‘Spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out

“I’m meditating, dude!”

By Alan Miller, originally posted on CNN’s belief blog.

Note: Alan Miller is Director ofThe 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, guest post

The increasingly common refrain that “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society. The spiritual but not religious “movement” – an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect – highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society.

Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.

It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent – by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other – they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.

That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that “feeling” something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more “true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.

The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.

What is it, this “spiritual” identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?

The accusation is often leveled that such questions betray a rigidity of outlook, all a tad doctrinaire and rather old-fashioned.

But when the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist “truths” and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one “feels” and even governments aim to have a “happiness agenda,” desperate to fill a gap at the heart of civic society, then being old-fashioned may not be such a terrible accusation.

It is within the context of today’s anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate – in combination with a therapeutic turn in which everything can be resolved through addressing my inner existential being – that the spiritual but not religious outlook has flourished.

The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.

Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.

A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur’an, let alone The Old or New Testament.

So what, one may ask?

Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.

Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses – an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity.

Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the “me” generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.

The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world.

Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience “nice things” and “feel better.” There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.

But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is “something out there,” so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions – and for the future.

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.


7 thoughts on “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out

  1. I think this sentiment that people are just lazy or not willing to commit to serious discipline is pretty condescending. I’m sure their are some who fit this bill, but what about the many folks who have been abused by religion? Or folks who are committed to serving the poor or other difficult issues that many churches ignore?

    I used to be a committed Christian that got burned out and tired with the sheer hypocrisy and greed I saw as a worship leader in 3 different churches. At that time, people would refer to me as unchurched or uncommitted to a local church. The problem in my mind, was that I had been overexposed and abused by the church. Overcommitment is what I had been, not the other way around.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents on this one….


  2. Diana Butler Bass’ book “Christianity after Religion” is a great resource for this growing phenomenon. Bass suggests that the ‘spiritual’ folk are those who refuse to conform to the rigidity of religion and divisive politics that are only concerned with labels and positions. Allan Miller seems to lament that people are no longer willing to be neatly categorized in religious pigeonholes anymore, but his assumption that these spiritual people are ignorant and undisciplined couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a rush to judgement.
    How would Miller explain a situation in which a person has refused to eat a meal prepared for them? Anorexic? Vegan? A foodie snob? The point is rather obvious–ask. Yes, people still want to eat, but maybe whatever the church/religion is serving just isn’t satisfying anymore.


    1. I thought of that book as well, Mike! Miller is lamenting what you note, and wants to say that the organized church is still somewhere people can meet with God, but instead of making a positive argument to that end, he berates those who might otherwise have listened. A poor showing, in the end.


  3. I must say I enjoyed reading your post although I don’t necessarily agree with parts of it. As a member of the “spiritual but not religious” group I can honestly say I have looked at many belief systems. The majority of my extended family is Catholic, so I have always gotten an earful about what they believe. The only difference between me and them is I want to look for answers and not be expected to stick to a single belief system, nor be told what to believe by others. Life is an experience at its most basic level.

    Do I believe in a higher power? Yes

    Do I believe any one religion is the “one true” religion? No, and here’s why. Anyone who has ever studied either officially or unofficially multiple belief systems will tell you they are all connected. Just about every religion has taken something from another one.

    “Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.”

    How is this so? The majority of people who classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are usually thinking more about this type of stuff then the average person.

    “At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position.”

    Most have taken a “real position”, they just wont buckle down and join or take part in an “official” organization. There is nothing wrong with that, spirituality is about what’s in your heart, not if your apart of a church or other congregation.

    As I mentioned above I enjoyed reading your blog entry, Cheers.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Dax. I agree with you that the author gives short shrift to people he is labeling ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and as you say, many of these folks are that way because they take it more seriously than many others, not less. He has some interesting ideas, but he does a fairly poor job of getting them across. In any case, I knew the post would spark some good discussion!


  4. Given the effect of religious organisations on society, every step away from “religious” is a step in the right direction.

    And “spiritual” stands for the desire to learn from different teachers, from the Greeks, Marcus Aurelius, through the eastern philosophers to our own thinkers. “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath”, “practise empathy”, “seize the day” – eclectic, but good advice nevertheless.

    So I for one plead guilty of what you apparently so despise. And acknowledge it or not, where science ends, there the truth is what you want it to be, if only there is no coherent way to define truth beyond that boundary.


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