Faith, Spirituality — October 16, 2012 8:00 am

“I’m Spiritual But Not Religious” Is A Cop-Out

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In a recent piece on CNN’s Belief Blog, Alan Miller gives a one-two punch to the ever-growing mantra of “spiritual but not religious” taken up especially by younger generations. In recent studies it has been shown that while younger people are fleeing from institutions they are not fleeing from faith altogether. But, why? Miller wonders.

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?

Miller points out that Christianity has been intertwined with Western culture for hundreds of years and it’s influence has been vast, from Bach to an impressive catalog of literature. The strong desire to read and understand the Bible created a radical movement when the King James Bible was published.

Today, however,

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.

So how is being spiritual but not religious a cop-out? Because it avoids taking any position.

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.

What do you think? Is being spiritual but not religious a cop-out? What about the decay of many religious institutions?  Is it a good thing? What positives come from removing oneself from an institution? As Christians do we have a duty to the Church as Christ’s Bride?

Share your thoughts below.

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

    All I (a self-proclaimed “spiritual but [no longer] religious” cop out-er) ever DO is work on deciding–and I can’t!

    If you ask me (and you did, so I’ll tell you) being decisively religious is (often, though not always) a really good strategy if you want to avoid having to think about the fact that the only reason one has the religion one does in the first place is pure chance–one’s time in history and geographic location–and consequently it’s utterly absurd and completely illogical to believe that what you supposedly “know” is the ultimate, trumping truth.

  • This a heavily contested area–it’s even difficult to get concensus on what exactly the terms mean–I think it is largely an umbrella term giving some cohesion to a large set of ideas, often contradictory, which are a sign of the shifting terrain of belief in the 21st century. The problem then becomes how you address something vague in concrete terms, the danger of course being that one applies a set of assumptions which may be true in part, but do certainly not across the board, which is what Mr. Miller seems to do here. The barely disguised disdain would seem to betray his own preference for a particular kind of religiosity, but I don’t know him that well, so I would hesitate to name it fully. The primacy of ‘sin’ as a means of self-improvement strikes me as a narrow sense of what the role of religion is and has been (i do realize that he is not representing the entire role of religion here)–and the idea that spirituals are all about postitivity and feeling better–well, look at some of the major religious figures on the US landscape–TD Jakes, Joel Osteen–people who would seem to be firmly within the religious camp and yet whose principle ideas seem to be that god wants you happy, living your best life, and well-off and sparklingly healthy and the waters get a little muddier–I think the continuum itself is suspect—it points more than anything to shifting landscapes of belief and can’t be so quickly or dismissively analyzed. There is much to critique on both ends of the spectrum, and it may be that the failing of religious institutions to adequately address the times feeds as much as anything else into the issue, but I don’t know.
    I know plenty of people who would consider themselves spiritual not religious who are quite clear in what they believe, where they are going and what they are doing and their commitment to the common good, exceeds the narcissistic characteristics they are accused of in this article. of course there are the faddish, the non-thinking, those for whom it is exactly as Mr. Miller says, but to assume that those on the religious side are all as he says is a bit naive in my mind.
    As for the final quoted piece about the idea of choosing god and scripture over against enlightenment ideas again naively assumes either/or categorizations which seldom pass muster–he says being spiritual not religious avoids having to think too hard, I think articles like this have not thought hard enough about the subject at hand.

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