Is ‘being spiritual’ a cop-out?

A recent op-ed piece on CNN by Alan Miller critiques the trend of people identifying themselves as spiritual, rather than of a specific denomination. It’s an interesting position:

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.

Miller doesn’t pull punches. To call anyone’s beliefs retrogressive in a first sentence is not a invitation from an open mind. I don’t know what an implosion of belief would be like, but I assume he’s trying to say fewer people believe in what he believes, and that’s bad.

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…

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.

I agree with Miller than having conviction is good. Until you are fully committed to an idea or belief you can’t fully understand it.  However beliefs shouldn’t be formed merely because someone in authority told you to believe something. I don’t think it is a real position for someone to be told their beliefs from the day they are born, with intense social and familial pressure not to question that belief. To take a real position means you have made a real, free choice. But we don’t chose our parents and few of us chose our religions. I’m happy to critique the “I am spiritual crowd” for their lack of conviction if the same critique applies to everyone who didn’t choose their religion or belief system.

My fantasy is everyone should learn about every major belief. At least a handful of different ones. Each belief can even be taught by a leader from that denomination. The ‘student’ learns about them all and is free to make comparisons and ask questions on their own terms. No matter what they decided, they’d actually be making a choice, even if it was to believe what their parents do.  Few religions would agree to this as it raises too many questions they are afraid to answer.

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I agree at least that examination can help figure out what worth means. If we critique the unexamined spiritualists, we must critique the unexamined faithful, and faithless, too.

29 Responses to “Is ‘being spiritual’ a cop-out?”

  1. Scott Berkun

    I wrote ” Until you are fully committed to an idea or belief you can’t fully understand it.”

    I don’t actually believe that. What I meant was: sometimes, the more committed you are to an idea, the better you understand it. For example: until you taste Indian food, no matter how many books your read about it there will be elements that are hard, or impossible, to grasp without committing to the experience itself.

  2. Mike Nitabach

    Being religious is a much bigger cop-out than being spiritual, to the extent that you are rejecting the overwhelming evidence that there are no supernatural gods and substituting willful delusion in its place.

    1. Steve

      Being a pantheist allows for whatever set of “values” the pantheist sees fit to meet their wishes, with no moral code. In other words, pantheism was created in order to allow the copouts of the world to do as they please, when they please, and how they please, without any moral code that keeps them in check in order to meet a higher authority. Copout!

  3. K3

    My fantasy is that nobody will be indoctrinated with prepackaged systems of belief. Teach history, ethics and the social contract, but stop trying to tie people’s egos – especially children’s – to calcified power structures. This applies to every popular religion today, even Buddhism. Give the seekers space to explore and find. Give everyone else a foundation to exist in this world that does not to denigrate the majority of its inhabitants.

  4. Martin Unsal

    I like Michael Harrington’s formulation of a similar idea in the book “The Politics at God’s Funeral”:

    “The atheistic humanist and the committed religious person have the same enemy: that slack, hedonistic and thoughtless atheism which, often embellished with a sentimental religiosity, is the real faith of contemporary Western society.”

    I prefer this to Miller’s view for a few reasons:

    1) It treats secular humanism as a social project on an equal standing with religion
    2) It admits that religion can be just as vapid as “spirituality”… indeed, spirituality can be much more heartfelt and well thought out than religion.

  5. Stefan

    You have some very positive assumptions about people if you think this results in a kind of free, educated choice.
    The more I think of it the more it sounds like: Let’s create a car wash where everybody is forced through and see which grand idea sticks the most to their hearts. Would you want that?
    Freedom of choice is freedom to educate myself in preparation for my choice as well. If I am not free to choose what to read/learn about then society has done the cop-out for me. I have decided based on an arbitrary process with arbitrary speakers and arbitrary ideas chosen by others.

    I do not mind that people do not choose. It’s part of life. Everybody conciously or unconciously avoids a lot of decisions. About organic/non-organic food, about which new computer to buy, about political parties.
    You have to choose what to decide about. There are so many decisions to be made. And nowadays religion is a topic where not-deciding is just easier. As religion is just showing its ugly face every day now, even if they’re spiritual’, who wants this topic about designation, faith, commitment be ruled by so much negative feelings about religion? What is the transforming experience about if you’re becoming a christ when a temple got burned in Bangladesh? Hatred?

    So yes, good time for beliefs outside of religions.

  6. Per Rosing Mogensen

    It may and it may not be a cop-out, it depends on the subjective experience and intent.

    For example, is taking pain killers to relieve a headache a cop-out? It depends, do you intend to figure out and deal with the cause of the headache or do you just want to ignore it?

