Friday, April 6, 2012

Spiritualism – A ‘Graying Religion?’

A few days ago the Annual Proceedings for The Association for the Scientific Study of Religion – Southwest appeared on the Internet and it was refreshing to see one of the papers presented at their March 9-11 symposium concerned organized spiritualism.

Titled “Messages from Heaven: A Research Study on Spiritualist Ministers and Their ‘Calling’ to Serve Spirit,” the paper was written by Dr. Todd Jay Leonard, a professor at Fukuoka University of Education in Japan. I read one of his books shortly after it was published in 2005 – Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship and he promises that this current research paper will later appear as part of another book he is writing on spiritualism.

While I found the entire paper very interesting, by far the most intriguing paragraphs were those where Leonard talked about the relationship between spiritualism and the New Age movement. This, of course, was the topic of my March 3 blog and it’s flattering to see that Leonard and I largely agree about this topic. After going through all the demographic discoveries his research dug up (which I’ll summarize below), Leonard concedes that “in many ways, Spiritualism has become a part of the ‘mainstream’ over the years, adopting a system that is still on the fringes of the more traditional belief systems but ‘churchified’ enough to be considered somewhat mainstream. Many younger people currently prefer more freedom of choice and flexibility in their religious proclivities, choosing belief systems that offer even less structure and dogma than Spiritualism.”

Coincidentally, Victor Zammit’s weekly Afterlife Report opens today with some similar remarks about today’s young people. “Youth around the world in the twenty-first century has become more questioning and cynical than ever before – demanding proof for the ancient religious beliefs they are asked to accept blindly, without questioning. Youth is rebelling against some of the most obscene beliefs in religious writings none of which can be independently supported. The Old Testament for example makes God an ethnic cleanser, a cause of genocide, inspiring murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children. This God is viciously against women – and is described as a 'God of War', a 'jealous' God, and an 'Envious God'. That is NOT spirituality. That is not inspirational. That is not acceptable. Youth – and others – are protesting with their feet, abandoning the Churches and causing a serious crisis to religion around the world. Youth is rejecting the traditional beliefs created by a few men in ancient times who gave themselves AUTHORITY and POWER to control the minds and hearts of people using horrific fear.”

Absence of structure and dogma has drawn many of these young people out of mainstream Christianity to the so-called New Age movement, Leonard notes. Spiritualism, of course, is a “creedless” religion like the far-flung New Age movement, but the difference according to Leonard is that the New Age is still a “trend” while spiritualism has set itself apart as a religion. (Spiritualism is much more than a religion, but for this discussion we need to limit ourselves to its religious aspect.) Spiritualism is, like most religions and Christian denominations, a “group thing.” To be a spiritualist, one usually belongs to a spiritualist community of some sort such as a church or perhaps only a small home circle. That requires some commitment such as attending meetings, contributing money, reading and study. None of these traditional “churchly” activities are associated with the New Age because that “trend” has not coalesced into structures comparable to churches. Yes, there are meditation groups, yoga groups, and similar organizations out there working loosely under the New Age banner, but each only represents a small part of what is considered “New Age.” Spiritualist churches, on the other hand, try to incorporate it all under one roof. Unlike spiritualism, Leonard says New Age “is more culturally than religiously based, focusing on spirituality as it pertains to various peoples and traditions, rather than to a singular belief system.”

I might add that one can consider him/herself a “New Ager” and never participate in anything outside of the home. To be a spiritualist, however, is to interact in some way with others sharing that belief system. Leonard hints at this by saying that “Spiritualism requires a certain degree of dedication and perseverance, and not mere dabbling.”

Eleven years ago Dr. Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, wrote a compelling book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The strange title comes from research that showed the number of lines bowled in American bowling allies was going up but that the number of lines bowled by league players was dropping drastically. This launched Putnam’s research that concluded that Americans were withdrawing in droves from group activities and staying at home or doing things outside the home on an informal basis with only close friends or family members. In other words, institutions such as churches, lodges, bowling leagues, Boy and Girl Scouts, and many more, were hurting for members – especially active and engaged members. In the back of Putnam’s book is a listing of many membership and volunteer groups with statistics showing declines in participation, many of them drastic, over the previous two decades.

