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The Fuss Over “Spiritual but not religious”: an answer to Alan Miller

Recently a certain Alan Miller published an opinion piece on CNN’s Belief Blog entitled “My Take: ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out” .  As someone who has self-identified in this fashion for several decades now, I of course read the piece.  I came away stunned and disturbed by several things.  First, I wondered how any article so badly written, so sloppily reasoned, so sweeping and denouncing in its assertions, and so shady in its motivations could actually get published on a venue like CNN.  (This may say as much about CNN as anything else, of course….)  Second, I wondered how someone possessing any intellectual credentials worth advertising (such as being director of The New York Salon) could actually write—and then subsequently defend—an editorial so lacking in merit.  But perhaps at this point in my life nothing should surprise me when it comes to religion and other sacred cows.  Human beings, it seems, almost invariably choose to believe first and ask questions—or write stupid editorials—later. 
 
I hoped somebody would come back with a devastating repartee to Miller’s exercise in fatuousness.  From the responses I’ve seen though, I am unable to rest assured that this has happened.  In Miller’s own response to his critics he quoted several at length, and it seems none of them really managed to nail him for the intellectual charlatan he clearly is.  So, as they say, if you want something done right you have to do it yourself…
 
Miller’s thesis, conveniently, is contained in his title: “’I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop out.”  So, when I, Craig Shoemake, say that I am a “spiritual” person but do not profess alignment with an established institution or ideology, or at least do not practice strictly within the confines of some tradition vouchsafed by millennia, I am an intellectual “cop out”.  Just so we’re all clear, this is what he is saying. 
 
A couple definitions are in order.  First, Miller appears to define “spiritual” as synonymous with several activities or attitudes, such as “choosing an ‘individual relationship’ to some concept of ‘higher power,’ energy, oneness or something-or-other,” “being independent,” and relying on “feeling,” among other sins.  Second, by “cop out” he means offering “no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind,” indulging in “relativist truths,” smorgasbord style dabbling or syncretism (“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…”), shunning rules and in depth analysis, as well as “want[ing] to experience ‘nice things’ and ‘feel better’” etc.  In other words, he’s accusing spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) people of philosophical and ethical irresponsibility.
 
So that’s the charge: SBNRs are morally and intellectually dissolute, self-indulgent, wish-washy hedonists.  Now, in Miller’s defense I would say he is certainly right about a lot of people.  There are many “New Age” sorts out there who fit his caricature to a T.  I know because I’ve met them. I’ve lived with them. However, intellectual laziness is a widely practiced sin.  Virtually every segment of society–political, economic, religious, you name it–indulges in it on a regular basis.  This is why our economy crashed in 2008.  This is why millions of people think the world is seven thousand years old or that Elvis still lives in a sort of virtual Graceland.  Hell, the sinking of the Titanic can be credited in part to over confident design and shoddy engineering.  If these don’t constitute intellectual laziness, I don’t know what does.  So when Miller accuses some segment of the population of being intellectually lazy, the response of everyone else ought to be a yawn.
 
The real problem with Miller’s thesis is not that there aren’t people who fit his description, or even that a case can’t be made that there are lots of such people and their effects on society are less than positive.  The problem is that he wants to condemn everyone who self-characterizes as an SBNR, and that his criticisms of SBNRs consist of sweeping stereotypes and generalizations.  Moreover, he does not go about his critique in a gentle fashion.  In his opening salvo he says SBNRs “represent some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society.”  (Imagine if he’d said African-American men without college degrees are intellectually retrogressive and morally dubious?  Wow…)   Yet nothing in his article gives any credence to this vicious assertion.  If he is concerned about regressive thinking, ought he not target those who reject evidence altogether, like Holocaust deniers, global warming skeptics, and “young earth” creationists?  If he really wants to save us from groups who threaten civil society, SBNRs are like bunnies next to the rabid dogs of religious and political fundamentalism.  In other words, Miller’s priorities—not to mention his motivations—are problematic enough to render his entire argument suspect.
 
So what exactly are his critiques of SBNRs, and why do I think they’re so wrong-headed?  Miller says: “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.”  He goes on to say “That attitude fits with the message… 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.”  In other words, exercising intellectual independence and making personal choices are problematic for Miller.  Moreover, experiencing “energy” or “oneness”—which, by the way, can easily happen if one is doing a breath or meditation practice—is also unacceptable to Miller.  Personal experience of a sort not mediated or vouchsafed by some controlling bureaucracy—aka “big, historic, demanding institutions… like a church”—is suspect for Miller.  And, clearly, Miller favors hierarchically “handed down” “truths” over those personally lived and experienced.
 
I’m not making this stuff up—it’s all right there in black and white.  The man ought to be working for the Vatican’s “Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition).  Clearly he is an enthusiastic defender of institutional control of the individual and against free inquiry of any sort.  In other words, Miller thinks like someone who lived before the Protestant Reformation, not to mention the European Enlightenment.  He rejects everything these two movements stood—and stand—for.  I can only shudder to think what he stands for: thought control, bureaucratic power (for some reason Kafka comes to mind), and despotism.  Given what he has written, no other conclusion is tenable.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Miller’s whining over people leaving the institutions he esteems is that he takes no consideration of some of the negative forces that drive people away from these institutions in the first place.  You don’t have to be a fuzzy-wuzzy mystic to come to the conclusion that many of the venerable “doctrines, practices, rules and observations” of religious organizations are silly (men only) or superstitious (wafers metamorphosing into a first century Jew) or just plain criminal (child rape), and are therefore no longer attractive.  Miller fails to so much as acknowledge, much less address, any of these concerns as reasons for people’s disillusionment and subsequent lapsing.  His assumption that anyone put off by such things is irrational and self-indulgent indicates he simply doesn’t like people questioning established power.

