Theosophy after the Baby Boomers

by Robert Ellwood

Originally printed in the Winter 2011 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Ellwood, Robert. "God and the Great Angel." Quest  99. 1 (Winter 2011): 30-31, 39.

robert ellwoodVirtually all Theosophists realize that changes are afoot in the constituency of the Theosophical Society in America. Many of our groups are graying and diminishing. From a high of 8520 members in 1927, and a postwar high of 6119 in 1972, official American membership declined to 3546 in 2010. To be sure, nonmember friends, including younger people, visit our libraries, bookstores, conferences, and even our regular meetings, with seeming appreciation. Yet somehow not many seem ready to make the commitment of formal membership. What's going on?

First, we need to know we're not alone. The membership problem is, if anything, more calamitous in many other organizations. Nonmembership is symptomatic of a profound sociological shift in society as a whole. Sociologist Robert Putnam discusses this phenomenon in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The title comes from the precipitous decline of bowling leagues, once a standby in the social lives of many. From a peak in 1964, membership in the American Bowling Congress had fallen some 72 percent by 1997. A few other decline percentages over the same time span, out of the many Putnam presents: American Legion, 47 percent; Jaycees, 58 percent; Kiwanis, 42 percent; Masons, 71 percent. This is despite the fact that the total U.S. population grew by more than 50 percent in the same period.

Interestingly, two of the groups showing greatest decline of all in Putnam's charts were women's organizations: the American Association of University Women, by 84 percent, and the Business and Professional Women, by 89 percent—even though, as is well known, the number of women university graduates, and of women involved in business and the professions, surged dramatically in those same increasingly feminist years. The number of women receiving bachelor's degrees has tripled since the 1960s, and since the 1990s more women than men have graduated from institutions of higher learning each year. Evidently most women no longer feel a need for an organization concerned with their position as the feminine wing of an educated elite, or of a business and professional class. The Theosophical Society also has had, and still has, distinguished leadership by women; it did so at a time when very few comparable opportunities for leadership existed for women in mainline religious or educational organizations. But does that mark of honor still draw people to Theosophy?

The issue presumably is not lack of all interest in sports, education, or spirituality, but whether people choose to delineate who they are through joining an organization. If we like bowling, do we have to join a bowling league, go to meetings and pay dues, or can we just bowl alone? If we are highly educated, do we need to join a group enabling us to associate exclusively with others of the same attainment? Even strictly professional organizations are not immune to the decline; between a high in the late 1950s and 2000, the American Medical Association decreased from enrolling about 75 percent of licensed physicians to less than 40 percent. Is there a parallel to Theosophy and its relation to spiritual seekers?

Robert Wuthnow, one of the most exacting and respected sociologists of American religion, attempted a similar project for religion, especially that of younger Americans. He discusses his findings in After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2007). His demographic is people age 21—45, the children of the famous and now graying postwar "boomer" generation. Their spiritual life, institutional and otherwise, is of tremendous importance for the future of religion, for as many a pastor will confide, most congregations across the land are not growing, and many are conspicuously aging.

To be sure, the precise picture is not easy to demarcate. Religious membership and participation in the U.S. is harder to document than that of many secular organizations. Different denominations count membership in quite different ways that are not easy to compare, and religion polls are unreliable. Sociologists are well aware of the "halo effect," whereby a significant number of those asked by pollsters about their religious life will give the answer they think they ought to give rather than the unvarnished truth. Some ingenious cross-check studies have suggested that real church attendance in America is actually 10—15 percent lower, or even more, than the figure indicated by Gallup polls, which is usually around 40 percent.

In the research reported in After the Baby Boomers, Wuthnow found that over the years 1972-2002 his youth cohort's affiliation with mainline Protestantism declined by half, in evangelicalism marginally; in Roman Catholicism it increased very slightly (largely because of immigration), while the number of religiously unaffiliated young adults has more than doubled, to 20 percent. Actual attendance at religious services declined in this age range by about 6 percent. Only a quarter of younger Americans can be considered regular church attenders in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Wuthnow, as a sociologist, does not attribute the pattern to the inherent theological appeal of various traditions so much as to demographic factors. Evangelical Protestantism has had the advantage, in his eyes, of being rooted in a rural culture in which people marry younger and have larger families than they do in mainstream and liberal Protestantism. (Nonetheless, as evangelical Protestantism has become more middle-class, its younger adherents have begun to adopt more "liberal" ways if not beliefs, and its numbers have recently stabilized or even started to decline.) Marriage, Wuthnow says, is the most consistent indicator of religious participation, and today's general trend in urban and relatively liberal sectors of society toward later and later marriage and childbearing—if there is marriage and childbearing at all—clearly has had a deleterious effect on church attendance among these influential classes. Young unmarrieds working full-time seem to have other priorities than churchgoing, and, it would seem, attending Theosophy meetings.