This research relates directly to our current discussion about spiritualism and the New Age movement. My generation and those before it grew up with parents and other relatives or neighbors who were generally involved in one or more organization. Today’s youth as a rule has missed that experience and, hence, they do not flock to organizations themselves. Instead, they “hang out” in commercial locations – shopping malls, night spots, theaters, school activities, etc. If they think about such things, the New Age is appealing but it is pretty much of a solitary activity requiring nothing.

This leads me to the title of this posting – “Spiritualism, a ‘Graying’ Religion?” Leonard’s demographic research points quite clearly to the fact that leadership in spiritualist communions is held almost entirely by middle-age and, predominantly, elderly individuals. In his study sample of ordained spiritualist ministers, none were under the age of 35 and only 3% were between the ages of 35 and 44. A whopping 39% were aged 55 to 64 and 35% were older than that. What’s more, these ministers also provided revealing statistics about when they became a spiritualist. Only 12% were raised in a spiritualist church while 11% more became involved as a “young adult.” A huge majority (70% of the total) became spiritualists in middle age.

These numbers indicate two things: First, the majority of those sitting in the pews at a spiritualist church are sporting a lot of gray hair and, second, those in charge are even older because they were attracted to spiritualism at an older age and then began their long development of mediumship plus additional years of study for ordination. “Spiritualist mediumship and the ministry as we know it may eventually reach a state of extreme crisis if more younger people do not begin to pursue studies toward ordination,” Leonard summarizes. This, I contend, will be difficult to resolve given the downward trend of the general population in all organizations.

As I’ve indicated here before, and Victor Zammit apparently feels the same way, young people today in the Western world are generally educated enough and shrewd enough to reject the religious status quo. Many of them drift toward the New Age ideas because they long for spiritual fulfillment without the church trappings. Somehow we need to draw their attention and enlist their involvement and support – for their good as well as ours. “Spiritualist churches must work to devise a way to attract these ‘spirituality seekers’ if they are to survive the current crisis of being a ‘graying religion,’” Leonard says.

Some of the other demographics Leonard outlines are equally interesting. Although his focus was entirely on ordained spiritualist ministers, we can probably be comfortable in extending these figures to the entire congregation but further research would be necessary to determine if that is fitting. Leonard’s sample showed that 70% of spiritualist ministers were female and this he attributes to two factors: (1) Unlike most other churches, organized spiritualism since its inception has been totally open to female participation and, indeed, its presence today is no doubt due largely to efforts of women; and (2) the majority of those with mediumship abilities are female. Leonard also discovered that 28% of responding clergy were gay, lesbian or bisexual and this, too, illustrates positively the open attitude of spiritualists concerning gender issues. He also theorizes that mediumship tends to function best when the medium possesses an abundance of “feminine energy” but quickly adds that he does not suggest the gay mediums and clergy “are ‘feminine,’ but that perhaps the spiritual aspect and vibratory energy needed to make spirit contact is somehow feminine in nature.” He then goes on to quote a male heterosexual spiritualist minister: “When you do this kind of work, we are all electromagnetic, and we all have male/female energy – which is not sexual. When you do mediumship, you use the ‘feminine’ energy more than the ‘male’ energy. Many straight men are uncomfortable with tapping into this female energy. Gay men are more comfortable tapping into it, so more male mediums tend to be ‘gay.’ Straight men are often conditioned from childhood to deny their feminine energy side, so they do not tap into it very much. Society tends to emphasize to men that they are not supposed to ‘feel,’ for instance, ‘real men don’t cry.’ You can’t be a medium without being able to feel deeply.” This, I feel, is an excellent description.

Another finding in Leonard’s study reveals a great deal about the religious background of spiritualists and their quest for spiritual understanding. Remember that only 12% were raised in the faith meaning that 88% converted to spiritualism – most in their middle-age years. Almost all of those had previous experience in other Christian denominations and went searching for something that would meet their spiritual needs (implying that their previous church home was not doing so). Thirty-nine percent of those came from Catholicism with the second highest group being Methodists at 24%. Baptists came in third at 17%. Nearly 13% identified themselves as former atheists or agnostics and many other groups were also represented including Judaism and Buddhism.

