I am a Friend primarily because I am deeply drawn to the grace and power of the spiritual practices and insights of the Quaker movement expressed in worship as well as in service. Looking around me though, I cannot help but notice that relatively few have been drawn into Quakerism in recent decades; in fact, the number of newcomers is less than the number who have left or passed on in recent years. This fact poses questions that are central to the life and future of Quakerism.
I see the Quaker movement, at least in the United States, sliding slowly—or maybe not so slowly—toward extinction. I see this decline happening, ironically, in a time when many people in this country seem to have a deep hunger for authentic spiritual nurture and genuine community. Quakerism is a spiritual movement with a rich history of both, offering an entryway into transformative spiritual experience and, at its best, a deeply nurturing community.
How can we better make visible and available and accessible to others—to those who are hungry for these things—the spiritual gifts and faith-filled life that our history and practice makes available to us?
As we look at these questions, I want to suggest there is some good news hidden within the generally bad. There are a few overarching trends in the several sources of survey data about American religion that are discouraging for “traditional” religion. All these sources describe a landscape where:
The number of people who now claim they have no religious affiliation—a group newly titled “the nones”—is rising, dramatically so in the last decade. This number has, in fact, increased by a third between 2007 and 2012, reaching 20 percent of all U.S. adults.
Attendance at religious services for the last 50 years was actually lower than previously recognized; and it has declined significantly since the 1960s. Now, only about 25 percent of adults in the United States attend weekly or near-weekly; this rate is probably less than half what it was at its zenith in the 1960s.
- The number of people in the United States who say they do not believe in God is at an all-time high—reaching 8 percent, and more than doubling in the last decade.
- Public confidence in religious institutions and their leaders (which used to get among the highest ratings in such polls) is at an all-time low.
These trends are bad news, especially for those who wish to see religious congregations thriving as entities that offer supportive community, compassion, caring action, and moral vision to our larger society.
However, what we also see in the data is an intriguing shift in how people understand themselves religiously (or spiritually) speaking. In 1999 and 2009, a poll asked Americans whether they consider themselves to be spiritual, religious, both, or neither. In that decade, there was a dramatic rise in the number of people who identified as both spiritual and religious.
When the question was asked in 1999, 54 percent of the respondents said they were religious only, and 6 percent answered as both spiritual and religious. Ten years later, only 9 percent identified as religious only, and 48 percent said both.
Combine these numbers with the 30 percent that identified as spiritual only in both polls, and we find that in 1999, only about one-third of respondents described themselves as spiritual, but by 2009 more than three-quarters described themselves using that term. It is difficult to know how an individual who claims to be “spiritual” understands that term, but there seems to be a significant shift occurring.