Another factor affecting the declining membership of many groups: the vastly increased number of women, both married and unmarried, working full-time outside the home in the years since the 1960s. This was just as seismic a social as an economic shift. Undoubtedly it helps explain the precipitous decline of women's organizations like those cited above as well as the decline of numerous parareligious and spiritual groups once predominantly composed of women. A study of a large New England Congregational church showed that in 1950 this parish had no fewer than fourteen women's circles, only three of which met in the evening; by the '90s the number of circles had fallen to six, all of which were evening gatherings. Religious or not, familied or not, working women just don't have the time and energy for the sort of leadership their gender once exercised in innumerable churches, clubs, and Theosophical groups. Some of us can remember when the once-ubiquitous women's clubs were forums of some intellectual and even political heft, and so-called women's auxiliaries no less so in the life of the church; now they are nearly gone.

One could go on to discuss other factors, such as the much-discussed role of television and the Internet in keeping people at home rather than going out on a cold night to some lecture. So many other ways there are to get what information and inspiration we need to sustain ourselves, and even to make connections with other humans, apart from gathering in solemn assemblies. Wuthnow opines that changing levels and styles of education, and even globalization, may be significant too, though they are still more problematic to quantify.

But what the post-boomers are looking for on the Internet and in Facebook may not be too different from what people used to look for clubs, churches, and lodges; it is perhaps a matter of more a different medium than a message.

Wuthnow's research says that the 25 percent of younger Americans who attend religious services, not surprisingly, state an interest in both religion and spirituality. But of those who are religiously uninvolved, 60 percent say spiritual growth is at least fairly important to them, and 29 percent say they have devoted some effort to their spiritual lives over the past year; 25 percent say their interest in spirituality is increasing; and 25 percent say they meditate at least once a week. The great majority of young people report that spiritual experience is more important than church doctrine in shaping their religious outlook. Among their elders the two are nearly equal.

Whether or not these surveys are precisely accurate, undoubtedly they tell of a vast openness out there toward free, noninstitutional perspectives on spiritual growth. I am sure Theosophy has much it could contribute to the quests of this audience. But our gifts will need to be presented in ways that make Theosophy seem less like a membership organization that one joins, and more like a welcoming resource and support group that is available 24/7 through the media younger people use, from the Internet to informal "hanging out" gatherings. We will get nowhere by looking just like another church, club, or lodge, and declining along with them. We need to find ingenious ways to connect with lives that are much more individualistic and free-floating than they were back when joining was an important way of saying who one was.

The Theosophical Society was founded in the Victorian heyday of finding, or making, personal identities through joining churches and/or such groups as Masonic lodges, gentlemen's clubs, women's clubs, literary societies, army regiments, and much else. Those commitments involved considerable time, but also often supplied the kind of contacts one needed to get good jobs, connect politically, and find mates. They had their pins and ties, perhaps even their grips and passwords. Theosophy, insofar as it is organized on the lodge or club model, reflects those days, and there is nothing wrong with that for those who find it comfortable. But clearly the time is upon us when we must also think of Theosophy as a movement of mind and spirit, intangible but powerful, to be advanced in all sorts of ways outside those particular boxes.

The day may come when Theosophy is no longer a shrinking membership organization but more like an educational foundation, supported by all who feel called to do so, and involved in promoting teaching in the Theosophical tradition through all possible media: books, pamphlets, lectures, films, Internet sites, classes, camps, and personal contact. (Even video games, which are just beginning to be taken seriously as a new art form—a fresh embodiment of the timeless hero myth?) The new Theosophy will maintain all facets of the Ancient Wisdom but will assure the old is made new by always being presented in a way that facilitates individual spiritual life and growth.

For all that, Theosophy will probably continue also to manifest itself in groups getting together in person as well as virtually, under whatever name and in whatever form they take. Clearly a reaction has set in against traditional kinds of organization, but that does not mean humans will forever be content to live, learn, and die alone. Numerous studies have shown that people who are not just in families, but also active in religious or other larger meaning-giving organizations, are happier and healthier than solitaries or those who know only casual and informal relationships. One can e-mail, tweet, text, game, and surf the Web all one wants, even stream Theosophical lectures or participate in virtual sacred rituals at a keyboard together with fellow worshipers across the continent; this has been done. But the screen still does not take the place of face-to-face meetings. Words alone will never be quite the same as hugs and eye contact.

The jury is still out on how this will be achieved. Many voices will need to be heard as Theosophy adapts itself, as it always has over the ages, to new occasions which teach new duties and new words. It is exciting to have the privilege of living in such times of change and challenge.


Robert Ellwood is emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently resides at the Krotona School of Theosophy.


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