    Are activities such as playing games, drinking alcohol, “fooling around” cop-outs?
    I think the key is whether you do it with intent and purpose it can be quite sensible, even productive, as a relaxed mindset is more flexible and adaptive. On the other hand, if it is used a strategy to avoid facing choices there is no flexibility, just rigid repetition, and no adaptability, just indifference.

  7. Michael

    Miller was doing alright until he constructed his enormous straw man:

    “Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that…they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.”

    The fact that he just stated the ACTUAL case for “unorganized” religion before this aside, I’m unsure where he found these spokesmen for “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious” who told him we do it because our way is “deeper, more profound.”

    Of course, he risks not getting the kind of raging debate he wants if he doesn’t introduce some divisive hot button, so that he does. Sad, really.

    The fact is that there is no official “spiritual-but-not-religious” organization, it’s just a bunch of people, each seeking in his or her own way. Some find, some don’t – but we all seek to do it without indoctrination or dogma. That’s all.

    But it’s easier to critique something if you can pretend you have a handle on it, even if it’s something as obviously amorphous as millions of people seeking in his or her own way.

    1. Ka?ala Souza

      *Sigh* I’ve been a pastor in a church for the past 20+ years and I would consider myself trending more towards the spiritual but not religious more now than ever before.

      Thanks for writing so clearly what troubled me so much about Miller’s piece. Those spokesmen for “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious” exist only in his head. When he says

      “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”

      I don’t really see the trouble. So what if there’s no exposition, understanding or explanation? Is he seriously thinking that his theology is the the one that can explain it best? I’m more troubled by Miller than his view of the trouble.

      Another thing he says in his article is

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

      …and again I’m impressed with his dogmatic, broad-brush strokes as he paints every large church as benching “serious religious study.” Is it just because they’re large.



  8. JMiller

    I’m sorry, but did (that other) Miller actually suggest that people ought to be taking a real position on metaphysics? Allow me to sit here grinning for a moment before I continue on… to note that for me, I find that

    “I Reject Your Monopoly On Truth”

    is a good starting point for a position of belief. And then I can happily chatter on on Jung and Goethe and Nietzsche and Campbell, and about how God may very well be playing dice with the universe… for hours.

    But let me grab some not-too-long Nietzsche and see if he can clarify things a bit. From _Human, All Too Human_:

    Metaphysical World. — It is true, there may be a metaphysical world; the absolute possibility of it can scarcely be disputed. We see all things through the medium of the human head and we cannot well cut off this head: although there remains the question what part of the world would be left after it had been cut off. But that is a purely abstract scientific problem and one not much calculated to give men uneasiness: yet everything that has
    heretofore made metaphysical assumptions valuable, fearful or delightful to men, all that gave rise to them is passion, error and self deception: the worst systems of knowledge, not the best, pin their tenets of belief thereto. When such methods are once brought to view as the basis of all existing religions and metaphysics, they are already discredited. There always remains, however, the possibility already conceded: but nothing at all can be made out of that, to say not a word about letting happiness, salvation and life hang upon the threads spun from such a possibility. Accordingly, nothing could be predicated of the metaphysical world beyond the fact that it is an Elsewhere, another sphere, inaccessible and incomprehensible to us: it would become a thing of negative properties. Even were the existence of such a world absolutely established, it would nevertheless remain incontrovertible that of all kinds of knowledge, knowledge of such a world would be of least consequence — of even less consequence than knowledge of the chemical analysis of water would be to a storm tossed mariner.

  9. Simon Fairbairn

    I am guilty of using this phrase.

    Conviction is a double-edged sword. If you are so committed to an idea that you build your self-image around it, you are no longer open to reason or rational argument. An attack on the idea becomes an attack on you.

    In larger groups, these ideas become dogmatic and highly resistent to change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    I’d suggest commitment to understanding, experience, and knowledge as general concepts is great—a love of learning—provided you don’t have a vested interest in where that knowledge and understanding takes you (like acceptance into a group, money, or fame).

    “I don’t know, let’s find out” is a much smarter response than almost randomly picking a side, and, for me at least, answering “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is simply another way of saying “none of these answers fit, I’m still looking”.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Simon: I really like your phrase “Conviction is a double-edged sword. If you are so committed to an idea that you build your self-image around it, you are no longer open to reason”. Nice.

      1. Ben Board

        With respect, I don’t think the phrase is logical or true. I’m a rock-solid non-believer. I have conviction, I am committed to the idea, and I build my self-image around it, if you like. But I am completely open to reason and rational argument. If you can show me I was wrong, that’s AWESOME. Better for me. Meanwhile I’ll get on with not worrying about it.

