Why the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious Movement Will Ultimately Fail

Why the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious Movement Will Ultimately Fail August 10, 2023

Three reasons why the spiritual-but-not-religious movement will likely fail. Picture CC0 License

My prediction is that the spiritual-but-not-religious movement will ultimately fail. It pains me to say this, but after years of contemplation, I can’t come to any other conclusion. There are three primary reasons behind my prediction, but before I go into detail, allow me to explain why I was a part of this movement for most of my adult life.

Going Beyond Tradition

I was first introduced to the spiritual-but-not-religious movement under the New Age umbrella in my late teens. Breaking away from conventions appealed to me (I was a little bit of a rebel, after all). Growing up in a culturally Christian society (Iceland), I found the institutions dull and unstimulating. Non-religious spirituality held the promise of liberating me from the shackles of judgment and tradition.


The promises of self-determination and freedom to explore were equally exhilarating. I could go to a Native American sweat lodge one day, get a psychic reading another, and create my own spiritual path the third. There were no rules to follow; other than not to yield to the rigid rules of existing religious traditions. As a result, we were all over the place, and proudly so. My personal journey brought me to yoga and further into ideas of interspirituality.

Dropping the Not-Religious Label

For almost twenty years, I self-identified as spiritual-but-not-religious, but after completing my interfaith minister studies in 2017, I had a major realization. The non-religious movement relies heavily on religious traditions to sustain it. We proudly swim in a lake fed and preserved by religious traditions. It seems preposterous for the lake to declare itself independent from the rivers that flow into it. As a result, I decided to let go of the non-religious label.

Why Will the Movement Fail?

After distancing myself from the spiritual-but-not-religious movement for a few years, I have come to a clear understanding of why it is destined to fail. The three primary reasons are interconnected and interdependent.

1. No Central Belief

The lack of a central belief system or philosophy contains both the beauty and the fatal flaw of the spiritual-but-not-religious movement. Those who label themselves as such are free to believe or not believe as they see fit. Yet, without organizing principles, absolute freedom often descends into chaos. Whether we like it or not, humans are drawn to centralized beliefs to guide them in daily life. Without that, the spiritual-but-not-religious movement appears as a mere catchphrase that captures the zeitgeist of a rebellion.

2. No Community

I have yearned for a spiritual community that embraces open-mindedness throughout my adult life. I have tried belonging to yoga and New Age groups, connecting with people attracted by the same teachers and gurus, and going to New Thought churches whose central philosophies I ended up not agreeing with. In all honesty, the search has been exhausting. I have yet to find a group that strikes the right balance between openness and centralized beliefs; they usually lean too far toward one end. Yet, community is central to supporting a spiritual life and practice. Without it, every person becomes an island, and, despite romantic ideals about island escapes, no one wants to be alone in the world.

3. No Institutions

The first two reasons are personal and social. The third is political. A robust democratic society relies on institutions to support its individuals. With centuries of history, vast resources, numerous lobbyists, and extensive real estate holdings, existing religious institutions make it clear to me that a movement based on a simple catchphrase is unlikely to establish itself in the world. In the past, I believed that organized religions would eventually disappear, but now it seems that they are simply biding their time and waiting to emerge victorious.

No Chance?

Yet, I can’t help but ask the question: Is there no way to capture a population that identifies as spiritual-but-not-religious (which is still growing, by the way) and create something religiously adjacent? A part of me still wants to believe in that possibility, but the obstacles are enormous. How do you get a group of free-thinkers to unite around open-minded central tenets? And, if you found that unifying belief, how would you pull people away from their daily lives to meet regularly? A leader-driven organization is bound to fail when the leader departs this world, whereas a principle-led organization will lack the energy to gather people. Plus, you’d be asking anti-joiners to join. And if they came, would they be willing to give money so that the organization would grow to the size of an institution?

Each question begs a hundred more, and I don’t see any answers on the horizon. That is why I stand with my earlier prediction that the spiritual-but-not-religious movement will ultimately fail—but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Gudjon Bergmann
Amazon Author Profile

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