A sociologist assesses the Canadian religious landscape

A Canadian sociologist discusses whether Canadian religion has gone down the path of European secularization or has charted a different course:

For years, almost everyone has assumed that religion in Canada has been in a participation free fall. In the mid-1940s, our national weekly attendance level of 60 per cent was higher than that of the United States. When it dipped to 25 per cent in the mid-1980s, many felt it was en route to European-like levels of under 10 per cent.

Actually, that active core of 20 per cent to 25 per cent has not changed very much. The participation losses of mainline Protestants and Quebec Catholics have been offset by the gains of Catholics elsewhere, evangelical Protestants, and other groups, led by Muslims…

These mixed findings about the stability and decline of religion are best summed up as polarization rather than relentless secularization. Simultaneously, the percentage of Canadians who value religion remains sizable and stable, while growing numbers are living life without the gods…

Religion is important for many but, as we all know, large numbers of Canadians are spiritual but not religious.

The research does suggest, however, that growing polarization will produce two casualties. First, while people obviously can be “good without God,” belief in God helps. Religion typically tries to instill interpersonal values such as compassion, honesty, civility and forgiveness. In its absence, we will need to find some effective functional options. Second, religion frequently provides people with a unique sense of hope as they confront death. To the extent Canadians say goodbye to the gods, most will say goodbye to such hope – an admirable decision if the gods are an illusion, an unnecessary and costly choice if the reverse is true.

I must admit that I don’t know much about religion north of the US border. But in some sense, these conclusions don’t sound too different from recent thoughts from Mark Chaves about American religion: some religious decline over time but still a sizable amount of people practicing religion or spirituality.

While both of the possible consequences of religious polarization are at the individual level, it would be interesting to hear about the changing role of religion in Canadian public life. It is suggested in the first paragraph that religion is barely playing a role in a national election. If more individual Canadians are not religious or spiritual, what does this mean for public discourse or values? Is there a Canadian civil religion similar to American civil religion?

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