Is religion alive and well or struggling to survive in Canada?
It’s neither. On one hand, religion seems to have fallen on increasingly hard times. Stats Canada’s 2009 General Social Survey reveals that the percentage of people claiming “no religion” has risen to 23 per cent (up from one per cent in 1971).
On the other hand, the majority of Canadians, especially newer Canadians, still claim some religious affiliation. In addition, sociologist Reginald Bibby has found that the “no religion” category often proves to be a temporary category. His Project Canada national survey revealed that, over a five-year period, one in three people who claim “no religion” re-affiliate with a faith group. Over 10 years, that number rises to two out of three.
You might assume that since I’m a pastor, I am rooting for religion to be alive and well in Canada. But actually, my deepest desire is not to see people become religious. After all, the Bible makes it clear that it’s possible to be very religious and still spiritually lost.
Jesus’ most severe rebukes were reserved for the most religious people of His day ( Matthew 23:1-39). The apostle Paul told the citizens of Athens that though they were extremely religious they were still spiritually separated from the one, true God ( Acts 17:22-33).
What people need most is not religion; they need a relationship with God.
The Bible says this relationship with God is available to all who admit their spiritual need and put their faith in Christ Jesus ( Philippians 3:7-9).
It’s true that those who have entered a relationship with God through faith in Christ will often act in ways that are considered religious: they attend church, pray and give generously of their time and money to help others. But what is really alive and well in their lives is a relationship with God. And that’s what matters most.
It would be presumptuous of me to speak of all religions in Canada, but I think the Sikh faith is doing very well.
Young Sikhs continue to learn about their faith and are involved in initiatives such as spiritual retreats and seminars.
Sikhs also endeavour to give the teachings of their faith a practical form and reach out to others. In the spirit of seva or selfless service to humanity, which is a principal Sikh tenet, young Sikhs in Mississauga have established the Seva food bank that serves all low-income families in that city. Overall, the Sikh faith is indeed very much alive and well in Canada.
What does give rise to some concern is the growth of attitudes of intolerance towards the expression of faith and religion in general.
Some commentators have suggested that public spaces should be completely free of religion and restrictions should be imposed on personal expressions of faith such as the wearing of religious symbols. This appears to be following the French model of secularism, which imposes similar restrictions.
While the state must remain religiously neutral, it is important to allow Canadians to express their faith freely. Calls to limit religious expression ignore the fact that for many Canadians faith is an integral part of their identity.
As both a Canadian and a Sikh, I can’t divorce one identity from the other. My turban and articles of faith are a part of who I am and can’t simply be left at home. Similarly, I don’t find it inappropriate or feel uncomfortable if a Christian friend chooses to wear a crucifix or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.”
What makes Canada unique and such a success is that we value religious diversity but keep our policies and laws secular. The Canadian model has worked and we should guard it jealously.
According to the 2006 Census figures, more people report having a religious affiliation than having “no religion.” Roughly 77 per cent of Canadian reported an affiliation with a religion versus about 16 per cent of people who listed “no religion.”
What we do not know is how regularly respondents attended worship services in their faith communities or how engaged they were with their faith.
However, the fact that over threequarters of the population identified with one particular faith tradition indicates that organized religion is an important aspect of identity for Canadians. In my own experience in Ottawa, the parishes in which I served were growing communities with a wide variety of parishioners of different ethnicities, ages and backgrounds who were very much engaged in their faith. One phenomenon that seems to be increasing generally in the West, however, is the percentage of people who self-describe as being “spiritual but not religious.” The search for God is indeed a very personal choice but faith is exercised within the context of a believing community that supports, encourages and challenges us to an authentic expression of our belief.
Without the guarantee of authentic teaching and personal accountability, a spirituality without a community risks being self-absorbed and less open to the reality that God meets and engages us most often in our neighbour.
When I am free to spontaneously decide how to worship God apart from a faith tradition, I am ironically imprisoned by the constant need to invent my spirituality. In my experience, I have met a number of people who came to the Catholic Church precisely because they were looking for a firm foundation on which to ground their faith lives versus something “less restrictive” where they were unsure of what to believe.
The Jesuits’ assertion that if you give them a child, they’ll return a man, has been accepted by most religions as an accurate expression, and reason, for teaching the family faith to their young. And who can blame them? A child is impressionable up to age seven so it’s a crucial period to teach customs and culture, where religion is often part of the lesson.
When we reach the age of 12, we develop abstract thinking, logic and the ability to reason and use these tools as we read and surf the Internet. We may start to question our preconceived notions of God, and the answers are a click away — on our tablet or laptop. This is the biggest threat to religion and a major reason why it’s struggling.
A study presented this year, at the American Physical Society, noted that Canadians not affiliated with any religious institution could rise to 61 per cent by 2050. Religion is facing an apocalypse.
Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, started the recent genesis of non-belief, providing a world view that appeals to this free-thinking generation.
People are bursting out of the closet, rejecting their parents’ wishes to keep the faith. Atheism is becoming mainstream.
Although religion has an infrastructure centuries old, this godless generation is building an impressive list of services. The Centre for Inquiry, a group of skeptical-minded people, is growing across the country. My friends at Humanist Canada have their own television show. If you miss the church community, there are two Unitarian places of non-worship in Ottawa to spend your Sunday mornings.
Belief and non-belief has waxed and waned for centuries. This time atheism is here to stay. Once we reject the supernatural, a world of mystery and beauty opens to us that rivals anything religion can offer.
As with most statistics-reliant questions, the answer will be yes, no or possibly, depending on how you interpret the question and the data. According to The Comeback of Organized Religion
in Canada, (Reginald Bibby, 2006), there has been evidence of both decline and resurgence in different sectors of religious activity in Canada. Certain churches have lost heavily, others are growing. Non-christian faiths have increased in number.
For meaningful answers, this ques- tion would have to include others — What do we mean by religion? What demographic? What communities? What time frame?
What do we mean by religious activity/life? If we define participation in structured services, led by a clergy-person, we narrow the meaning in a way that might exclude support of religious charities, for example. There is little doubt that our religious life extends beyond organized religions. Is the person who participates in a non-denominational meditation group engaged in “religion?” Does someone who avoids church but insists their children are baptized or confirmed express a religious conviction? When my nonChristian friend “faithfully” sings in a Catholic choir but declines participation in any sacraments, is she engaged in religious activity? The oft- heard claim, “I’m not very religious, I’m more spiritual” (whatever that might mean), points to a reformulation of what relationship people have to religious structures, questions and pursuits, but not necessarily to some decline in the place of religiosity in our lives.
I would agree with Bibby again who says: “What many people are saying is that they are open to greater religious group involvement, if the result is that their lives are elevated.” Whatever faith-based direction is our endeavour, it remains our challenge to balance our commitments to sustaining religious tradition and structure with the everchanging needs of our congregations and the ways our society views divinity, salvation/liberation and even the definition of what it means to be human.
Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.
KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the Centre of Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.
BALPREET SINGH is legal counsel and acting executive director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.
Rev. RICK REED is senior pastor at the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa.