behind of the person, certainly not the mind or personality, since all organs are dead and in a state of decay. To presume that your mind could live is presposterous considering the "mind" is the function of the brain, which in this state has decayed beyond operation.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  2. Meblondie138

    Basically, "spritual but not religious" to me means to me is that although I believe in God or have my own faith or religion I do not fit into the box of any one specific religious denomination. To me my relationship with my God is my own and not up for interpretation, judgement or suggestions. And it could mean that I don't believe in any God, but that I believe in philosophies that keep me grounded and at peace with myself and others around me, but again is no ones business but my own unless I feel like I want to share. So for someone to comment that "spiritual but not religious" is a cop-out tells me that they want to judge what I believe in or not.

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

      There is nothing wrong with judging people for their belief in make-believe creatures and people. Mental hospitals do this all the time. If an adult professed belief that Spider-Man was real and let that influence his life in some way, society would be quite open about judging that person..

      October 3, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  3. Sam Freeman

    "Tell to the non believer: "I do not adore what you adore. I did not adore what you adored, and I will not adore what you will adore. You have your beliefs and I have mine." This text is from a religious text.
    Mr. Miller, this is just to tell you: "Take care of yourself and leave us to care about ourselves. If you need to clink to a religion, GOOD for you! It is not good for me.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • on judgement day

      Look for sam freeman it will be standing there with an Oh sh it look on its face.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  4. Statistically Insignificant

    Hmmmmm... this guy cherry-picks 8 comments out of 8000 in his attempt to refute points that he chooses to micro-focus on...
    What, exactly, CNN, is "Your Take" about this article? It is just another dose of Miller repeating poorly his poorly constructed argument. He is a classic straw-man debater. His arguments have no depth, and he is prone to broad generalizations, while failing to clearly define that which he attacks.

    Of course, he does repeat the term "new atheist" numerous times, because its a loaded phrase, and he can assail it without really defining it.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • fiveliters

      You summed it up perfectly. I just don't get why other people are so concerned with how other people live their lives,when their own lives are probably not without issue. I don't care if someone is or isn't religious;I more care about how they treat me and others around them. If they do good,and ascribe that to their religion,great. If they do good,and have no religious affiliation,also great. It's just a non-issue for me,and he should get over it as well.
      Perhaps I'll just flip a coin and pick a side so he'll shut up and go away!

      October 3, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • @GuileOfTheGods

      He has to use a term to put people who don't fit into a category into a category. The same reason he keeps throwing around how "atheists are negative", all the while he has NOTHING POSITIVE TO SAY.

      In psychology, we call this PROJECTION.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  5. THX1953

    More blood has been spilled in the name of Religion than for any other reason in history.

    No thank you.

    I'm not having any.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • truth be told

      Atheists have tortured and murdered more people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Seyedibar

      That is fiction. Atheists have been responsible for deaths before, but never has their been an actual "cleansing" of believers for the sake of doing such. If you're speaking of Stalin, he excommunicated around 4 million religious believers from society, who mostly died on their own without resources and leadership. Those executed in the gulags were killed for committing crimes, mostly theft or begging (still harsh). Contrarily, the 3 Abrahamic religions have been calculated as having been responsible for around 900 million deaths in religious battles, witchhunts, inquisitions, and religion-driven murders. Atheism does not promote violence, since it is merely the act of not believing something. The Bible, Talmud, and Quran openly promote violence and slavery in their written language, as evidenced by hundreds of passages.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  6. Nicole

    I think that deciding for yourself what you believe and what you take to be your truth is the opposite of lazy, the opposite of not taking ownership. It is the opposite of a cop-out.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  7. Human values first then spirituality or religion

    It's a shame that such an ignorant person is allowed to write article on such agendas, who clearly demonstrates dysfunctional thought process of human values. Propagating such belief models is no way less destructive than people who disrespect others' freedom of choices. Forcing the opinion either by good talks, financing religious groups (yes I mean to say donations) or using a sword on the neck are all actions with same motives they just are used as different methods of response conditioning. Religion and spirituality should be a choice of people; both are man-made out of fear, prosecution, and death; and given roles of duties and responsibilities as reinforced conditioning. It is easy to understand this with an example of an animal in leech is calm and oriented because the animal believes that everything would be taken care of by the master. Some of us; humans also have similar tendency, it is just that having real leech is not acceptable nor held by another human being therefore it is easy to feel that the other end of the leech is in the hand of "God' non-human particle and is virtual. It makes religious people calm and divine; and spiritual people with “feeling-good about something” – don’t know what. Serving, helping others; leading a gentle life should come as an autonomic response and should not be derived out of a thought process or belief model.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • response

      If you think your response is being interpreted as one of love – think again.
      You are coming off as angry and attacking. You are attacking another person – while claiming to be against such attacks.
      The word hypocrite comes to mind.