        If one comes to atheism through careful study and reflection, and a belief that truth comes through evidence and inspection and diligence, then it would be inconsistent to fail to question one’s own hypotheses in the same way.

        I studied and considered these questions over many years and my jury returned a unanimous verdict: atheism beyond any reasonable doubt. I’m open to compelling new evidence, but I don’t yet see any reason to reopen the investigation.

        If you believe “I don’t know, let’s find out,” is a useful reply (and I really do) then I propose that “I found out” is better still.

        1. chris

          good point. one highlighted issue is wanting to be part of something beyond yourself, something ‘spiritual’, but retain all the things that come with being an individual in a society thats structured around the individual, the idea of subscribing to a religion may appear to take some of that individualism away. By defining yourself as ‘spiritual’ you can acknowledge elements of religion and retain all individualism by crafting your own version of what it means to be spiritual. What do you think?

  10. YPCheng

    Being spiritual is not a cop out…the idea that you belonging to an organization & fully committed to it does not mean you cannot question…however, in most cases, you are not able to question the status quo hence I do not belong to any religious organization…

    1. Scott Berkun

      My point was anything can be a copout – it depends on how you made the choice. That’s the biggest blind spot in Miller’s argument.

  11. Shantnu

    I think what people like Miller want is, everything to be black and white. That way, you say you belong to religion X, and Miller can criticise your religion based on what the worst people in your religion have done.

    Or you say you are an atheist, in which case you get criticised based on what Richard Dawkins may have said, or for having no morals.

    It is a tribal mentality, or a school gang mentality. You have to join a tribe or a gang, or we will beat you up.

    The other reason to force people into tiny boxes is so that you can dismiss them easily. “Of course he said X. He belongs to religion X, which till recently was doing Y”, or “He is an atheist, so of course he would dismiss our family values.”

    Many people are aware of this. They want to believe there is something bigger than them, but don’t want to get boxed into the narrow confines of religion X. Or, they may be inspired by more than one religion, and don’t want to get into unnecessary debates with fanatics of their own religion.

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

    Actually, it doesn’t. Scott, as you say, it is most religious people who avoid having to think. My religion says X, so X it is. You are outsourcing your brain to what the mob in your Church says.

    What I’m trying to say is, there are many reasons people may say they are spiritual, but not religious. They want to keep their beliefs private, to figure out their own path in life. The last thing they want to do is engage in a debate with someone like Miller.

    1. Scott Berkun


      “it is most religious people who avoid having to think.”

      Most people don’t think much, regardless of what they believe. I don’t think we can know if a spiritual or religious person is thinking more or less without understanding how they came to believe what they believe. It could be a spiritual person arrived there after years of searching the world for answers, and still not finding any. Or it could be they are just following what their parent’s believed. The belief itself, no matter what it is, doesn’t tell us much about their reasons.

  12. Sam

    It just doesn’t convey much meaning. If you don’t spend any time reflecting on these issues but would rather not admit it, then it is absolutely a cop-out. Most church-goers fall in the same camp, though. When they say, for example, “I’m a Methodist” but can’t explain what that means to them, it is also a cop-out of a different kind.

  13. zensouth

    Why is it that religious folks get so irked by “spiritual” people? I think it is because they are, on some level, upset that the “spiritual” folks don’t play by the rules, they step out of the artificial boundaries of doctrine and religion. They short circuit the system. They get to have all the happiness and hope without all the negativity, without the us vs. them, the holy vs. the damned, the saved needing to save the unsaved.

  14. Sean Crawford

    Scott, I have a lot to say, and Shantnu has said part of it, but I’ll keep my paragraphs short.

    Half a loaf is better than no loaf. Miller has a false dichotomy. The issue is not scriptures vs the age of enlightenment. Taking a position on spirit is not always an opposite of religion, but sometimes a good compromise, better than totally giving up on any faith in “something more.”

    In church basements there are AA meetings. If an drunk in danger of destruction can only find a spiritual higher power, instead of joining the church above, then I say, “hurray, more power to you.” To me his “higher power” is not to avoid hell or follow ancient scriptures, but to to give him a power source for life, and something greater than himself.

    (Incidently, some folks who twist themselves up recycling and expressing hatred for global warming “deniers,” are also into something, a cause, greater than themselves. There is human need here being expressed)

    Buddha, who would never cop out, validated spirituality with his famous sentence, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ meaning think for yourself.

    To me the issue is spirit knowledge vs head knowledge: My image is of a hermit with only a bible, or a grandmother, and both of them being more spiritual that a big church administrator with a religious library. Of course grandmother can’t take a position, can’t argue against a high church expert, but she knows what she knows.

