Is re­li­gion alive and well or strug­gling to sur­vive in Canada?

Ottawa Citizen - - FAITH & ETHICS -

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.

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