Miller continues his critique of SBNR people by challenging their integrity at all levels.  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.”  In other words, as a way of thinking SBNRs are not sophisticated or moral or committed enough to actually hold any serious opinions on anything.  He elaborates this position by charging that “the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist ‘truths’ and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one ‘feels’.”  So, he is saying, without “a body of belief or set of principles,” intuition, emotion, and hedonism rule the day and become the determinants of what is “true” and “good.” Taken together, he seems to assert that belief—any belief—is an inherently good thing, that SBNRs don’t have it, and that as a result–i.e., if you think this way–anything whatsoever might be taken as moral or good or true.

Miller’s assertions are puzzling, to say the least.  If I’ve left the Church after years of soul searching and skeptical inquiry, if I no longer call myself religious in any conventional sense but hold to my innate spirituality as a human being, how does this necessarily imply that I’m now a vacuous shell, a sort of overgrown tabula rasa?  How is Miller in a position to say that ipso facto I possess “no positive exposition or understanding” of anything, that I lack a “set of principles,” or that I suffer from an “unwillingness to take a real position”?  This is almost a non sequitur, as making a serious decision by definition necessitates seriousness at some level or other—in the realm of principles, understanding, convictions, whatever.  In other words, the mere fact that someone considers him or herself “spiritual but not religious” suggests they have in fact put some thought into the matter.  After all, standing apart from the crowd, from the tradition and community one likely grew up in, is a difficult thing to do, and not something most people do lightly.  While “seriousness” admittedly does not characterize every SBNR—some may self-label that way out of apathy, if nothing else—this fact alone does not authorize Miller to make the sort of sweeping, pejorative claims his essay is chock full of.

Yet another point obscuring Miller’s argument is his charge that SBNRs are somehow given to ontological and ethical relativism, that they are of necessity opposed to “the notion that there can be universal truths,” or believe that “all truths are equally valid” or that “how one ‘feels’” is their yardstick for Goodness in the world.  I would like to point out that if someone chooses to distance himself from “a big, historic, demanding institution,” it’s probably because he doesn’t think its “truth” is as true as some other truth!  This is so obvious it’s a wonder I even have to say it.  The fact that Miller accuses people of thinking all truths are relative while criticizing the same people for having preferences, for favoring their truth over his truth (even if they are wrong) and thereby clearly demonstrating that they do not think all truths are equally valid, indicates how hopelessly muddleheaded Miller is. 

As regards ethics, I fail to see how someone’s independence from the institutions Miller so adores necessitates their adopting the notion “if it feels good it must be right”—which is pretty much the definition of moral relativism (not to mention hedonism).  I would in fact guess that most SBNR people hold that it is wrong to steal, to lie, to cheat on one’s spouse, or to torture small animals.  And they have probably thought about why it is indeed so, as opposed to simply accepting what some book or authority figure told them as Miller would have them do.  As noted, they had to make some difficult decisions at some point, to walk their own path.  Once again, the logic of Miller’s “argument”—if the word can even be applied to anything Miller writes—totally escapes me.  If Miller believes SBNRs are amoral hedonists, he had damn well better provide some convincing evidence.  But evidence, like its close cousin logic, is MIA in Miller’s world.

Miller concludes his misguided diatribe with the following summary:

But these people [i.e. SBNRs] 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.

There are so many things I could say to this my head is a-whirl just contemplating the possibilities.  However, I have limited space and I’ve got to start somewhere, so…

What is interesting about the first paragraph is that Miller seems to indicate he is okay with people adopting the so-called scientific worldview, which he equates with rationalism and materialism.  This, taken together with the next paragraph, suggests that he sees essentially three possibilities for people today: follow institutional religion, follow science, or be a wishy-washy, amoral spiritual-but-not-religious fool.  Never minding the fact that the world is much more complex and nuanced than these three positions alone can allow, please notice that throughout his essay Miller clearly advocates for institutional religion.  So how now can he turn around and pay lip service to materialism, rationalism and the Enlightenment, all of which have—for four centuries and counting—consistently worked to undermine, discredit, and delegitimize the very traditions and institutions he has been defending?  As I said—my head is a-whirl with possibilities… 

How does one respond to such a mountain of incoherence?  While Miller consistently denounces the “unwillingness [of others] to take a real position,” it is clear he hasn’t a clue what his own position is; his right brain does not know what his left brain is thinking.  The problem when encountering someone like this is that if you attempt to argue with them it is actually impossible to alter them.  The reason is that instead of an organized perspective that changes meaningfully in response to evidence, what they really have is just a jumble of facts and observations, all colored by deeply ingrained, deeply conditioned responses and reflexes.  If you ask such a person if they like or dislike something, they can tell you whether they like or dislike it.  But if you ask them to say why they like or dislike it, you will never get a consistent, coherent narrative or exposition.  What you will get instead is the sort of sweeping generalizations and knee-jerk prejudices, the unsubstantiated allegations and facile reasoning, so abundant in Miller’s essay. 

What we have here is an extreme example of the pot calling the kettle black.  The disease of unreason, of moral and intellectual lassitude that Miller so vociferously accuses others of is precisely the ailment he is suffering from.  It is so bad I think it safe to say his case is terminal.  At this point we can only pray that the deity of some big, historic, demanding institution will intervene to save him.

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