Cop Out

Sometimes I wonder why I keep going back to CNN’s website. Then I see an op-ed like this, and realize, “Oh, yeah, it’s because I like to torture myself.” The people at CNN are clearly co-conspirators in the global movement to make all commentary on religious topics as shallow, milquetoast, and status-quo-affirming as possible.

The topic this time is the growing number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” It calls this position a cop out. I agree, it is. But Alan Miller and I don’t see exactly eye to eye on just why it’s a cop out.

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.

No, it’s hyperbole that’s destroying society and killing puppies!!!

But, hey, you gotta make what you say sound like it’s important, and the cheapest, easiest way to do it is make your audience think that the fate of the very world itself hangs on what you have to say. And you might as well declare that the thing you’re so bravely standing up against is a “movement”, while pointing out how stupid it would be for anyone to call it that (leave out the part where you’re the only person on Earth calling it that).

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.

And who could blame them?

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.

How about the sanctimonious attitudes of those who defend organized religion?

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.

Yeah, that’s all stupid.

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.

And organized religion does? How exactly is it better to have some patriarchal bullshit artist tell you what to believe?

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.

No, it’s still pretty terrible. And again I have to ask, how exactly does organized religion differ from relativist[ic] truths and the ascendancy of what one feels that Miller impugns the spiritual but not religious with? Regardless of whether it’s an organized church or just a personal “spirituality”, it’s still based on faith and feeling rather than facts, logic and evidence. The fact that empty bullshit has the approbation of some patriarchal institution doesn’t make it any better than some bullshit someone just makes up on her own.

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.

Whereas organized religion flourished in in a much better context. Oh, wait, shit sucked a lot more back then. My bad. I mistakenly thought you’d actually successfully made a point about something.

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

When was “serious” religious study ever the main focus of religion? Was Christianity focused on “serious” religious study a hundred years ago when they were lynching blacks outside churches in the south? Was “serious” religious study the driving force in the church 500 years ago when witch burnings were prevalent all across Europe? Are the Muslims attacking embassies because of cartoons and YouTube videos engaged in “serious” religious study?

While Miller is looking down his nose at contemporary society and accusing “spiritual but not religious” people of being caught up in a shallow trend, he’s mindlessly aping another shallow trend among certain modern intelligentsia himself. He’s definitely not the first Luddite to claim that in some imagined past people were engaged in serious, deep interpersonal interactions while today everyone just wants to play with his Wii. He’s just as shallow as the people who think being “spiritual but not religious” somehow protects them from the rigid dogmatism and bigotry of organized religion.

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

As opposed to what? How is this worse than someone who rigidly defines herself by a single culture, religion or ethnicity?

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.

Hey, as long as they leave out the “Jesus can magically multiply fish” and “kill the fags” parts, that sounds like a good thing.

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.

Bullshit. They might have been different without the Biblical allusions, but it’s nonsense to suggest that Bach’s genius wouldn’t have existed at all without his magical death cult.

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.

So if we get rid of religion, then big, historic institutions no longer exist at all? Governments, universities, businesses all just vanish? Oh, wait, you aren’t thinking things through that much.

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

It’s also accompanied by throwing stones at gay people.

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.

Here’s a quick recipe for an Alan Miller paragraph:

1 tbsp gross generalization of other people (discard justifications thereof)

1 cup condescension

1 tbsp scare quotes

Sprinkle in some ten dollar words like “transformation” or “ascendency” that sound deep but don’t really mean anything

Mix well until the group you’re targeting is thoroughly slandered. Be sure to accuse them of not bringing anything positive to the table while also bringing not one iota of substantial, positive contribution yourself.

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.

That’s a GOOD thing. And your second sentence contradicts the first. If the “spiritual but not religious” are following modern science, then they are in fact taking a position. They’re taking the “supported by evidence” position over the “Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church” position.

What, exactly, is Alan Miller’s position, anyways? So far I’ve seen a lot of shit slinging, gross generalization and smarmy condescension, but no actual concrete position being advocated.

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.

Actually, a spiritual but not religious person could also be a humanist and a rationalist. They could even be a materialist as well, as Thomas Jefferson shows.

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.

No. Treating the issue like it’s a black-and-white, you-have-to-decide-right-now issue is the way one avoids hard thinking. In fact, given how redundant and maundering Miller’s op-ed is, I doubt he’s ever given this issue much thought in his entire life. He’s probably only given it a bunch of that “serious” religious study he so wishes the rest of us would engage in. This is evidenced by the fact that we’ve now come to the end of his piece, and Miller has published this whole thing while blissfully unaware that he just spent 800 words repeatedly accusing others of having no positive contributions while never even putting out even the slightest effort to come up with any of his own.

Here’s a positive position: Yes, “spiritual but not religious” is bullshit. But at least those people have the good sense to realize how absurd it is to take a priest or imam at his word, as if being a holy man conveyed any actual authority on any topic at all. At least spiritual but not religious people are on the road towards what I think should be a goal for everyone–trying as hard as you can to base your beliefs about the world on evidence rather than faith, and to base your morals on natural human compassion rather than superstitions or bigoted traditions. At least spiritual but not religious people don’t operate on false dichotomies and puerile black-and-white thinking, realizing on some level or other that shit’s more complicated than that.

And what exactly qualifies Alan Miller as an authoritative commentator on this matter anyways? Let’s check the byline:

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.

Jesus Haploid Christ, CNN. You guys really are very “special”. This guy’s a nobody. And what the fuck is this “Old Truman Brewery” anyways?

Alan Miller is the co-founder of The Truman Brewery, a 10 acre site in London’s East End. The Truman Brewery now has over 200 companies, ranging from recording studios to art galleries, entertainment spaces, restaurants, bars, cafes, fashion and retail. It has been largely responsible for regenerating a significant area of London and creating a new cultural quarter.?Alan is also a film director and has had his work broadcast internationally, with a specialization in music videos and live events. He writes on various cultural issues for several publications and is a published author. For more see

So he made lots of money and directed some shitty videos. In other words, he’s a pretentious dilettante with enough money to convince people to pretend to listen to his vacuous prattle. Just the kind of commentary I’ve come to expect from CNN, who seem hellbent on becoming the next FOX news.


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