Saturday, May 9, 2015

Good News or Bad News? Religion in Canada Not Declining as Fast as Some Think

Religion in Canada isn’t declining nearly as fast as we think.”
That quote, part of a headline in Maclean’s magazine about religion in Canada, is either faint praise or a cause for alarm—depending on your point of view.
It was used to introduce the results of a new Angus Reid survey that found that 30 percent of Canadians say they embrace religion, compared to 26 percent who say they reject it. 
Forty-four percent are somewhere in between—they could go either way.
If you are in the camp that is alarmed, then you can worry about how the number of people who say they are religious is down 15 percent from 30 years ago, and  about how the number of people who say they reject has has increased 22 percent since 1971.
On the other hand, there is cause for hope since many people in the middle—the so-called ambivalents—haven’t abandoned religion. 
Eighty-seven percent of Canadians continue to identify with a religious tradition, 64 percent believe in God, 40 percent say they pray, and over 40 percent say they are open to greater involvement with religious groups—if it was worthwhile.
As for those who reject religion, the pollster notes they are not hostile toward it; it would be better to say they are “bypassing faith.”

Overall, the survey also found that over 70 percent of Canadians believe in a “Supreme Being” and 66 percent believe in life after death—figures that haven’t changed much since the 1970s.
Summarizing the findings, the pollster observes that increasing secularization is occurring in Canada against a backdrop of persistent spirituality.
What’s behind the slower than assumed decline in support for religion in Canada? Immigration, says the pollster.
“One of the keys to understanding the current state of organized religion in Canada is to look at immigration patterns,” the study states.
It goes on to note that the reason groups such as the United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran denominations are declining is because they no longer get immigrants from Britain and Europe.
As immigration patterns have shifted, so too has growth in different religions.
With greater immigration from Asian countries, the main beneficiaries are Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and other faith groups. This has the affect of offsetting decreasing interest and participation from native-born Canadians.
As Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge put it: “The reality is that groups depending on natural increase are dead in the water. There’s just not enough people being born to offset the number who are dying.”

But even immigration won’t keep up the numbers forever. 

Said John Stackhouse, a professor at Vancouver’s Regent College: “There aren’t enough immigrant Christians to make up for the vast majority of Canadians who have become less enthusiastic, indifferent, or even hostile to Christianity.”

For Joel Thiessen, associate professor of sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, the survey results aren't a surprise.
Secularization in Canada,  he said, is “the overarching trend,” coupled with “less affinity by Canadians with religious groups.”

Added Paul Bramadat, Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria: “If the statistical patterns continue, and that seems fairly likely, historians will look back on the period in which we now live and characterize it as one of massive upheavals in the ways individuals and the broader public think about and involve themselves in religion.”
What does this mean for religous groups? For Thiessen, it means  that people of faith “need a new way of being religious in society.”

They also need to change the perceptions of religion by Canadians. 

“Many people have negative perception of religion,” he said. “It is seen as being against things. We need to talk more about the things that are good and beneficial about religion to counter the negative stories.”

For Bramadat, religious groups also need to find new ways to engage their communities, do more interdenominational collaboration, and address social justice issues.

So the good news is that religion in Canada isn’t declining as fast as some might think. The challenging news is that faith groups need to re-think their place in this increasingly secular landscape, and prepare themselves for greater challenges in the future. 

As Bramadat put it: “Religion in Canada is in the midst of a truly massive, categorical shift. We can’t underestimate the consequences of these changes. The next five to ten years could be significant ones for Canadian religious groups.”

Click here to read the full survey. Click here to read the Maclean's article.

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