    A self-described “recovering nun” (still in a nunnery here in town) once put it: “Religion is taught, but spirituality is caught.” That resonates for me.

    By keeping “spiritual” vague and “individual,” there is less “group think” and peer coercion, less chance for a Spanish Inquisition. I am a baby boomer; my old spiritual friends have been group-shy ever since we lived through Vietnam.

    Another way to look at the issue: By going in for a “less real” less clear “right brain” spirit rather than a real “left brain” clarity from what the big religious tribe logically says, one avoids being wacked on the head by new science or logic or new historians de-bunking stuff.

    No Miller, having a thought out body of explanation and set of principles is fine for intellectuals like you and me, but most people, including most college graduates, genuinely don’t want to be intellectuals with an iron position.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Great comment Sean. thanks for so many careful thoughts.

      ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ is something I have not thought about in years. Thinking about it now.

  15. Daniel H. (Germany)

    I really enjoyed the nice and insightfull comments.

    Quite remarkable: all seem to agree that there is an actual shift from religiousness to spirituality (I agree as well).

    For me, knowing that this shift exists matters more than questioning wether it’s good or bad. I’m a religious person (katholic christian) and in my voluntary work at my local church, I often experience a clash of mindsets: There are older church members who are very much bonded to dogmatic views and teenagers who feel way more spiritual than religious. So as a result, the church’s activities and offers don’t resonate well with teenagers and part of my work there involves trying to adopt our offers (not towards an adopted brainwashing but instead to offer real help with finding their own spirituality).
    It’s normal today to see teenagers (or people in general) questioning the church’s position and looking for answers in a broad range of possible places. So I think this is partially also a shift towards an actual choice instead of just sticking with the religion you grew up with.

  16. chris

    Really interesting post.

    I think theres distinct difference between someone who is religious and someone who i spiritual that is well described here. I think humans are designed to have a spiritual side, so Its a little unfair for Miller to criticise ‘spiritual’ people like this, in the same way its unfair to criticise someone who swims 3 times a week for not being an olympic champion.

    As with most things in life, the true religious life is one of hard work and sacrifice, many ‘spiritual’ people appear to acknowledge the religious but are uninterested in the sacrifice required to gain things like spiritual transformation. Thats not an attack btw, I fall into the spiritual group for sure.

  17. Dev

    People are people. No matter which religion they follow or call them self spiritual but not religious, the bottom line is if they are at peace and spreading peace within their home or in their community matters the most. If so called all the religions or spirituality teaches love and peace, then why there is so much negativity in this world. If I ever have to choose a messiah, god or guru, it would be John Lennon in many ways and my bible would be “Imagine” song by him. I don’t hate people, I love people, but I dislike their beliefs, delusion and close mindedness.

  18. Toshe

    Spiritual People!

    Some of the people I love are spiritual. I hate them for that! They can be nice cute and meek, read osho, be vegan and never-ever get angry. Problem is that the whole world around them is bad. People are eating animals (who have souls) buy nice clothes trying to look good (for them that is ego maniacs) be self-expressive, loud and happy (for them that attention seekers) defending their opinion or arguing (arrogance) and basically they are evil, greedy and sought after money. To them the whole world is submerged in various conspiration, where the Illuminati will always win. Spiritual people in Europe? They basically hate whole of USA!

    I am sobbing because once I don’t give a damn and want to live life and enjoy it too, my spiritual friends want talk to me anymore! My sinful big meat-eating egoistic heart can’t measure up to the clean sinless souls of my ghandi inspired friends.

    I wish all spiritual folks moved away to Neptune. This earth is to dirty for your spotless etheric body to stand. On.

    Come on, I am only joking! No offence intended. I said I love you, you spiritual folks. I mean I hate, I LOVE YOU :)

  19. Daniel

    Any type of belief is a type of regression if it leaves you consumed and attached to the physical world. Even if it is a belief that you really think with all your heart that it is true that you need to have the latest Nike’s to be cool, or to have so many followers on Instagram etc. This type of ideas has become indoctrination in our society. The meaning of life to me is a journey of Self discovery, healing, of being, and to practice existing with no attachment to earthly senses. It is a practice of love. This is also a belief but if you try this path you will see that it is the most aligned with your true nature.

  20. Eric

    Thank you for putting this out there. I agree with your opinion and I hope more people would come to agree with this as well.
    Spiritual health affects the overall wellness of a person. If you find a great way to improve it, you will develop harmony in your inner self and the outside world. Check this out Ways to Live a Spiritually Healthy Life hope this will help.
    Thank you.


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