      Man, you just don't have a handle on compassion, caring, sympathy – and btw, neither do I, I'm not even trying.
      But that doesn't make me a hypocrite, because I'm not advocating for those things, but those of you who are – lol, man...amazing.

      People like you are dangerous, you'll love someone to death. You would never fight with someone – as long as the other side surrenders. If not, then you were forced into the fight by those evil aggressors. LOL – deluded much, friend?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Human values first then spirituality or religion

      @response: I am glad that I could help you in taking your frustration of life out in this forum without you agreeing with my opinion. May be you would have a less stressful day.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  8. nojinx

    LIFE IS the positive alternative.

    The issue is that a large percentage of people are convinced, usually at a young age, that they need theology or theological doctrine, so they are going to perceive a vacuum exists where theology does not.

    This is the great danger of indoctrination: teaching individuals that they need something unreal or "bigger than themselves." The phenomenon the author has noticed over the past twenty years is the ebbing of that indoctrination practice.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • lookbothweis

      Is it any different if you preach to young children that there is no higher being?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • nojinx

      Kids start out as non-believers, so no preaching of non-belief is required.

      But the key is: don't preach. Just teach. Teach them to think for themselves. Let them discover the secrets of the universe naturally, not through dogma or indoctrination.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  9. zach

    "self-described new atheists, who are furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves"

    What a gross mischaracterization. Your response to your critics is even more infantile than your original rant.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  10. Eric

    There can be only one TRUTH.... all of you thinking that maybe there are alternatives or what you think matters are beyond clueless. The stupid ones will be cut off from the earth, no insight at all belongs to the intellectuals.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • tracey

      I am very Catholic and spiritual.....I feel you can believe what you want but on my death bed I'm believing in Jesus and the gift of everylasting life........and he was rather particular about only those that believe in him as the way to everlasting life will achieve it...........if you choose to die and turn into a turnip or go with the "force", more power to you, have at it, we all have a choice.......I know where I'm placing my bets

      October 3, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Michael

      Eric, I don't think that you mean truth as the dictionary does: "That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality."
      I think your definition of truth = "my religious opinion." Furthermore, doesn't the Bible bash people who are seen as wise? Indeed, it seems to frown on education and wisdom in general. Yet you call those who dare to disagree with you stupid... so which are you, stupid or wise? If your wise, then the Bible wants nothing to do with you; you're shooting yourself in the foot.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • fiveliters

      Tracey-I'm happy for you,but I do have a question:do you believe because you -want- to,or do you believe because you feel you -have- to? I mean,it's like people who go to their refrigerator,open it up looking for a snack,and there's nothing in there...yet a half an hour later,will go to that same refrigerator and open it,again and again. It's like,do you think something will magically appear in there,or at some point,will reality take over and you'll say "you know what? This is BS,I'm going to go grab a pizza cause I know deep down that no matter how many times I open that door,nothing new will be in there!"?
      Me,I can tell you all day that "uh,yeah...I believe!",but deep down,I know I really don't,so..what was accomplished?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  11. Michael

    The book you want to reference is the BIBLE, Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth

    October 3, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Dan

      So, the word "bible" is an acronym? Wow.

      I love when worshippers of the book-of-death try to peddle their cult as some kind of moving truth.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Michael

      I'm embarrassed to have the same name as this guy. Frankly, if this nonsense were true, the deity probably would have seen fit to have us born with the book shackled to our wrists... along with the ability to read it. Or he just would have had its contents imprinted into our brains to begin with. Or he wouldn't have even bothered with the stupid (and ultimately inhumane) experiment and wouldn't have bothered tossing people onto this planet to begin with.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • A Frayed Knot


      Your cutesy BIBLE acronym does not apply to any other language but English.