The link to this important study appears at the end of this post.

Another research paper in the Proceedings also caught my eye and it has some relevance to the current discussion – “Jesus at Disneyland or Spiritual Innovation: The Enmeshment of Consumer Culture and U.S. Evangelical Religious Practices” by two sociologists at Stephen F. Austin State University, J.B. Watson Jr., Ph.D., and Walt Scalen, Ed.D. They identify our current culture as being predominantly consumerist in nature and point to the rise of the so-called “mega-churches” as evangelicalism’s answer to the shopping mall. I’ve been to one of these “new paradigm” churches complete with its coffee and snack bar, soda machines, gym and so forth. On Sunday morning most of the parishioners stand around in this food area, chatting and munching, many not even bothering to enter the assembly hall to hear the sermon. When they do, they are treated to a pretty bland presentation devoid of the fire and brimstone and altar calls common in traditional evangelical churches. Down the hall is the office of the staff psychologist and on the calendar board are listings for various support groups meeting at the building through the week. All in all, I found the experience to be very much like a friendly shopping mall!

This seems to be evangelicalism’s answer to today’s spiritual needs. These huge mega-churches with membership in each reaching into the thousands are to be found in most large cities. In no way would I criticize bringing friends and neighbors together in a social venue and these churches do that. But for what purpose? Helping families with problems and presenting good ethical standards to live by is wonderful, but for many of us that isn’t nearly enough. There’s much more to learn on this walk through life on earth and, for me and many others, spiritualism and afterlife research fills the bill much better than a coffee bar in a church. That reality makes examination of Leonard’s findings even more important – spiritualism has a great deal to offer today’s spiritual searchers but the organizational arm of the spiritualist religion and philosophy is suffering. Let’s put our heads together, listen to spirit, then come up with some answers. It would be wonderful in a few years to read a scholarly report on how spiritualism has rebounded again! Let it be so!!!

The Proceedings in which these research papers can be read in full are located online at .


  1. David,
    I enjoyed your comments. An important point you make concerns the idea that being a Spiritualist requires some commitment. In fact, it is an experiential system in which the participant is expected to seek understanding and apply that understanding to the next experience. That means personal involvement and some amount of discipline.

    I am right in the middle of the norm you pointed out concerning age in which I became involved in Spiritualism. While that would seem to confirm the hypothesis that Spiritualism might fade away as the graybeards transition, there is a more compelling explanation. In the study of transcommunication, we see that the loss of a loved one tends to spur a person to seek explanations and possible hope. In effect, one needs to have lived a while before becoming cognizance of one's physical mortality. In that sense, there is a natural selection in which people who are motivated to understand their relationship with the greater reality are more attracted to Spiritualism than are the idle curious.


  2. Interesting data and comments.

    I guess I'm a little like the youth in the study, although I recently turned 65. I was an agnostic in my 20s, began my continuing practice of zen in my late 20s but never joined an organization, got involved with reading online channeled material in my 40s, began working with my wife to develop her channeling / verbal mediumship skills in our late 40s, and then evolved a small weekly group for channeling and discussion of challenges of daily life and emerging spiritual concerns - a Home Circle? Our circle is back down to the two of us, but then again it is 2012 :). Only recently have I learned of the continuing existence of 19th century spiritualism, I'm glad to be here and to learn more.

    In my experience most of the groups that form around channeled information are about personal problem solving primarily, and spiritual learning secondarily, kinda like the psychologist down the hall of the evangelical mega- church above. But for us the motivation to go beyond personal seeking and to form a group, had to do with the pull to associate with like minded people. As appears to be the case in the mega church above, and perhaps in the youth of today.

    The utility of all this for the development of organized spiritualism is, as John Travolta playing ArchAngel Michael in the movie "Michael" said, "not my area." But it's still nice to read about the issues at hand.