© 2019 by Joel Thiessen. All rights reserved.

Religion in Canada Disappearing?

January 2, 2014

I am fresh off the Christmas break. I love my job – teaching students, researching religion in Canada, and speaking at different venues – though I was eager for some time away from work, especially grading assignments around the clock leading up to Christmas. The trouble is that my holiday was continuously halted by a series of articles in the media buzzing about churches that are full during the Christmas season (though not the rest of the year), indicative of religion’s continued strength in Canada today and the possible religious resurgence in years to come … an all too common narrative each Christmas, yet a flawed one in many respects when it comes to pinning hopes of church growth to church attendance at Christmas.

 

Part of my research to date explores the reasons for why people attend church services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage (tradition, family, and sacred space) – representing 40-50% of Canadians – and why we should not expect a religious resurgence from such individuals. My purpose here is not to deal with this research (see my publications to do with this subject on my website), but rather to briefly highlight four religious trends worth paying attention to in Canada: Christian Identification, Immigration and Religion, Religious Nones, and Secularization.

 

Christian Identification

 

Christianity continues to be the dominant religion in Canada, but its hold is waning. The 2011 Canadian Census reveals that 67.3% of Canadians identify as Christian, down from 76.6% only a decade earlier and upwards of 90% a half-century earlier. Identification is the most generous and positive indicator of the dominant three measurements of religion (the other two being religious belief and practice), and as identification goes so too will belief and practice. Put simply, Christianity no longer holds the place that it once did in Canadian society and the question is what impact, if any, will this have on Canadian society and vice versa?

 

Immigration and Religion

 

Most assume that because of immigration, Canada is becoming increasingly religiously diverse. In part this assumption is true. As of 2011, 8.2% of Canadians identified with a non-Christian religious tradition (e.g., Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Jew), up from 6% in 2001. Without diminishing the role and place that non-Christian religions have in Canada, it is difficult to stridently argue that Canada as a nation is religiously diverse yet when we are dealing with less than 10% of the population (though religious diversity in some cities like Toronto and Vancouver exceed this national average). In fact, between 40-50% of immigrants to Canada arrive as Christians and this reality helps to keep Christian identification from plummeting further. Immigration figures are changing and fewer immigrants identify as Christian with each new wave, but we are well off from legitimately calling Canada a religiously diverse nation based on the empirical evidence. Nevertheless, public perception, policy, and lived realities in some parts of Canada will continue to confront the myriad of challenges and opportunities to arise with religious diversity, and the script is yet to be fully written on the total impact of religious diversity on Canada and the Canadian influence on religious groups and individuals.

 

Religious Nones

 

Religious nones are the fastest growing “religious” group in Canada and much of the modern Western world. One in four Canadians currently say that they have no religion (up from 16% in 2001 and 4% in the 1970s), and we should expect this figure to rise. Some religious nones adopt an array of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices while others identify as agnostics or atheists – this is not a homogeneous group. Why the increase? Many explanations exist (among others) including the reduced cultural stigma associated with not being religious in Canada, the aversion to exclusiveness – real or imagined – connected with most organized religious groups, diminished religious socialization in the home, and pervasive cultural values of individualism that defy external religious authorities. This is the group that we as researchers ought to pay the most attention to in the religious landscape in the next few decades. Will the atheist segment of this population formally organize like The Sunday Assembly movement that started in London, UK and spawned several atheist megachurches across Great Britain, the United States, and Australia in 2013? Is this identification just a fad or will it stand the test of time?

 

Secularization

 

Secularization has, is, and will be at work in Canada. We are less religious today than in past generations and we continue to move in a downward direction, evidenced most clearly in diminishing religious identification, church attendance, and belief in God, and increases – dramatically so among Canadian teens – for those who do not identify with any religion, never attend religious services, and do not believe in God … and if you want to know what religion in a country will look like in a few decades, look to the current state of religion among its young people. Beyond this, those who are not actively involved in a religious group do not generally show any strong desire or inclination to pursue greater involvement. Here too one must ask what the impact of secularization will be for Canadians and Canadian society.

 

Soon I will return to the classroom after the Christmas break, to teach my Sociology of Religion class. I will proceed to conclude a book project based on nearly 100 interviews with those who are actively religious, marginally religious, and not religious at all. I will travel to at least four Canadian provinces to meet with religious leaders to dialogue about the current and future state of religion in Canada. While Christianity and religion more generally face difficult days ahead in Canada, I do not think it will disappear altogether. The faithful few will always remain, we might see modest signs of life in different religious pockets, and many Canadians will continue to ask pivotal questions that religion seeks to answer. I look forward to continuing the many conversations surrounding this subject with students, colleagues, academics, and practitioners in 2014.

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JOEL THIESSEN, PhD
sociologist