      For example:

      French: Saintes ycritures
      German: Bibel
      Spanish/Portuguese: Biblia
      Dutch: Bijbel
      Russian: Би́блия'

      October 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  12. Bob Schwartzkopf

    I think this is much simpler than people want to make it. Spirituality is based on what each individual believes. Either you believe there is one God, many gods, or no God. If you believe in one God, my question is "Do you love Him?". For me, I believe in one true God and His son Christ and I constantly try to understand what He wants from me. Personally I think that what He mainly wants is that I believe in Him, love Him, and worship Him. I can't control what others believe. All I can do is share my belief with others and hope the Holy Spirit enters their life and they can share the joy and contentment I feel. In the meantime, I welcome, accept and live with neighbors and friends of other beliefs, nationalities and races and pray they can find the same joy and peace I have found from Christ.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • mk

      So there is no other way to peace other than through your "one true god"?

      October 3, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • dave

      @mk Yes, how archaic/hateful to actually believe something strongly enough to think that you might be right. Shame, shame.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • mk

      The problem comes, dave, when you think you're right, that makes everyone else wrong. This idea starts wars.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Bob Schwartzkopf

      mk, No, I don't believe that there is only one way to 'peace", it is just one of the great benefits I derive from my faith.

      October 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  13. dave

    "You can believe whatever you want, as long as you don't believe you're right!" – logic of the spiritual but not religious

    October 3, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • lookbothweis

      Author, you are trying too hard to categorize. I am a 29 year old Agnostic. I can have religious discussions with 10 Atheist friends and 10 Christian friends and get 20 different views on spirituality and religion. Only a couple would correlate with your sweeping generalizations.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • lookbothweis

      ^ That was meant to be an individual post, not a reply to dave.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  14. Marianne

    A wonderful positive alternative is Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com) and Centers for Spiritual Living (www.csl.org). Blessings!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Yikes, that magazine is a pathetic farce. The cover of this "science" magazine speaks of noetic fields, which is based on the holographic field theory, which unravelled four years ago when it was shown that the double-blind slit test had incorrectly assumed that the mind affects quantum particles. We now know that it does not and cannot. There is no noetic field. What's the other article there? The dna of healing music? Snake oil salesmen, the lot of ya.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  15. RichardSRussell

    Again, Miller (seemingly almost purposely obtuse) misses the main thrust of most of the comments, which is that there's ABSOLUTELY NO REASON WHATSOEVER to buy into woo-woo superst¡tion, with or without the cloaking of inst¡tutional religion, but at least the "spiritual but not religious" people are thinking for themselves, however shoddily.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • David V

      Like I said before, it'd be better if he was religious because at least then he'd have a valid excuse for his self-delusional behavior.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  16. Alan Miller co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery


    October 3, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  17. Oregon Alley Cat

    This guy comes across as dogmatic and closed-minded, spinning the answers of anyone who would disagree with him to be "wrong".

    October 3, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  18. BaDonna

    This guy sounds like an egomaniac who has to get the last word in and feels the need to argue until everyone comes to acquiesce to his particular pov.
    In other words, he sounds just like the overzealous atheists and the overzealous religious.
    It appears that he is arguing for the sake of arguing...and I really couldn't get a grasp of where he stands, anyway...pompous arrogance is what I got from BOTH articles.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  19. Ann

    A great positive alternative is Centers for Spiritual Living (www.csl.org) and Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com). Blessings!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  20. staugmarty

    Miller still considers anyone "spiritual but not religious" to be only able to define themselves in negative terms. Well have you ever seen proof of an afterlife? I have, and I am not alone. I have witnessed what I consider to be the visible soul of someone who has passed over (ie: dead). Now maybe I'm wrong and it was really a time traveller, but I consider this as proof that we do go on after death. However I have no idea if my behavior in this life determines my whereabouts in the next life, so I try to live in a way that does no harm to others. I don't consider myself an athiest, and I don't consider myself religious. I don't think any "god" or prophet or messiah has anything to do with it. I think this is how nature works. I will find out for sure someday.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • David V

      Exactly, what's the point of debating about this. We all get to find out eventually.

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

      I continue to be puzzled by this "we'll all find out someday" att¡tude. You mean you'll know if there's life after death after you're dead? No, you won't. You'll be DEAD. You won't know ANYTHING.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • staugmarty

      You must think I saw a time traveller.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • David V

      Well, technically, you may not find out because you mind has gone the way of oblivion. But in an existential way, you still get to find out. Really there's a bunch of philosophical debate about. The only way to find out for sure is to die, but even then you may not get an answer but it's still the only way to find out.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:59 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.