As Belief in God and Church Membership Go Down, Spiritual Practices and Community Engagement Go Up—Does This Signal a New Chapter in the World’s Approach to Faith?
Belief in God has dipped again. In the latest Gallup Poll, the American belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent deity dipped to 81%, down six percentage points from 2017, the lowest since Gallup first asked the question in 1944. America had been riding at a robust 98% throughout the post-World War II era until the figure plunged in 2011 to 92% and continued to erode through the ensuing decade.
In Europe the plunge has been even more precipitous where—according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll—only 65% believe: 27% in the God of the Bible and the remaining 38% in a “higher power.”
Concurrent with these statistics is a decline in church membership and attendance. A 2020 survey done before the pandemic of 15,278 U.S. religious congregations by Faith Communities Today found that half of the country’s estimated 350,000 religious congregations had 65 or fewer people in attendance on any given weekend. That’s a drop of more than half from a median attendance level of 137 people in 2000.
But amid these falling poll numbers, additional studies have uncovered an emerging trend: those who regard themselves as “spiritual,” but not necessarily “religious.” These are people who believe that there is Something or Someone Eternal either Up Above or Deep Inside, but who choose to employ avenues besides congregational worship to connect with that immortal element.
These avenues—or “spiritual practices”—include meditation, yoga, tarot, reading, fasting, being in nature, writing, honoring ancestors and making art. For a long time it was thought that people who prefer the solitude of a spiritual experience were selfish and did not participate in community activities such as being politically active, voting, volunteering, attending meetings and otherwise being engaged with the affairs and concerns of the neighborhood or nation.
Recent studies prove that assumption to be far from the truth. People who engage in spiritual practices are just as likely to be civic and community-minded as those who identify as religious.
The studies, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR) and the American Sociological Review (ASR) make a case that spiritual practices can and do prompt people to connect socially in the same way as people who attend houses of worship.
Some consider themselves both spiritual and religious. These, according to the JSSR study are tops in community engagement, followed closely by those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Bringing up the rear in civic involvement are those who consider themselves religious but not spiritual.
What does this mean? It means that an awareness, an inkling, a yearning for something greater than ourselves—whether it’s associated with a specifically named community of faith or not—is a proven incentive for one to get off the mat, open the door, step outside, roll up one’s sleeves and pitch in by whatever way one chooses, to get involved in helping one’s community or world to improve.
It means that scholars, helpers and healers would do well to shine the spotlight upon and emphasize and support not just those who identify as spiritual, but also the spiritual—not just religious—aspect of whatever religious congregation one is associated with.
It could open the door globally to a renaissance of faith and activism buoyed by the spirit.