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My Airplane Buddy, Mike

I am in the middle of a three-week stretch spending time with seven groups in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario to discuss the current state of religion in Canada and what this means for local congregations. While flying home this past Sunday I worked on a presentation for a research conference the next morning. As I put my computer away in preparation for landing, the gentleman beside me, who I will call “Mike,” asked if I was working on a speech (a sociological study in itself … on how people tend to gawk at what others are up to!). I briefly outlined what I was doing, intentionally leaving the topic of my talk (‘religious nones in Canada’) out of the discussion. He proceeded to reinforce his attentiveness to my activities, asking if I was presenting on religion. Cue the open door for this exchange …

Mike: Religion is a very divisive topic (few expletives omitted).

Joel: This is true, and this is part of what I will discuss in my presentation.

Mike: Let me tell you my thoughts on religion (I don’t recalling asking him for his views, but he proceeded to offer them nonetheless). I think religion will be completely gone in Canada in two generations. For example, my grandparents were religious, my parents baptized me, and now I never attend. My wife is religious and I can’t stand that!

Joel: I’m not sure that religion will altogether disappear in two generations, but there is no denying that levels of religiosity are less today than in past generations and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Do you have any children, and if so, how do you and your wife approach religion with your children?

Mike: We have kids, but we don’t take them to church; my wife goes by herself. And here is what I hate. When I visit my in-laws, we need to say grace before meals because it is their home and it is a sign of respect for their faith. When they come to my home, they still insist that we say grace out of respect for them. What about respect for me? I don’t say grace and thus shouldn’t be forced to do so in my own home. This is what I hate about religion – they are always trying to force their religion on to others. What about respecting those who are not religious?

There was more to our conversation as we descended into Calgary, but Mike’s reflections typify the religious nones that I spoke about on Monday morning. His comments also epitomize a recurring theme in a book manuscript that I recently submitted based on my latest research on religion in Canada. Canadians (not just religious nones), by and large, do not agree with people imposing their religious beliefs and practices on to others and in many ways, they do not privilege religion with a special sacredness above other viewpoints.

My conversation with Mike made me think of a couple of quotations from my interview research. For example, an individual who I will call Carol says, “I think that once that person decides they want to be part of that religious group, then that’s fine, but I don’t believe in soliciting religion, I don’t believe in … propaganda around religion … I really don’t like when people push religion onto others. I have a really big issue with that.” Another individual named Jasper adamantly communicates, “What bothers me with religion the most is … 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?”

Sociologists of religion know that these views are becoming more common in many parts of the world, particularly in highly liberal, democratic, and secular societies such as Canada. The Canadian value for diversity, pluralism, tolerance, and individualism reigns supreme and against this backdrop there is no doubt that the number of “Mike’s” in society will only increase. Is this good? Is this bad? This isn’t for me as a sociologist to answer, but this is and will continue to be the Canadian reality looking ahead … and we are seeing this in many public debates about religion – just look at any online comments section to a news story to do with religion.

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