Exploring religious practice in Canada

What do Canadians think about religion? In a sentence, they think it’s a personal hobby that you ought to keep to yourself.

Joel Thiessen, a young sociologist at Ambrose University in Calgary, interviewed 90 people to analyze their reports on their own religious experience. Thirty of these people he categorized as “active affiliates” (people who attend services regularly), another 30 he labeled “marginal affiliates” (nominal Christmas/Easter attenders), and the final 30 he called “religious nones” – those who do not identify with a religious group or attend any services. Although this is a local study and its findings can only be cautiously generalized, Calgary is a good city to find research subjects for this project, as its levels of religiosity closely mirror national averages.

The research is important because so little is written about religion in Canada, and this study includes rich qualitative data, including analysis of the growing phenomenon of “religious nones.” A quarter of Canadians now identify as religious nones, including one third of teens, and this study brings their voices to our attention. It also shows that active affiliates have distinctively different mindset from both the marginal affiliates and the religious nones, and so the Canadian population may be polarizing between those for whom religion is of central importance and those for whom anything that smells of “pushy religion” is an anathema.

Reginald Bibby has always said that the demand for religion is constant. If people don’t come to church, it’s because the churches are dull, irrelevant or uncaring. Thiessen objects, citing from his research that Canadians who say they would be interested in increased participation if churches improved their music, preaching or programs, still lack the time, energy and will to actually check out a church. Why? The demand for religion fluctuates with culture, and in Canada the demand is down because people are too busy, allergic to anything that smells of “our way is the way” and the next generation has little religious memory, education, or friendship ties that would prompt them to entertain participation in a church.

Evangelism offends Canadians, and is constantly characterized in the interviews as pushy, coercive, proselytizing. Says one religious none: “What bothers me with religion the most is like, why can’t you believe quietly? How come it has to be so pushy, how come you have to convert everybody? . . . how can you be so aggressive?” The language of “spiritual conversations” or even good old “religious dialogue and debate” does not enter the vocabulary.

Thiessen’s main focus is to uncover what determines one’s level of religiosity. He concludes that personal experiences of God and religious institutions, as well as one’s inner social circles, heavily influence where one lands on the spectrum. Beyond that, one’s faith involvement will intensify if one believes that God intervenes in human affairs; that religion is community-centred; and that religion is the most important thing in life. Believing the opposite takes one closer to becoming a religious none.

Thiessen’s view of the wider picture of faith in Canada is rather pessimistic if one assumes that more religion feeds the common good. He notes that about 75 percent of Canadians are either marginal affiliates or religious nones, and if the marginal affiliates (what Bibby called “the ambivalent middle”) are going to change, “it is most likely going to be for the religious none end of the continuum rather than the active affiliate side.” “Simply put,” he summarizes, “individualism, respect, and tolerance – not religion – are the common social bonds that bind the majority of Canadians.” Even more succinctly, “in Canada religion has, is, and will be on the decline.”

The research here comes with the same liabilities that come with any reports that rely on what people say about themselves. They offer quotes of what first comes to people’s mind, which may be the readily available cliché rather than accurate descriptions of their behaviour or deepest longings. Augustine said “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” but many Canadians report here that they are not interested in community-based spiritual growth. This begs a non-sociological question: are they misguided, cynical, wounded, or have their hearts been somehow numbed to spiritual longing?

I wish Thiessen had paused to engage some of the growing “post-secular” literature. Not because it reflects Canada today, but because it opens our imaginations for something beyond secular business-as-usual. Modern life need not be secular, and post-secular discussions in Europe, for example, suggest a more equitable public life, where some faith-talk is welcome in places like politics, media and the academy. Popular demand for (good) religion can in part be shaped by how we write about religion.

Thiessen’s research suggests to me our fellow citizens need to be persuaded that our faith is not merely an idiosyncratic or annoying personal hobby. At its best, it is salt and light in what can often be a bland and lonely culture of self-anesthetizing distraction.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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